By Laura from www.laurasbooksandblogs.com
The Self-Help section. It’s an aisle we all need to visit once in awhile, but it comes with a world of judgment. Who needs to be seen flipping through books about their phobias, disorders, and failures? And when you do work up the courage to peruse those shelves, what do you find? Preachy manuals about living your best life and infomercial-quality therapies made up by life coaches doling out common sense information.
I’m not trying to put down self-help books because there are good ones out there, but many are gimmicks that throw a lot of information at you in very vague or mechanical terms that just don’t resonate with your particular experience or feelings. Luckily, there is an alternative.
In my reading, I’ve come across plenty of self-help books disguised as nonfiction in that just by telling their stories and sharing their outlook on life, these authors have significantly improved my worldview and attitude better than most self-help books ever could without the preachy jargon or pretentious titles. Here are five non-self-help books that you should read if you’re discretely looking for guidance and love well-written true stories.
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell
Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am I Am I Am is a memoir about a seemingly ordinary woman with a seemingly ordinary life, except that she has survived 17 near-death experiences. I don’t usually read memoirs that aren’t by celebrities, which sounds very narrow-minded, but in my experience, I’ve never been able to finish a memoir by a non-celebrity. This book is the exception to this rule.
I was worried at first that the majority of the 17 brushes were going to be vague, iffy situations where the danger was more dramatized than genuine, but I was pleasantly mistaken. O’Farrell’s brushes with death range from childhood illnesses to reckless decisions to attempted murder, all told out of order and with clear, level-headed narration.
The book prompts its reader to think of their own instances when their lives were in danger, but I doubt many will be able to match the number and severity of O’Farrell’s instances. Not only did this book show me that traumatic experiences don’t have to stop you or even slow you down from living, but it also taught me not to judge a book by its author.
Everything In Its Place by Marc Summers
If you grew up in the 80’s or 90’s, this author’s name may sound familiar. Marc Summers was the host of the Nickelodeon game show Double Dare back in the day (and is one of the hosts of the current incarnation of the show). Years ago, I had heard that he suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is strange given his job requirements interacting with game show contestants who spent most of each episode covered in slime. Then, I read Mara Wilson’s book, Where Am I Now? and she mentioned reading Summers book to help her cope with her own struggles with OCD. Having dealt with this condition myself for most of my life, I put his book next on my to-be –read list.
Summers pretty much tells his life story from which has always been wrapped up in this disorder, yet went undiagnosed well into adulthood. It wasn’t until he hosted a talk show episode featuring an OCD expert (who ended up writing the forward of the book and consulting on the medical explanations that are outlined throughout) that Summers realized that his tics and rituals were part of a mental disorder that had a name, a number of diagnosed patients, and available treatment options.
It’s nice to read about a person’s struggle with a particular ailment or disorder from their point of view. Instead of having an expert rattle off facts and encouragements, it’s more entertaining to hear someone tell detailed, personal stories about their symptoms, rituals, and the effect it has on their family, work, and mood. You can then relate it to the way your life has been shaped by the disorder and understand that though your symptoms may be different, the mindset and suffering is the same. Misery loves company so it’s comforting to know that your brain isn’t the only one that works this way.
Maus by Art Spiegelman
The old cliché that writing is therapeutic is brilliantly depicted in Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus, which tells the story of his father’s experiences as a Jewish holocaust survivor during World War II, with animals standing in as the various social, cultural, and religious groups who populate the story. But it’s not as straightforward as that. Spiegelman himself plays a role in the novel as his younger self trying to come to terms with his strained relationship with his father, the suicide of his mother, the older brother who died in childhood while in hiding from the Nazi’s, and his own cultural identity.
I assume from the premise that you don’t expect this to be a happy tale. So, it’s not going to leave you giddy with the triumph of overcoming obstacles. Instead, it’s going to instill you with the realness of knowing that our worst days will always haunt us but to put our problems into perspective, to be more sensitive to the gap between generations, and to not take anything for granted. I came out on the other end of this story feeling more empathetic towards others and more sensitive to their faults, their hostilities, and how they choose to deal with the obstacles that life throws at them.
I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend by Martin Short
I love memoirs by comedians, not only for the entertainment value of hysterical narration and a behind-the-scenes look at a rags-to-riches Hollywood fairy tale, but because they tend to have acquired some wisdom along the way. Martin Short’s story is not your average juicy Hollywood story. There are no drugs, affairs, or arrests. Instead, his “dark past” is rooted in tragedy. The youngest of five, he lost his older brother and both parents before the age of 18, leaving him alone in a big house before setting off to pursue a career in show business. He then lost a multitude of people in his life to cancer, most notably his wife, Nancy, who died in 2010.
The inspiring message behind this book is not so much that he dealt with so much tragedy as it is how he dealt with it. He has such an optimistic perspective and a forward-moving attitude that isn’t about running way from his problems but running towards happiness. His grief process isn’t about him, and he understands that he is still here, still able to live and make people laugh. So, that’s what he does, and while he misses those he lost, he always finds a way to shift gears and settle into his new normal. It’s an attitude we should all strive to have about loss and life changes. I went into this book expecting a collection of funny Hollywood stories, and I got that, but on top of it, I also got a new outlook on life.
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (and Other Concerns) By Mindy Kaling
Mindy Kaling is one of those actors who I like as a person more than I like their work. Of course, I don’t know her personally, but I at least like her public persona, and she uses that persona to craft a collection of funny and relatable tales in her memoir. She plays into all of the most basic female stereotypes, yet is so self-aware that she earns not only your forgiveness but your respect. Her ability to make fun of herself is inspiring in and of itself. Just look at the author photo that she chose for the back cover of the book.
Kaling is unapologetic about her quirks, flaws, and vices. She never gets too heavy, and she doesn’t try to play up any situation to make it more dramatic than it was. Instead, she makes it melodramatic, which is how we all get when we’re trying to make friends, hold down a job, and fail miserably at not embarrassing ourselves. She inspires by just being herself (and playfully self-deprecating), and that’s something that we all need to be reminded of from time to time.