I have a confession to make: I like to read self-help books from time to time. Not the kind necessarily that straight up tell you how to live, but the kind that blend memoir with advice. There’s something about that mix that I find indulgent, entertaining and gratifying.
Up front, I’ll tell you that almost every one of the books I’m about to mention has a significant similarity: white women, some who started out with a lot of privilege, some who didn’t, are telling us about their lives. Most are writing from a current place of privilege that most of their readers can’t and won’t ever experience. I need to explain that I don’t necessarily view these books as “guides to life” but somewhat voyeuristic reading experiences that sometimes drop nuggets of wisdom. I am a naturally nosy person and I love to give advice, so I get a little thrill out of reading books like this.
Now that we’ve established that, for me, reading these types of books is something of a guilty pleasure, let me also say that I think reading advice giving nonfiction can be really helpful. In each one of these books I’ve found something that touched me and changed the way I thought about certain important aspects of my life. I’ve also discarded a lot of the problematic and unhelpful (to me) advice and chalked that up to being symptomatic of giving a human being an entire book to talk about their opinions.
So I urge you to take my list with a tiny grain of salt and take this advice (I told you I love to give advice!): reading an advice giving memoir from time to time can be fun and satisfying. Reading how other people think things through and solve problems can be interesting. These have been my favorites over the past few years, in somewhat chronological order:
The Goddess Guide, by Gisele Scanlon. I don’t even know how I found this book, but is by far the most indulgent one on this list. Scanlon is something of a journalist/artist/beauty guru. She’s had about a million experiences none of us will ever have and this book is the gorgeously put together evidence of this. The cover is an experience in itself and the photos and illustrations are lush and gorgeous.
What did I get out of it? Lots of nearly invaluable fashion and beauty advice. Also: lots of longing for stuff I can’t have because it’s insanely expensive. However, I did discover one of my favorite perfumes (For Her, by Narcisco Rodriguez) and learned some valuable stuff about how to develop personal style. I am a super vain person, so this was nice for me.
Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. You’ve probably read this book already. I feel like everyone has read this book already and I’m sure you know what it’s about. Gilbert’s experience of leaving her life behind to travel the world and forego work is something most of us can’t afford to do, but this book really spoke to my voyeuristic side.
What did I get out of it? My deep abiding love for the healing and spiritual aspects of yoga and meditation started with this book. I will never be able to fully express how important that has been to me over the years and I’m not as good at either as I would like to be, but both practices are something I always return to. I also got a serious urge to run away from my problems, as I read this book right after my dad died. I didn’t have that option, so I stayed at home and worked things out. It can be done.
The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. This is probably the most practical book here and I full-on recommend it to just about anyone. Rubin’s experiment is thoroughly researched and she’s not asking you to slap a smile on your face and be happy, which I like. Instead, she takes us through a year of studying myriad ways people in history have found happiness and trying it out. The journey is relatable and I think almost anyone can pick up a few tips on how to boost your contentment from this book.
What did I get out of it? I learned that like Rubin, I am an all or nothing kind of gal when it comes to certain things. Rubin asserts that some people are good at moderation and some aren’t. She herself doesn’t drink at all because she feels “indiscreet” and agitated after even one glass of wine and she doesn’t keep snacks in the house because she tends to eat them. Both of these values have made their way into my life and I’m grateful for it. There are also some valuable lessons about procrastination here that I’m still taking to heart and working on.
The Red Book, by Sera J Beak. I am not a religious person. I find organized religion tough to follow, though I completely respect others’ beliefs. Beak talks a lot about how people like me, who feel spiritual, but not religious, can learn valuable lessons from other religions and bring them into their spiritual practice. I realize this is a somewhat controversial frame of thought, especially for folks who are very religious and take an all or nothing approach to their beliefs. I think there’s a fine line between appropriation and applying valuable wisdom to your life. Beak is a lifelong religious scholar and her approach is far from purely academic and her experiences are wide and far reaching.
What did I get out of it? Beak talks a lot about radical self-love and using spirituality to develop that practice in your own life. To be honest, there’s a lot about her approach that’s not for me, but that aspect of honoring your spiritual self (if you belief in that kind of thing) and practicing self-love and self-care really resonated with me. There was a time in my life when I didn’t know how to do that at all and books like this helped me figure it out. It’s a daily battle, so don’t think for a second I’ve got it figured out.
How to Grow Up, by Michelle Tea. I’m reading this right now and I’m about halfway through and so far it’s one of the better books in this genre I’ve read in a long, long while. Tea’s life experiences have been wild, out-of-control and unhealthy, but she’s grown up into a functional, successful and healthy adult. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and Tea’s stories about the wilder times in her life are well told and moving.
What am I getting out of it so far? Lots of things about Tea’s past make sense to me. Her experiences are much, much more intense than my own, but my late teens and the majority of my twenties were times of self-destructive, wild child behavior. I don’t regret most of it and I learned lots from it. I’m not “learning” from Tea thus far so much as identifying with lots of her takeaways from her considerable life experience.
I read so many of these other books when I was at really, really low points in my life and on the arc of coming out of it. I feel like in most ways I’m on the other side of that. It takes a long time to deal with years of self-destructive thinking and behavior. Tea is older than me, so maybe what I’m getting out of this is that it’s a process; you can be on the “other side” and you still have to keep going. We’ll see what I think when I finish the book. Maybe there’s a full recommendation in the future.
So now you know, I’m a deeply flawed human being and I get something out of self-helpish memoirs. Maybe there’s something in this post that might help you, or maybe you’re inspired to find an advice-giving memoir that’s more your style. Either way, here’s to your mental, spiritual and bookish health!
Allison Carr Waechter is almost done with summer school, which is damaging her psyche. If you’ve got ideas about what self-help memoir she can read to keep her going for three more weeks, tweet at her.