Self-improvement for $130, Alex
December 30, 2009 5:08 AM   Subscribe

Help me improve myself. Non-fiction book suggestions needed.

I have $130 in Borders gift cards to spend. I read a lot, so I could just spend it in small amounts over the coming months, but that seems like kind of a boring way to use a minor windfall. I’d really rather use it on the planned purchase of some really good books instead of just grabbing whatever looks interesting off the new book table. Or possibly buying a more expensive item that would normally be out of budget.

Some ideas of topics I’m interested in:

Getting finances organized: something very basic that will teach me a good system of managing bills, keeping records, paying off debts and saving money that doesn’t assume I own a house, have decent credit or completely hinge on having the means and self-discipline to keeping enough money in the bank to, say, cover high deductibles on insurance policies. (For example, All Your Worth was pretty useless to me. What else you got?)

Getting organized around the house/in life: Flylady was a good start but keeping to anything other than a very loose routine is destined to fail for me. (I can keep up with the hotspots, flings and swish ‘n swipe stuff ok but never got to the deep cleaning of the zones.) I don’t have an active social life or a lot of appointments so a “planner” is kind of overkill for me. I need a better way of handling my To Do’s as well as ideas for utilizing my free time more productively so it doesn’t all get sucked into the computer.

Easy, healthy cooking. Vegan, vegetarian, whole foods, etc. We do eat meat & fish but we’re trying to cut down and both of us need to lose some weight. I can cook but I’m rarely in the mood to do anything complicated.

Neuroscience/brain chemistry for the lay person. I enjoyed The Spark and The Brain That Changes Itself. I enjoy reading about oddities (Oliver Sacks, etc.) but also topics that have practical applications for life improvement. Other popular science topics for the lay person also welcome.

I’m an agnostic with spiritual leanings. Open to inspirational stuff from many religious/spiritual disciplines except evangelical-type Christian. New Age is fine but not really interested in “manifesting”-type stuff or revelations from channeled beings.

Relationship books which are more practical than touchy-feely. We communicate pretty well already, we don’t fight much, we’d feeling silly doing “mirroring” exercises, we don’t need to learn about “I-statements”. Mainly looking for ways to make a good relationship better.

Art & Art History for a non-talented near-beginner.

Please feel free to suggest books on other topics as well. What non-fiction books really grabbed you, enlightened you, inspired you or improved your life? What do you wish “everyone” would read?
posted by Serene Empress Dork to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
For cooking, your vegetarian bible could be Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone or Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

As far as the brain, I would suggest that if you're only reading about neuroscience, you could be glossing over some deeper philosophical questions. Might want to look at John Searle's Mind: A Brief Introduction or Colin McGinn's The Mysterious Flame.

Other books you might like that don't necessarily fit your specific categories:

Daniel Gilbert - Stumbling on Happiness

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - Flow

Robert Wright - The Moral Animal

Martha Nussbaum - Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions

Michael Pollan - In Defense of Food
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:23 AM on December 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

For the finances:

I Will Teach You to be Rich

My husband and I have used the techniques that Ramit lists very successfully. We gave this as a gift to a couple people this Xmas.

For the spiritual / religious:

The Way of Zen

I read it a while back and knowing little about Zen Buddhism, it was very interesting, even stepping through some of the basics of meditation.

But my favorite non-fiction books I have read in the past few years are the following and more along the lines of science and technical literacy:

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Discoveries
posted by chiefthe at 5:24 AM on December 30, 2009

With regard to art, from a practical point of view I've always thought that Margaret Krug's An Artist's Handbook is an excellent companion for someone just setting out to explore the field, as it's both practical and thoughtful.

If you're interested in possibly combining your interest in neuroscience and how we think with art and aesthetics, then I can thoroughly recommend Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct which is an interesting and accessible read.
posted by Chairboy at 5:37 AM on December 30, 2009

I highly recommend Jonathan Lehrer's book, How We Decide. It's a riveting - really! - look at the neuroscience behind our decision-making.
posted by semacd at 6:01 AM on December 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

I can't help with your specific targets - I have looked for many of the things you're looking for and nothing's ever really clicked. However, I can suggest three (sort of two, really) under the Other/What Do You Wish Everyone Would Read category. The common theme is that they look at things that function really well and talk about why (rough generalization).

A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al. - I think this is familiar to lots of folks, so sorry for repeating. It deals with what works well in the human built environment, from the scale of nations (e.g. interspersing fingers of countryside and city) to the inside of a room (e.g. waist-high shelving) and everything in between. There is discussion not only of what humans seem to universally like about these things but also the social benefits of a lot of them.

Families and How to Survive Them and Life and How to Survive It by Robin Skynner and John Cleese. (Parts of these might fall into the category of 'relationships' on your wishlist.) These are essentially transcribed conversations between Yes That John Cleese and his shrink, and the focus is on the (at the time very sparse) research on mentally healthy people and mental health - what makes mentally healthy people, families, companies, nations healthy? How does psychological health manifest itself in these systems? The whole spectrum of psychological health is discussed in different contexts/at different scales. I found them fascinating and entertaining (although I have to admit, I didn't read them in order from front to back, page by page - I'm not sure how good they would be if read that way) - and they were worth about 7 years of therapy, I think - just having psychological health described was good, in a 'here's what you're aiming for' sort of way.

Also, The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich (which this link isn't exactly, but for some reason I can't find the recent non-pocket edition) is meant to be a very good intro to art history, but I haven't read around the subject, so can't comment.
posted by magdalenstreetladies at 6:23 AM on December 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Complete Tassajara Cookbook by Edward Espy Brown helps you save money by being both a pretty good vegetarian cookbook (with a nice mix between "how do I treat this ingredient" and recipes) and a collection of stories about practicing Zen.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:21 AM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Books for depression/anxiety that are probably useful to anybody: Feeling Good, and Thoughts & Feelings. These are the only two "self-help" books which instantly made a measurable impact on my life.

On the "spiritual" front, I'm an atheist but loved this book from yoga teacher, Christian, and recovering addict Rolf Gates: Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga.
posted by callmejay at 7:47 AM on December 30, 2009

Brain books: V. S. Ramachandran's "Phantoms in the Brain" and Czerzner's "What makes you tick: the brain in plain English" are both very interesting.
posted by smcameron at 7:55 AM on December 30, 2009

You sound just like me! Ok, here goes:

I've been meaning to get The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous and Broke by Suze Orman for a long time now. I'm pretty sure someone here recommended it before. It seems pretty basic, and since I know next to nothing about finances it sounds helpful, and hopefully not too condescending.

For organizing, obviously the go-to system is GTD, but if that is too complicated/unhelpful, I've been meaning to try Unclutter. The author of the book also runs a nice website.

I'll be watching this thread with interest to see what other recommendations people have. Good question!
posted by pecknpah at 8:00 AM on December 30, 2009

Check out Deborah Tannen's work on communication. She has books for/about romantic partners, mothers and daughters, adult family members, workplace communication, etc.

I'm reading Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. Worth the cover price for the first two worksheet/quizzes.

A book I really loved when it came out was Salt by Mark Kurlansky.

For a look at American inner city poverty, grab Sudhir Venkatesh - either Gang Leader for a Day or Off the Books. This guydid truly groundbreaking sociological work in Chicago.
Martin Gladwell - everything, anything. Be sure to pay attention to his critics as well, but Gladwell does a great job of taking something most people 'know' is true and turning it inside out. He gave a TED talk also

For brain stuff- The Man who mistook his wife for a hat (oh, I really hope that's the right title, but I'm on the iPhone and searching is a pain.) by Oliver Sacks - he also has a regularish column.
posted by bilabial at 8:01 AM on December 30, 2009

If you liked Spark, also try
Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain
How To Think Like Leonardo DaVinci
posted by SamanthaK at 8:14 AM on December 30, 2009

The most inspirational book I know of is the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I endorse this translation.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:18 AM on December 30, 2009

I'm on an iTouch where linking's a right pain, so apologies, but here are my suggestions:

Finances: I would hesitate to recommend I Will Teach You To Be Rich because honestly? The author's got a particular style of communicating that can come across as very asshole-ish (to me, at least.) If I were you, I'd check out the reviews of finance books on blogs like the Simple Dollar and Get Rich Slowly, and then pick the best fit.

Organisation: I'm not a huge fan of GTD (overly complex for me) but it does serve as a good jumping off point. Unclutter Your Life in One Week by Erin Doland of is great as far as general organising goes.

General science: A Very Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. History of the world from a scientist's perspective, lots of pretty much every science presented in an eminently readable fashion. If I'd had this back in high school I might not have run screaming from the sciences at first opportunity.

Seconding Gladwell. Take him with a pinch of salt, but he does make you think. If you can get your hands on it, try From Socrates to Sartre by T.Z. Lavine. More philosophy than science, but it does make you think.
posted by Tamanna at 8:24 AM on December 30, 2009

I'm a fan of Alain de Botton's writings and essays on travel, work, love (classic) and architecture, and now status. I think many of them would fit in nicely with what you're asking for and what other folks have recommended. Easy, but not light, reading.
posted by webhund at 8:31 AM on December 30, 2009

Seconding the Unclutter book. Also for cooking, I like How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Really simple recipes and he lists many variations on them so you can make one recipe in several ways.
posted by JoannaC at 8:53 AM on December 30, 2009

I really enjoyed My Stroke of Insight. It's about a neuroscientist who had a stroke and recovered from it. She uses her personal experience to talk about how the brain works -- what your left brain and right brain do. In addition to learning about the brain, I found it useful from a self improvement standpoint because of her discussion on the critical left brain versus the feeling right brain.
posted by elmay at 9:03 AM on December 30, 2009

The Wealthy Barber changed my entire outlook on money.

Dave Ramsey is also excellent.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:04 AM on December 30, 2009

Seven Principles for Making Marriage work, good for any relationship and pretty widely recommended on the Green.
Tao of Pooh, Peace is Every Step.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
posted by moira at 10:04 AM on December 30, 2009

I liked Smart Couples Finish Rich even though it's written a little cheesy. Some really good advice in there.

Also invaluable was It's All Too Much as a way to convince myself to get organized and understand what is holding me back.

I'm also "mostly" vegetarian and I love Cooking Light magazine for trying new recipes. They have lots of meatless or dishes where the meat can be left out with a little creative thinking. I gave up on buying cookbooks because there are always far too many recipes that I have no interest in, and I am trying to eliminate clutter (see paragraph above).

For science, anything by Robert Sapolsky is fun and easy to read. These essays are mostly about brain and behavior. There's a great one about why we can't stop being mad once we've started an arguement.
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:25 AM on December 30, 2009

Knowyournuts mentioned cooking light magazine - they also publish an end of year compilation book with all their recipes from all 12 magazines through out the year - which is a lot handier and far less clutter. I love this book. I usually wait till March and buy it at Half Price Books.
posted by delladlux at 11:34 AM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just read The Talent Code and enjoyed it muchly and got lots out of it.
posted by lpsguy at 12:06 PM on December 30, 2009

I'm going to take a slightly different approach here:
This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women
It's a book of short essays, and I found it to be really inspiring.

Whoops! You said Borders. Here's a Borders link.
posted by 2oh1 at 5:03 PM on December 30, 2009

On books already mentioned: Agreeing with How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and Deborah Tannen.

Getting Things Done has some good ideas, but the system was always too complicated for me to really adopt.

Also agreeing that the I Will Teach You to be Rich guy comes across as a jerk. I can't stand reading his stuff. I've heard really good things about Your Money or Your Life, but haven't ever read it. Get Rich Slowly and the Simple Dollar have been great resources for me, much more helpful than any of the books I've picked up.

On books not yet mentioned:
If you're interested in linguistics at all (it tends to overlap with neuroscience), check out the books by Steven Pinker.

IIRC, The Four Hour Workweek has some good ideas about productivity, but also a lot of ideas that were completely irrelevant to my life.

I honestly can't remember if Affluenza was life-changing, or if it was just in a series of very similar books that I read in a short period of time, but I'll go ahead and recommend it anyway.

Oh, and even though it's somewhat dated and somewhat curmudgeonly, Amusing Ourselves to Death is a book that I think everyone should read.
posted by hishtafel at 7:57 PM on December 30, 2009

Response by poster: Wow... these are some really great recommendations! I've got plenty of ideas for the current shopping trip as well as much to add to my wish list for the future. These answers were all so helpful... thank you all very much!
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:50 PM on December 30, 2009

I think you have to define for yourself what it means to be a better person.

To me it means being more aware of the world around you, so why don't you start with books that talk about issues that are in the public eye right now? Try books on the Middle East, gay rights movements around the world, the economic situation. Read some history books to put our world today into context - the Cold War, the British Empire, the industrial revolution and other things that made our world what it is. This is your opportunity to learn about anything you've ever wanted to know about.
posted by alon at 1:22 PM on December 31, 2009

I would suggest Gary Klein's Sources of Power. Like Gladwell's Blink, it's discussing how we make snap decisions, but it has more solutions that you can actually apply to life, and is in fact the source of much of Blink's material.

I tend to feel that Gladwell writes things on a level for people who don't already read a lot, and so you might find some of his stuff to simplistic. I found this very true of Outliers, but loved Tipping Point. Sources of Power was more on my level, hiding the detailed neurological research, but showing the actual methodologies that Klein's group uses to consult companies and the military.

The Worldly Philosophers is a cool introduction into the history of economics. I took an undergrad intro econ course, and it was interesting to see how the ideas evolved and changed.

Finally, if you feel like venturing into the hard sciences, Isaac Asimov made a series of science books which were phenomenal. I especially remember using Atom to start learning quantum mechanics (you'd have to then update yourself on the newer developments, but the general principles are still valid
posted by LeftySam at 2:28 PM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing GTD, and strongly, strongly seconding magdalenstreetladies' A Pattern Language and The Story of Art. Both terrific recommendations.
posted by kristi at 4:24 PM on December 31, 2009

Response by poster: So I spent hours this morning looking up book reviews on Amazon, checking my local library's website to see what they offer, and checking inventory at Borders to see what was in. Between what you guys recommended and the related links I followed on Amazon, I've got a TON of new stuff on my wish list. Most of the books you all suggested are available at my library (which is unfortunately currently closed for renovation) so I put those books on a "to borrow" list and I wound up spending my gift cards on the following:

The Human Brain Book by Rita Carter (to help enrich my understanding of the neuroscience I like to read)

The Quantum World by Kenneth Ford

The Age of Entanglement by Louisa Gilder

125 Best Slow Cooker Vegetarian Recipes by Judith Finlayson

59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman

Stuck by Anneli Rufus (because I really liked her "Party of One")

I do appreciate all the suggestions and I'm looking forward to months of interesting reading now!
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:09 PM on January 1, 2010

my library (which is unfortunately currently closed for renovation)

Check if your library has a reciprocal borowing agreement with other area libraries. I can check books out at any member library (almost every public library in my state).

Good luck with your reading! This was a great question.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:22 AM on January 2, 2010

Gah! "borrowing", of course...
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:23 AM on January 2, 2010

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