Self-development books are all the rage, but what about stories that remind us to be kind?
Australian bookselling figures can provide an illuminating insight into the preoccupations of our time. And, apparently, ‘personal development’ and food and drink are what we’re all thinking about.
While our obsession with eating and drinking might speak for itself, the big surprise in this year’s Neilson BookScan Australia figures was that sales of ‘personal development’ titles had increased by 50 percent on the previous year.
With The Barefoot Investor and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck at or near the top of the bestseller charts for much of the year, perhaps the boom in this type of book stands to reason.
But I wonder when we are going to reach peak personal development, and take a less internal, insular view of what we might be lacking?
As politics seems to get meaner and meaner, and the general population rails against cruelties of indefinite detention and family separation, both on our own shores and further afield, books might more usefully be aimed at making a difference outside the individual.
The absence of this kind of product hit home when I was searching for a gift for my niece for her First Communion. After a Christening and Confirmation, I figured she had enough Bibles, crucifixes and rosary beads to last her a lifetime. So, instead, I decided to visit the non-fiction section to buy her a book about kindness – something that I consider to be aligned with the best of religion.
However, visiting a few different bookshops, I waded through titles like A Loving Guide to Your Soul’s Evolution, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Ask and It Is Given – Learning to Manifest Your Desires, and struggled to locate anything that overtly taught kindness to others.
But, was I looking in the wrong place for a book to encourage kindness and compassionate? Perhaps I would have been better off consulting the fiction section of the bookshops I visited.
Fiction can help people empathise with those whose lifestyles and circumstances are different to their own, and help them understand different perspectives or consider moral questions, in a way that is not necessarily overt.
And importantly, this more externally-facing approach is one that might even be of greater value to the individual, young or old. Studies have revealed that carrying out acts of kindness can make an individual happier, with a University of Oxford study finding that being kind to others caused a small but significant improvement in subjective well-being. Similarly, Canadian research revealed that doing good deeds helped socially anxious people feel calmer.
While there is great value in learning to manage our finances, be more mindful, or to give less of a f*ck, ultimately, we would all benefit if we focused a little less on personal development and more encouraging kindness and compassion, for the benefit of both individuals and the societies in which they live.
Books that will make you kinder and more compassionate
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
At first, Eleanor Oliphant seems downright strange. She doesn’t laugh with her colleagues, and refuses to engage in light-hearted social exchanges. However, before long, the reader comes to appreciate the quirks of this likeable misfit, and eventually understand the reasons why she behaves in the ways she does. This book provides readers with an insight into difference that is as valuable at a crowded party as in the office. In a similar way, The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-time and The Rosie Project help readers understand and appreciate difference.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
This book provides readers with an understanding of the impact of war from a different perspective – that of a young German girl who is finding her way as her world is blown apart. While we might be familiar with the stories of those who suffered in the war, The Book Thief offers an intimate view from the eyes of a child, untainted by the hate that has torn apart her community. Throughout, the value of kindness is recognised, in the comfort she provides the Jewish man who was considered an enemy by her neighbours, and the kindness Liesel receives in return.
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Small kindnesses are the most poignant in this book about a different kind of friendship between two elderly neighbours. After their partners have died, Addie and Louie find companionship with each other, despite criticism from their families and the judgement of others in the community. What really stands out is the meanness of those who stand in the way of the joy these two characters find in each other’s company, highlighting the pettiness of those who judge others. It would be difficult to read this book without feeling compassion for the elderly couple, and taking joy in the kindness and respect they show each other.
The Choke by Sofie Laguna
It would be difficult to read The Choke without being changed. It is a harrowing read that provides an insight into the world of childhood poverty and neglect. Justine not only has to cope with the absence of her mother and father, but also the struggles of dyslexia, a further obstacle to her understanding of the world. Equally heartbreaking, and illuminating, were the joy that the small kindnesses of her only friend and her aunty provided Justine. After reading this book, it is hard not to empathise with those, particularly children, who suffer disadvantage.
The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke
This book provides a shocking insight into casual, and sometimes, overt, racism in suburban Australia. Told from the perspective of Maxine as a child and later as an adult, it reveals the many forms that racism can take, and the impact on her life. Anyone who has delivered a thoughtless comment about skin colour or race will gain a new understanding of life for those who are made to feel like they don’t belong in the Australian playground.
Sometimes books don’t just show readers how to be kinder, but unattractive or mean characters remind us how not to behave. Some of the most unappealing characters I have encountered include the narcissistic protagonist in Joseph Heller’s What Happened, Celeste’s violent husband, Perry, in Big Little Lies, or the cruel and manipulative father in The Man Who Loved Children. In these books, the flaws and cruelties of the characters are writ large, offering readers evidence of their impact on others.
Or, if you want to do good while cultivating a better you at the same time, try Small Ways to Shape Our World, a little gift book that not only offers both older and younger readers wisdom on a less self-centred way of living, but supports the charity, Igniting Change, which aims to create positive change in the community, supporting those suffering from injustice or inequality.