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20 Books for Reading Your Way to Your Best Life

Everyone can benefit from self-help books sometimes, even if we don't like to admit it. Here are our picks for anyone on a quest to be more creative, save (or leave) their marriage or be a better citizen.
Tertulia •
Oct 5th, 2023

How to Be Creative

Megastar Alicia Keys, entrepreneur guru Tim Ferriss and authors including Patricia Cornwell and Elizabeth Gilbert are among the famous people who are said to be fans of The Artist’s Way. This phenomenon by Julia Cameron is essentially a 12-week program of assignments that the reader follows to unlock their inner artist. Lewis Hyde’s The Gift is another classic book about the core nature of creating in our lives that is cherished by artists and writers such as Margaret Atwood, who is a fanatical booster of the book. 

But a new entrant may be stealing the scene. In his new book The Creative Act, legendary music producer Rick Rubin shares his philosophy and practical pointers on the creative essence in our lives.

Last week in his podcast, Ezra Klein referred to the book as a spiritual tract: “It’s a guide to finding and cultivating and inhabiting states of mind that foster creativity, but not just the kind of creativity that leads to art. You don’t have to be an artist to get a lot out of this. How to really listen to another person. How to deepen your openness to the world and then also deepen your discernment in it, your judgments about it, your taste.”

Honorable Mention:

Jerry Saltz’s How to Be an Artist. Critic Bethanne Patrick tweeted that the book “might be the most important book to read *right now* if you're a creative of any sort. Saltz, senior art critic at New York magazine and Pulitzer winner in criticism, shows why art truly is 99% perspiration and just 1% inspiration.”

How to Save Your Marriage

Celebrities from Drew Barrymore to Jennifer Lopez to Arianna Huffington are fans of relationship guru (and former monk) Jay Shetty, whose brand new book is a viral sensation. 8 Rules of Love, inspired by Vedic wisdom and modern science, is not about marriage per se, but making the most of every stage of a relationship. 

For marriage-specific books, many couples swear by the work of couples researchers John and Julie Gottman including The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. But it’s hard to pick a winner among the countless books by relationship counselors who promise to help you mend a marriage that is fraying at the edges, since there’s no one-size-fits all approach. 

We’re flagging a recent entrant to this self-help category that’s somewhat targeted at men. This Is How Your Marriage Ends was born out of a viral blog post called "She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink" by Matthew Fray, who is now a relationship coach. For a taste of his approach, this is from the Wall Street Journal review when it came out: “All you need is love. (Wrong.) Don’t sweat the small stuff. (Actually, do.) Never go to bed angry. (Impossible.)”

Honorable Mention:

Advice columnist Heather Havrilesky’s memoir — just now out in paperback — is a kind of guide to enduring the age-old condition of contempt bred by familiarity. “In its own sardonic and skeptical fashion, Foreverland is a tender book, full of touching descriptions of falling and staying in love, even in the face of the profound frustrations that inevitably spring from prolonged interpersonal contact.” The New Yorker

How to Get Divorced

No self-help collection would be complete without Glennon Doyle. Her wildly popular memoir Untamed has become a go-to read for navigating the end of a relationship, as so much of her journey to find fulfillment comes out of navigating the end of her marriage.  

"Have you ever felt like you were too much for someone else, either too strong, too loud, or too much of a presence? In Glennon Doyle's Untamed, she'll help you banish those thoughts and convince you of exactly why you should embrace your inner "untamed, wild cheetah." — Mara Santilli via Oprah Daily.

Honorable Mention:

While this book is not explicitly about divorce, we can’t recommend enough Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, the Dear Therapist columnist of The Atlantic. She shares unique insights about her clients and her own experience with therapy and break-ups.

How to Be a Better Citizen

Obviously there is a mountain of historical and philosophical sources to recommend here, but we’re putting up our flag on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, a kind of primer on American civic life. So many of his observations and provocations from 1835 are worth re-examining today. 

For those looking for a lighter read, renowned foreign policy thinker Richard Haass has just released an accessible book based on the idea that the most urgent threat to American security comes from within: the erosion of popular support for democracy’s underpinnings. In The Bill of Obligations, Haass lays out the 10 commitments that citizens need to make to counter the growing apathy, violence, division and other threats to American life.   

Honorable Mention: 

Anand Giridharadas, most well-known for his indictment of the 1% in Winners Take All, has written a kind of corollary book about the activists and citizens who are working effectively to fight for democracy and political change. “The Persuaders brings its subjects to life, portraying their successes and struggles in a way that manages to leave the reader with a sense of solidarity and hopefulness, a conviction that the project of democracy is not lost, and an inspiration to get to work.”The American Prospect

How to Plan for Old Age

Our unequivocal winner in this category is Being Mortal by surgeon and New Yorker contributor Atul Gawande. He makes the case that dying does not need to be dreaded, if only we plan for a good life up until its very end.

“I cannot recommend highly enough. This should be mandatory reading for every American... Being Mortal is a clear-eyed, informative exploration of what growing old means in the 21st century; it provides a useful roadmap of what we can and should be doing to make the last years of life meaningful for everyone experiencing the aging process up close.” —Quinn Cummings via Time.

Honorable Mention:

Social scientist Arthur Brooks is one of the titans of the happiness industrial complex producing books to help the droves of people who are struggling with well-being. His latest book, From Strength to Strength, is centered specifically on living happily later in life.

How to Focus

Our modern distraction epidemic has inspired many books that promise to help us regain focus and concentration, provided the reader can actually put down his or her phone to pick up a book. Computer scientist Cal Newport coined the concept of “deep work,” and his most famous book by that name prescribes routines and rituals to be truly productive, such as shutting down communication tools for hours on end. Author Nir Eyal’s framework for adapting behavior to avoid distraction in Indistractable has also had staying power. 

But our winner in this category reads less as a method than as a manifesto for quitting social media and getting off your phone. Jenny Odell’s prescriptions for reclaiming attention and focus in How to do Nothing give way to more profound philosophical questions about how to be more inspired in life and more connected to our natural world. (Already read it and loved it? Don't miss her forthcoming Saving Time which is a Tertulia March Staff Pick!)

Honorable Mention: 

A new book by historian Jamie Kreiner looks at how even medieval minds were distracted even though they didn't have TVs or TikTok. Don’t expect self-help tips, exactly, from The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction, but more of a challenge to examine what is worthy of our concentration. The New Yorker review this week noted the book’s contribution as moving “beyond the question of why the mind wanders to the more difficult, more beautiful question of where it should rest.” 

How to Be Happy

We like to think that reading books you love — any books you love — are one reliable balm for the spirit. But to truly cover the self-help books that promise to bring more contentment to your life is the stuff of another article. For now, we refer you to The Good Life, the latest book written about the findings of the famous longitudinal study at Harvard, which has established a strong correlation between happiness and deep relationships. The study’s directors, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, reveal insights from the study along with suggestions on making investments in our relationships that “can create long-term ripples of well-being.”

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