The Best Self-help Books Aren't Self-help Books. They're Novels. | Gradient
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The best self-help books aren’t self-help books. They’re novels.

I’ve never finished a book on leadership. I’ve never read How to Win Friends and Influence People, and I’ve never actually opened the 7 Habits of Highly Effective ______. This may surprise people, considering the primary function of my current job involves leadership development for teachers. I’ve actually never even finished the book that I’m currently supposed to be reading as a part of a book club for my job. I’ve never been one to read nonfiction; in fact, it took months and months of nagging before I finally opened up Bryan Stevenson’s undeniably illuminating Just Mercy. And of course, like any white person attempting full woke-ness, I read Coates’ Between The World and Me.

But over the last year and a half, I have reignited my love affair with fiction. As an English major and writer, it’s a medium I’ve spent a lot of time with and one that’s easy to put down once real life rolls around, and my Facebook feed is filled with links to a hundred and sixty thousand different articles about the same thing. And within these fictional stories is where I’ve fallen in love again, where I’ve come to understand the reason I always liked reading to begin with: the stories of other people’s lives can transform our own individual narratives.

And for me, all of my own narratives and life experiences, foibles and fumbles and blog posts — those are where I’ve learned the most over the years. There’s value in books on leadership, marriage and, you know, mindfulness. But for me, novels make for better self-help books than even self-help books do.

When my college boyfriend broke up with me, no matter how many times I googled “how to heal from heartbreak,” nothing really helped. But time did. And living did. And falling in love a few more times and blocking him on Facebook did, and then the copy of a tattered poetry book I found in a Half Price books did, uncomfortably titled The Handbook for Heartbreak (a collection of 100 poems about love and loss).

I ended up losing that book sometime around 2010, only to rediscover it in another used bookstore last year. I promptly bought another copy.

In the past year, I’ve learned more from fiction than I ever dreamt. I read The Interestings, a book that fell into my hands from my married bookshelf (added perk of marrying a literate dude: combining book collections) and cried when (SPOILER ALERT) happened.

But the book was deeply and profoundly relevant to my life in a way that no book about leadership had ever been. The characters grew up in the book — it spanned nearly 50 years of life — and some of them got rich, and some of them got married, and others of them stayed poor, and some more of them stayed single. I thought about my late twenties and how much relationships in my life were changing and starting to veer in different directions; some people were having babies or wanting babies, and some people were making lots of money. Some people were getting married and moving away, and others were single and wild in a way I wasn’t anymore. And when I read The Interestings, I realized that maybe I wasn’t the only person to ever feel the tension of grappling with growing up at a time when you think you’re already supposed to be grown up.

Late last year, I picked up one of Michael Chabon’s less famous books, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and devoured it in days. A post-collegiate swirl of Gatsby-esque parties and manic pixie dream girls, I read it and realized that graduating from college lands a lot of us in the same types of endless summers: too old to be in school but too young to have any idea what the fuck is going on. And it was beautiful and comforting, and I guess it was fiction, but it was so real, so real.

I’ve always had a lot of trouble with the idea of growing up, the simple sensation that I won’t always be 25 and perhaps every ounce of cool in my body will someday fizzle and fade and though I was never memorable to many people; I will definitely someday be completely forgettable. So when I read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and The Interestings and then decided it was time to read a highly recommended novel of 2015: A Little Life, I had officially dived into the deep end of understanding the art of growing up through the art of the novel.

It’s hard to describe the impact A Little Life had on me, but the sprawling 700-page book more or less destroyed me in a way that few other books have. It is hard for me to take away lessons from The Art of Coaching (a book I read for work), but the way that A Little Life so deeply mirrors a slightly-elevated life of four men in New York makes it impossible to walk away unscathed, unlearned, unmoved in a way that fundamentally allows you to consider the way we operate in this world.

A Little Life is wildly sad, and that is an incredible understatement. I sobbed — full, heaving, ugly, hard-to-breathe sobs, but that’s exactly what a little life is, right? Sprawling and epic and unfathomably sad sometimes, with moments of relief when we least expect them, maybe?

Speaking of relief let’s talk about Americanah. A piece of fiction that taught me so much about an experience I will never understand first-hand as an upper-middle-class white woman with an absurd amount of privilege. Reading this opened my eyes so deeply to immigrant and black experience and the nuances between being black in America and being African in America. As a white person, I know that I will spend my life furiously attempting to understand the black experience as a means of being a better ally — or co-conspirator or accomplice — and while real relationships and experiences are one way to do this; I am so grateful that I read Americanah instead of reading another white author talk about the importance of “diversity” and “race relations”.

And then there’s Everything I Never Told You, another book I plowed through in 48 hours. A story of an Asian American family whose daughter goes missing early on. WARNING: Do not read this book if you have a child. Another look — through the lens of a mystery — at the immigrant experience in America written so swiftly and with such ease that it’s easy to forget the book is shrouded in darkness. If we don’t read these perspectives — and especially if we don’t have these experiences on our own or have friends who can share them with us—we are missing out on significant opportunities to more empathetically understand the perspectives of people who do not look like us, who do not share our background or our race or our income.

Zadie Smith does this too, in all her novels. But recently I read On Beauty and from it, I learned how little I know. How little I understand what it feels like to be married for thirty years, to be in an interracial relationship, or to have children. Zadie Smith is epic in her own right, but understanding life through the lens of her characters is equally so.

Within this “list,” I’m leaving out other incredible books I’ve read in the past few years like The GoldfinchAll The Light We Cannot See, Let The Great World Spin, Welcome To Braggsville, FreedomThe Art of Fielding and Fates and Furies. And it’s not that I didn’t learn from those books. With every page, I feel like I have gained a deeper understanding of experiences that I cannot live myself, people, that I may never meet or roads I may never travel.

There may be leadership books that can do that, but I’ve certainly never read them.

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