What to Read While Making New Year’s Resolutions – The Atlantic

January 3, 2023 by No Comments

Any book can be a self-help book, depending on how it’s read. Political pamphlets, epic poems, and contemporary novels can all offer insight into how to live—or how not to. But the self-help genre is thought to have had its true start in 1859, when Samuel Smiles, a second-rate Scottish journalist and doctor, published Self-Help, With Illustrations of Character and Conduct. It became an international best seller, and the cult of personal improvement was born.

Today, self-help has mushroomed into something like a $10 billion industry: There’s a book (or three) on every one of life’s tribulations, alternately written by academics, charlatans, and others with advice to spare. Many texts still trade on a kind of Smiles-ish individualism; after all, readers are primarily seeking their own enlightenment. But the best kind of self-help book is like a trusted friend, a well-trained therapist, or an armchair philosopher—its words can connect a lone reader to the shared human experience. Whereas other texts can change our mind or even our heart, self-help provides a road map for better living.

As both an avid consumer and eager critic of this corner of the library, I take the task of selecting self-help books seriously—especially during a season whose unofficial slogan is “New year, new you.” Diet guides and manuals for manifesting a better life via positive thinking are best left on the shelf; the following books are challenging where others are pandering, open-minded where others are prescriptive. Rather than giving us a paint-by-numbers for a new personality, these titles provide fresh perspectives on the obstacles we find in our way—and in ourselves.


Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy

When Grealy was 9, she was diagnosed with cancer in her jawbone. Surgeons removed much of her mandible, which resulted in the slow sinking of her face. Her memoir is a bildungsroman for the age of the image, as Grealy recalls an adolescent self-loathing that would seem universal were it not for the inescapable fact that her face, in some ways, was indeed “too ugly to go to school,” as she puts it. The author renders nearly two decades’ worth of her innermost thoughts with surgical precision. But the real beauty is in watching Grealy outgrow the convictions she holds about the world and her place in it—that her pain is meaningless compared with the suffering of others, that stoicism is the ultimate virtue—without ever claiming to cure her …….

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