12 Books to Inspire Self-Reflection and Empathy this Holiday Season

Whether you’re snowed in or have long holiday travels planned, here are twelve books we turn to at Acumen to help us cultivate more self-reflection and empathy as we begin to consider our resolutions for 2016.

December 21, 2015

The malls are crowded. There are meals to prepare and winter weather to contend with. Stress levels run high. The holiday season can be harried, but it’s also a time where people feel inclined to be generous towards others and look inward as they prepare for the New Year. Whether you’re snowed in or have long holiday travels planned, here are twelve books we turn to at Acumen to help us cultivate more self-reflection and empathy as we begin to consider our resolutions for 2016.

1. Strangers Drowning: Grappling With Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help
by Larissa MacFarquer.

A staff writer for the New Yorker, MacFarquer profiles extreme “do-gooders” or people who have taken drastic measures to care for others. She reveals the underlying skepticism that our society holds for people who commit their lives to raising over 20 adopted children, caring for a colony of lepers in India, or giving away almost all of their money to the effective altruism movement. In between these riveting portraits, she narrates the history and complicated legacy of doing good, leaving you with a deep appreciation for the complicated self-sacrifice that accompanies lives of extreme generosity.

2. Just Mercy
by Bryan Stevenson.

This book reads like a thriller (it’s hard to put down!) but it’s also a chilling portrait of the criminal justice system in America. Stevenson is a lawyer and co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative who has spent his life representing poor clients and coming to understand the stories of those who sit on death row. He narrates in harrowing detail how the U.S. justice system is often unjust and explores the complicated factors of race and poverty that often land people in the country’s prisons.

3. Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion
by Pavirthra Mehta.

In 1976, Dr. Venkataswamy, one of the fathers of the social enterprise movement, founded Aravind Eye Care Hospital with the ambitious goal of ending curable blindness. Today, Aravind is the largest provider of eye care on the planet, with a unique business model that allows anyone to pay whatever price they are able for quality care. This book, written by Dr. V’s niece, is a story not only of the terrific medical accomplishments the hospital has achieved, but also the unique culture the organization has cultivated. One of Acumen’s earliest investments, Aravind remains a powerful model of a successful social enterprise that continues to elicit the best in human nature.

4. A Train in Winter
by Caroline Moorehead

A nonfiction account of 230 women who became members of the French Resistance during World War II and then were collectively imprisoned in Birkenau, “A Train in Winter” is an important and untold story. The women banded together and found ways to care for each other and remain human under even the most inhumane conditions. Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen’s founder, has said that: “For us, who live in a time where we're not connected to a cause resulting in life or death consequences, this story can be incredibly inspiring and humbling. The aha is that sometimes we are a part of a mission that may not be accomplished in our lifetime and probably won’t be, but if you don’t do it, then there is no one else to take your place and move the mission forward.”

5. Rising Strong
by Brené Brown

Brene Brown’s TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability is the 4th most watched TED talk of all-time. Her latest book is a self-described chronicle of “what it takes to get back up (when we fail) and how owning our stories of struggle gives us the power to write a daring new ending.” Grounded in research, this book is also deeply empowering and inspires necessary self-reflection on how we must dare greatly and fail often if we are to achieve anything meaningful.

6. Behind the Beautiful Forevers
by Katherine Boo

If you’re looking for perspectives beyond your own hearth this holiday season, Katherine Boo’s nonfiction account subtitled “Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” will transport you into Annawadi, a vibrant slum community in India. The numerous slum dwellers are rendered with great detail and dignity and you end the book with a clear sense of their complicated and distinct humanity. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, this book is worth a read if you haven’t gotten to it yet.

7. The Empathy Exams
by Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison’s 2014 collection of essays is far-ranging, but the primary subject is empathy. Her topics are bizarre and intriguing, stretching from botflies to endurance races to medical acting. They push us to think about more extreme ways we can embody and understand other people’s stories, perspectives and pain. “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us — a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain,” she writes, “it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.”

8. The Art of Stillness
by Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer has been a travel writer for many years. Most recently, he has turned his attention from mobility to stillness. In his latest book The Art of Stillness, he describes what technological overload has done to our sense of well-being, wonder and wholeness. He personally retreats many times each year to a Benedictine hermitage where he has learned to “find adventures in going nowhere.” In one of our favorite passages from the book, Iyer reflects “We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off — our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.” If you are ready to regain a sense of stillness and recalibrate your sense of balance as you head into 2016, this book will give you much to contemplate.

9. Finding Beauty in a Broken World
by Terry Tempest Williams

This is a book written at a moment when poet Terry Tempest William’s “world is splintered, but her heart was full.” After a decade of hardships including suffering the death of her brother, witnessing the environmental degradation of her native Utah and Wyoming, and witnessing killing and genocide in places like Rwanda, she pieces together a collection of essays in the spirit of a mosaic. Indeed, she goes to Italy to work in a tile shop and the lessons she learned from this apprenticeship inform the collection. Critic Adam Federman notes that it is “the confluence of human and ecological genocide that perhaps unifies Williams’s many narratives in this kaleidoscopic book.” By the end, she has adopted a son from Rwanda and gained a better sense of how things that are broken can also be used to make us whole.

10. The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas
by Anand Giridharadas

In the weeks following September 11th, Raisuddin Bhuiyan, an American of Bangladeshi origin, was working at a gas station in Texas when he was shot by gunman Mark Stroman. In his remarkable book, “The True American”, Anand Giridharadas traces what happened in the days and years following this attack. After undergoing many eye surgeries to alleviate his gun wounds, Bhuiyan chose to forgive Stroman in the name of Islam. The Washington Post calls this “a book about the many dimensions of America… It reminds you that there are some Americas where mercy flows freely, and other Americas where it has turned to ice.” Reading about Bhuiyan’s journey towards forgiveness even in the face of violent hate is an important lesson for all of us to keep in mind during these politically divisive times.

11. Why I Wake Early
by Mary Oliver

Perhaps one of your New Year’s resolutions involves going to bed and waking earlier so that you will have more energy to head to the gym, get a head start on work, or just practice some quiet moments of meditation. If so, this book of poetry by Mary Oliver might give you some compelling reasons to resist hitting the snooze button. In the title poem of this anthology, Oliver, a lifelong wanderer in nature, salutes the sun. The poem closes with the lovely line: “Watch, now, how I start the day/ in happiness, in kindness.” If you begin your days reading some of her poems, you might emerge happier and kinder too.

12. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
by Ursula Le Guin

Freely available here, this rather chilling short story from Ursula Le Guin is a thought-provoking meditation on our responsibilities towards others, the moral trade-offs that we can choose to make, and how we sometimes have to heed our conscience in ways that are difficult but necessary. If you are looking for a short but powerful reminder of our obligations to those who are less powerful or less fortunate this holiday season, this otherworldly tale can pack a punch.

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