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We like to challenge perceptions. In this spirit, we’re spotlighting the books that expand our horizons – both literally and figuratively. Turn over a new leaf with tomes from Nobel Prize-winning writers and thinkers who inspire us via tales of empathy and enlightenment.
Shelf-help: these are the books that will expand your horizons
Making Tibetan Buddhist teachings accessible, this “handbook for living” lets us in on the purpose of life – you guessed it: happiness – and how to conquer anxiety and anger. Like this? Try Pema Chödrön’s The Places That Scare You, a rallying cry to live and love deeply.
Way before Marie Kondo was making us toss away anything that didn’t spark joy, Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days on the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts, living minimally, growing his own food, journaling, and so on. Consider the resulting book – in which the seasons symbolise personal development – the OG manual for a simple life.
Legend (read: the Goop Podcast) has it that this book, along with The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav, inspired Oprah to be more present. Our problems involve either stressing about the past or worrying about the future. Live in the now.
Most travel literature tells us where to go; de Botton asks why. Frank yet philosophical, he explores the motivations behind our voyages around the world and questions why reality seldom matches our fantasies. “Journeys are the midwives of thought”, he writes. “Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train.”
Making the history of natural sciences accessible – scrap that, making it fascinating – Bryson’s book takes us from the Big Bang to present-day, asking questions such as “what are black holes?” and “how do cells work?”, while untangling string theory. Like this? Read A Little History of the World by Ernst H. Gombrich or Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens.
Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning novel follows the lives and struggles of 12 diverse characters – mostly black women in the UK – over several decades. It paints a dynamic picture of modern Britain and womanhood, concluding that “this is about being / together.” Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
You’ve probably watched The Call to Courage on Netflix (and if you haven’t, you should). Brown dispels the cultural myth that vulnerability is a weakness – in fact, it’s the most accurate measure of courage. “When we shut ourselves off from vulnerability,” she writes, “we distance ourselves from the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.”
Challenging our idea of the traditional atlas, Schalansky blends fact and fantasy, bringing to life alternative worlds as she lures readers from Bear Island to Tristan da Cunha. Subtitled “Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will”, it’s a slim read that will make you question whether the most adventurous journeys actually take place in the mind.
As fictional Hollywood actress Maria Wyeth spirals out of control, Didion dissects American life in the late 60s. Fifty years after publication, this book’s weary nihilism forces readers to reflect both on themselves and on a society in which nothing is ever quite good enough.
Following an Andalusian shepherd boy’s journey across the North African desert, this soul-searching modern classic reveals the difference between gold and treasure, and how to channel courage as we follow our dreams.
“The core of a man’s spirit comes from new experiences,” writes Krakauer as he retraces the steps of Christopher McCandless who, in a bid for self-discovery, renounced his material possessions and hitchhiked from the Mojave Desert to Alaska, and whose decomposed body was found four months later by a moose hunter. It’s a dark, soul-searching read.
This book is best leafed through in the face of a crisis or crossroads. Subtitled “The Journey Beyond Yourself”, it taps into the practices of meditation and mindfulness to break down our mental barriers and transform our consciousness – all in an easily digestible, intuitive way.
Cosmology might not be your subject of choice, but hear us out. Hawking’s highly readable book will change not just your view of the world, but the universe (and our insignificant part in it) as it probes subjects including alternative dimensions, antimatter and time travel.
Though this book was published in 2006, it couldn’t feel more timely. Posing the question “what should we have for dinner?”, it gazes from farm to fork, considering the relationship between modern society and what we eat. Food for thought, indeed.
This dystopian tale reminds us that you can’t have rainbows without a little rain. Readers meet 12-year-old Jonas, who lives in a seemingly perfect world. Yet when the young man becomes a “receiver”, he discovers that a world without pain is also devoid of joy.
Opening our eyes to the horrors of slavery in 1800s, Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning tale (inspired by the real-life story of Margaret Garner, known for killing her own daughter rather than allowing the child to be enslaved) is one of heartache and hope. It follows Sethe, a slave who has been emancipated but cannot escape the ghosts of her brutal past.
Following protagonist Billy Pilgrim, this retelling of the Allied firebombing of Dresden during the Second World War is flecked with elements of sci-fi that make you question the nature of experience and the limits of time and space. Much like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Vonnegut’s book throws a harsh yet darkly humorous light on the futility of war.
Travelling between the Deep South and Harlem, a young, nameless African American man moves through life unseen. Published in the 50s, this novel still feels relevant today as it explores themes of race and bigotry.
Loosely based on Eugenides’s (also author of Virgin Suicides) own life and Greek heritage, this coming-of-age novel probes the nature versus nurture conundrum. If you’re interested in gender, social constructs or how family and biology shape your identity, this is for you.
A fictional father-and-son motorcycle trip across northwest America (completing a Chautauqua spiritual journey) becomes an odyssey into life’s big questions, diving into philosophical questions on love, fear, growth, discovery and acceptance.
Does this book need an introduction? Documenting Angelou’s experiences of racism and childhood rape, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of seven autobiographical novels. It forces readers to dwell on hope, strength and victimhood in the face of oppression.
Cognitive psychologist Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences in 2002. Differentiating between slow, rational thinking and the fast, intuitive kind, his best-selling book makes us question our own judgement calls and helps us to make better decisions.
If you’re after an easy read, skip this. In the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide (in which an estimated one million Tutsi, Twa and moderate Hutu people were killed in just 100 days) Gourevitch travels around the country interviewing survivors and reflecting on genocide. If this gets you thinking, try Man’s Search for Meaning, in which Viktor Frankl dwells on the power of purpose while chronicling his time as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps.
Disarmingly candid, this up-and-down essay on ageing sparkles thanks to Ephron’s smart, dry prose. Expect intel such as “never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from” and “anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of 35, you will be nostalgic for by the age of 45”. For further ruminations on growing old, pick up Immortality by Milan Kundera.
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