Life can be complicated.
Not “filling-out-a-supplementary-tax-form” complicated – more along the lines of “trying-to-perform-surgery-on-a-gerbil-with-nothing-but-a-soup-spoon while-skydiving” complicated (also, the gerbil is on fire). There’s no instruction manual, and no real way to gauge whether you’re doing it right, and as we move into our thirties, fewer and fewer people to turn to when it comes to figuring things out. So what can we do when we’re looking for answers?
We can read.
For all the issues of our modern age, there’s never been more access to the full scope of human experience when it comes to life’s most critical dilemmas. From relationships to self-esteem, living ethically to enduring life’s absurdities, our celebrated stories can teach us how to steer a true course no matter what life might throw at us.
Just as with leadership, there’s no shortage of nonfiction out there that can (and should) be incorporated into our self-improvement journeys. That said, the simple truth is that a good story can stick with us in a way all the statistics in the world simply won’t, and a nuanced narrative can move, convict, and inspire us to action in ways that we won’t get from even the best manual.
As important as salesmanship and our professional lives can be, they’re not the only struggles we’re going to encounter and the following list of books is here to touch on the areas we tend to neglect developing.
Consider it an invitation to boldly explore the parts of ourselves that too often get forgotten, and it all begins with…
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers
While loneliness has haunted humans ever since the beginning of time, there’s perhaps no generation harder hit by feelings of isolation than Millennials. Careers, commutes, and the post-college drift can make it tough for anyone to keep in contact with friends and family, and for us in particular, studies show a staggering 30% of Millennials struggle with meaningful companionship.
There’s no quick-and-easy cure for our lack of connection, but when it comes to breaking free from isolation, there’s few books more helpful than Carson McCullers’ classic The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
Set in a small Southern town, we follow the intersecting paths of an eccentric cast of characters, drawn together by chance and kept apart by their own shortcomings. As we switch between the perspectives of a principled physician, a precocious teen, a drunken rabble-rouser, and a long-suffering proprietor, we’re given an inside look at the ways humans clash and connect. With elegant prose and piercing insight, McCullers’ narrative forces us to confront ourselves and ask some truly tough questions. When do we put our pride above our happiness? What keeps us from really expressing the things we most care about?
Though published in 1940, after nearly eighty years, this enduring, provoking, and profoundly human story has a lot to teach us today about the ways we treat each other and ourselves as we wind our way through the world.
Till We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis
With the enduring celebration around The Chronicles of Narnia, it can be easy to forget about Lewis’s other works. His thrilling science fiction trilogy, his satirical correspondence between two bureaucratic demons, his unique riff on Dante’s Divine Comedy (complete with bus-driving angels)– and perhaps most underrated of all, his gorgeous retelling of ancient myth in his finest and final work: Till We Have Faces.
Centered on the narrative of a hideous queen, jealous of her beautiful half-sister, Till We Have Faces masterfully spins a tale of gods and monsters while never losing the deeply human heart at the center of it all. While our unreliable protagonist desperately tries to set the record straight on her sister’s legendary loveliness (and her favor among the gods), we’re given a powerful and intoxicating look at the ways we love ourselves and the people around us – be it romance or friendship – as well as the ways beauty and self-image weave together (a topic just as important for men as it is for women).
Incisive, insightful, and sublimely written, whether we’re looking to be a better friend, a better partner, or simply trying to better understand ourselves, Till We Have Faces is sure to shape our journeys, wherever they may lead.
No Exit – Jean-Paul Sartre
A cowardly deserter, a manipulative housewife, a frivolous high-society flirt – all trapped together in a room with no mirrors, no light switches, and a door none of them can bring themselves to walk through. It might sound like a Twilight Zone episode (or the setting of a Silent Hill spinoff), but that right there is the premise of one of the most iconic plays of the 20th century: philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.
Short enough to be read in an afternoon, but still powerful enough to haunt us for the rest of our lives, No Exit forces us to watch the trials and tribulations of its characters, damned not so much by their dark deeds as much as their inability to take responsibility for their own decisions. While the paths that led them to this place might be their own, the accusations the characters hurl at each other (and the flimsy defenses they hide behind) are sure to hit uncomfortably close to home for many of us. Convicting (on top of compelling), No Exit forces us to confront the lies we tell each other – and the lies we tell ourselves – with brutal honesty.
Hell might be other people, but the terrible burden of freedom falls on no one’s shoulders but our own.
Bluebeard – Kurt Vonnegut
For all the books out there telling tales of hard-as-nails tough-guys, Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard gives us a desperately needed deconstruction of the useless alpha-male models most of us have grown up with. In this fictional autobiography, we WWII veteran and abstract artist Rabo Karakebian as he looks back over his life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – trying to discover the things that truly mattered. Spilling his life’s story onto the page (while desperately trying to protect his final secret, locked away in his estate’s potato barn), we’re told a tale of loss, trauma (both inherited and self-made), vulnerability, and healing.
Heartbreakingly sad and sidesplittingly hilarious, Bluebeardi s Vonnegut as his very best, offering lesson after lesson in compassion, empathy, and allowing ourselves to ask for help. No matter how far along you are in life, it’s never too late to start getting better.
The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
For anyone who hated having to read this book in high school, the time has come to read it again. With his trademark minimalism and devastating honesty, archetype of the modern man’s-man Ernest Hemingway gives us a harrowing story of survival, stoicism, and integrity.
In scarcely twenty-seven thousand words, we join elderly fisherman Santiago as he sets out to break a nearly ninety-day unlucky streak. Miles from shore, his luck at last turns. He reels in the biggest catch of his life, only to face the daunting prospect of making it back home with his prize (and his boat) in a single piece. Locked in a solitary battle against nature and his own code of conduct, rereading Santiago’s story gives us a chance to truly absorb the message of the book (especially when we don’t have our American Lit grade riding on it). How do we measure ourselves in our moments of abject failure? What does it mean to make a promise to ourselves? Perhaps most importantly as we try to stand by our word in the world of adulthood, how do we keep ourselves honest when no one’s watching but us?
Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin
In all our efforts to improve ourselves – be it professionally, physically, or emotionally – it can be easy to focus on ourselves. And make no mistake, to a certain extent that’s a good thing (hell, it’s a necessary thing). Ferocious ambition and a healthy sense of selfishness are the building blocks for success in almost every area of life. But for all the emphasis we place on pushing ourselves, it’s important to never lose sight of the way our actions affect others – and there’s perhaps no better book addressing this than James Baldwin’s masterpiece Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Following the story of the Grimes, a poor but proud family in 1930s Harlem, on the day of their son’s fourteenth birthday, we’re given an extraordinarily intimate and under-the-skin examination of the choices that led them here, and how even the most minor of actions have rippling effects that extend across miles and generations. Both horrifically ugly and transcendentally beautiful, Baldwin gives us a powerful narrative set at the intersection of faith and desire, pride and shame, family bonds and the irrepressible need to break free. For better or worse, there’s no escaping consequences, and we’re sure to come away from this story with a renewed appreciation and thoughtfulness not just for our own choices, but for the actions of all those around us. A powerful novel for anyone on the cusp of starting their own family (or simply looking to better understand where they’ve come from themselves).
The Complete Short Stories – Flannery O’Connor
Serial killers and Bible salesmen. Invalids and immigrants. Bigots, barbers, and bobcats – to name just a few of the curious characters at the heart of Flannery O’Connor’s macabre and masterful stories. Memorialized by Kurt Vonnegut as “the greatest American short story writer of my generation,” O’Connor’s works are equal parts parables and terrifyingly realistic portraits of people undone by their own arrogance. We’re given a glimpse into the life of a reform school teacher, blinded by his own sense of self-righteousness; a writer afflicted by a mysterious illness, struggling to live the last moments of his life in rebellion; a pair of cynical twenty-somethings determined to visit a local madman.
Beneath each and every one of her truly twisted Southern Gothic tales is a single, relentless question: what does it take to be a good person?
Not to look like a good person. Not to soothe ourselves with empty affirmations. To be a genuinely decent human being in a world that tempts us to follow the path of least resistance.
It’s an issue that will always need to be grappled with, but especially in this era, when we’re studying each other with such scrutiny and reconsidering our definitions of civility and compassion. O’Connor’s stories might not always give us the answers we want but they’ll definitely keep us asking all the right questions.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
Having endured the destruction of his house, the subsequent destruction of the planet Earth, and some excruciatingly awful poetry, Arthur Dent – last surviving human – finds himself aboard a stolen starship in a search for the answer to life, the universe, and, well, everything. Accompanied by the reluctant, two-headed president of the galaxy, a clinically-depressed robot, and Arthur’s interplanetary-hitchhiker-best-friend (to name just some of the less zany characters), our hapless protagonist finds himself hurled from one hilarious misadventure to the next with nothing but his trusty towel to rely upon.
So yeah, things could be going better.
While The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy deserves a read for its cultural impact and endless quotability alone, this science-fiction classic has a surprising amount to say about making it in the modern world. Even for those of us who read the story in high school or college, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy takes on an entirely fresh meaning when we read it in our thirties – when Arthur Dent stops being the butt of the joke and becomes the beleaguered every-man that we feel like most days. It’s here that the novel’s lesson has to be learned. When we’re faced with the senselessness of our jobs and politics, when we’re losing our footing in a riptide of random chance – what can we do?
We can laugh at it – and no book will teach us to laugh at life quite so hard as this one.
What books have had an influence on your own growth? Keep the conversation going with favorites of your own!