Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee
In Coetzee’s harrowing novel, a disgraced professor retreats to his daughter’s farm in post-apartheid South Africa. He finds no reprieve there, and his journey of redemption is violent and often crushing. Read it to open your eyes to the gray-scale, shifting nature of evil, gain perspective on your life, and to, somewhere in there, find your grace.
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
If nothing else, Wharton’s gorgeous classic will inspire you to call that person to whom you have been meaning to say “I love you,” and, well, either tell them you love them or stammer for a while and hang up the phone. It’s a start.
Go Tell It On The Mountain, James Baldwin
Baldwin’s first novel has become an American classic, and with good reason: it is a deeply affecting, lushly written novel about a boy’s struggle to understand God and himself. Read it to start, or restart, your own path to self-actualization.
Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
This book will remind you that freaks are people too. In fact, it will suggest that they are maybe, somehow, even more human than regular humans.
A Personal Matter, Kenzaburō Ōe
A deeply felt, semi-autobiographical novel about a man whose son is born with a brain hernia. For those who aspire to have more compassion and more hope this year.
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Not only will this novel challenge your brain and soul six ways from Sunday, it will probably get you to stop watching so much TV. Which is just equally important.
Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward
In this novel, equal parts brutal and beautiful, Ward brings us a gut-punching story about a family in the Mississippi bayou before and after Hurricane Katrina, language that, like the storm, can “cut us to the bone,” and one of the best and most original teenage girl protagonists you’ll ever meet. Read it to expand your horizons and remember the importance of family.
Veronica, Mary Gaitskill
Both Gaitskill’s prose and her storytelling are sharp as scalpels, and as effective at scraping away our assumptions and protective walls. This novel draws blood from the superficiality of our culture, examining the difference between inside and outside, peeling away the layers. You may feel turned inside out or flipped upside down after reading, but how else to get a little perspective?
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig
But of course: the iconic American self-improvement novel. How could we exclude it? Read to find out the definition of “quality” and apply it to your life.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
And while we’re at it, another “but of course” pick — the novel that has probably, at some point or other, blown just about everybody’s mind. After all, when you truly believe in the lightness of being (that there’s only this, that all is fleeting), you’ll probably want to be as good a person as you can be.
Tenth of December, George Saunders
OK, OK, this is not a novel. But Saunders must be included on a list like this, and doesn’t give us any choice. After all, he has been hailed all over (including in this space, many a time) as a master of the short story form, but he’s also emerging as a moral leader for the modern age — one without any stuffiness or agenda, but rather quite a few jokes and a heart of molten gold. Be kind, he told graduates of Syracuse University last year. His stories give the same advice, over and over again.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Because it makes you love a murderer and child molester — something that, in real life, often takes a Dalai Lama-esque amount of compassion and empathy. Also, Nabokov’s prose is so good that I swear you will become a better person just by reading it.
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
This novel is transformative in more ways than one. Make your insides your outsides, it calls. Love your family for all their foibles, it yells. Don’t be afraid of your essential self, it screams, as weird or wonderful as it may be.
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Dinaw Mengestu
Mengestu’s first novel follows an escapee from the Ethiopian revolution who finds himself in Washington, DC, struggling, some 17 years later, to find his place. A novel about displacement and identity, race and home, truth and hope, it will open your eyes and heart.
Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse
Hesse’s retelling of the story of Siddhartha is a classic. It may or may not help you attain enlightenment this year, but it will remind you of the importance of self-awareness, kindness, and having trust in your own experiences.
Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
Read this yearly to reacquaint yourself with the real — and remind yourself to keep on playing.
In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
All else aside: by the time you get through this book, you are guaranteed to be at least a little bit smarter. How’s that for self-improvement in a box?
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
There’s a reason so many of us are asked to read this book while our minds are still forming. If you can grasp the subtleties of clashes between cultures, and between the self and one’s culture, at a young age, you’re likely to be rather better able to function in the modern world.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Every life is improved by a moral leader like Atticus Finch.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson
In addition to (probably) making you smarter, Markson’s clever/tedious/wonderful book forces you to ask yourself the question: what would you do if you were the last person on earth?
Kindred, Octavia Butler
Butler’s “grim fantasy” snatches a normal girl from her life in 1976 and drops her into 1815, where she, a black woman, is automatically a slave. As she shunts back and forth between the two worlds, her sheltered life crumbles in the face of the horrors of the past. For anyone who needs a little perspective.
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
The strange spike in empathy that comes from living inside Clarissa Dalloway for a day is probably unparalleled.
Self-Help, Lorrie Moore
Another story collection too good — and too apt — to leave off on a technicality. Lorrie Moore will teach you how to live.
The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing,, Melissa Bank
Expert hunting and fishing skills — not to mention the skill of how to love and live with a wry sort of humor — are bound to improve just about anybody’s life.
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
For a gaining perspective on a totally different world, and for piling on inspiration to break the chains that bind you. And there are pictures! Pictures are good for the soul.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
This book will have you reconsidering the meaning of — or even just the manifestations of — insanity. Whether that brings you a greater sense of compassion for “crazy” people or a little more self awareness, it can’t hurt.
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Not just a superb novel, nor one that lays bare the life of African Americans in the early half of the 20th century, but also a book that challenges the reader and calls him on his own hypocrisies and assumptions. Will make you a better person every time.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
McCullers’ first novel is full of people reaching out to each other and, more often than not, whiffing. Read this one to attune yourself, even a little bit, to the voices of those around you.
A Death in the Family, James Agee
Agee’s only novel is written with tenderness and poetry, and his gentleness towards his characters, not to mention the novel’s constant reminder that life must go on, is likely to rub off on just about anyone.
Ghostwritten, David Mitchell
Almost anything by David Mitchell is a good bet for psychic self-improvement — his books are all filled with empathy and a sharp awareness of the ills and joys of the world. This one, perhaps even more than his much-acclaimed Cloud Atlas, will remind you of the invisible connections stretched thin and taut between so many of us.
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
There’s just something about a whole life told by a master of English letters that makes you want to re-evaluate your own. Possibly, in this case, with rather more attention to family and your true love.
The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch
We all have a little Charles Arrowby in us — obsessive, selfish, self-aggrandizing — and Murdoch’s novel can help us have a little less.
Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar
This classic philosophical novel, written as a letter to Marcus Aurelius, will leave you ruminating on the nature of love, self, and soul. Plus, nuggets of wisdom abound. A favorite: “Our great mistake is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has.”
Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
“This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what you will.” Hey, sometimes a kick in the pants is all you need.
The Pushcart War, Jean Merrill
Right, well, this is a children’s novel, but its messages are timeless: stick up for yourself, fight the man, be good to others. This writer has certainly been thinking about them for the past 20 years.
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein
If nothing else, this book will teach you the truth of TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). Harsh but fair, and important information for the rest of your life.
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
Everyone could use a reminder about the importance of the little things and the way love can so easily be bolstered or twisted. Especially a reminder as luminous as this.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
No one prods at morality or exposes its soft underbelly quite like Dostoevsky. No matter what you think now, he’ll make you think twice.
Beloved, Toni Morrison
One of the best books of all time, you should read this whether you’re trying to be a better person or not. But if you are, this one cuts to the core. “There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby” commemorating slavery in America, Morrison said whilst accepting an award for the book. “There’s no small bench by the road. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.” There are now official benches by the road, but this book is still one of the most important you’ll read.
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
Feminist, environmentalist, groundbreaking, and mightily convincing, even for those who get squeamish at science fiction. Le Guin is a saint.
The Known World, Edward P. Jones
One of the best and most important historical novels tackling slavery — and, in particular, the bizarre niche of black slave owners — The Known World is surprising, crushing, and required reading for anyone trying to live in America today.
Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson
It’s a verse novel, which is your first clue — you get all the mental benefits of poetry without having to totally commit to poetry (if that’s an issue for you). Next: if you’ve ever thought of yourself a monster, Carson will convince you differently. And that’s the only way to move forward.
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
The Stranger, Albert Camus
A little existentialism goes a long way. Plus, it might just equip you a little bit better for dealing with “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.”
The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil
This insanely long, complex philosophical novel, its protagonist searching for nothing less than meaning in life, is like a super-charged protein shake for your brain. Take liberally, with lots of water.
The Mind-Body Problem, Rebecca Goldstein
You can’t start putting yourself back together until you’ve pulled yourself apart. If you’ve ever had this sentiment — “I had gotten used to thinking of myself as an intellectual. I had assumed that certain properties of mind and body were entailed by this description and had designed myself accordingly. It’s hard to discover you’ve constructed yourself on false premises.” — and want to get to a place where you can laugh about it, this book is for you.
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
This book is so quiet, so elegant, that you might not realize it’s seeping into your head and making you a better person — until after you close it, and your newfound empathy and ache for others and resolutions to be better just wash on over you.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
The same thing always comes to mind whenever I finish The Bell Jar: waste. There’s no way not to connect it to Plath herself, and no way to close it without feeling the loss of her youth and talent and life. Read it to open your heart to mental illness, and read it to reinvigorate your own life and mind.
Confessions of a Mask, Yukio Mishima
Here’s one that can make you a better person just be opening your mind to one that is likely very different than yours. Mishima’s glorification of male beauty above all things might not be something you should pick up, exactly, but his account of a gay Japanese boy living behind the mask of propriety should stir anyone to look a little deeper.
Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
If nothing else, this book will make you think about all the ways your life could have gone — and perhaps inspire you to make some changes to get on the path you really want. Otherwise, it’ll just remind you that unlike Ursula, we only have the one chance. So get on it.