I know we live in a “spoiler alert” culture, so I feel I should alert you: I am about to spoil something. If you’ve somehow managed to get through life without a single unhappy day or difficulty, then, please, click away now. I’ll give you a moment.
Okay. For those of you who are still with me, here’s what I wanted to say: Life is hard. Sometimes it’s a walk in the park — then, all of the sudden, a death or break-up or natural disaster will swoop in from seemingly nowhere to make life hard again. Unfortunately, I cannot provide you with a list of “10 Books to Make Life Easier.” I cannot even provide you with one book that can do that (though plenty of self-help authors would beg to differ). What I can do is provide you with 10 books that will help you learn to love yourself, a skill that does not make life easy, but can make it easier. These 10 books will teach you how to start over again, how to love your difficult family, how to tackle your vices. Above all, they will teach you how to be content with the life that you occupy, so that when the next disaster — personal, national or natural – hits, you’ll be fully prepared.
1. On Learning to Start Over Again: Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Everyone has had a moment when it feels as if they’ve hit rock-bottom. All of the elements that once made up your life have fallen away, and seemingly overnight, nothing in your world resembles anything you recognize. Strayed was only 22 when she found herself sitting on the cold, hard floor of rock-bottom. Her mother had died, and her marriage was in process of crumbling. Four years after her mother’s passing, once her marriage had finally ended and her life still felt over, Strayed made the impulsive decision to hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. This would be an impressive feat for anyone, but it’s even more inspiring when you consider that Strayed had zero experience or training. Don’t expect a happy-go-lucky story, though. Strayed does change on the trail, but it’s not the sentimental, mawkish change that so often makes up the memoir genre.
2. On Learning to Stop Yourself from Being Your Own Worst Enemy: Still Points North by Leigh Newman
After her parents unexpected divorce, Newman’s life was turned upside down. Suddenly she was spending summers in Alaska with her father and the school year in Baltimore with her mother. But a geographical change isn’t the only thing that shifted in her life: She responded to the divorce by never letting herself get attached to people, often leaving those she cared about before they had the opportunity to leave her. Still Points North tracks Newman’s navigation of love and marriage, and how, as an adult, she overcame the plights of childhood.
3. On Learning to Find Inspiration from Unexpected Sources: Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva
It wasn’t until Zaharieva turned to her family’s culinary traditions that she was able to break a decade-long writer’s block. Sure, the connection between food and writing isn’t immediately apparent, but once you read Nine Rabbits, you’ll understand how Zaharieva found inspiration in her favorite recipes. She uses these foods to illuminate her transition from childhood into adulthood and to explain how she has carved out an extraordinary life for herself. Even if your idea of cooking is adding milk to cereal, Nine Rabbits will show you how inspiration can come from the most unexpected of places. Bonus points: It might even inspire you to do some real cooking. (Not to throw shade at Lucky Charms.)
4. On Learning to Love and Accept Your Family: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Deborah Eisenberg has a great line about families: “You meet people in your family you’d never run into otherwise.” This idea resonates throughout Walls’s The Glass Castle, which tells the story of her nuclear family. When we first meet them, they’re traveling through Southwest desert towns, living in motels and out of their cars. It’s all so thrilling at first, albeit precarious. Walls’s father is brilliant and dynamic, and her mother, though incapable of cooking a meal for her family, is creative and warm. Later, the family moves to a West Virginia mining town, where things quickly fall apart, Walls’s father succumbing to his alcohol addiction and stealing money from the family. The Glass Castle is a captivating book about how you leave your family and, even more, how you leave them while still loving them. It’s a heart-wrenching story about the difficulty and power of unconditional love.
5. On Learning to Find Not Just What You’re Good at, but What You Love: Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton
Shapton uses text and watercolor paintings to tell the story of how she went from training to be an Olympic swimmer to, well, painting watercolors of when she was training to be an Olympic swimmer. There are a lot of moving parts in Swimming Studies — Shapton’s relationship with her mother, her bond with her older brother, her suburban adolescence — but the book is ultimately driven by the discrepancy between her innate skill as a swimmer and her lukewarm passion for swimming. When you’re naturally good at something, be it math, acting or filmmaking, it can be all too easy to just go with the flow, moving in the direction of what you’re good at even if it isn’t where your heart is. Swimming Studies shows how Shapton left behind professional swimming, trading it in for something she truly loved.
6. On Learning to Have a Healthy Relationship with Your Body: Year of No Sugar by Eve O. Schaub
Think you could go a year without sugar? No, no, no — we don’t mean sweets. Anyone could turn down cookies and cake for a year. We mean sugar. Lurking in bacon, crackers, salad dressing, sauces, broths — sugar. It’s a task that Schaub decided to take on after having her eyes opened by obesity expert Dr. Robert Lustig about how bad sugar really is. What happened over the year wasn’t just headaches induced by sugar-withdraws; instead, Schaub’s relationship to her body — and what she puts in it — completely changed. Even if you have zero plans of ever giving up Oreos, Year of No Sugar will help give you a clearer perspective on your relationship with food.
7. On Learning Not to Rid Yourself of Flaws, but Love Your Flaws: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
Lawson always felt like an outcast. From childhood, she felt that no space could quite fit her eccentric personality. It’s a lonely, plaguing way to feel, and only in adulthood does Lawson finally decide to tackle the feeling head on. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened addresses her struggles as a misfit and how she realized that if there was no space for her to fit in, she would have to carve out her own. With lines like “You should just accept who you are, flaws and all, because if you try to be someone you aren't, then eventually some turkey is going to shit all over your well-crafted facade, so you might as well save yourself the effort and enjoy your zombie books,” Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is equal parts insightful and hilarious.
8. On Learning to Cope with Where You Came From: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Fun Home, a graphic memoir by Bechdel, tells the story of her childhood and youth in rural Pennsylvania, zeroing in on the deeply complex relationship she shares with her father. The memoir chronicles the relationship that Bechdel has to her childhood home, a Victorian mansion that, despite its beauty, haunted her upbringing. Above all, Fun Home explains how Bechdel overcame this tumultuous relationship she had with her childhood home — and, by proxy, her childhood. Only when she let go was she finally able to move on into a healthy adulthood.
9. On Learning to Love What You Do: How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric
Okay, so, yes: Technically, this is a self-help book, but it’s anything but lame. How to Find Fulfilling Work is a tiny book (think pocket-sized) packed with career guides, bullet-point advice and wisdom from sociology, history, film and philosophy. Whether you’re looking for fulfilling work in a creative field or a business one, this teeny-tiny book will help point you in the right direction.
10. On Learning to Overcome Your Vices: Lit by Mary Karr
Karr’s third memoir, Lit, details the self-professed black-belt sinner’s journey to hell and back. We see how alcoholism nearly destroyed Karr’s life, indeed obliterating elements of it. However, by the time we reach the final page, Karr has a new-found sense of sense and faith. Lit is a must-read for anyone who has felt powerless against a vice.
The 10 books above only skim the surface of literature that teaches you how to love yourself. Let us know in the comments below which books have helped you find a better relationship to yourself and your own life.
Michelle King grew up in South Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29, xoJane and The Huffington Post. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.
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