Self-help books are a $10 billion industry. Yep, you read that right: $10 billion. Personally, I don’t read a lot of them (I’m just too cynical, and all the eye-rolling makes me tired), but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone else a little comfort, or motivation, or whatever else they get out of them. Obviously, I’m in the minority, because that $10 billion doesn’t come from nowhere! I have occasion to wonder, though, whether some of these personal improvers have ever tried turning to other types of books for help.
There are very important lessons buried in the pages of the classics, best-sellers, even pop-science books. Storytelling traditions (which began with fiction) have given us the entire accumulation of human wisdom. So, before you pick up the latest manual from a self-help guru, maybe try checking out one of these ten books to help you sort out your mess of a life.
(I’ve even highlighted what I consider to be the key lesson from each one, to make the selection process as easy as possible…)
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Paulo Coelho’s famous allegorical tale is as close to a self-help/fiction hybrid as you can get. The Alchemist follows the story of an Andalusian shepherd as he pursues his dreams of finding buried treasure beneath the Egyptian pyramids. It’s a quick read, almost like a fairytale, and hippies the world over swear by it for teaching the power of manifestation and the path to true happiness.
Key Lesson: Sometimes the universe conspires to give you exactly what you need, as our Andalusian shepherd finds time and time again. But you should also learn from his mistakes: sometimes you search the world over to find what’s waiting for you at home.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
You might not think it, but you can learn a lot from the self-involved social climbers of late 19th century New York. If you look closely, you’ll find Edith Wharton’s beautifully intricate book The Age Of Innocence is all about conformity, lost opportunity, and self-determination. The protagonist, Newland Archer, is so caught up in doing what is expected of him and saving face that he misses his chance to be truly happy. Even worse, when he gets a second chance later in life, he misses it, because he’s a big ol’ chicken.
Key Lesson: Martyrdom gets you nowhere. You might think you’re winning the war by keeping everybody else happy, but you’re kidding yourself. Don’t be such a fraidy-cat!
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
I’m not sure that the key lessons of The Rosie Project come so much from its story as it does the way that Graeme Simsion tells it. He’s able to show very deftly, through characterisation and dialogue, how terrible humans are at correctly attributing the behaviours and decisions of others, and ourselves. Even if you don’t want to look at it that deeply, it’s a fun quirky story about finding love, even where you’re not expecting it.
Key Lesson: Try looking at yourself from someone else’s perspective once in a while, and give other people the benefit of the doubt.
The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham
Another Australian bestseller, with another important life lesson for you: The Dressmaker is a dark, gothic story of a young woman’s return to the town and the townspeople that have haunted her all her life. Come for the fun fashion tips and the Aussie vernacular, stay for the cautionary tale about dealing with trauma and moving on with your life.
Key Lesson: Revenge may taste good, but it’s destructive as hell, and the people who have loved and supported you will get caught in the crossfire. Focus on living well for yourself, and you’ll be surprised what you can move past.
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Even if it turns out that The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared doesn’t help you sort out your mess of a life, I can guarantee it will at least give you a few belly laughs, and that can’t hurt! Allan Karlsson’s century of adventures takes him all over the world, he rubs shoulders with world leaders and household names, and he always manages to squeeze his way out of tight spots with a little help from his friends.
Key Lesson: Never burn a bridge – you never know when you might need to cross it again. You’ll be surprised what political differences can be overcome when you share a few laughs and a bottle of vodka.
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
The Brain That Changes Itself is actually laid out quite similarly to a self-help book, and reads a lot like one, even though it’s focused on the science underpinning neuroplasticity. It’s not perfect – Doidge has a few puritanical hang-ups, and ignores a number of ethical dilemmas when it comes to animal testing – but he still has plenty to teach you about how your brain works, and how to use its capacity for change to your advantage.
Key Lesson: Your brain isn’t set in stone. There are ways to tweak your wiring, so you can function better and lead a happier life. It’s all within your reach, even without a neurology degree or an endless supply of pharmaceuticals.
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
Liane Moriarty is renowned for her ability to write complex, charming stories with seemingly impossible internal struggles, and The Husband’s Secret is no exception. A woman finds a note, written in her husband’s hand, and the envelope says she should only open it in the event of his death. What’s a girl to do?
Key Lesson: Pandora was right to open the damn box. Don’t let your secrets fester; they’ll infect your entire life, and it will all come out in the end, no matter how clever you think you are.
The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do
Anh Do is a study in overcoming adversity. His memoir, The Happiest Refugee, tells the story of his family’s harrowing escape from post-war Vietnam, and his life in Australia. He’s a comedian, yes, but the book isn’t all quick quips and punchlines; in parts, he’s heartbreakingly honest about times of anger, resentment, and loss.
Key Lesson: Anh lays it out for you, pure and simple – work hard, smile, and show up at the right time.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Before I picked up Wild, I’d pictured Cheryl Strayed as a bored mid-30s housewife who packed in her perfect life to “find herself”. And I was very, very wrong. When she undertook her solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, she was in her 20s, recovering from heroin addiction, had barely a dollar to her name, and she was still grieving the sudden loss of her young mother. Her memoir has lots of gory details about the trials and tribulations of her time on the trail, and it’ll move you in ways you don’t expect.
Key Lesson: You can persist through just about anything (seriously, if Cheryl Strayed can hike hundreds of miles while blistering and bleeding in too-small boots, you can sort out your mess of a life). Also, hiking is not the same as walking, don’t kid yourself.
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This suggestion might seem like it’s coming out of left field, but stay with me: Crime And Punishment is more relatable than you’d expect. Raskolnikov makes a whole lotta bad choices, even though he started out with great intentions, and he’s crippled by anxiety and paranoia – who among us can’t relate to that, just a little?
Key Lesson: Chances are, you’re getting in your own way. Focusing on your worries and fears will probably be what makes them a reality. Also, don’t be an axe murderer. Even if you have really good reasons, just… don’t.