Great literature has the power to start movements, right social wrongs, connect us all, and shift the very course of our human history.
But a good book can also have the much more immediate effect of simply making you a better person. The special magic that’s bound in the pages of all those books you’ve always meant to read lies in their unique ability to enlighten.
Good fiction’s most potent power is that of empathy: When we glimpse into the minds of others and their lived experiences, real or fictional, it forces us to escape the confines of our own inner lives and ask what it’s like to walk a mile in another’s shoes. Combine this with the intellectual provocation of a good memoir, historical treatise, or self-help book, and your reading list can set both heart and mind on the path to personal enlightenment.
If you’re looking for the spark to ignite your own inner empath and learn more about the people around you and the world you share with them, head to a beautiful library near you, pick up one of these seven titles, and get started.
Books to Make You a Better Person
Letters from Burma, Aung Yan Suu Kyi
Aung Yan Suu Kyi is the embodiment of how good people can change a community, a country, and the entire world. In her Letters from Burma, the Nobel laureate and 15-year political prisoner sheds light on not only her country’s struggle for democracy but also the beauty of the land and its people. These letters will take you on a tumultuous ride through recent history; and despite plunging at times into dark depths of systemic repression and personal struggle, it leaves the reader with a burning sense of optimism for not only the Burmese people but for humanity.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird will make you grin, giggle, sigh, and cry as you experience life in 1930s Alabama through the innocent eyes of a young girl growing up in a world laden with moral challenges. Few characters in all of literature have been such inspiring beacons of morality as Atticus Finch, the shining light guiding daughter Scout, and the rest of Maycomb to treat others with compassion in the midst of the struggles of coming of age in an unjust world.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Being a better person starts with finding harmony within oneself. Not only can yoga and meditation help bring us in balance, but when approached philosophically, it can help us cultivate ahimsa, the nonviolent coexistence with other living beings that is at the core of the yogic traditions. For yogis, thinkers, and the culturally curious, Patanjali’s Sutras offer a chance to delve into not only Classical India and its mythology, but a focus on balance between mind and body that will help you meet others with calm acceptance.
Orientalism, Edward Said
Chances are if you were never an English major sitting in a Literary Theory class, this treatise on “the Other” hasn’t made its way onto your to-read list yet. Orientalism is an academic yet practical survey of how myths from medieval literature all the way up to Disney movies have been used to romanticize, marginalize, and ultimately dehumanize the peoples on Europe’s periphery and particularly the Arab world. Orientalism teaches the curious reader ultimately how to view others from unfamiliar cultures first as fellow human beings, expanding your empathetic abilities to cover the entire globe.
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey
Since its first appearance in 1989, it’s been a classic of the self-help genre; and there’s a reason it’ll keep popping up on lists like this one for years to come. Covey’s 7 Habits is one of the most practical and down-to-earth guides to, in short, being a better person. The distinctions between “principles” and “values” elaborated in the book will help you follow its path from independence to interdependence and beyond, making you not only a better person in and of yourself, but a better and more capable member of society.
The Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling
The most successful instant classic of our time, Harry Potter and the magical world he inhabits are so much more than just young adult literature. Studies have shown that Harry Potter and other books that adopt its same adolescent innocence can help readers become more compassionate and tolerant, drawing on some of the title character’s own disadvantaged background to gain perspective on the lives of others they may otherwise be quick to judge. Add it to your reading list for a dose of juvenile compassion and openness.
Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, Jane Goodall
If her earlier works allowed us to reflect on our humanity and how it relates to nature, Jane Goodall’s memoir Reason for Hope goes a step further in its exploration of what that all means for our place in the universe. Goodall’s pensively passionate reflections on years spent living in community with chimpanzees have provoked questions about science, emotion, spirituality, and the future; and the honest and open personal journey that the author shares in her memoir will inspire you to ponder your own role in coexisting in our world and making it a better place.