My favourite books of 2023

I love reading! It’s one of my great joys in life that I feel really

  • nourishes my soul
  • gives me time out
  • helps me escape reality
  • takes me on journeys to new places
  • broadens my understanding of others…………..

In no particular order, here are my favourites from my 2023 reads.

Kazuo Ishiguro – Klara and the Sun

A story told from the unique perspective of a solar-powered AI life-size ‘doll’ designed to be a child’s companion, Klara makes sense of the world the best way she can – and of course develops a more sophisticated knowledge all the time (there’s plenty of the reference to ‘the black oblongs’) that people’s attention is so caught by).

We don’t know any more about the world than Klara knows, so only have glimpses of a dystopian world where children need to undergo modification to obtain success.

Hilary Mantel – Fludd

I started reading this and then said to my partner ‘this is a book we need to read to each other’ – because I knew that otherwise I would keep interrupting him to read bits out.

Set in a grim little moorland village in and around a convent and a presbytery with a host of (mostly) dysfunctional or odd characters, Fludd is dark and funny with a flavour of Stella Gibbons ‘Cold Comfort Farm’.

Michael Rosen – Many Different Kinds of Love

Oh… heart is breaking as I just think about this book, a memoir of Michael Rosen’s experience of catching Covid early in the pandemic, and being in intensive care for two months (including being put into an induced coma).

It is a beautifully moving book made up of his prose poems, excerpts from the diary kept by medical staff and emails from his wife to family members. It of course reminds us AGAIN of the incredible, normal  humans who make up the NHS.

Sara Sheridan – Where are the Women?

A clever tour guide to an imagined Scotland where women’s contributions to the world are prized, celebrated and memorialised to the same extent as men’s.

The book is broken up into sections for different cities or parts of the countries, and each section includes a description of the building, statue or other monument and a brief history of the (real) woman it celebrates. Some do exist (Lady Stair’s Close, Edinburgh), some have been renamed (Edinburgh castle becomes St Margaret’s Castle), some have new landmarks created for them.

A fantastic and clever route to learning more about some of the really important women in Scottish history.

S R Crockett – The Raiders

If you like a good rip-roaring, swash-buckling historical novel, this could be a book for you. Chosen for our Bookgroup weekend away in Galloway, it’s set between the Solway Coast and the wild Galloway hills and includes smugglers, outlaws and cattle-thieving.

The narrator (a man) doesn’t have a particularly high opinion of himself, and the story features plenty strong intelligent women – even though the book was published in 1893. Most of all I love how the landscape features in this book.

In May I tried to recreate the route that the narrator takes, wild camping en route – but was defeated by the terrain and infamous Galloway bog……

Steve Silberman – Neurotribes

This is a fantastic and fascinating history of the neurodiversity movement; it’s a big book but an engaging and interesting read.

Silberman explores the various attempts to ‘cure’ or treat neurodiversity and how much a neurotypical viewpoint has dominated (surprise surprise), but also looks at the way forward for a society that is more humane, supportive and facilitative towards people who learn and process in all our different ways.

Honoree Fanonne Jeffers – The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois

Amazing, multi-generational epic novel set in Georgia, USA. I had to take a deep breath to embark on this 800-page tome, but found it difficult to put down once I started.

The story moves backwards and forwards in time between the life of Ailey, exploring and discovering her identity and family history, and the many generations of her ancestors, some of whom arrived in bondage from Africa, some indigenous Americans, some white settlers.

A wonderful weaving of stories, some tragic, some triumphant, all gripping.

Cal Flynn – Islands of Abandonment

This book is soooooo right up my alley – it’s about abandoned (by humans) spaces that nature has begun to reclaim, moving from Chernobyl’s surroundings, through former war zones, abandoned formerly thriving industrial cities of the US, to a Scottish island roamed by feral cattle left by humans in the 1970s.

As Flynn says “when a place has been altered beyond recognition and all hope seems lost, it might still hold the potential for life of another kind”. Beautifully written, there’s also an audiobook version read by Flynn, who hails from the Scottish Highlands.

Harry Josephine Giles – Deep Wheel Orcadia

This is like no other book I’ve read EVER, never mind this year.

It’s a sci-fi novel, about finding home, set on a space station – written in verse, in Orcadian (the Orkney dialect). It has a parallel translation into English to help those of us who aren’t familiar with Orcadian dialect words.

Sounds demanding? Give it a go – it’s entertaining as a well as a mind-stretch.

Betsy Whyte – The Yellow on the Broom

This was a recommendation from someone responding to a Facebook post I made about the persecution of Travellers in Scotland (which included attempts to ‘educate children out of their nomadic ways’ in the twentieth century).

It’s a wonderful autobiography of Whyte’s childhood as a traveller in Scotland in the 1920s/30s. As well as being a great first-person insight into the life and customs of travellers at that time, it’s also a fascinating snapshot of wider society during that time, including how other people viewed travellers.

Aldous Huxley – Brave New World

I’m not sure how I’ve only just read this 20th century classic for the first time. It’s set in a dystopian future where emotions and individuality are conditioned out of people at a young age, and embryos are engineered to develop in such a way that they fulfil different classes in society from ‘Alphas’ (the leaders, intellectuals) to ‘Epsilons’ (the labourers).

I found it really interesting to read this book almost 100 years after it was written, noticing the echoes of the idea that things can be engineered to make us happy in our consumer-focused society today – ‘distract yourself from your natural feelings by buying happiness’. says ‘Much of the anxiety that drives Brave New World can be traced to a widespread belief in the 1920s in technology as a futuristic remedy for problems caused by disease and war’….. unnervingly reminiscent of the way many people today cling to the desperate hope that technology will somehow rescue us from environmental collapse.

Janey Godley – Handstands in the Dark

Janey Godley first won a place in my heart in 2018 when I saw the wonderful photograph of her protesting at Donald Trump’s golf course with a placard reading ‘Trump is a cunt’.

She then made it to National Treasure status during the pandemic with her hilarious yet informative voiceovers of Nicola Sturgeon’s daily public Covid briefings (which Sturgeon herself appreciated). 

I bought this, the first volume of her autobiography earlier in the year when I went to see her ‘Not dead yet’ show. It’s dry, funny and heartbreaking. While not an ‘easy read’ because of the trauma and tragedy it covers (shooting up in the room where your relative’s coffin is laid out, anyone?), it’s gripping and entertaining too.

Amy Liptrot – The Outrun

Another recommendation via Facebook – and another autobiography. Amy Liptrot was born in Orkney and escaped from a complicated family situation to the bright lights of London. After reaching rock bottom in her struggles with alcohol addiction, she returns to Orkney to try and recover, ultimately retreating to Papa Westray – “Britain is an island off Europe, Orkney is an island off Britain, Westray is an island off Orkney, Papay is an island off Westray…”

These are the bare bones of the story but don’t capture the beautiful writing of the book, the way she captures both the descent into alcoholic hell, and the wild and bleak Orkney winter. She is brutally honest and exposing of her pain and struggles.

Ali Smith – Seasonal Quartet

Is it cheating to have four books as one choice? Ali Smith had the idea to write a sequence of books, each dealing with a season, written as quickly as possible, and published as quickly as possible, to be as comtemporaneous as possible.

The book covers (which feature the same view painted by David Hockney during different seasons) were designed before the first manuscript had even been completed (see Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet: an oral history ( )

It just so happened that the period over which she was writing the books took in Brexit, the ramping up of anti-immigrant rhetoric, the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Covid pandemic and the increased awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement. They tell separate stories but are also inter-connected. As I read each one, there would be at least one point where I would say aloud ‘what the hell is going on?’ but I never wanted to stop reading. They’re written with a really light touch and were a particular welcome change whenever I’d finished a book that was rather intense or heavy.

Dr Devon Price – Unmasking Autism (The power of embracing our hidden neurodiversity)

Just brilliant. I’ve recommended this to a number of clients. It’s also a great read for any allistics (neurotypicals) wanting to better understand the autistic experience, or for anyone who feels that they have to hide aspects of themselves – for whatever reason – to be safe or accepted in society.

Dr Price has written a super-accessible book that includes up to date research and personal insights, examining the phenomenon of masking. It’s a passionate rallying cry for the right to be authentic and to resist conformity, and for a society where everyone can be themselves and be allowed to thrive.

And it’s just a really good read.

Lisa Allen-Agostini – The Bread the Devil Knead

I was in the library one day and my partner dropped this in my hands and said ‘this looks like your sort of book’.

It was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2022. It’s a fast-paced, gripping read with a great central character – a 40-yr-old woman who manages a boutique in Port of Spain (Trinidad). She doesn’t fit the typical image of a feminist but absolutely is her own woman (hurrah for pulling down stereotypes!).

Be warned – it tackles domestic abuse, rape and racism in an unsparing, matter-of-fact way. One thing I loved about it was the Trinidadian creole voice that it’s written in, which I hadn’t encountered before – although easy to read, I really enjoyed that there were some words I didn’t know and (if I couldn’t figure it out) I just had to accept that!

Jenni Fagan – The Panopticon

Like ‘The Bread the Devil Knead’, the central character in ‘The Panopticon’ is a unique, unusual (to me) voice. Panopticons were prisons designed to provide constant visibility of all inmates. The one in this book is an institute for adolescent offenders somewhere in central Scotland. The narrator is 15-year-old Anais, who has already had to deal with an awful lot of shit in her short life, including the death of the one foster-mother who she seems to have formed a bond with.

Jenni Fagan herself grew up in local authority care in Scotland, having 29 different placements in her first 16 years before living in homeless accommodation. Her experience may well contribute to Anais’s believable voice.

Anais is in no way a victim; instead she’s a fierce, tough survivor who simply won’t let you pity her. I couldn’t help feeling sorry that she’d had so little love in her life. An amazing, tragic, read.

Frances Quinn – That Bonesetter Woman

A random pick off the library shelf; I was attracted by the odd title.

The woman in question, Endurance Proudfoot, is based on a real woman who became a bonesetter in Georgian England. Endurance is clumsy, strong and plain-spoken. Even thought her bonesetter father believes it’s not a job for a woman, she’s determined, and eventually makes her way to the career that she wants.

Needless to say, an independent woman isn’t given an easy time of it in the man’s world of 18th century London. Endurance needs every ounce of courage and strength she has. A real page-turner with some fantastic characters.

Daisy Johnson – Fen

I don’t know if you’ve read any Daisy Johnson, but she is hands-down the most watery writer I’ve come across.

I gradually realised, as I was partway through this collection of short stories set in the Fens, that I’d read another book of hers. ‘Everything Under’, which is set partly on a canal boat, has a similarly muddy, watery feel to it. My list of books read has a note in brackets after ‘Fen’ that says ‘eerie, bonkers’.

Many of the (human) characters in the stories seem to have something of the flooded fens in their nature. It’s as if they haven’t long emerged from the wetlands themselves. There are strains of myth and folklore that weave through the tales – an uncanny and mysterious gathering of stories.

Natasha Pulley – The Bedlam Stacks

I bloody love Natasha Pulley. I mean, my first introduction to her included a clockwork octopus in ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’ – what’s not to like?

This book, also set in the late 1800s, is similarly wistful, quirky, full of adventure and with a host of fascinating inhabitants. The main character is recruited by the India Office to search out a source of quinine in Peru. In the process he discovers an almost-impossible village at the edge of the Amazon, a mysterious priest, and various characters who are woven around with myth and magical qualities.

Infused with love and melancholy, this is a perfect read to lose yourself in over a long, dark, midwinter weekend.

If you’ve enjoyed reading about this (pretty much uncurated, random) collection of books you might like to check out my 2022 favourite book list here, and my blog about how reading books can make your life better.

My favourite books of 2022

I love reading, it’s one of my great joys in life that I feel really nourishes my soul.

In 2021 I started keeping a note of the books that I read. I planned to share my 10 top books of 2022 in the run-up to the year-end, but I could only narrow it down to 20.

I shared these 20, in pairs, over the last few days of 2021 – but I thought I’d gather them all together in one place here too – so that I’ve got them somewhere to remind myself!

Please note these aren’t specifically therapy (or self-help) books – there were some of those, but I haven’t included them here.

In no particular order!

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A wonderful immersive story moving from Nigeria to the US and back again. Ifemelu moves to the United States to study, where she encounters racism and for the first time, discovers what it means to be a “Black Person”. One of those that I didn’t want to put down and also didn’t want to end.

The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn

A friend recommended Raynor Winn’s first book, The Salt Path, after my first solo wild-camping-walking expedition (and if you haven’t already read it, start with The Salt Path). The Wild Silence continues Ray and Moth’s story as they try and find a place to settle and feel safe, after enforced homelessness in middle age. It’s a memoir, and Winn’s voice is just so bloody authentic.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

One of this year’s Bookgroup books, Piranesi is mysterious, eerie, magical. I still have vivid mental pictures of the ‘house’ in which the book takes place – an ocean-filled Roman temple that is invaded by tides twice a day. The reader gradually learns more about how Piranesi comes to be there, becoming more emotionally attached in the process.

The Library of the Dead by TL Huchu

A great romp through a dystopian Edinburgh, following the main character, Ropa, a teenage school drop-out who makes ends meet talking to ghosts. It almost feels like Young Adult literature except some of the events are just too gruesome. Great fun for anyone who knows Edinburgh and can picture the entrance to the Library via the Old Calton Burial Ground……

Feeling Heard, Hearing Others by Rob Foxcroft

This is a book about Focusing (and if you don’t know what that is – check out my blog: What is Focusing?). It’s kind of a how-to… and also isn’t really. It’s not really a self-help guide… and it is also helpful and therapeutic. I wasn’t sure whether I liked it at first, the structure and pace is so unlike other books, as is the tentative nature (there are no rigid guidelines here) and the mixing of poetry through the prose to try and convey another sense of what the writer is wanting to express. But I realised that it has similar qualities to Focusing itself; everyone will respond differently, some ideas can’t be captured easily with words, it requires both the speaker (writer) and the listener (reader) to engage, to find a way of meeting or making contact ‘enough’.

English Pastoral: An inheritance by James Rebanks

The word ‘elegaic’ was made for this book, which is a beautiful ode to a landscape by one who is truly hefted to it. James Rebanks is a Lake District farmer who inherited the family hill farm. As a child he watched farmers around him turning to new ‘improved’ methods and saw the destruction of the fabric of the soil, and the disappearance of the creatures living in, around and through the land; in middle age he is returning his land to something closer to the natural/human-influenced state that had evolved over the previous centuries. If you read this, keep going through the middle section of heartbreak; hope does return.

Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah

This book gives an experience of a very specific place in time, one which was completely new to me. The young boy who’s the main character is transferred from his rural home to urban East Africa in bonded servitude as payment of his father’s debt, and then has to adjust to European colonialism and its upheaval of existing social hierarchies.

All the light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr

This novel is also in a very specific place in time – that of occupied France in WWII. It follows the stories of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy whose worlds collide, and is hauntingly beautiful with wonderful imagery and language. I really didn’t want it to end.

Natives: Race & Class in the ruins of Empire by Akala

OMG. It’s brilliant. When looking for ways to educate myself about racism, it’s easy sometimes to get distracted by offerings from across the pond, and then to be frustrated when things don’t seem to fit or have the same relevance. Someone on GoodReads says this is ‘essential reading for anyone British or who wants to understand Britain’. Akala uses his own experience to drive the narrative to brilliant effect. It’s also so chockful with information and references and ‘things I want to know more about’ that I could probably have spent the whole year just being led on to other books by it.

Joseph Knight by James Robertson

A different angle on the intersection of colonialism, empire-building, race and class. You may not know (I didn’t until a couple of years ago) that Scots made up a disproportionately high percentage of British-born plantation owners – Scottish cities owe a lot of their beauty and wealth to the proceeds of the slavery. Joseph Knight was brought to Scotland by his ‘owner’ and eventually successfully gained his freedom in the Edinburgh courts. This true story has been turned into a historical novel by James Robertson – it has the flavour of Scott or Dickens, though I’m not sure they would have given as much credit to the strong female characters. 

Silence is a sense by Leila Al Ammar

A novel I picked up by chance in the library, Silence is a Sense is narrated by a young woman who has lost her ability to speak following a long, traumatic journey from Syria to the UK, and begins with her observing the lives going on in other flats in the tower blocks around hers. She begins writing anonymously for a magazine, and the book uses fragments of emails and articles to put her story together.

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

From silent to invisible. This is a book I’d been meaning to read, but was afraid it would make me furious. When it was chosen for our Bookgroup I read it. Guess what? It made me furious. It picks apart every single aspect of life and carefully and forensically demonstrates just how data bias perpetuates systemic discrimination against women. Public transport. Car safety (crash test dummies being based on an ‘average male body’ meaning that women are at far greater risk of injury and death than men, for example). Sport. Health. But really – it’s a book that any man SHOULD read (you’ll be furious too, generic male, but not as furious as me), because men are needed to change this.

Diary of a young naturalist by Dara McAnulty

My list of books read, says in brackets after this one ‘one to return to for spiritual guidance’, which makes it sound like some religious treaty. The book is drawn from Dara McAnulty’s journal, written over his 15th year. He’s autistic, and finds solace in the natural world when the neurotypical human world becomes too overwhelming, and this in particular spoke to me; that at times when I find myself despairing because of the uncaring of human beings, I can retreat to nature. His ability to look at the tiniest bugs and creatures and lose himself in their worlds is inspiring for people of any age.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

From tiny bugs to big bugs – that’s all I’m saying. This book is mind-bending, amazing – I saw it described somewhere as ‘evolution-based science-fiction’ which is right enough. There’s a whole world, a civilisation, that develops through the book, alongside a bunch of astronauts from a fucked-up Earth travelling through space for all that time. You read /hear about suspended animation all the time in sci-fi, but the way it weaves through the story, with different people having to wake up to do stuff at different times, the way they age at different rates as a result… it’s tremendous, adventurous fiction that Really Makes You Think.

Underland by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane is right up there with my absolute favourite authors of all time, the way he writes about landscape is just so beautiful and lyrical. This latest book of his is about underworlds – literal, mythical, literary. Unlike many of his other books, I felt happy to be an armchair traveller with this one; I do not want to do that potholing shit where you have to hold your breath to get round a u-bend in a cave in the hope that there will be air on the other side.

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

Somebody recommended this to me a while ago and I’m so glad I read it at last. Solnit writes about the relationship between thinking and walking, and walking and culture… taking in pilgrimages and urban strolls. Beautifully written, I’ll be looking out for more Rebecca Solnit.

David Mogo Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

I’m getting to know more African speculative fiction – there’s some exciting stuff out there, of which this Nigerian god-punk novel is just one. This is set in a dystopian future, but one where the Orisha War caused thousands of deities to come down onto the streets of Lagos. David is a demigod who needs to, essentially save the world. The environment of the book is vivid and terrifying, and very visual – I could imagine this being made into a blockbuster or a Netflix series with lots of CGI and special effects.

Dark Hunter by FJ Watson

A book set in a place I know to some extent (Berwick-upon-Tweed) but at a time I’ve never given much thought to – the young squire, Benedict, who narrates the story is with the English-held garrison here, in 1317, 3 years after the Scots were victorious at Bannockburn. Much of the time they are under siege, hungry, bored and homesick. There’s lots of chat about the savage Scots. To make things exciting, however, Benedict has to solve a murder. A good rip-roaring page turner.

Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper

This was the first book I read in 2022, sent me by a friend. It’s a lyrical, wistful story of a family in a small village in Newfoundland in a time where fish stocks begin to dry up and people have to move away to find work elsewhere. The place, the landscape, the time, play just as much a part in the story as the characters. 

The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone

…and the last book I read. Margaret Elphinstone is a recent discovery for me and I love her storytelling that immerses me among peoples and times that I’ve never considered, opening my mind wide open. The Sea Road, based on a real person, tells the tale of Gudrid, an Icelandic adventurer (who of course never got a saga because she’s a woman) who travels ‘outside the world’ to what would later be called Newfoundland.  

Do you read to relax? To escape? To learn? Because you feel you should?

If you like reading but don’t let yourself loose on books as much as you would like, check out my blog 7 ways that reading books can improve your life – it might encourage you to give yourself permission.

7 ways that reading books can improve your life

We read to know we’re not alone

William Nicholson, ‘Shadowlands’

When I want to escape to another world, I do it through reading.  For that half-hour, I’m not in my own life anymore, I’m inhabiting a different world, where I really care deeply about the experience of someone else, where I feel their feelings, even becoming a different person. 

I believe reading can change your life in different ways.

Throughout history, education has literally changed people’s lives, and there is a political and humanitarian argument for literacy being a right for that reason. While I completely subscribe to that (after all, restricting educational access to males, or to white people, has been a way of subjugating different parts of societies in order to keep power in the hands of the few)- what I’m talking about here is at a more individual level.

I grew up with my nose in a book. We didn’t have a telly in my house, a fact that I was resentful of at various points in my childhood. (If you want to know how to nurture a child’s belief that they’re the odd one out or will never belong, deprive them of the ability to engage in playground conversations about last night’s Grange Hill episode – I used to watch TV round at my best friend’s house, but Grange Hill came on just at the time when I had to go home for my tea.)

Reading as therapy image-annie-spratt-unsplash
Image Annie Spratt on Unsplash

However, setting aside the injustices of my upbringing for a moment, what I did have plenty of was books. Apparently even before I learned to read, my parents would be woken up each morning by me calling from my cot “Light on and books!” I’m not sure I would describe reading as a favourite activity – it was, simply, an indelible part of my life.

When I grew up and left home for uni, then work, reading time was squeezed by the demands of adult life – and by my developing tendency to, at some level, believe that ‘unproductive’ time was self-indulgent. I wonder now if there’s some connection for me with reading being ‘lazy’ because it’s a sedentary activity. I still really enjoyed to read – but I wouldn’t let myself do it as much as I liked – I was always too busy.

I was well into my 30s when I started a bookgroup with a friend. Having to read a book a month, for that, encouraged me to make more time for reading. I think the logic probably went something like this: “Reading a book for bookgroup isn’t self-indulgent because I’m answerable to other people.” But I began to feel resentful that everything I was reading was chosen by others (we take it in turns to choose a book) and so that prompted me to carve out more time so that I could read what I wanted to read too. 

My time was often constrained, especially when I started psychotherapy training alongside work – and transferred my ‘shoulds’ about productive behaviour to the self-expectation of reading books by therapy experts. But at least personal therapy, and psychotherapy training, helped me to recognise what a strong ‘Critical Parent’ lived in me – telling me what I ‘should’ be doing – and I gradually started to allow myself to trust my instincts into what I wanted – or needed – once more. 

In recent years, reading has become a form of self-care, and I feel more connected to that little Lucy who liked to escape from the real world with a book.

One of the things I’ve appreciated about lockdown is that I’ve been able to indulge (that word again!) that love, because there’s not so much than I can do (regardless of whether I want to or not), and because so much of my work is screen-based, that looking at a page instead is a way of looking after myself physically as well as mentally.

The experience of recently ramping up my book-reading has prompted me to reflect on how I experience emotional benefits from it.

How is reading a form of self-care?

1. It can ease symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression

Reading a book that you can lose yourself in gives you a break from life. I don’t generally advocate distraction as a technique for managing anxiety or depression, as it can shore up a habit that if there are feelings that are too uncomfortable to deal with, they get ignored or suppressed, and however that might feel comfortable in the moment, those feelings don’t go away; they just get stored up.

Having said that, if you get into cycles of overthinking, ruminating, feeling anxious and trying to think your way out of it, interrupting that cycle can be helpful. The fight or flight hormones (that are running through your body as a result of some part of you panicking that it needs to do something to keep safe by ‘fixing a problem’) get a chance to dissipate. That allows your breathing to steady, your blood pressure to drop, your muscles to relax; there’s a physical as well as mental and emotional benefit.

Note – I’m recommending a book you can ‘lose yourself in’, that will allow you to switch off, so preferably one unrelated to the situation you’re worrying about or trying to fix. I know only too well that when my imposter syndrome kicks in, and part of me believes I’m not a good-enough therapist, I feel a pull to read ‘professional stuff’ – about techniques, or presenting problems or theory. That kind of reading has its place – but not here.

This is about taking care of your whole self, not about fixing the problem your busy brain is worrying away at.

self care through reading Lucy Hyde counselling
Image: Thought Catalog on Unsplash

2. It helps you make connections

There’s nothing like being immersed in another world to help me develop my empathy for what someone else, with a completely different life experience from me, might be feeling. The process of doing this by reading is different from that of watching a film because the brain engages and involves itself in a different way – for example, reading about riding a bike activates the parts of the brain that would be involved in riding a bike.

Even if you’ve never left your country or particular area of the world, you can visit other places through books and build your understanding, and that will help you connect to others – virtual travel broadening your mind. If you want a further stretch then reading in another language from that of your mother tongue can also help you shift your perspective, because the way that different languages behave shapes the way that people think.

Obviously this has potential to benefit others – if you meet people from different places and with different backgrounds from you, you’ve developed your intuition and empathy to respond to them – but there is also a benefit to you, because of the emotional experience of connecting more deeply.

You might make connections to experiences too, perhaps to something you didn’t notice you were missing. For example, I’m often drawn to books that are embedded in the landscape or nature and reading them benefits me in at least two ways; firstly, I get something of that experience of actually being in the place described, of feeling that awe or wonder or amazement; and secondly that they remind me to notice my environment when I’m outside, often at quite a small scale – they prompt me to rediscover the world around me and to really notice where I am right now, grounding me.

3. It improves your communication skills, helping you be heard and understood

Reading develops your language skills because it introduces you to different ways of expressing things you may experience around you, and to new vocabulary. Many languages – and certainly English – have a huge vocabulary providing potential for saying one thing in a myriad of very subtly different ways.

This isn’t just about ‘sounding more intelligent’(although I have had situations in my life where wielding words has helped me level a power dynamic) but also about being understood. If you can express yourself in different ways, it gives you more options when talking about difficult subjects, or when asking for what you want in your important relationships, and this can make a real difference to your ability to be clear about communicating your needs, setting boundaries and for saying No gently.  

4. It can build and deepen relationships

As mentioned earlier, reading can be a way of connecting to others, but there’s another way that reading can develop relationships – through sharing your reading experience. That became important to me in the last few years when I moved away from the UK to live elsewhere for a while, and then, a year after returning, found myself in a different kind of isolation because of Covid 19 stay-at-home restrictions!

The book group I’ve been a part of for 15 years has been a precious lifeline over the last 4 – a steady mooring rooted in my diary when I’ve felt adrift and isolated. We’ve continued to meet and talk and argue and laugh via webcam when we haven’t been able to do it in person. (Obviously this would apply to many other types of groups as well as reading ones.)

Reading together with others has encouraged me to try and explore other worlds that I might not have done (even while complaining about being made to read about the real life drama of a college American football team, for example). It has given a focus away from the other struggles of life for a few hours a week. It has brought the joy of connecting through shared experience.

Our book group is the best in the world, which helps. Though I may be a bit biased.

5. It’s an overt message to yourself that you matter

Pausing to read a book is a commitment to yourself that you are important and deserve this time. It’s just not possible to read a book ‘busily’. (Actually, one member of my bookgroup, realising that they weren’t going to get the book finished on time, decided to listen to the audiobook at 4 x normal speed. They arrived at the meeting in a wide-eyed manic state having got quite a different sense of the book from the rest of us, and they didn’t recommend it as a relaxing activity.)

It’s one of the most common things I hear when friends say ‘Oh, I love reading, but I just don’t have the time’. I used to say it myself – especially while studying, when I would make time to read neuroscience tomes, but not to pick up a fantasy novel.

No one else is going to make that time for you. If you think you don’t have the time to read because that’s not ‘productive time’ – think again. Think of the longer-term benefits of allowing yourself to take a break, to do something that you enjoy, something that relaxes you, that slows you down.

6. It can teach you how to be healthier and happier

Personally, I very rarely read self-help books. Anything with a title that seems to be saying ‘This book will change your life’ is a definite turn-off (note to self: don’t title this blog ‘reading this will change your life’).

Having said that, I do read books to educate and ‘improve’ myself. Like many other white people, over the last year I’ve been reading more literature by Black authors on addressing my privilege and unconscious racism, and of course, that hasn’t been comfortable. But without building my tolerance to that discomfort, I can’t engage in the antiracist behaviour required to mend that disconnect between ‘thinking I’m a good person’ and ignoring the benefits I enjoy by living in a white-centred society – i.e. I see it as enabling me to become more true to who I think I am.

Lots of people find self-help books useful, either because of the practical steps that they introduce to doing things differently, or even because – as mentioned above – picking up a book that promises to improve your life sends a little message to yourself that you matter.

If you’re attracted to self-help books, but find that they don’t seem to bring the change that you want, it might be useful to reflect on whether the subconscious message you’re directing at yourself  is ‘you’re not good enough and need to change’ rather than ‘I want you to be happier because you’re important’. See if reframing this shifts the sort of book you want to read!

7. It can take you on a voyage of self-discovery

In another form of self-help, I believe books can help you become more understanding of yourself and more aware of what you need. If you have a strong reaction when you read a book, taking some time to reflect on this can lead to you learning more about yourself.

What is it in this book that triggered that anger, or feeling of being overwhelmed with love, or despair, or feeling a bit lost, or defensive? Did something about one of the characters speak to something in you? Was it a sense of affinity that you felt with a particular event?

I sometimes find that a book that I didn’t feel I was particularly enjoying at the time of reading can stay with me for days or even weeks afterward, returning to my mind as if there’s some kind of message there that it has for me. I can be prompted to notice something that I’ve let go in my life, that feels missing or that I need more of, by my reaction to what I read. Even if I can’t pin my finger on exactly what it’s about, spending a little bit of time alongside that part in me that responds strongly feels therapeutic, as if it’s meeting a need of something that wants attention.

Reading tastes are so personal, and what some people find therapeutic, others may feel is just too much hard work. Here’s 7 books that do it for me in different ways.

Reading as self care Lucy Hyde online therapy

1. The stress-buster: ‘The Bear and the Nightingale ‘ by Katherine Arden

A book (or series – the Winternight trilogy) that I really lose myself in, this story has the flavour of a Russian folk tale, with a very strong young female main character – who is only too aware of her own vulnerability. A fantastic illustration of resilience, set in a wonderful magic realist sweeping fantasy.

2. The connection-builder: ‘The Shadow King ‘ by Maaza Mengiste

A book that has stuck with me long after reading, this novel is set during the real life events of the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in 1935, and tells the story of the women who fought in that war. It pushed me to read more about Ethiopian history as I realised how little I knew of one of the world’s oldest civilisations, and how much my perceptions of a country had been influenced by growing up in the 80s amidst white Western media depictions of famine victims.  

Reading as self care Lucy Hyde online counsellor

3. The language-developer: ‘Growth of the Soil ‘ by Knut Hamsun

One of my all-time favourites…….a novel, but also a poem to the land, and humans’ relationship to it. Every time I read this book I’m reminded of what it is to be human, and how imaginary and transient many of my worries, fixations and anxieties are. Books like this give me a way to talk about and develop my understanding of what really matters to me at my core. This book is an antidote to social media life of the 21st century.

4. The great book group read: ‘Girl, Woman, Other ‘ by Bernardine Evaristo

This was almost unanimously popular (an unusual occurrence!) in my book group. Evaristo manages to succinctly capture on paper so many different lives, of mostly – though not entirely – Black British women. For me this was a fantastic combination of entertainment and exposure to lives different from mine, but also, in sharing our responses to the characters, and which ones we loved, a great book group read. 

Self care via reading Lucy Hyde counselling

5. The pure enjoyment gift-to-self: ‘The City We Became ‘ by NK Jemisin

For escaping into new worlds, NK Jemisin, a science fiction / fantasy writer I’ve only recently discovered, takes some beating. (As a Black woman, she also challenges stereotypes of what a sci-fi writer ‘looks like’.) This book is set in a New York that is – and isn’t – just like the real one, and as well as having some full-on sci-fi concepts that take some bending your head around, is chock-full of strong female characters.

6. The self-help aid: ‘Rewild Yourself ‘ by Simon Barnes

The closest I’ve got to self-help recently, Rewilding Yourself is a gentle book that brings you closer to nature. In a year when taking cruises to Alaska to see arctic wildlife hasn’t been an option (even for those who can bear to burn the fossil fuel to do it), this little book is a great introduction to becoming a small-scale David Attenborough in your own back garden or field.

self care with books Lucy Hyde therapy

7. The self-discovery tale: ‘The Left Hand of Darkness ‘ by Ursula Le Guin

Le Guin was an amazing writer – her Young Adult Earthsea books were a part of my growing up – and I recently discovered her adult fiction. I never read one of her books without being given pause for thought – about the assumptions we make about what is ‘normal’ or ‘real’ based on our experience, environment and upbringing. She deals with philosophical questions with a light touch. The Left Hand of Darkness – written in the 1960s – challenges concepts of sexuality and gender with a delicacy that is impressive 50 years later.


If you think you don’t like reading – perhaps you just need to give yourself more of a chance. Start with something that fills your soul. Read a love story, or a children’s book. A graphic novel (I’ve just finished the fantastic ‘Persepolis ’ by Marjane Satrapi, which tells her early life story, as a girl growing up in the Iran of the 1970s and 80s). When I need the reading equivalent of curling up under a blanket and hiding from the world, I read Joan Aiken’s children’s books, even now. Reading takes practice – but the rewards are so worth it!

It’s cheap, too, especially if you’ve got a library that is operational at the moment, or by making use of charity shops, or Betterworldbooks – although it’s also great to support authors by paying full whack for their labour, when you can afford it.

Of course, reading isn’t the only way of taking care of yourself!  But it sure has benefits that can include learning more about yourself, giving yourself a break, connecting to others and building relationships.

If you’re a reader who struggles to prioritise time to read as much as you’d really really like to, I hope reading this may have helped you to recognise the longer-term benefits of doing what you love.

I’d love to hear what reading means to you, if you feel reading has a therapeutic benefit, and whether there are particular books you return to again and again.

And if reading isn’t enough, and you feel you could benefit from learning more about yourself through talking to someone, please get in touch here.

Books and wellbeing Lucy Hyde counsellor

References and further reading:

Reading V television

When I read in another language

Which language has the most words?