Shelf Cultivation: A Self-Care Reading List
A while ago I mentioned my love for the book F*ck Feelings, and how I turn to it in emergency situations. There are pages I have read many times, and the book’s message of “Dear heaven, life is hard!” never fails to soothe me.
Well, hardly ever. Sometimes one needs a different kind of comfort. A less blunt message.
So here is a list of books that while not explicitly and entirely about the care of the self, are some that I turn to when I need sanity, comfort literature, sisterhood, or tips for, gosh, it so often boils down to this: How to give ourselves permission to do what we need to for ourselves, or NOT to do that which we very much do not want to do. Without scorching the earth.
All these books are, I feel, written by kindred spirits. I have many kindred spirits, even just counting those alive today, so this is a partial list. I am hoping you will add yours to the comments, so that we can build our Collective Self-Care Library.
There is Nothing Wrong With You, by Cheri Huber
When bad things happen to good people (us!), we often think we’re to blame. Maybe not consciously, but often what’s happening underneath is self-recrimination. Fundamental flaws! That must be the explanation for why we were fired, dumped or just couldn’t tell that joke right.
Many of us have an internal dialogue running day and night that helpfully points out all the many ways our fundamental flaw shows up. Freud identified this voice as, I believe, the “parental introject,” a wonderful phrase that sounds like a painful process indeed. Cheri is a Zen Buddhist, so she’s not as interested in the source of the commentary. She just wants to shut it the heck up. (I recommend this book to virtually all my clients.)
How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life, by Heather Havrilesky
I first knew Heather Havrilesky as the TV reviewer on Salon. This was during a time when the only TV I watched was Buffy, but I loved reading Heather. So smart! So funny! So wise! It never mattered that I wasn’t watching the show in question, because Heather was writing about life. It is no wonder she has become a hugely popular advice columnist. Whatever problems her readers bring, Heather responds with practical advice of the sort that you or I would come up with, probably, but delivered with so much wit and sheer kindness. As a TV reviewer would try not to say, You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll want more. (And you can get Heather weekly online. Here’s a recent beautiful piece for us middle-aged folk: I’m too old for love but I want it anyway.)
The Year of Yes, by Shonda Rhimes
What if you’re the kind of person whose first principle of self-care is Say No to Everything? Shonda didn’t really think she was that kind of person, a big old no-saying person, not at all! But her sister did, and when she said as much to Shonda over Thanksgiving preparations – as sisters often do on Thanksgiving in America – Shonda decided to make a change. She would start saying Yes, where she had previously said only No. For a whole year. Spoiler: Saying No can be a very self-caring way to say Yes.
The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: A Practical Parody, by Sarah Knight
As advertised, it’s a parody (of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, of which Knight is a fan). AND it’s serious. Entirely practical. This is essentially a book about boundaries, with a never-empty pad of permission slips. Also a ninja assassin training manual for self-care. Also it’s hilarious, which is a rarity in personal development literature. This one is a comfort because it is always relaxing to be in the company of a plainspoken woman who gives you permission to do what deep down you know is right for everyone: to stop sacrificing your life on the altar of “Gee, I hope I’ll be found acceptable.”
Be it known: Only the outside of the book uses the little fig leaf/asterisk. On the inside, lotsa swears.
This is Not a Diet Book, by Bee Wilson
Well, heck! This is the book I wish I had written. If you are a person who struggles with weight, knows that dieting just makes you heavier, and has no idea what to do instead, Bee has the answer: Meals. Generous meals. Comforting meals. Regular meals. Nothing between meals. (As well as some thoughtful suggestions like “cultivate a taste for bitterness,” which I’m working on, for Bee.) This book is such a kind-hearted, clear-eyed instant-release dose of sanity. I regularly send it to clients. Not in print in North America but you can get it online.
The Art of Simple Food, by Alice Waters
Not my desert island cookbook, not by a long shot (that honor is taken, year after year after year by Suzanne Goin’s Sunday Suppers at Lucques; ask me about my mods for her Torchio with Cavolo Nero). But it is an exceptionally thoughtful roundup of the basics, done well. If you really want to take charge of your health, one of the most important things you can do is to take charge of your food and put it together yourself. Alice will show you some simple, reliable, delicious and very comforting ways to do this.
Yoga for Every Body, by Jessamyn Stanley
If I may be cynical for a moment: One of the reasons for yoga’s popularity is that our culture’s most celebrated/prescribed body types look good doing it. Especially on social media, yoga can seem like some kind of performance art. Of course there’s an inner game too, but that can be hard to play when you’re on your mat, looking around the room, playing the game “One of these things is not like the others.” If, like me, you are the one that’s “not like the others” in yoga class, Jessamyn’s book is for you. It’s not about looking good on Instagram – although she sure does! This book is about yoga for the purpose of self-care. Hallelujah.
Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
No surprise here! You were certainly expecting this one, the ur-text of self-care for middle-aged ladies everywhere. And a cracking good yarn about the long road/world tour to healing a broken heart and replenishing a broken bank account.
Maybe you haven’t already read it. It certainly took me far too long, while I believed the dismissals citing feminine self-involvement. And yes, globe-trotting a broken heart away is not a privilege available to the masses. But … that’s what books are for.
What It Is and Picture This, by Lynda Barry
If you followed Ernie Pook’s Comeek and other works by Lynda Barry, you will have guessed that young Lynda didn’t have an easy life. But she did have writing and drawing, and these two graphical (but not in comics form) memoirs reveal her process. This might be just what your inner 12-year-old needs right now.
Love Warrior, by Glennon Doyle Melton
Here is a book to read if you’re angry and you don’t want to paint the town with your outrage, but you do want to hang out and maybe have a little Yeah! And another thing! party with someone who gets your mood. Doyle Melton writes about how her marriage was broken and how they put it back together again, maybe, for a while, and it is a book of white-hot fury, in many places.
You may wonder, what on earth could be self-caring about that sort of read? It’s cathartic, like a safe revenge fantasy in which no one gets hurt.
The descriptions of hilariously bad therapy are also quite cathartic. Humor is a very important component of self-care books.
The New Garçonne: How to be a Modern Gentlewoman, by Navaz Batliwalla
Not a book that will teach you how to hold a salmon fork or look good while fox hunting or which wine to pair with your Dover sole. The gentlewoman in question is the one who likes to dress comfortably, perhaps slightly androgynously, and enjoys a small wardrobe of perfect things – in other words, this is a beautiful, light, sparkling fantasy of a book, a peek inside the frankly curated closets and jewelry boxes and sitting rooms of some outstandingly stylish women. All beautiful, all quirky, no supermodels. Unexpectedly, together with Ann Patchett, Batliwalla has inspired me to do as a gentlewoman of old would do: Shop her closet.
So there you have it: my starter pack of dependable self-care/self-comfort manuals.
I can’t wait to read yours.