Blog – Posted on Friday, Jan 03
35 Inspirational Books to Change Your Life 🌅
Inspiration comes in many forms, particularly when it comes to books. Fiction can propel us to grow just as the characters did. And non-fiction is not far behind, with its steady guidance on how-to and how-not-to do everything from poetry to professional development.
But inspirational books go a little bit further, especially for those among us in need of extra hygge — a Danish saying that encompasses that feeling of cozy contentment. Hygee is perhaps just another way — a fancy way — of saying: let's curl up by the fire with a book that will calm and ease the soul. With these 35 inspirational books, you'll be soothed and saturated with a wide variety of genres, tastes, and perspectives from a diversity of authors. And yet, they all seek to guide a better you, or a better state than which you came. Without further ado, let's pull back the curtain to see them.
1. Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life ... And Maybe the World by William McRaven
Navy Seal Admiral William McRaven went from commencement speaker to bestselling author with this little manual of hard-won lessons from his experiences on the sea. When 10 million people watched his University of Texas at Austin speech to graduates in 2014, he adapted it into Make Your Bed: an ice-bucket challenge on self-care that not only builds character, but also puts you in the mindset of service in the world. The ten principles described in the book aren’t just Navy Seal jargon — they’re life lessons direct from the Admiral’s own experiences keeping his head above water while resisting bullies, failure, and the urge to quit when things get tough. McCraven’s humorous yet humble manuscript is for meaning seekers and how-to lovers alike — and will teach you how the simplest shifts of behavior can change your life.
2. Evidence: Poems by Mary Oliver
Pulitzer Prize-winning Mary Oliver may have become one of the best-known American poets with her famous piece “Wild Geese,” but she has a slew of lesser-known works that offer the same inspirational guidance. In this series full of William Wordsworth vibes, Oliver brings us closer to “the church” of the natural world. She praises flowers, bluebirds, and egrets — all the while recognizing the importance of bowing down to the beauty of your own life before getting lost in the woods. Oliver’s language is clear as day — best of all, it’s extremely accessible for those new to poetry. The perfect inspo for a train ride or lunch break, Evidence is proof that beauty is everywhere, if you just take the time to look for it.
3. Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition by Black Elk, John G. Neihardt, Philip J. Deloria, Vine Deloria Jr.
A modern classic celebrating the voice of one of the world’s most influential members of the Lakota tribe, Black Elk Speaks has been compared to the Book of Revelation and the Kabbalah for its prophetic likeness. Here, nineteenth-century mystic and healer Nicholas Black Elk of the Oglala Lakota tribe takes center stage with a testimony that’s been adapted by poet John Neihardt. While the ethnography’s been criticized for its questionable depictions of the Lakota people and imperialist undertones, Black Elk’s descriptions of his spiritual visions for humanity and desire for unity on earth have long outweighed those recriminations. A close but respectful reading of Black Elk’s journey is hopeful, even in its heartbreak. A must-read voice to keep in your pocket through the next decade, especially as we face climate change.
4. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett
Krista Tippett is the quintessential thought leader when it comes to inspirational speech. Based on her sixteen-year-old radio show On Being, this collection gathers the wisdom of theologians, poets, scientists, and Buddhists alike to address our fractured world with acceptance, grace, and educated hope. Using what she calls “moral imagination,” Tippett pushes us to lean into our inner empath to create a new universe that uses our creativity for social good and justice. The sheer volume of voices in Becoming Wise will give you a lifetime of ideas on smarter living that will feel like a TED talk on steroids — in the very best way.
5. No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories by Miranda July
An internationally acclaimed artist and filmmaker’s foray into fiction culminated eleven years ago in this awe-inspiring collection of short stories that’s been translated into multiple languages. Whether it be a tale of two high school graduates trying to “make it” in the world or the legend of a swim coach forced to teach a class on dry land, July’s gems all demonstrate humankind’s desperate yet beautiful attempts to make progress in our lives. Her searching and sarcastic style illuminates the poetry of everyday existence — just like Lorrie Moore’s Self Help. And for the sentimental among us, No One Belongs Here More Than You is a cathartic experience that will stick forever.
6. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman
No one would have dreamed that Christian Wiman, long-time editor of Poetry Magazine, would end up a professor at Yale Divinity School teaching religious literature. But after a brush with death from a rare cancer diagnosis, his atheist leanings collapsed as he felt an unexpected calling back to his religious roots. My Bright Abyss touches on the pains and gains that a spiritual person must face in a secular world, and is especially helpful for those questioning their faith. Wiman’s writing touches believers and non-believers equally, addressing the meaning of life and the questions that come out of the search for it.
7. Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James Doty MD
As the child of an alcoholic father and a depressive mother who had a stroke, Jim Doty grew up in an environment that was all but stable. But when he met a magic shop owner named Ruth, her lessons on thinking your way out of suffering fundamentally changed the way he viewed his life. Her seemingly simple techniques had a lot to do with neuroplasticity, which inspired him to help others by becoming a neurosurgeon. In this honest memoir and self-help manual, Dr. Doty shares his long journey towards Ruth’s final lesson — the meaning and importance of love — and its role in caring for others as a physician and human being. Into the Magic Shop is ideal for anyone feeling ‘stuck’ in their lives, or looking to open their hearts and give more to the world.
8. The More You Do The Better You Feel: How to Overcome Procrastination and Live a Happier Life by David Parker ⭐ Indie Spotlight
Procrastination, meet David Parker. Parker’s handbook on getting past everyone’s most dreaded hump breaks down how to overcome avoidance issues step-by-step. Recognizing that these symptoms may come from depression, The More You Do The Better You Feel speaks kindly and sensitively to the exhausted and overwhelmed by encouraging them steadfastly to face the fears that hold them back. In return, readers will be able to walk away with mental health-informed tools for mobilization in work and life.
9. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The New York Times actually called this book “life-changing” and we agree. Told from the perspective of ‘death’ in 1939 Nazi Germany (yikes!), we meet Liesel Meminger — a young girl who has a curious habit for pick-pocketing books. But these measures end up becoming a saving grace for her own welfare and the welfare of others, most notably a man of Jewish faith hiding out in her father’s house. The Book Thief is a testament to the transformative power of stories and sentences, even during the very darkest of times. It’s a sobering yet hopeful reminder that no one, no matter how authoritarian, can take away our imagination or capacity to care.
10. Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders by Joy Ladin
For forty years, people told Joy Ladin she was a man, but deep-down, she identified as a woman. And while she may have made headlines when she transitioned as the first trans professor at the Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva University, there was more to the story: her own internal wrestling with religiosity and an obligation to keep the peace with her family. Inside Through the Door of Life is an intimate portrait of the kinds of philosophical questions that come with growing into a new self. Anyone who’s questioned their own identity or felt called to starting over would benefit from this brave look at uncovering authenticity against all odds.
11. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Considered a postmodern masterpiece by critics and millennials alike, Everything is Illuminated is as meta as it gets with a leading man who’s aptly named after the author, Jonathan Safran Foer. As Safran Foer travels to Ukraine to seek out answers to his family history, he discovers why and how his grandfather survived the Holocaust. Weaving together colorful characters, folklore, and magical realism, this inspirational book is a play on history and memory — and is bound to be one of those you can’t help but pass down to future generations.
12. Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant
The most common career advice for getting ahead is to put yourself first before others, and keep your good ideas close before someone else steals them and takes the credit. But Wharton professor Adam Grant noticed that study after study showed a different story: helping others actually improves your career’s trajectory dramatically. This mini-bible of charitable case studies will quite simply just blow your mind — and change the way you think about how you behave at work. Even the Scroogieist of Scrooges will find value (and perhaps relief) with Give and Take, now knowing that there’s scientific proof to goodwill.
13. Networking Karma: How Today's Cutting Edge Networking Trends Can Help You Connect and Conquer by Gail Tolstoi-Miller ⭐ Indie Spotlight
Nowadays, the word networking just sounds plain spooky! With LinkedIn and the like doing it for us while we sleep, who has the time to RSVP or even go to a speed network event at the town hall? Author Gail Tolstoi-Miller does — that’s for sure. She’s an all-star entrepreneur and CEO with expertise in interpersonal branding. Her theory is to help out, corroborating social scientist Adam Grant’s research on how giving is a key ingredient to personal success.
Networking Karma will explain, in great detail, how to actually cut through the networking nonsense and cultivate a cutting edge persona that gives instead of takes. By doing things like offering a hand with an office move, advising pro-bono for an hour or so, or making a connection for someone, Tolstoi-Miller argues that this spirit of selflessness will help you relax, boost confidence, and make a difference in the world. Seen through such lenses, networking will no longer teeter on the edge of being too boring (business card swapping) or too extreme (sauna events). Ew.
14. The Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Anne Morrow Lindbergh took the world by storm with her miniature but massively powerful 1955 memoir, The Gift from The Sea. As she muses on a short break from motherhood and society’s growing technologies while on an ocean-view vacation, readers get an intimate look into Morrow Lindbergh’s thoughts as she tries to slow down to a mindful state. And since she thinks brilliantly in metaphor, you’re in for a treat — from seashells to the flow of the tides, get ready for new connections and ideas that you simply won’t find in modern self-help books.
What’s particularly relevant are Morrow Lindbergh’s tools for integrating a sense of calm back into a busy life outside of vacation. While she never would have anticipated the blessing and curse that smartphones bring in the 21st century, those who feel burned out from technology will feel especially inspired to take a break after digging into this gift from the sea.
15. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
For anyone who has experienced loss, you’ll know there’s a period of grieving in which we blindly hope our loved one will return, despite recognizing its impossibility. Joan Didion captures this feeling expertly in her memoir on the death of her husband. Through the ruins of grief, though, she manages to find a silver lining and a sense of recovery, even as she memorializes his faults as well as his strengths. At once tremendously calming but chillingly honest, The Year of Magical Thinking will make life manageable in the face of death. A must-read for anyone going through the inevitable.
16. Endings: Poetry and Prose by William Poe ⭐ Indie Spotlight
If the Greeks got by with catharsis, then what makes us any different? While William Poe’s Endings goes headlong into the deep end of despair, the stories and poems here give new language to describe death, loneliness, and the broken parts of our lives. This new “language” can not only help you cope, but name emotions that might otherwise dissipate back into tension, or worse: trauma and guilt. Plus, for those who are ready to face difficult times, Poe’s take on art itself as a tool for healing will be sure to help your spiritual growth this 2020.
17. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
A list of inspirational books without A Wrinkle in Time would simply be incomplete! While its 2018 film adaptation may have flopped, the original book (written over fifty years ago) surely won’t suffer. When Meg and her brother Charles’ father go missing, they learn that he’s miraculously lost to time and not space. Along with their friend Calvin, they tessellate — in other words, time travel — to find him, but must face evil forces before accomplishing the mission. L’Engle, who’s long known to be inspired by Christian imagery and stories, reminds us in A Wrinkle in Time that the underdog can win, with a little faith and a lot of heart.
18. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
If we could revise this title, we might call it Letters to a Young Artist, since this classic text supersedes poetry lessons (and arguably art, with its contents mirroring life lessons more than anything). A thin but rich volume, Letters to a Young Poet charts the correspondence between Rainer Maria Rilke and a burgeoning cadet struggling to write — and, worse, struggling to accept his circumstances. When the young poet asked Rilke if he thought that he should keep writing, Rilke famously responded: “Go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.”
The lessons shared in this book are subversive in that sense: instead of seeking approval from others, seek approval from yourself. Rilke goes on to say that if you can’t find inspiration in the life around you at present, then dip into the stories and tragedies of your childhood. For anyone who struggles with a lack of self-confidence, Rilke’s letters is an essential step to help to pull you out of reassurance seeking and into self-acceptance.
19. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg
At Whistle Stop Café, business never ceases — not even when murder is afoot! This small southern town near the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama bursts into vivid life in this beloved classic by Fannie Flagg. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe tells the multi-generational story of four strong, fascinating women: Evelyn and Mrs. Ninnie Threadegoode, two friends who we meet in the present day, and Idgie and Ruth, who we meet only through Mrs. Threadgoode’s stories about Whistle Stop. Flagg deftly weaves together past and present with engaging warmth and good humor — building a rich, layered tapestry that ends up teaching us about everything important: life, death, love, and the power of friendship. A perfect read for when you want to take heart in the simple goodness of people.
20. The Island of Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
When a tribe of native peoples depart a lone fish-shaped island by boat, one girl is left behind on its shores. The Island of Blue Dolphins is the story of that brave, young girl in the years that follow. Karana has the odds stacked against her: she’s alone for years on the island without any help on the horizon. But she doesn’t let that discourage her, as she sets out to learn how to build shelter, find food, and befriend the creatures around her. Her resourcefulness, courage, and mental fortitude will set a stirring example for children of all ages, as they read about how Karana battles the odds — and wins.
21. Educated by Tara Westover
Tara Westover was 17 years old when she stepped into a classroom for the first time. Before then, she lived with her Mormon survivalist family in rural Idaho, working in her father’s junkyard and stockpiling herbs for her midwife mother. Raised with her father’s non-mainstream views, Tara had no conception of the Holocaust, slavery, or World War II — that is, until she found a thirst for knowledge and set out to acquire a formal education.
Educated is the eye-opening, transformative memoir that details this insatiable quest, which spans decades, continents, and universities. Westover is today a Cambridge-educated Ph.D. historian and Gates scholar. How she got to this point is a coming-of-age story of self-invention that delves seriously into the meaning and importance of education without brushing aside the cost at which it can come — in Westover’s case, family.
22. Hidden Solutions All Around You: Why Some People Can See Them and Some Can't by Daniel Castro ⭐ Indie Spotlight
Why do some people spot the right opportunity and others let it pass by? Author Daniel Castro is one of the first to notice “the why” behind this trash or treasure dynamic. Using neurological and psychological research on the subject, he explains the phenomenon with the intention of helping readers put the knowledge into action. That is, help you see where your blind spots are, why they’re there, and how to supersede them effectively - aka the Hidden Solutions All Around You. So, if you’re amiss at solving problems these days, you might just be missing the obvious: and quite obviously are missing out on Casto’s advice.
23. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Before Maya Angelou became the Nobel laureate and an award-winning writer, she was a poor Black girl growing up in southern America. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a window into Angelou’s childhood from 1928 to 1944 — one of the most tumultuous eras in American history, fraught with racial tensions and the fight for civil rights. Angelou experienced the lows of Jim Crow and segregation, growing up amidst ignorance and prejudice in almost unendurable circumstances. But she writes about it with her signature grace, humor, and compassion, and the result is a seminal work by a seminal author about the strength that’s required to rise above it all.
24. Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss
Published just one year before his death, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! was one of Dr. Seuss’ last books. It might also be his wisest, packed with all the insight and wit (and he had plenty of both) he had accumulated in his twilight years. With his lively illustrations, inimitable verse, and boundless optimism, Dr. Seuss reassures us that we’re not alone in the maze of life — and that we’ll reach where we need to be eventually! If you need a quick and wonderfully uplifting pick-me-up, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! still can’t be surpassed.
25. Congratulations, By the Way by George Saunders
“Down the rough ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who over the course of his life has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you), and I intend to respect that tradition.”
Thus begins George Saunders’ Congratulations, By The Way, a convocation speech to graduates — or more a aptly, little masterpiece that will inspire and humble you by turn. Humorous, warm, wise, modest, and articulate, Saunders is at his brilliant best in this short manual that lays out a few basic principles and tips for a more fulfilling life (one of which is the gentle reminder to always “err in the direction of kindness.”)
26. Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon
Ever get down as a creative because you feel that no-one actually sees or read your work? Austin Kleon, bestselling author of Steal Like An Artist, is back with another series of important life lessons to help you fix that. In Show Your Work!, Kleon runs through ten universal ways to get known as an artist or entrepreneur (the “You Don’t Have To Be a Genius” and “Stick Around” chapters are particularly useful — and good examples of his simple, to-the-point way of distilling advice.) Short and entirely actionable, this book will inspire you to unblock your life by helping you reach the audience you deserve.
27. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
Today, The Seven Storey Mountain is considered one of the most influential works of religious literature. But when it was originally slated for a 7,500-copy run in 1948, demand took its publisher by surprise, and the book quickly sold out. This is emblematic of the Seven Storey Mountain itself: a quiet book that snowballs into a transformative story of peace, meditation, and personal enlightenment. When he was 26 years old, Thomas Merton turned his back on a promising literary career and converted to Roman Catholicism. How did he get to that point? This is the profoundly moving account of what motivated him to take his vows with the Trappist monks and enter monastery life at the Abbey of Gethsemani.
28. Trove: A Woman's Search for Truth and Buried Treasure by Sandra Miller ⭐ Indie Spotlight
Underneath it all, Sandra Miller’s life makes sense. She has a lot to be grateful for: she writes for big name publications, has a family of her own, and even managed a night with the stars: notably, Sting himself. But achieving happiness wasn't always easy, especially coming from a sometimes dysfunctional family and a half-on, half-off mother. This is why treasure hunting was always her go-to - and now, the subject of her debut memoir Trove. Yet, with poetic gusto, Miller sees the meaning behind her search: a physical manifestation of longing for spiritual enlightenment. And for armchair yogis or gurus alike, her story is sure to hit a nerve - and lead you to that mindful state you’ve been after all along.
Check out what Reedsy Discovery reviewer Nicole Dieker has to say about Trove: A Woman's Search for Truth and Buried Treasure!
29. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert is no stranger to the art of motivation: she is perhaps most famous for writing Eat, Pray, Love and inspiring a generation to travel. But you don’t need to leave home in order to unlock Big Magic, which is about drawing out your inner creative whenever you need. This is a love letter to the artist inside of you, written in Gilbert’s conversational, no-frills, no-BS style. Whether your goal is to write a book, make a painting, or create music, Big Magic will help you accomplish it. Funny, honest, illuminating, and encouraging, it is a celebration of art on every level.
30. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
You might already be familiar with the plot of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird — such is the strength of its reputation. But let’s recap it quickly here, just in case you aren’t: set in the middle of the Great Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird is the seemingly straightforward coming-of-age story of Scout Finch, a young girl who grows up in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama. Her problems are all those an adolescent might face: the first day of school, brother drama, and a reticent neighbor. Yet this charming slice-of-life portrait is disturbed when her town is rocked by a terrible accusation that could change everything.
Arguably one of the most important American novels ever written, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful story about race relations that will make you think about the common humanity in all of us. It will paint for you, in plain, timeless prose, an unflinching picture of moral courage and human decency. And it will introduce you to one of the most inspirational characters ever in Atticus Finch, the colossus who stands strong in the midst of the tumultuous crisis of conscience that seizes the Alabama town of Scout’s childhood.
31. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature comes with an endorsement from Bill Gates himself: “If I could give each of you a graduation present, it would be this — the most inspiring book I've ever read.” Pinker’s thesis — that violence in the world has actually declined in both the long and short run — is famously controversial, particularly if you care to point at all the major wars and genocides that the twentieth-century has witnessed. Yet Pinker draws upon a large amount of hard data and statistical analysis to persuasively argue his case, even presenting several political and psychological causes to explain how we might today be living in the most peaceful moment ever in our species’ existence. The next time you’re feeling cynical about the news of the moment, this is the book to pick up to remind yourself of the positive, more hopeful direction we’re heading in the future.
32. The Journey is the Destination by Dan Eldon
Dan Eldon was one of Reuter’s youngest photojournalists when he was stoned to death while on assignment in Somalia. Eldon was only 22 when he died, but he had accomplished more in those years than most people might have done in a lifetime: he traveled to 46 countries, spearheaded a number of humanitarian fundraising campaigns in Africa, and worked in war zones for newspapers and magazines around the world as a war photographer. Haunting and sad, the journals he left behind in The Journey is the Destination are also uplifting to read — giving us a brief, wonderful glimpse at a short life that was well-lived.
33. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondō
Marie Kondō might be the most famous tidying expert in the world, triggering an international craze with her mega-popular Netflix TV show that resulted in millions around the world decluttering their homes — and lives. Yet it’s easy to overlook the pocket-sized book that started it all. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a wondrously charismatic, straightforward text that tries to help you “spark joy” in your life simply by organizing it. But Kondō goes one step further and argues that tidying doesn’t just mean a cleaner house — it will also transform your mindset and very being for the better. This is one of those rare books that lives up to its title: as evidenced by the millions who swear by it, Kondō’s method is life-changing, and it does seem like magic when you apply her method to your own house and see the results for yourself.
34. The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage by Mel Robbins ⭐ Indie Spotlight
In its blurb, The 5 Second Rule promises to teach you how to become confident, break the habit of procrastination and self-doubt, beat fear and uncertainty, and be happier. As big of an ask as that might sound, Robbins more than delivers in this wildly popular self-help book, which is built on the titular 5-second rule: the five seconds you should take every time you need to push yourself. Robbins launched the 5-second rule in her incredibly successful Ted Talk, which has been watched by more than 8 million people around the world. You can watch that Ted Talk here — or you can read this book, which delves even deeper into the science of habits and productivity.
35. Unf*ck Your Brain: Getting Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-Outs, and Triggers with Science by Faith Harper, PhD ⭐ Indie Spotlight
If you’ve ever been at odds with your own mind, this clear, no-nonsense guide to brain chemistry and the basic workings of the brain is here to help you out. Faith Harper's Unf*ck Your Brain navigates this complicated minefield expertly, writing in non-academic prose in order to articulately and effectively explain what happens to our brains whenever anxiety, anger, addiction, or depression take over. Most motivating of all are the actionable techniques, exercises, and tips that she provides, which lay a clear route forward for the reader, particularly those who have — or are — struggling with trauma.
Looking for inspirational poetry? We’ve also got you covered with our definitive list of the best poetry books of all time.