If you type “self-help books” into Amazon’s “Books” category, you’ll get more than 675,000 hits, and their “Kindle” category lists nearly 300,000. That’s a lot of self-help!
But how many of these books have actually helped? And how many books outside the “self-help” category have been even more helpful?
Just for kicks, I drew up a list of the 15 books that, over the course of my lifetime, I’ve found most helpful, either personally or professionally. Here they are in the order in which I read them.
What books have been helpful to you, “self-help” or otherwise?
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, by William Blake
I first encountered this part visionary / part comic / part poetry / part etching long poem in 1969, in an English class, while an Engineering student at Cornell University. I had grown up a kid scientist, and my hope was that I’d become a NASA engineer. I was also very much in my head and not so much in my body, in the world of logic and not so much the world of emotion. Blake’s poem convinced me I had to change all that or else live out my days a reduced version of myself. This powerful piece reached out to me over 200 years and 6000 miles and changed not only my focus (from Engineering to English major) but also set in motion a process of actualizing the more suppressed parts of myself, a lifelong activity that began then and there. Thank you, Mr. Blake!
Tales of the Dervishes, by Idries Shah
I read this book in 1970 in what officially was an English Composition class but was really a class in what for me were radically different ways of thinking and seeing. Tales of the Dervishes, a collection of Sufi teaching stories, was my first introduction to Eastern thought. The tales are in the form of parable, and they’re intended to be understood differently according to the ability of the listener/reader. Some I still vividly recall and have used in conversations with friends and therapy clients. I went on to study with a Sufi guide for a while, and learned from him a Sufi meditation practice aimed at increasing intuition and creativity that seemed to open up a kind of 6th sense. Remarkable stuff. I’ve since migrated to Buddhist practices, but I continue to find the Sufi teachings and practices intriguing, and my experience of them began here.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig
Sitting in front of me on my desk right now is the copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I bought in August, 1974, and carried with me on my own motorcycle trip from Buffalo, out to Indiana, down to Baltimore, and finally up to New York City, where I stayed for 6 years. I was a year out of college, still trying to figure out what to do when I “grew up,” and Pirsig’s book came out shortly before I started my trip. Though at the time it seemed clichéd to take such a book on a motorcycle trip, and it was one more heavy thing to add to the already overstuffed pack strapped behind me on my little Yamaha 200, it turned out to be exactly the right thing to guide my inner journey, and even helped me diagnose and repair a motorcycle issue that led to my seizing a piston in Ohio.
It’s been 42 years since I read this book, and when I flip through it and see the sentences I underlined I’m sometimes puzzled by those choices, but it still leaves a feeling in my chest of almost indescribable longing, wonder, excitement, and calm. I can’t say many other books have had as lingering an effect, so this one makes the “Books that have inspired me” list.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans
James Agee and Walker Evans’ book of lyrical prose and hard-edged images was one of three books I brought with me when I moved to NYC in 1974, and one of a short list that had a major influence on me as a young writer. This was the first book I’d encountered that looked and felt deeply about a group of people largely ignored by the rest of the country, and it directly influenced my own several-year project photographing and interviewing the people I encountered living or working the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. I have yet to encounter anything that quite matches it in its powerful synergy of prose and photographs.
The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller
I encountered this book in the mid-80s, a year or two into my first serious round of psychotherapy, and it was as if all the lights suddenly went on in a previously dimly lit room. Although it’s been a long time since I read The Drama of the Gifted Child, the shock of recognition – of the dynamics of my family, of my role in it, of the roles filled by my siblings, my mother, and especially by my father – became starkly revealed in a way no amount of discussion or dream analysis had approached. There’s something compelling about how some authors can strip away the confusion surrounding a complex psychological set of interactions and lay bare the bones of it, and Miller did that for me in this book.
Iron John, by Robert Bly
In Iron John, Bly translates, interprets, and expands a little-known Grimm’s Fairy Tale that depicts the path of a young prince growing into manhood. Bly uses the folktale as a frame for the larger story of how men of the last few generations have been taught to be men mainly by women and, more recently, also by the media. He portrays what has been lost and gained as a result. I read this book shortly after it was published in 1990 and found it to be the brightest lens on men, and what was difficult about being one, I’d ever seen.
Bly, a poet I’d first encountered at Cornell University at an anti-war rally, not only precisely and lyrically delineated mens’ problems, he also outlined a solution and taught it to large gatherings of men. (I attended a weekend workshop he held at Brandeis University.) Bly sought to bring together older and younger men to promote a return to a male apprenticeship process lost in the industrial revolution and the nuclear family. His aim was to help us break out of our extended boyhood. Bly’s book and his gatherings of men greatly enlarged, for a time, a nascent Men’s Movement that roughly paralleled the Women’s Movement of the 60s and early 70s. Today, I still recommend Iron John to male clients, and also to women who want to understand men.
Life After Life, by Raymond Moody Jr.
In 1993, I had a near-death experience as a result of a series of medical errors. At the time, I’d never heard of a near-death experience. This was the first book I read that opened my eyes to what I had gone through. Several others followed, as well as a subscription to the International Journal of Near-Death Studies, membership in a group of near-death survivors, and eventually, transitioning from a PhD program in English to one in counseling psychology. Nearly a quarter of a century later, it’s still not clear to me exactly what the meaning of an NDE is, but Moody’s book did a credible job of documenting the phenomenon, one I still find more valuable than the extraordinary claims of those who have more recently, and famously, written about near-death experiences.
Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh
I read Being Peace about 20 years ago, and then again in 2014. It was the first book by the Buddhist teacher and writer for me, and it is, I think, a seminal work, capturing in one short volume the essence of what he would go on to explicate in his many books since this one. The first time I read this book, I had never heard of Thich Nhat Hanh and was attracted to the title. I read it in a couple of sittings. The second time through, I read the book in short bursts, one section per week, in the company of other people who also follow Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. It took several months to complete the reading, and it was a far more profound experience. Each short segment has layers of meaning and emotion that take time to settle into the soul. Highly recommended as a first place to meet this wise teacher and his work.
Focusing, by Eugene Gendlin
Although it was ten years or so between the time I bought Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing and when I actually began to use this technique in my personal life and my therapy practice, in many ways it is now at the heart of both. In the late 60s and early 70s, Gendlin teamed up with pioneer psychologist Carl Rogers to try to figure out why some people seemed to get better with therapy while others did not. After screening for all the factors one might suspect made the difference – therapeutic training and approach, experience, types of problems clients came in with, demographics, etc. – it turned out that the dominant factor was something clients either came into therapy doing (and they got better) or didn’t do (and they usually didn’t). Gendlin realized that this factor was a natural human quality, and he created this book, and many others, to help those of us who didn’t natively do it learn how.
I have practiced Focusing for many years, and I have taught it to a wide variety of clients so they can do it themselves. Easier to do than to explain, Gendlin’s Focusing handbook nevertheless does an excellent job of summarizing the rationale behind it, the technique itself, and what to do if things don’t seem to be working.
The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine N. Aron
Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person is one I wish had been written decades ago. It helped me understand that I’m a “highly sensitive person” – someone who takes in, on both a sensory and emotional level, more than most people do. There are a lot of us – according to Aron, some 20% of the population, a figure validated by an independent study done by Harvard and the University of Toronto a few years after Aron’s book was published. Being “highly sensitive” is a blessing and a curse: We can’t screen much out, so all kinds of things bother us that don’t bother most people, but we also have more data available at a conscious level, and sometimes we can do things with that data that people who automatically screen more out cannot. The simple test for this type of sensitivity is on Aron’s website, hsperson.com, and her practical advice for how to cope with this characteristic is a uniquely valuable resource.
When I Say No, I Feel Guilty, by Manuel J. Smith
This is the book I most often take off my shelf and show to clients. Even if all you learn from it is the “Broken Record” technique for saying no and sticking to it, and you accept that his “Assertiveness Bill of Rights” really does apply to you, When I Say No, I Feel Guilty will change your life for the better. I wish Manuel Smith had written it 50 years ago!
The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, by Edmund J. Bourne
This book is the most helpful book on anxiety I’ve encountered, and one I pull off the shelf to show a client almost as frequently as When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. Bourne knows anxiety from the inside out, and his comprehensive work on the subject is a balanced approach comprising psychoeducation, tools, and strategies that anyone suffering from anxiety can benefit from. His approach to understanding and healing the damage from mistaken beliefs alone is enough to make the book a worthwhile purchase. His chapter on panic attacks has helped many of my clients completely overcome this disorder. A must-read for therapists and anxiety sufferers alike.
Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland
Art & Fear is the most concise and friendly companion to anyone trying to define themselves as an artist that I have so far encountered. In a series of concise essays, Bayles and Orland (a photographer and potter, respectively) put forth most the anxiety-provoking aspects of being an artist and offer sound, accessible wisdom on how to stay grounded, motivated, and focused.
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
Pressfield’s concise assault on Resistance and his distinction between the professional and the amateur artist helped me break through some substantial blocks along the way to creating my book Paths to Wholeness and inspired at least one artist I know to start making the transition between hobbyist painter to pro. Highly recommended for any creative person who feels held back by the mundane. His last paragraph is a terrific sendoff, the culmination of all that came before: “Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”
Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas, by David J. Bookbinder
If you don’t blow your own horn, journalist Jimmy Breslin once said, nobody else will. Writing Paths to Wholeness was one of the most powerful self-help activities I’ve engaged in, in a life of practicing self-help. In it, I tried to distill into one volume the best of what I’ve learned as a therapist, writer, photographer, and person. Paths to Wholeness contains 52 potent essays and striking Flower Mandala images by a spiritual seeker (me!) who, having traversed his own winding path toward awakening, now guides others to find balance, build resilience, overcome fear, and to expand their hearts by listening deeply, inspiring hope, and more fully loving.
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Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas
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NOTE: Paths to Wholeness is now available at the following Boston-area bookstores and libraries:
Cabot Street Books & Cards, 272 Cabot Street, Beverly, MA 01915
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Please let me know if you find it in other locations!
52 (more) Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
52 Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
Paths to Wholeness: Selections (free eBook)
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2 thoughts on “15 Self-Help Books that Really Helped”
Thanks. Yes, I read most of Alice Miller back when I first found The Drama of the Gifted Child, and revelatory is an apt description of my response to her, too. Her analysis of Hitler I still remember with a shudder, 30 years later.
Took a quick look at your website. What wonderful work you create! And your switch in careers in some ways parallels mine, at about the same age. I had been a “kid scientist” all my life, but by the time I entered engineering school at Cornell University, language, psychology, and art had grabbed me. It’s been a long, strange trip since then!
Interesting list! I too found the Alice Miller books revelatory, and read everything of hers that I could lay my hands on in my late teens/early 20s. It would be interesting to reread them now I’m in my 50s.