Monday, January 9, 2017

Books for Self-Improvement

The New Year is a time when many people try to better themselves, and I am no exception. I also am a sucker for self-help books, even though many are heavy on rhetoric and light on practical advice. The following books have all helped me—although some are not necessarily found in the self-help section. Whether you resolve to become healthier, work harder, or develop your interpersonal skills, the Peter White Public Library has something for you!

Year of No Sugar (2014) by Eve Schaub
If you, like me, have just gotten off a Christmas cookie binge, here is a timely memoir about a family who decided to give up added sugar for an entire year. This book describes sugar’s effect on the body, explains its ubiquity in the food we eat, and makes a compelling case to monitor our consumption of it—while remaining primarily a personal story about a family. Schaub is naturally funny, and the fact that she is a blogger rather than a scientist means that the book never descends into esoteric jargon. She does not sugar-coat her year spent baking her own bread and turning down free cookies, but she at least makes her sacrifices seem worthwhile. The memoir also contains recipes she makes throughout her year (both sugar-free and sugar-laden ones, in case you finish it and want to indulge anyway).

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016) by Angela Duckworth
Whether you endeavor to work harder or instill this virtue in your children, you might want to listen to Angela Duckworth. She was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for her research studying grit, a trait she defines as a blend of passion and motivation. Duckworth sought to dispel the myth that genius is inborn, and she instead observed people who mastered skills over long periods of time, even if they started with very little talent. She studied subjects’ behavioral habits as well as environmental factors that facilitated their success. This book is a discussion of her findings, dissecting what it means to “work hard” and detailing exactly which kinds of work foster improvement the most. Duckworth combines research with anecdotes about everyone from West Point cadets to successful comedians.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (2015) by Elizabeth Gilbert
I was initially skeptical about reading a book about creative arts with the word “magic” in the title. And sure enough, there’s a lot of discussion of ethereal muses in this book. But Gilbert is also a workhorse, and she will teach you new ways to conceptualize your creative endeavors—namely, to just sit down and work on them. Gilbert believes we’re all meant to be creative, and her book guides readers through all the fears that come with creating—including fear of not being able to follow up a huge success, which Gilbert experienced after writing Eat Pray Love. Big Magic alternates between advice and personal stories, and while it gets a bit spiritual at times, it is grounded in the wisdom that has made Gilbert a bestseller many times over.

Between the World and Me (2015) by Ta-Nehisi Coates
If you seek to understand others amidst our current national discord, read this book. It has won several awards, including the National Book Award. The book takes the form of a letter that Coates wrote to his fifteen-year-old son following the verdict of the Michael Brown shooting. At only 176 pages, it is a poignant portrayal of Coates’s experience as a black man in America. Coates defines and condemns racism with unprecedented precision, going far beyond the platitudes that permeate current discourse. Between the World and Me is the walk in another person’s shoes that we’ve needed. And to top it all off, it’s full of downright beautiful writing; in fact, it’s my favorite book I read last year.

Tiny Beautiful Things (2012) by Cheryl Strayed
This book is for anyone who wants to, simply put, become a better person. It is a collection of articles from an advice column titled “Dear Sugar,” which Cheryl Strayed of Wild fame initially wrote for The Rumpus. She advises on everything from high school drama to the crippling grief following the loss of loved ones, often relating others’ problems to her own chaotic and tragic life experiences. Letter writers sometimes confess horrible secrets, but Strayed never becomes judgmental, nor does she restrict herself to advice-column conventions. Her replies are sometimes ten pages long, and her ability to segue from lengthy anecdotes into pointed messages is admirable. Ultimately, even when she gives tough love, she never forgets that on the other end of each letter is a real person. Reading the book can help you realize how much worse it could be, as well as how to persevere even if it does get worse.

--Ben Kinney, Youth Services Assistant

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