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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.


Binders full of self-care
Image:  Still Life with Books in a Niche, Barthélémy d’Eyck, 1442 – 1445, Rijksmuseum.

About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew. Her new book is Meals at Mealtimes. What a concept!


  • Cheryl Strayed’s _Tiny Beautiful Things_ is heartfelt, wise, and empathetic (also with lots of swears).

    • Good add – thank you!

  • Thank you so much for this list! I appreciate it more than you know.

    • <3

  • Yes, please to the Torchio mods! I love Sunday Suppers. I’m big on comedic novels for self care. Cold Comfort Farm never fails to heal–and anything by PG Wodehouse (Aunts aren’t Gentlemen, for starters).

    • PS if it STICKS, just viciously scrape with a spatula.

      • Thanks for this… I was just revising this cookbook earlier this week. I love that some of her recipes (including the carbonara) are, in fact, weeknight friendly!

    • Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen: what a magnetic title! Thank you.

      Torchio mods: here’s what I do when the craving hits but it’s a Monday or a Thursday supper: Heat up some oil in a large skillet and add a couple anchovies, the thyme and crumbled chile. Throw in all the kale you want and start fry-braising it. When it’s good and black, add some sliced garlic and get it golden. Add oil as necessary as you go.

      Cook the torchio (I’m using Sfoglini brand these days) and drain and then throw it in the skillet and MY BIG SECRET >>> don’t put pasta water in there to “stop it sticking,” as Suzanne suggests. No! You want to let it CRISP! Get some of that pasta crispy and golden. Aka fried. It is SO DELICIOUS, Ms S! Tell me if you try it.

  • I enjoyed this list – Eat, Pray, Love was the only one I had read so I will be prowling my library for some of the others shortly! My read again and again’s are: Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, and Moore’s Care of the Soul. Among more recent publications, rereading bits of Cain’s Quiet can be very comforting when one is feeling like a bit like square peg in a round holed world (and not in a good way).

    • Indeed, ANYTHING Lamott 🙂

  • Brené Brown!! (Daring Greatly), who helped me make the connection between everyday courage (to say when I’m wrong, to try something new) and the courage to be vulnerable and authentic with other people (who can be kind of scary to a self-reliant introvert).

    And ditto Susan Cain (Quiet: The Power of Introverts), who confirmed that hating group work and enjoying my alone-time are just fine, and may even be signs of competence and ability. I AM NOT DEFECTIVE!!

    Both have been life changing (in a super awesome good way).

    • Okay, I simply cannot let another year go by without reading Brené Brown. Thank you for this add 🙂

  • Wow!!! Did I ever need this list today, this month, these past two years! As I’m sitting in the midst of chaos, moving boxes waiting to be packed, things to be donated, overwhelmed by all the things I need to do, now, as I wind down my old life, post divorce, and trying to remember what a sane, normal daily routine looks like, this wonderful list made me sit down with my coffee and anticipate all the possibilities for my new life!

    This list is now bookmarked and saved for my apres move enjoyment, and two titles on the list have been sent to a Sister Goddess in need of a serious self care intervention. Thanks for another great article, Max!

    • Emma,
      I’m sorry you’re going through so much. I got hit with the news that he filed on Monday; we have kids aged 13, 11, & 7. I have a huge complication in that I am only very recently returned home from residential treatment for severe, complex PTSD; gee, I wonder how that will get used against me. Thank goodness you’re almost to the end.

      I agree with anything Brenè Brown writes, and Glennon Doyle Melton’s first book is also great.

      • Oh Erin, good luck and sending love through cyberspace!

    • Good luck with your move – and EVERYTHING.

  • Love The Year of Yes!

    • So full of heart! I need to re-read soon 🙂

  • My husband borrowed the Life Changing Magic book over the Christmas holidays and I managed a sneaky read as well. It’s genius – I’ve got a photocopy of the decision flowchart from the book on my office wall. Very handy!

    PS – Max, do you have any suggestions for self-help, dealing with grief type books? Things are getting very serious health-wise for my father, so I’d really appreciate any suggestions you could give me.

    • Sarah, I hear from a friend who’s a grief counselor that Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B is actually quite useful. It’s about her husband, of course, but probably has a wider view as well. Let me know if you pick it up. <3

  • Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

    I also like Tara Brach’s books and talks (available as a podcast).

    • Thank you for this list. It is just what I needed. I just listened to “Year of yes” and loved it. I would add Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic Creative Living beyond Fear.”

      Lots to think about and it challenges the stereotype of a creative life being a tortured one.

  • “Return it Love”, Marianne Williamson. I’ve read and re-read this time and time again. When I have friends in need of self love, they get a copy!

  • Thank you thank you for a great list. Timely for me as I am in that hole of self pity, needing and wanting to climb out and need many resources for the self care toolbox…

  • While I loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat Pray Love’, I actually find her ‘Big Magic’ to be better for my self-care library. That’s where to go to re-discover the permission to be creative.

  • My “comfort read” is always the same, and it makes no sense. “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt.

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