Happy New Year! Now get to work. Everyone loves a good resolution at this time of year, but in three weeks’ time? Whole different story. So what to do when your resolve is flagging and you need a little reminder of the shiny new self you promised past you? Well, you might try and take some inspiration from a good book. After all, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have gotten some quality literature under your belt, right? Here, you’ll find book prescriptions for ten worthy resolutions, from getting healthier to learning new skills to reading more poetry. Yes. You’re welcome.
Resolution #1: GET HEALTHY
Plenty More, Yotam Ottolenghi
One of the biggest cookbooks of 2014 is this collection of “Vibrant Vegetable” recipes from London-based genius chef Yotam Ottolenghi, a follow-up to his bestselling Plenty. Delicious and nutritious and pretty gorgeous too — inspiration power that can’t be beat.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John-Mandel
Well, it’s not exactly as though going for a run or eating your vegetables would save you in the apocalypse that this novel imagines, but just the concept that 99 percent of humanity might be struck down by a virus at any moment might inspire a few more healthy choices. Who knows — maybe the mega-healthy would be immune.
On Immunity, Eula Biss
Speaking of immunity, this book is for anyone who has ever waffled about whether or not to get that flu shot, or for those interested in humanity’s relationship to the idea of immunization, of protection, of purity, of what is natural. In the end, the book may just improve your body and mind.
The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino
An odd choice, perhaps — but when I was reading this book, I kept thinking: what an impressive physical achievement, to live out your years in the treetops. Cosimo hops from branch to branch in his arboreal kingdom, helping the denizens of the land, enjoying life, and becoming quite a woodsman. It’s enough to inspire a whole year of healthy tree-climbing in even the most earthbound of adults.
The Epicure’s Lament, Kate Christensen
If your “get healthy” also includes “quit smoking,” dive into this excellent novel, narrated via journal entries by the grouch-tastic Hugo Whittier, dying from Buerger’s Disease — a disease he could stop in its tracks if he’d only give up smoking. He won’t, of course, since “a life without cigarettes is no life at all,” but as you read on, you’ll become so frustrated with his stubbornness that you may come to some healthy self-knowledge of your own.
Resolution #2: WATCH LESS TV
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Not only will this famously all-over-the-place novel make you wary of looking at your television screen (lest that video you just put in be The Entertainment), but it’s so massive that it will keep you too distracted and engrossed to be much bothered with your television for months on end.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson
What would you do if you were the last person on earth? If you were the creator of the narrative in Markson’s novel, you might go over and over the facts you knew, about art, about history, about life, changing things or misremembering them or telling them true. It’s enough to make any reader go for the history books next instead of the boob tube — if all you know is television, what will you have to say at the end of the world?
What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund
Because the pictures we make in our heads (and the pictures that Mendelsund makes) are better than any that might show up on a screen.
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
I don’t know how she does it, but somehow Woolf’s writing evokes experience so completely that any television program you try to watch after reading her books pales in comparison. One just must go back to read more Woolf.
Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov
The modern Oblomovitis? Vegging out in front of the television for hours/days/weeks on end. You can die from it, you know.
Resolution #3: TRAVEL MORE
Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald
No other novel (or quasi-novel, or whatever this glorious, brilliant object is) is more likely to inspire you to take a long walk, talking to people and thinking about the world and making connections. The only danger is that you’ll find it so satisfying that you’ll feel you don’t really have to go anywhere at all.
In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
An enduring classic of travel literature that will drop you tumbling into a still-strange place, and leave you changed a little further down the road.
The Passion, Jeanette Winterson
A challenge: read this book without going immediately to check the cost of flights to Venice. I swear, it cannot be done.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit
Solnit’s luminous book of essays might just be enough to convince you that you should, indeed, go get yourself lost for a while. It doesn’t really matter where.
The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux
Another eminent classic, a romantic travelogue perfect for reading before and during long train rides.
Resolution #4: TRAVEL MORE
The Fun Parts, Sam Lipsyte
Lipsyte is the black-comedy king of modern letters, and this collection might just be his masterpiece.
Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
Still one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, an increasingly ridiculous campus novel that pits a reluctant young professor against all manner of tedious obstacles, mostly ones he created for himself. But you’ll laugh the whole way through, and then you’ll get a happy ending. What more could you ask for?
Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
You can never go wrong prescribing a little Sedaris to a gloomy reader. He’s guaranteed to give you the giggles.
I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora Ephron
Ditto Nora Ephron.
Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov
Not only is this story about a bumbling emigré professor Nabokov’s funniest work, but it will leave you feeling rather better about your own life. Er, probably.
Resolution #5: BE KINDER
Congratulations by the Way, George Saunders
George Saunders is the patron saint of our better selves, and this book — a printing of the commencement address he gave to Syracuse University students in 2013, advocating kindness — proves it. Also in the same vein (and just as good, really) is David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water.
The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama
Here’s a hint: the art of happiness? It’s kind of just being kind. Take it from someone who knows.
The Pushcart War, Jean Merrill
Merrill’s delightful (and under-appreciated) novel tells of the epic turf war between pushcart peddlers (that’d be Morris the Florist, etc) and the mean drivers of Big Mack Trucks. A book about friendship and sticking together and sticking up for yourself, especially against The Man. Plus it’ll just make you feel all warm and fuzzy, which helps with the whole kindness thing.
The Sweetest Fig, Chris Van Allsburg
A cautionary tale of a mean dentist who is vain and smug and rude to his dog…. and pays for it in the end. Also, anything by Chris Van Allsburg is a guaranteed winner.
Wonder, R.J. Palacio
For the YA enthusiasts, this bestseller — about a boy born with a facial anomaly entering public school for the first time — is, in itself, a lesson in empathy.
Resolution #6: SPEND MORE TIME WITH FAMILY
The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson
A delicious novel that will both remind you of the power of family bonds and (probably) make you grateful for the parents you have — at least they aren’t avant-garde circus performers who may or may not have faked their own deaths for fun.
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
Here’s a sweeping family epic that will remind you of the importance of both the past and the future, and the fact that no matter how different we may be from our families, we’re tied to them forever.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
OK, so this fat collection of all the Sherlock Holmes stories might not exactly translate into spending more time with your family (unless you count Holmes and Watson as family, of course), but there’s something about these stories that suggests a big armchair and a fireplace, maybe a bunch of kids on the floor. So try reading them together, fireplace optional.
The Princess Bride, William Goldman
The family that laughs together hangs out more.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
Another multi-generational family novel, this one to show you the limits of what might be possible — and leave you, in the end, with love.
Resolution #7: LEARN MORE ABOUT THE WORLD
1491, Charles C. Mann
With a virtuoso combination of archaeology, history, and biology, this book reexamines what we thought we knew about indigenous American populations before Columbus. Essentially: that they were more numerous, more culturally advanced, and had been there for longer than previously imagined. The result is a fascinating study of a past often glossed over, and worth reading for any American.
The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert
Did you know we’re in the middle of a mass extinction event? And that it’s because of the unprecedented impact humanity has had on the planet? The most recent book by top-notch science writer Elizabeth Kolbert lays out the state of the world as it is, as we’ve made it, and as it might become. This stuff is essential knowledge.
Traveling Heroes, Robin Lane Fox
This book tells the story of how the ancient Greek myths — founding stories of so much of our culture — made their way across the world. Fox suggests we have a group of eighth-century adventurers to thank, storytellers who incorporated the world they found into the myths they knew, and built legends we still marvel at today.
The Sea Inside, Philip Hoare
“The sea defines us, connects us, separates us,” Hoare writes in the first pages of this beautiful memoir cum history cum scientific narrative cum travelogue. “Perpetually renewing and destroying, the sea proposes a beginning and an ending, an alternative to our landlocked state, an existence to which we are tethered when we might rather be set free.” A gorgeous meditation on one of the most mysterious and captivating places on the planet.
Geek Sublime, Vikram Chandra
Not a history book or a science book, but a meditation on the way technology and art — and their attendant cultures — intersect and interact in the 21st century. This is a subject that will become increasingly relevant to everyone as the years (and months, and minutes) tick by — start reading about it now.
Resolution #8: LEARN A NEW SKILL
Liquid Intelligence, Dave Arnold
Take your cocktail-brewing skills to the next level — or maybe the next next level. Arnold’s book tackles everything from freezing the perfect ice cube to nitro-muddling, and makes for some truly inspired drinking.
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
This slim book is a “how to write” standby, yes, but it’s always seemed to me to be even a little more than that — it’s not just a manual filled with good craft teachings but also something of a supportive friend, telling you that it’s OK to have a shitty first draft, it’s OK not to know, it’s all good, just keep going.
The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
An absolute classic of food literature — witty, informative, and likely to make you better at both eating and cooking. As it was put in The New Yorker: “It takes someone like Brillat-Savarin to remind us that cooking need not be the fraught, perfectionist, slightly paranoid struggle that it has latterly become. His love of food is bound up with a taste for human error and indulgence, and that is why The Physiology of Taste is still the most civilized cookbook ever written.”
Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud
Read comics? Read comics better. Don’t read comics? Find out why they’re important, and voila, enjoy your new pastime.
The Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort
Well, there’s always room for improvement.
Resolution #9: READ MORE CONTEMPORARY POETRY
Citizen, Claudia Rankine
One of the most important books of 2014, full stop: a long poem that investigates race in America at this very moment, from casual instances of racism to race crimes to what to do next.
The Albertine Workout, Anne Carson
Really, we should all be reading anything and everything by Anne Carson. This is, perhaps, more pamphlet than book (but also book), more dissection than poem (but also poem) — Carson’s investigation into Proust’s Albertine is smart and funny and beautiful and will teach you things you didn’t know before.
Seam, Tarfia Faizullah
Faizullah’s Seam, which won the 2014 Crab Orchard prize, is a riveting and fierce look at what violence can do, and what it has done, centering around the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. These are poems of history, of memory, of imagination, of blood and oil and terror and beauty.
Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, Patricia Lockwood
One of the most talked-about poetry books of 2014, and for good reason: it’s irreverent and hilarious, absurd and obscene, important but sticking its tongue out. This collection could sell anyone with a pulse on contemporary poetry.
Prelude to Bruise, Saeed Jones
Jones’s powerful collection — about being a black, gay boy in America, about being Boy, about being a person and growing up — will rap rap rap on the inside of your head for days after reading.
Resolution #10: READ MORE CONTEMPORARY SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
Man V. Nature, Diane Cook
One of my favorite short story collections of the year — dark and strange and funny, a book that makes the irreal feel like you sort of knew it all along. After all, who wouldn’t try to keep everyone else out of their perfect house during the apocalypse? This is a book that reminds you that humanity is bizarre and bonkers and fragile, just like the world we inhabit.
Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis
The latest bit of brilliance (and brilliant bits) from one of our greatest living short story writers.
The Wilds, Julia Elliott
Elliott’s inventive first collection is replete with robotic limbs and levitation — but also grit and force. A dark piece of magic that glows in the reading.
The Emerald Light in the Air, Donald Antrim
If you’ve been following along with Antrim’s stories in The New Yorker, you’ll know what to expect here. If not: here is an accomplished collection from a modern master, proving he can pull off deep-dive realist fiction with the same sharp prose and worldly understanding as his surrealist novels.
The UnAmericans, Molly Antopol
Antopol mines history and humanity in her first collection, telling stories that engage you on every front: personally, politically, intellectually, emotionally. An incredible new talent.