There’s a sort of push-pull with self-help books in my life. It’s an appealing idea, that you can read a book and make your life better (many novels I read have that effect on me, at least temporarily), but there’s the sheepishness factor, that feeling that it’s all a big scam. Granted, the language in many of those books fosters that impression. So I’ve been a happy follower of the burgeoning trend of smart self-help books — books with science or history at their heart and a patina of self-improvement.

As someone who couldn’t place Michel de Montaigne in a timeline, I was blown away by how interesting — and weirdly inspiring! – I found the book, How To Live: Or A Life of Montaigne. Montaigne conquered his fear of death by almost dying, then began his own course of self-improvement, in part by keeping exhaustive journals about living life to its fullest.

In Moonwalking with Einstein,  Joshua Foer participates in the national memory championships and, along the way, tosses out memory improvement advice. Jonah Lehrer, in Imagine, has me thinking like a seven year-old to let go of my adult onset criticism.

My most recent favorite, one which lends itself to being dipped into with its two and three page essays, is This Will Make You Smarter, a book packed with interesting responses by some of the world’s great scientists and thinkers to the question, “What scientific concept would improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit?” The answers are all over the place, from discussions of evolution (we assume we’re the product of evolution when we’re really just a step) to a meditation on the value of uncertainty in decision-making. All of them make you, at the very least, think, which is the first step in self-improvement, right? And if you get a little bit of history or science in the process, it’s an added bonus.

 

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