The Best Self Help Books For Inspiration And Spiritual Guidance

It is considered quite good sport these days for newspaper and television commentators to mock self-help books - suggesting that the people who write them are exploitative, and that the people who read them are rather sad. This is a pity because, over the years, books of all kinds have provided millions of stressed, fearful, lonely individuals with an enormous amount of comfort and courage.

True, it's a pity that there is a need for such books. But the need for books offering guidance and support has risen for two very simple reasons.

First, although it sounds strange to admit it, we live in possibly the most stressful period man has ever known. Most of us have enough to eat and most of us have warm, dry shelter. Our basic problems have been solved. But, the pace and confusion of our modern world means that stress related disorders (affecting the body, the mind and the soul) are commoner than ever before. Second, just when we all need all the support we can get we find we are more on our own than ever before in history. For most of us the comforting, all embracing family is now a thing of the past. It is easier to travel than ever before in history, and communication networks are faster and (theoretically at least) more effective than at any other time in history, and yet most people spend an increasing part of their lives miles away from the people who are most likely to give them the succour (and the advice) they need. Although we may communicate with one another speedily and frequently, how often do we say anything really worth saying? For example, at a guess I would say that 99.99% of all e-mails are little more than electronic froth; superficial and insignificant.

Today we all need all the help and guidance we can get. And if we can pick up a tip or a trick or a thought that will help us along the stony road of life, what on earth is wrong with that? We need help in finding a new path to follow; we need help in finding a purpose, a righteous passion and an aim which involves a little more and goes a little higher than double glazing and 56 channel satellite television.

Some of the books on my list may surprise you. But these are, I believe, books that are all well worth reading. Some may change the way you look at your problems. One or two may change your life. Most are beautifully written, often poetic, and also full of sincerity and wisdom.

I have scores of other books in my library which didn't make this list but which are equally deserving of a place on it. (There are, for example, no novels on this list). If your favourite and more inspirational book isn't on this list write and let me know the author and title - and give me a sample quote.

Incidentally, although for simplicity I have put the books in a numbered list, there is no significance to the placing of titles on the list. All these books are well worth reading.

1. Walden, or Life in the Woods - Henry David Thoreau
Written by the celebrated American poet and essayist while living in a shack he built for himself and lived in from 1845 to 1847. Thoreau was far more of a revolutionary than Che Guevara ever was. All Thoreau's books are packed with simple, scorching wisdom.
Sample quote:
`The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.'

2. Tao te Ching - Lao Tsu
Often simply known as the `Lao Tsu' this is the main classic in Tao thinking. Although it's usually described as having been written by Lao Tsu (who was an older contemporary of Confucius) this book is probably an anthology of wise sayings edited, rather than written, by the `author'.
Sample quote:
`If you set store by your riches and honour, you will only reap a crop of calamities.'

3. The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Protest - edited by Brian MacArthur
A fine, inspirational and invaluable collection of articles, speeches, extracts, essays and heaven knows what else, written by people protesting and complaining about just about everything under the sun - but doing it always with style, honesty, determination and passion.
Sample quote (from the introduction by Brian MacArthur):
`Protest is the stuff of everyday life. Study newspaper front pages or television news bulletins and they are crowded with dissenting and protesting voices. Search for protest on the Internet and there are more than 360,000 items. That is because we all utter protests every day whether about bosses, bureaucrats and politicians, our taxes or our neighbours, new bypasses and new airport runways or the destruction of tropical rainforest and urban traffic jams. We rage briefly, decide there is nothing we can do apart from casting an apathetic voice every few years and opt for the quiet life. The men and women represented in this anthology opted instead for the life of struggle.'

4. Self-Help - Samuel Smiles
Samuel Smiles was the original, modern `self-help' guru. His remarkably uplifting book `Self-Help' was written in 1859 and became one of the most successful non fiction books of the late nineteenth century. Today the book is largely forgotten but its message is as valid now as it ever was.
Sample quotes:
a) `Lost wealth may be replaced by industry, lost knowledge by study, lost health by temperance or medicine, but lost time is gone forever.'
b) `To constitute the millionth part of a legislature, by voting for one or two men once in three or five years, however conscientiously this duty may be performed, can exercise but little active influence upon any man's life and character.'
c) `The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual; and exhibited in the lives of many, it constitutes the true source of national vigour and strength. Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates. Whatever is done for men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless.'

5. The Conquest of Happiness - Bertrand Russell
Russell describes his brand of wisdom as common sense. But whatever else it is, common sense certainly isn't common. Russell's own appetite for life is legendary and this provocative, idiosyncratic and iconoclastic book (which is surprisingly little known) reflects his own joy in taking life by the scruff of the neck.
Sample quotes:
a) `Any pleasure that does no harm to other people is to be valued.'
b) `To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.'
c) `One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.'

6. The Prince - Niccolo Macchiaveli
The original treatise on statecraft contains more raw wisdom per inch than a year of television chat shows can offer their blanched and unblinking viewers.
Sample quote:
`When trouble is sensed well in advance it can easily be remedied; if you wait for it to show itself any medicine will be too late because the disease will have become incurable. As the doctors say of a wasting disease, to start with it is easy to cure but difficult to diagnose; after a time, unless it has been diagnosed and treated at the outset, it becomes easy to diagnose but difficult to cure.'

7. Small is Beautiful - E.F.Schumacher
Once very much in fashion Schumacher's concept is now almost forgotten (and, when it is remembered often reviled) in a world where Big is Powerful. Schumacher challenged traditional doctrines, put the emphasis on people not products or profits and argued that Capital should serve Man instead of the other way round.
Sample quote:
`Justice relates to truth, fortitude to goodness and temperantia to beauty; while prudence, in a sense, comprises all three. The type of realism which behaves as if the good, the true and the beautiful were too vague and subjective to be adopted as the highest aims of social or individual life, or were the automatic spin-off of the successful pursuit of wealth and power, has been aptly called `crackpot-realism'. Everywhere people ask: `What can I actually do?' The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.'
b) `Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side.'

8. The Power Of Positive Thinking - Norman Vincent Peale
First published in 1953, now a classic that is nevertheless often overlooked and ignored. Infinitely better than thousands of the `me-too' books which have offered pretty much the same advice.
Sample quotes:
a) `A sense of inferiority and inadequacy interferes with the attainment of your hopes, but self-confidence leads to self-realisation and successful achievement.'
b) `Every day we perform a series of acts designed to care for the body properly. We bathe, brush the teeth, take exercise. In similar fashion we should give time and planned effort to keeping the mind in a healthy state. One way to do this is to sit quietly and pass a series of peaceful thoughts through the mind. For example, pass through the thoughts the memory of a lofty mountain, a misty valley, a sun-speckled trout stream, silver moonlight on water.'

9. How To Win Friends and Influence People - Dale Carnegie
Another book that is easily forgotten among the mass of talk show generated and publicised self help books now pouring out of America. But this massive international best-seller is still valid and if you've never read it you will, I think, find it hugely rewarding. Carnegie was a master at using anecdotes to illustrate his themes. Simplistic in places the book is nevertheless just as readable as a good novel.
Sample quote:
`Three fourths of the people you will meet tomorrow are hungering and thirsting for sympathy. Give it to them, and they will love you.'

10. Wind, Sand and Stars - Antoine d'Exupery
A haunting, beautiful, brave, often sad, book written in blood by the author of the exquisite classic, The Little Prince.
Sample quote:
`We forget that there is no hope of joy except in human relations. If I summon up those memories that have left with me an enduring savor, if I draw up the balance sheet of the hours in my life that have truly counted, surely I find only those that no wealth could have procured me. True wealth cannot be bought. One cannot buy the friendship of a Mermoz, of a companion to whom one is bound forever by ordeals suffered in common. There is no buying the night flight with its hundred thousand stars, its serenity, its few hours of sovereignty. It is not money that can procure for us that new vision of the world won through hardship - those trees, flowers, women, those treasures made fresh by the dew and colour of life which the dawn restores to us, this concert of little things that sustain us and constitute our compensation.'

11. `The Outsider' - Colin Wilson
When first published in 1956, this book was received with great applause and enthusiasm. Wilson was lionised. The Outsider is still seminal reading for anyone interested in the human mind, creativity and individuality.
Sample quote:
`Freedom and imagination are...muscles that we never exercise; we rely upon external stimuli to make us aware of their possibilities.'

12. The Road To Serfdom - F.A.Hayek
The essential modern work on liberty. Hayek's short book about freedom in our society should be compulsory reading. No one should be allowed to leave school without having read it at least once, and preferably twice. I would far rather students understood Hayek's thesis than that they grasped the principles of algebra.
Sample quote:
`...the whole apparatus for spreading knowledge, the schools and the press, wireless and cinema, will be used exclusively to spread those views which, whether true or false, will strengthen the belief in the rightness of the decisions taken by the authority; and all information that might cause doubt or hesitation will be withheld.'

13. The Autobiography of Mark Twain - Edited by Charles Neider
I deliberately haven't filled this list with biographies and autobiographies (though I could think of scores which are truly inspirational) but Mark Twain's is a true classic and reeks of Twain's unique approach to life: full of gentle humour and unbridled imagination and written with great style. Read this book and you will feel that you really know the man and his life.
Twain describes the good, the bad and the ugly with the same even handed approach and the book is full of tragedy, drama, humour and great wisdom.
Sample quotes:
a) `People ought to start dead and then they would be honest so much earlier.'
b) `That enterprise had lost forty two thousand dollars for me, so I thought this a favourable time to close it up.'
c) `Few slanders can stand the wear of silence.'

14. Meditations of a Solitary Walker - Jean-Jaques Rousseau
Rousseau was alienated, philosophical, isolated and sometimes more than slightly paranoid. But his meditations provide an excellent guide book through our complex and often unjust society.
Sample quote:
a) `Can one expect good faith from the leaders of parties? Their philosophy is meant for others; I need one for myself.'
b) `However men choose to regard me, they cannot change my essential being, and for all their power and all their secret plots I shall continue, whatever they do, to be what I am in spite of them.'
c) `Is it such a small achievement, particularly at my age, to have learned to regard life and death, sickness and health, riches and poverty, fame and slander with equal indifference? All other old men worry about everything, nothing worries me. Whatever may happen, I do not care, and this indifference is not the work of my own wisdom, it is that of my enemies and compensates for the evils they inflict upon me. In making me insensible to adversity they have done me more good than if they had spared me its blows. If I did not experience it I might still fear it, but now that I have subdued it I have no more cause to fear.'

15. Essays - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Civilised, gentle and constantly wise, Emerson's style isn't always easy to read, but what he has to say is invariably worth the effort. An idealist, a rationalist, a transcendentalist and a determined advocate of spiritual independence.
Sample quote:
`We think our civilisation near its meridian, but we are yet only at the cock-crowing and the morning star.'

16. Thus Spake Zarathustra - Friedrich Nietzche
Philosophy, writer, scholar - how does anyone define Neitzche? Born in Germany he became Swiss and was resolutely unconventional and individual. In his book, Ecce Homo Nietzche predicted that the twentieth century would be a century of `wars such as have never happened on earth' because human beings would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their guilt. Humans would, he forecast, be racked by their unfocussed guilt and would turn the blind and reassuring faith with which they had formerly worshipped their God into an equally unblinking belief in barbaric, nationalistic brotherhoods. Nietzche said that man would limp through the twentieth century but that the twenty first century would be more dreadful still for there would be a `total eclipse of all values'.
Sample quote:
`All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and are ye going to be the ebb of this great tide and rather revert to the animal than surpass man?'

17. Civil Disobedience - Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau was the one true modern revolutionary. It is Thoreau not Guevara whose face should adorn the T-shirts of modern revolutionaries.
Sample quote:
`Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.'

18. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah - Richard Bach Best known as the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach is one of the very best and most imaginative inspirational writers of the twentieth century.
Sample quotes:
a) `Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you're alive, it isn't.'
b) `Live never to be ashamed if anything you do or say is published around the world.'

19. The Anatomy Of An Illness - Norman Cousins
An inspirational, triumphant modern classic in which Cousins describes how he took a share in the responsibility for overcoming a crippling and supposedly irreversible disease. Cousins is famous for having proved that laughter can cure, but this book offers far more than that. It should be read and re-read by anyone who has a chronic illness, by all doctors and nurses and by anyone nursing a patient with a chronic or life-threatening illness.
Sample quote
`I have learned never to underestimate the capacity of the human mind and body to regenerate, even when the prospects seem most wretched.'

20. An Inland Voyage - Robert Louis Stevenson
Describes a canoe tour in Belgium and Northern France but is much more than just a travel book. The journey took place in the same year as the tour which led to the better known book, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Written when he was 28 this book came long before Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde made Stevenson famous.
Sample quote:
`If we were charged so much a head for sunsets, of if God sent round a drum before the hawthorns came in flower, what a work should we not make about their beauty! But these things, like good companions, stupid people early cease to observe: and the Abstract Bagman tittups past in his spring gig, and is positively not aware of the flowers along the lane, or the scenery of the weather overhead.'

21. The Art of War - Sun Tzu
The Art of War by Sun Tzu is one of the most remarkable books ever written. It was written in China 2,500 years ago and there is no doubt that if our own leaders would read the book we would all be safer and less vulnerable. At least one expert has argued that if our twentieth century leaders had read (and followed) this book, World Wars I and II could have been avoided, the British Empire would not have been dismembered and the wars in Vietnam and Korea would not have been the disaster they were.
Napoleon read and used `The Art of War'. It is believed that the book (which was not translated into English until 1905 but which had been available in a French edition since 1782) was Napoleon's secret weapon and his key to success.
There is no doubt that Napoleon used Sun Tzu's principles to great advantage and it was only when he failed to follow Sun Tzu's rules of engagement that he was finally defeated.
But the advice in `The Art of War' does not only apply to warriors engaged in traditional forms of warfare.
The advice applies equally well in many other forms of combat and confrontation. Look closely and you will see how our modern leaders have used the advice it contains.
Sample quotes:
`The supreme act of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.'
`Know your enemy, know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.'
`If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.'
`He who wishes to fight must first count the cost.'
`There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.'
`When you surround an army leave an outlet free. This does not mean that the enemy is to be allowed to escape. The object is to make him believe that there is a road to safety, and thus prevent his fighting with the courage of despair.'
`To begin by bluster, but afterwards to take fright at the enemy's numbers, shows a supreme lack of intelligence.'
`Respect your enemy. Never underestimate him. Remember that he, too, thinks that he is right and will fight accordingly.'

Vernon Coleman's bestselling trilogy of self-help books `Bodypower,' `Mindpower' and `Spiritpower' are all available from the webshop on this website (or from good bookshops and web bookshops).


Copyright Vernon Coleman 2004