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Once upon a time, I had a thing for self-help books. I was so enamored of books that purported to fix my life that I ran a review blog called SelfHelpMe. It should surprise no one to learn I was in the midst of my quarter-life crisis.
The books ran the gamut. I read books about getting what you deserve. I read books about saying “yes” to life. I read books about surviving marriage and surviving your shopping habit and finding inspiration. The books covered many different aspects of life, but at their core, each book was about finding yourself. I so desperately wanted to find myself. My best self.
These days, self-help isn’t really my thing. I find it too prescriptive, and so much of it feels like pure motivation with not enough meat. Instead, I prefer to read novels and memoirs that show how different folks — fictional and otherwise — have found their own way. The narrative inspires me. I take with me what resonates. The rest is just good story.
Because even at the age of 43, I’m still finding myself. I always will be. As I wrote in my post about adult coming-of-age books (and you’ll see some overlap in the list that follows), we are always evolving in a myriad of ways.
We never stop developing and becoming.
Read on for the best books about finding yourself. Take what resonates. Simply enjoy the rest.
Acne by Laura Chinn
On the surface, this hilarious memoir is about a woman suffering from a lifelong case of self-esteem-crushing cystic acne. But deep down, it’s about so much more. In her book, Chinn writes about growing up mixed-race in a broken home where things keep getting worse. Despite the many obstacles, however, she continues to make it through each day, sense of humor intact. By the end, she finds a version of herself — her true self — that actually makes her happy.
Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe
Best graphic memoir about finding yourself? It’s this one, hands down. Kobabe uses matter-of-fact language paired with vibrant illustrations to show how important it is to see yourself in the world around you. And there are so many possible selves. Gender Queer is a generously open story of Kobabe’s own gender journey…a twisty-turny, heartwarming tale of how ey discovered eir true self. (Psst…make sure you get the newer edition, with the foreword by Nate Stevenson, a handful of pages that made me weepy before I even started the meat of the book.)
White Horse by Erika T. Wurth
I highlighted Wurth’s novel in the aforementioned post about adult coming-of-age tales. Because alongside the ghost story, protagonist Kari James is full-on floundering. When she was 2, her mother abandoned her. When she was older and wilder, her best friend died of a drug overdose. In the present day, she exists in a sort of aimless arrested development, spending most of her time at her favorite dive bar and caring for her father. She spends the arc of this book figuring out what really happened to her mother. Eventually, she is able to achieve closure with the many losses she’s suffered and to see herself as worthy of a better life. But is she brave enough to go after what she’s always wanted?
The Freedom Clause by Hannah Sloane
This is probably the lightest, fluffiest book on this list, but it still has something to say about finding yourself. In this novel, Daphne reluctantly agrees to her open marriage with her husband, Dominic. The rules? They can each sleep with just one other person one night a year. And in five years, they’ll reevaluate. Neither one of them is prepared for how this will shake the very foundation of their marriage, least of all Daphne, who finds that the eponymous Freedom Clause has enabled her to discover a more confident, assertive version of herself who feels comfortable asking for and going after what she really wants.
The In-Betweens by Davon Loeb
I picked up a free copy of this memoir at a conference this past March, having never heard of it before. When I finally got around to opening it up, it instantly became one of my favorite reads of the year. Loeb lays out his story in gorgeously lyrical vignettes, writing about what it was like to grow up biracial, unsure of his place in his white family and in larger society. Taking us from childhood all the way through adulthood, The In-Betweens gives us the portrait of a man trying to find himself in a culture that seems hellbent on erasing him.
What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo
Foo writes of a life in which she finds it difficult to cope in this memoir. While she’s a high achiever and her life looks perfect on paper, she’s often subject to intense panic attacks and emotional outbursts. There’s a clarity that comes with finding yourself and, in this case, with finally finding a diagnosis that explains everything. When Foo is diagnosed with complex PTSD at the age of 30, she is finally able to acknowledge the years of abuse and neglect to which her parents subjected her. Eventually, she learns how to manage the symptoms of her illness while still living a full life.
Black Sheep by Rachel Harrison
OK. This one is probably as light as The Freedom Clause, but it’s a little less fluffy. In this comedic horror by one of my favorite contemporary writers in this genre, our protagonist finds herself all right. But the self she finds isn’t quite what she was expecting. I don’t want to give away too much because that would ruin your fun. But here are the basics: Vesper leaves home (a staunchly religious community) at the age of 18 and finds herself stuck in a series of dead-end jobs. Years later, she’s surprised when she receives a wedding invitation from her childhood best friend. She didn’t think she was welcome back at the family farm. She attends out of morbid curiosity and gets much more than she bargained for. When it comes to books about finding yourself, it’s probably not the roadmap you want to follow. But you can’t help enjoying it anyway.
Sea Change by Gina Chung
In this novel, we follow Ro, a 30-year-old who feels frozen in place as those in her life seem to move and grow past her. Her boyfriend leaves her to join a mission to Mars. Her best friend, who is getting married and who is thriving at work, grows ever more distant. Ro, meanwhile, has been working the same menial job at an aquarium for what feels like forever and spending her nights drinking. (You’ll notice a lot of similarities between Ro and many of the other protagonists on this list.) Feeling increasingly isolated, she doesn’t take it well when the giant octopus that’s been at the aquarium her entire life is purchased by an outside investor. At this point, she can either drown in stasis or find a way to move forward. Her journey to find herself isn’t as dramatic as the others featured in this post. It’s much quieter and still in process by the book’s end. But isn’t that more true to life?
You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith
This lyrical memoir is an exploration of the author’s divorce: the time leading up to it, the time when she was in the thick of it, and the time that came after. I found much to relate to in its parsing out of what makes a loving, supportive marriage, and the narrative arc ends in a place of beautiful hope and happiness. I include it on this list because, in moving past the ugliness of divorce, Smith is able to find herself again and to find a life that makes sense in the wake of a major life transition. By the way, Smith is a poet, so you know the language is stunning.
IMHO, these are the very best books about finding yourself. With each narrative, I was able to find a different and luminous way of being and, in so doing, was able to see the validity of my own ongoing journey. If you like your journeys of the self to be more self-helpy, I suggest this list of books about finding yourself, your happiness, and your purpose. And if you crave even more feels, I recommend these 8 nonfiction books about feelings and emotions.
Good luck on your journey!