Top 5 unconventional self-help books

The Moves that Matter author Jonathan Rowson recommends books to help in a crisis, and to aid us to live better, happier lives

On Becoming a Person by Carl R Rogers

“What is most personal is most universal,” says Rogers. We’re all unique, yet we share our uniqueness. When we take the trouble to articulate the specificity of our story, readers can feel their own specific story come alive. 

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig

The best self-help books are accidental self-help books. Pirsig illustrates this point in the way he grapples with a personal inquiry into fatherhood, sanity and education; culturally resonant in the Seventies and still prismatic for life as a whole. 

The Case for Working with your Hands by Matthew Crawford

The best unconventional self-help books often feature a particular personal crisis overcome that is symptomatic of a societal opportunity more broadly. Crawford’s journey from scribe to mechanic compellingly highlights the vitality we risk losing in a world of desk jobs and smartphones.

The Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling

Harry Potter books are bildungsromans or ‘education novels’ and self-help in disguise.  Aldous Huxley said “experience is not what happens to you but what you do with what happens to you”. The same is true of reading. Through our identification with the characters major questions about what living well means arise, but only if we remember to ask them. 

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

And good self-help starts even younger, through stories of reciprocal belonging. The Velveteen Rabbit is about how we bring things to life by loving them. 

Jonathan Rowson’s The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life is out now (Bloomsbury, £20)