Shelf Improvement is a monthly column that features three books guaranteed to improve both your library and your life. From literary fiction, young adult, and humor, to spirituality, autobiography, and more, no genre is off limits. The only requirement of the selections featured here is they must be transformative and page-turning. If you’re hoping to build a better bookshelf, Shelf Improvement can help you on your odyssey.
Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse
When deciding which book—out of ALL THE BOOKS—would earn a top spot on my list of library must-haves, there was no hemming and hawing or hand-wringing. This slender but brilliant novel is, in my humble opinion, the one indispensable title that belongs on every shelf.
Simply but lyrically written, Siddhartha follows the life of a restless young Indian boy who seems destined for a life of Brahmin priesthood, but ultimately abandons all he has known to set off to discover the meaning of life. First lured by a strict ascetic lifestyle, then by the pleasures and excesses of the material world, then finally by the life of a happy but lowly ferryman, Siddhartha is a story about all aspects of the human condition—from boredom, pride, and despair, to hatred, passion, and enlightenment.
A poetic book full of glorious imagery and spiritual revelation (that can easily be read in one unforgettable sitting), this classic is required reading for the school of life. Not only does it teach valuable lessons about parenthood, livelihood, friendship, and sex, Siddhartha wisely imparts how to overcome the ego, how to truly listen, and how to see the world with new eyes.
Paperback $12.80 | $16.00
Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed
Prepare to be slayed by Strayed with this unparalleled collection of letters culled from the The Rumpus’ groundbreaking Internet advice column Dear Sugar. Strayed—best known as the author of Wild (and here masquerading as “Sugar”)—doles out tough love for life’s hard knocks in a manner that will leave you slack-jawed. From suggestions on how to handle infidelity, miscarriage, coming out, rape, pain pill addiction, cross-dressing, ailing babies, death, bankruptcy, and sudden rage (just to name a few), these letters will pull the rug out from under you then set you straight.
First launched as an anonymous Q&A feature, Dear Sugar became a worldwide Web sensation for its radical approach to those seeking counsel. Sugar DOES NOT sugarcoat, instead laying bare her own traumatic experiences (such as paternal rejection, homelessness, divorce, and molestation by her grandfather) and dishing up a profane—but compulsively readable—brand of compassion that leaves advice seekers with nowhere to go but speechlessly and eagerly into the darkness, then toward the light.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
There are books that you absorb, and there are books that absorb you, engulfing you with the sort of passionate prose that forces you to eventually wave that white flag of submission all bookworms carry around and can’t wait to use. Such is the case with Hurston’s gorgeous 1937 novel detailing the life and loves of Janie Crawford, a woman born into slavery who, once freed, embarks on a pilgrimage for true intimacy and personal liberty.
Hailed by many as an African American classic and a feminist groundbreaker (as well as Alice Walker’s and Zadie Smith’s favorite book), Their Eyes Were Watching God is a masterpiece of language, self-discovery, folklore, and nuance. From Janie’s first dull marriage to a Georgia farmer, to her stormy second marriage to a controlling Florida mayor, to her final fervent relationship with soulmate Tea Cake on the sultry banks of Lake Okeechobee, Hurston’s tour de force reads like a epic poem wrapped in an overheard conversation wrapped in a love song.