What books can make you a better person?
October 25, 2015 10:14 AM   Subscribe

Of course, the real answer is most books, but I'm looking for something a little more specific...

I want to read things (books, sure, but also essays, poems, whatever) that will contribute to making me better, for various values of 'better'. A book that helped you develop empathy? A poem that you found to get you motivated to try your best? The essay that made you feel positively connected to the world and its' people? The whatever that made you approach your own writing in a whole new way? These are what I want. You can use those examples as a rough outline of the ways I want to be affected, but you can also go your own way and just give me a title.

I'm particularly interested in fiction, but nonfiction is also just fine. Basically, anything but didactic 'DO THIS TO BE GOOD OKAY' and straight up self-help is welcome at the table.

Lay it on me.
posted by still bill to Writing & Language (40 answers total) 108 users marked this as a favorite
Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.
posted by telegraph at 10:32 AM on October 25, 2015 [11 favorites]

I am currently reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. He is a doctor, who works with ageing patients. His discussion of medicine, the limits of medicine, and our options as we age make me feel more empathetic, because we are all in this together.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 10:37 AM on October 25, 2015 [9 favorites]

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver
posted by Sassyfras at 10:38 AM on October 25, 2015 [33 favorites]

Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder's biography of Paul Farmer, shows me what can be done by a single committed person and inspires me to do all I can.

Causing Death and Saving Lives by Jonathan Glover is great for formulating a coherent personal philosophy of ethics.

Sacred Hunger and its sequel, The Quality of Mercy, are novels by Barry Unsworth that touch me deeply and inspire me to kindness, perhaps counterintuitively but there ya have it.
posted by janey47 at 10:42 AM on October 25, 2015

If you search my history, you'll see I've recommended The Sunflower an awful lot. It's a collection of essays on the topic of forgiveness.

I read it in October 2001, and can honestly say that doing so led me to actually forgive Osama Bin Laden.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:00 AM on October 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is a little out of left field, but I credit Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth for opening my eyes to how deeply the world still fucks over women, and kicking off my journey into feminism and social justice.
posted by Tamanna at 11:05 AM on October 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

You Are Not So Smart and its sequel You Are Now Less Dumb, by David McRaney, are books about human self-delusion and similar cognitive fallacies. Recognizing them in yourself and others is the first step towards overcoming them, to the degree that's possible at least.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:06 AM on October 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

Anything by Epictetus
posted by johngoren at 11:11 AM on October 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut.
posted by phunniemee at 11:35 AM on October 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
posted by zadcat at 11:37 AM on October 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

I immediately thought of Middlemarch: Rebecca Mead wrote a whole book in praise of "Eliot's wise, consoling grace". Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is full of the same expansive grace for me. Seconding the poems of Mary Oliver-- I also love the poem "To be of use" by Marge Piercy.
posted by spaet at 11:38 AM on October 25, 2015 [8 favorites]

Way back during my first undergrad, I got a little obsessed with Bourdieu's The Logic of Practice (probably had to, in order to understand it), because until then, I'd been sort of stuck on the whole free will / determinism thing. Everything I'd read and understood to that point (in e.g. my philosophy courses) got me leaning hard on determinism, or having to consider an indeterminism that didn't seem any better, as far as providing a framework for intentional human action. (Which I took pretty badly, frankly, it led to a lot of feels about "what's the point" etc.)

I don't pretend that I had a perfect grasp of Bourdieu's concept of habitus then (and the nuances of what I did get have long since left me), but at the time, it seemed to clear a little tiny space for an intermediate field of action between the boundary of the human agent and the world, where something like action could happen - even if it was emergent and only maybe partly intentional, with outcomes still unpredictable. And that was good enough to let me feel that it was possible to do things as a person (or as a society) and have them mean something (at least kind of in the way I wanted them to mean something). There is probably another book or theory that addresses this or similar ideas differently, but that's the one that helped me at the time, and the conclusion has stuck with me as a feeling.

(Like, this was a problem I really needed to settle for myself.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:41 AM on October 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

Les Miserables is about how people can change other people's lives for the better through their actions. It made me want to do that. (Yes, it's a very, very thick book, but it's a surprisingly fast and entertaining read.)
posted by Redstart at 11:44 AM on October 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

It sounds very gimmicky, but I'm not embarassed to say that I found Don't Sweat the Small Stuff really influential. So were Living the Simple Life and Simplify Your Life by Elaine St. James.
posted by lemniskate at 11:49 AM on October 25, 2015

wg sebald makes a weird connection with me, but it's hard to describe why. something about forbearance, perhaps. this article gives you a good idea of what to expect.

more recent, and more popular, i loved ann leckie's ancillary sword (recommending her for the second time today), in which a "cold blooded killing machine" wants nothing more than to care for, and curl up asleep with, the people he cares for. i think it's saying something fairly deep about our society in a hugely accessible and entertaining way.

jean améry's at the mind's limits treads similar ground to sebald, but in a different form. i have his on aging too, but haven't yet managed to read it.

nicole krauss's history of love is an incredibly sweet, but sophisticated, exploration of love (it's a novel, and not as direct as that description implies).

i am not sure i can articulate how any of those describe how to live, but they all address what it means to live a good - or meaningful, or simply bearable - life. also, i note, 3 out of 4 are related to the holocaust. for the record i am not jewish, and am generally not sympathetic to the zionist cause. go figure.
posted by andrewcooke at 12:07 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Dear Sugar's advice essays made me a better person. They are less typical advice column and more raw, beautiful essays that happen to spring from an advice question. The columns are collected in a book.

What a lovely question by the way! Although it will depend a lot on what you consider a good person and what you personally struggle against to achieve it.
posted by Gravel at 12:26 PM on October 25, 2015 [12 favorites]

Big agreement on Sebald, but be ready. The Rings of Saturn starts out with the narrator calmly telling you that in the process of taking a nice, scenic walking tour around England he had a nervous breakdown, which seems a little out of left field, but by the end of his narration of the trip, as colonialism and greed and forgetfulness and the loss of the past and various other horrors slowly emerge into the present like outcroppings of rocks poking their way out of the ground to the surface of the earth, you feel like you're thiiiiiiis close to having the same nervous breakdown yourself.
posted by ostro at 12:35 PM on October 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

On a more cheerful note: The Pushcart War, a children's chapter book published in 1964, will make you feel extremely warm and fuzzy about human cooperation, big cities, and peashooters.

Servants, by Lucy Lethbridge, is a recent nonfiction book about the history of domestic servants in 19th- and 20th-century England that will make you angry in a productive sort of way.

Nabokov often ends up nurturing empathy for strange and unlikeable people. Try Pale Fire (and not just because it's a total masterpiece).
posted by ostro at 12:55 PM on October 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

[sorry, i make a very stupid mistake in my answer above - it should be "all she cares for"]
posted by andrewcooke at 1:27 PM on October 25, 2015

The Tao is Silent (along with other books about Zen and Taoism, but this one in particular is powerful, beautiful and accessible...an excerpt)
Time and the Art of Living (excerpts)
Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book "An Existential Guide For When You're Really 'Lost'"
posted by saul wright at 1:32 PM on October 25, 2015

It's probably a bit cliched, and I'm sure it's one of those books that you have to pick up at the right time and right place, but Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance spends a lot of time examining the notion of what is good. It think it's one of those love it or hate it selections.
posted by sardonyx at 1:34 PM on October 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky deepened my moral understanding.
posted by tackypink at 1:56 PM on October 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

I recently read the short story The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro and it helped me develop more compassion for the ways of small town life.
posted by winterportage at 2:21 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

P.M. Forni's Choosing Civilty
posted by betsybetsy at 3:05 PM on October 25, 2015

Also, reading David Foster Wallace's essays usually makes me feel more connected to humanity.
posted by betsybetsy at 3:07 PM on October 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

Night by Elie Wiesel, I found to be a life shifting book. And pretty much any poems by Langston Hughes.

If you have the patience for it, Siddhartha is good too. I only read it once in high school, so I don't, hah.
posted by watrlily at 4:08 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

This list is a bit of a hodgepodge, and some of these are very particular to me and my experiences, so of course, YMMV.

My Real Children is a beautiful book, published last year, that really impressed upon me the value of every human life.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is a good novel generally, but one of the chapters toward the end of the book really made me rethink/examine how I interact with Autistic people. (N.B. the book itself is not about autism.)
A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade because it helped me remember the excruciating difficulty of learning to navigate the world at a tender age when the memories childhood are still very fresh, yet the world seems to just turn cruel all of a sudden. It also helped me work through some feelings from that time in my life that I had pretty effectively repressed.
A Short History of Nearly Everything is rightly one of the most-recommended books on Ask, usually mentioned when someone is looking for a highly accessible book for basic science education. I try to read this book every year to help me maintain a sense of universal scale in my life (a.k.a. We're all pretty insignificant in the cosmic sense). To me, this sense of scale is an important part of humanist morality, and I like to think I'm a kinder person when I call it to mind. (Of course, Carl Sagan said it best.)
posted by duffell at 5:24 PM on October 25, 2015

I'm someone who comes from a traumatic history, and thinks a lot about how trauma manifests in my life, interpersonal relationships, and activist organizing. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Richard Wright's Native Son both expanded my empathy greatly, because I thought they really not only explored the black male experience, but also had many different intersections so anyone should be able to read and understand the amount of sadness and rage that both of the protagonists experienced in a rigged society. I also really like Ama Ata Aidoo's writing, because she is so humane and so unapologetically woman from an African diasporic context.

I also suggest The Catcher in the Rye, if only because I think Holden's extremely self-centered, muddled narration is a good example of how trauma affects one's clarity and thinking, and how unintelliglble it looks to everyone on the outside. Actually, I think all three books explore beautifully how trauma can impact and shape one's thinking, and what happens when it all breaks down. I also like contrasting their different positionalities (upper middle class white teenage boy vs first generation black college student vs disenfranchised black man) and seeing how it can all turn out so differently for them.

Les Miserables is also beautiful for the amount of tragic humanity it has. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma is really amazing. Also, this essay that I just saw today, on "How to Keep Loving Someone" really hits me.
posted by yueliang at 5:33 PM on October 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

Some people might classify this as self-help, but this book literally changed my life.
posted by nuclear_soup at 5:43 PM on October 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

"The Razor's Edge" by W. Somerset Maugham is one of my favorite novels ever. It's about one man's search for meaning and purpose after he is traumatized by his experiences in World War I. The main character is described at one point as a deeply religious man who does not believe in God. There are at least two film adaptations, but I've never seen them.

If you would like something more political, "In the Time of the Butterflies" by Julia Alvarez is a historical novel about the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic. They worked to overthrow the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo and were murdered under his orders.
posted by FencingGal at 6:26 PM on October 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

How to Survive the Loss of a Love for growing through pain - I guess it'd be accurately classified a self-help book, but some of the poetry sprinkled throughout it truly changed my life.

The Fault in Our Stars and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are two novels which had phrases that have popped into my mind daily and given me way more empathy for the human condition than I had before I read them.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:32 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Build Your Own Telescope.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:14 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Forgiveness and empathy: Forgive for Good

Dealing with stress: The Upside of Stress

Happiness: The Happiness Hypothesis

Thinking and Decision Making: Thinking Fast and Slow
posted by raw sugar at 10:07 PM on October 25, 2015

strangely, my instantaneous candidates: The Autobiography of Malcolm X and To Kill a Mockingbird.

I'm as puzzled as you are about the mind.
posted by j_curiouser at 12:39 AM on October 26, 2015

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, whether you're into sci-fi or not, is great. On Strike Against God by Joanna Russ (non-SF by a usually SF writer) is a hell of a novella, sharp and funny and political and gave me a real kick up the arse.

Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit was a more hands-on practical guide book for life that I found incredibly useful. And the collected works of Miss Manners.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 12:53 AM on October 26, 2015

The Splendid Feast of Reason by S. Jonathan Singer

Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett gave me a new set of words and conceptual tools for thinking about a lot of things, but it may just have been that it was my introduction to some concepts I've seen visited lots of other places since.

Dune, by Frank Herbert, changed my perspective on a lot of things, but I was pretty young, so it may not affect you the way it did me at 15.

Illusions by Richard Bach, but see above w/r/t Dune.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:22 AM on October 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:52 AM on October 26, 2015

I'm a pretty big fan of this short story, The Egg, which was Andy Weir's first widely-popular work (2006?).
posted by talldean at 9:55 AM on October 26, 2015

- Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
posted by fairmettle at 5:14 PM on November 1, 2015

« Older Is there a recipe that will use up Halloween candy...   |   Did I just ruin my car? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.