Why “life-affirming books”? Why not “uplifting books” or “books that will make you split your sides laughing” or just “books that’ll make you happy”? Well, it’s because having our lives affirmed isn’t just about making us feel happy or good. Life-affirming books can still be upsetting, or tough to read – but in the end, they make us feel glad to be alive and hopeful about what the future might hold. That’s what I reckon, anyway! Here are fifteen life-affirming books to read when you need a little reminder.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Matt Haig has written enough life-affirming books to fill a library all on his own – and one of the most popular is The Midnight Library. It’s a premise that will appeal to all bookworms who have ever struggled with mental illness. Nora has decided to end her life, and on the precipice between our world and the hereafter, she encounters her childhood librarian who offers her a chance. Every book in the library contains a different version of Nora’s life. She can undo mistakes, take opportunities missed, and see what could have been – what could be, if she wants it. The story and prose might be a bit too saccharine for some, but The Midnight Library has definitely resonated for a lot of people. Read my full review of The Midnight Library here.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine – it says so right there in the title. She has her life timetabled out to the minute: work, frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy. But when life throws her a curve-ball or two, she gets the chance to see that it could all be better than fine. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine hit the best-seller list when Reese Witherspoon picked it for her book club. Readers really responded to Eleanor’s weirdness, her foot-in-mouth moments, and her carving out a better life for herself than she ever could have dreamed. This might be a darker book than you’re expecting, but it’s definitely life-affirming in the end. Read my full review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine here.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
A Man Called Ove doesn’t sound like the stuff of great life-affirming books. A lonely old guy trying to off himself? Complete with wacky neighbours and hijinks? Indeed, Backman had trouble finding a publisher at first. Based on his pitch, they said the book had “no commercial potential”, and that Ove was too much of a Debbie Downer. But Backman is uniquely skilled at getting readers to care, and finding the joy and laughter in the darkest of times. He’s managed to make the old man’s cynicism and indignation endearing. Ove, stick-in-the-mud as he may be, feels disconnected and lost – who can’t relate to that? And he finds, in his new neighbours, new purpose (mostly to tell them how they’re doing it all wrong) – who can’t relate to that, too? Read my full review of A Man Called Ove here.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Doctors keep us alive – I guess you could call it a literally life-affirming profession – but what happens when the doctor becomes the patient? When Breath Becomes Air has captured the hearts and minds of readers with that exact question. Paul Kalanithi was just wrapping up his training to become a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. “One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live.” Alongside his wife and his newborn, he was forced to confront his own mortality, and the eternal struggle to find what makes life worth living. This is an incredibly moving and life-affirming book, even if you yourself are healthy as a horse.
The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams
For bookworms, reading in and of itself is life-affirming. So, reading life-affirming books about bookworms reading should be like, life-affirming squared, right? The Reading List is about a to-read list that brings complete strangers together, and helps them find meaning and connection. A nervous teenager working in a library finds the list on a scrap of paper in a returned book, and decides to read her way through it. When a widower comes into the library looking for something to help him connect with his granddaughter, she passes the list along to him, and an unlikely friendship forms. This is a beautiful and relatable life-affirming book about the power of words.
The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
If Forrest Gump is one of your comfort-watch movies, then The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared should be one of your life-affirming books. The story begins with Allan Karlsson sitting in his retirement home, contemplating the impending celebration of his one-hundredth birthday. Frustrated by the prohibition policy of the home, he decides (bugger it!) he’ll jump out the window. What follows is an incredible adventure around the world, complete with flashbacks that flesh out Allan’s incredible life. Yes, you have to suspend your disbelief a little, but it’s totally worth it. Read my full review of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.
This Is Not A Book About Benedict Cumberbatch by Tabitha Carvan
What small, ‘ridiculous’ thing brings you joy? For Tabitha Carvan, stuck at home with two small children and overwhelmed by the business of life, it was a crush on the actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Now, as the title suggests, This Is Not A Book About Benedict Cumberbatch – but it is a book about unapologetically enjoying your life. The rallying cry: “find your thing, whatever it may be, and love it like your life depends on it”. You know those fan-girls screaming in the front row of concerts? They look pretty happy, don’t they? This will be a particularly life-affirming read for women stuck working ‘the second shift’, day in and day out, who are wondering where their sense of fun went.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Arthur Less is about to turn fifty, and he worries that he is the “first homosexual to ever grow old”. These fears are compounded by the arrival of an invitation, to the wedding of his much-younger former lover to his new far-more-age-appropriate beau. Desperate to avoid attending, at all costs, Arthur Less accepts every other invitation he has received, to every half-baked literary event around the world. And so begins the journey at the heart of Less, a Pulitzer Prize-winning satirical comedy and one of the most delightful and surprising life-affirming books of the past decade. Read my full review of Less here.
Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
For a while there, you couldn’t walk into an Australian book shop without being assaulted by the bright pink cover of Boy Swallows Universe on every shelf. In some shops, you still can’t! This block-buster book first came out in 2018, and it’s still going strong. The semi-autobiographical story begins in 1980s Brisbane, with Eli’s mother in jail, his step-father dealing heroin, and his brother refusing to speak. So, yeah, his situation isn’t great. But adversity makes the diamond and all that: through all the heartbreak and pain, there’s a thread of brotherhood, friendship, love and joy running right to the end.
Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
If you could travel back in time, where would you go? Who would you want to speak to? What would you change? Four strangers confront these questions in Before The Coffee Gets Cold, a quirky and heart-warming novel about a Tokyo cafe with a fun twist. Guests can travel back in time, but there are rules – the most important of which is that they must return (you guessed it) before their coffee gets cold. This is the first in a series of life-affirming books by Japanese author Toshikazu Kawaguchi, translated into English by Geoffrey Trousselot. Read my full review of Before The Coffee Gets Cold here.
Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
Is there anything more refreshing, more hopeful and optimistic, than a fresh start? But starting over can be complicated… In Linda Holmes’s debut novel, Evvie Drake Starts Over, a young recently-widowed woman meets a baseball player with the yips, and both of them find solace in not talking about their troubles with each other. What starts as an unlikely friendship grows into something more, but before they can move forward, they must reckon with their respective pasts. This is one of those life-affirming books that won’t fool you into thinking everything can be beer and skittles, but offers a more realistic take on a happy ending.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Sometimes, the most life-affirming books are the ones that give us warm nostalgic feels. Little Women is that book for many of us, Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel about four sisters finding their places in the world (or not, as the case may be – poor Beth!). Even though our lives look nothing like that of a family living in genteel poverty during the American Civil War, between the four March sisters we can all find something to relate to. There’s Meg the beauty, Jo the career woman, Beth the dutiful wallflower, and Amy the romantic – not to mention the ever-wise, ever-patient Marmee. We should all be so lucky as to have a Marmee in our lives. Read my full review of Little Women here.
Year Of Yes by Shonda Rhimes
Year Of Yes is a non-fiction book about the transformative power of being open to new things and overcoming ingrained anxiety, as exemplified by one extraordinary woman. Before I read it, all I knew about Shonda Rhimes was Grey’s Anatomy-related, and she preferred it that way. She said “no” to opportunities for publicity, to time in the spotlight, to meeting new people… until she committed to saying “yes”. To everything. For one whole year. This is one of the most life-affirming memoirs I’ve ever read, and (not to be cheesy but) I often think back to it when I find myself afraid to say “yes” to something new. Read my full review of Year Of Yes here.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Before we were reading cutesy life-affirming books about weddings and women and coffee and travel, Charles Dickens was trying to lift readers up with stories about miserable old coots being haunted by ghosts. Seriously! If you think you “know” the story of A Christmas Carol, I can guarantee the version in your mind is a lot more rose-coloured than the original book. Ebenezer Scrooge is a real piece of work, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come have their work cut out for them. It may be a classic, but it’s far from warm and cuddly.
The Cat Who Saved Books by Sōsuke Natsukawa
Alright, let’s end with one of the life-affirming books that all bookworms will relate to. The Cat Who Saved Books begins with bookish high school student Rintaro Natsuki about to close his beloved late grandfather’s secondhand booksop for the last time. Suddenly, a talking cat(!) appears, and demands Rintaro accompany him on his mission. Together, they save books – the unread, unloved books languishing on the shelves of neglectful owners, the books cut into pieces by well-meaning but ignorant artists, and the books butchered to be mass-produced by publishing drones. This kooky adventure – with a wonderful message – was translated from the original Japanese into English by Louise Heal Kawai.