9 Nonfiction Books That Will Help Build Your Character

I’m hard-pressed to think of a nonfiction book I’ve read recently that hasn’t in some way helped me build my character. I’m a bit of a searcher, after all — for better or for worse — so most of my reading falls into that big, self-important, all-caps category I like to call READING WITH INTENTION. Also known as: Books that will build your character, blow your mind, make you a better person, and maybe even change your life a little.   

Most nonfiction books are great for building your character. What better way to gain a little life-altering perspective than by immersing yourself in the hard-won wisdom of somebody else? (Except maybe seeking out some hard-won wisdom of your own. But in a pinch nonfiction has got you covered.) There are plenty of writers out there who have been thoughtful enough to pen their journeys of personal growth to paper, for all of us somewhat lazier — albeit just as eager for self-improvement — folks to learn from. And some of my all-time faves are listed below.

The fact of the matter is, sometimes we all just need a little personality tune up — I know I do (probably more often than I’d like to admit). Here are nine nonfiction books that will help build your character, expand your worldview, and make you the best all-around you you can be. 

1. Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better by Pema Chödrön

Literally anything written by Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön will build your character, but Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better is her latest addition to a lifetime of character-building, transformative writing. In this quick, but intense read, Chödrön supposes how all our lives would be lived differently if we not just accepted our failings as a part of life, but viewed them as those experiences that made us into our best selves.

2. The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

As founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day was no stranger to journeys of self-reflection and transformation. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Day wrote of her life as a social activist, her spiritual journey of loss and discovery, and her vision of the better, more just world she worked so hard to create. 

3. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

This is probably not the U.S. history you learned in high school. Historian, writer, and social activist Howard Zinn dedicated much of his life to exploring untold histories and telling difficult truths, many of which are contained in A People's History of the United States — an intensely researched retelling of America's history from the point of view of Native Americans, African Americans, migrant workers, factory laborers, those living in poverty, and women. 

4. Rising Strong by Brené Brown

A champion of vulnerability, social work scholar Brené Brown believes that your areas of weakness might actually be your greatest strengths — if you would simply dare to take ownership of them. In Rising Strong Brown writes that the key to growth, wisdom, and hope isn't to avoid vulnerabilities, but to face them head on with equal parts fear and courage and to ultimately rise strong. 

5. Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle

Gregory Boyle began his journey for justice in one of the poorest and largest housing projects in the United States — a landscape that was once home to the highest concentration of gangs in the country. His solution, beyond founding a rehabilitative nonprofit offering sustainable employment to gang members, was to meet gang members where they were at in their own personal journeys and to love them in spite of their failings and challenges. As the title suggests, Tattoos on the Heart will leave an indelible imprint on your own heart.

6. Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman

If you've ever struggled to find an objective news broadcast on television, this book is for you. Perhaps even more relevant now than when it was written, Manufacturing Consent explores media and marketing in the United States, illuminating how fiscally and politically biased our media really is. Looking at news and media both in the United States and around the world, this lengthy series of case studies will definitely make you intensely conscious of what media you consume, how you consume it, and how much you allow it to inform your politics. 

7. When Everything Changed by Gail Collins 

If you need a little dose of some major girl-power inspiration, check out Gail Collins's When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. The bestselling author and New York Times columnist chronicles the evolution of everything from fashion, sex and family to politics, employability, and spending power of American women from 1960 to now. It's good to know where we came from ladies. 

8. Killers of the Dream by Lillian Smith

Since you've already read Claudia Rankine's Citizen (and if you haven't go do that right now) you should definitely check out Lilian Smith's Killers of the Dream — the Citizen of the 1950s, if you will. Credited with, at least in-part, inspiring the American Civil Rights Movement, Smith's exploration of systemic racism and segregation in the U.S. ventures well beyond the headlines and news broadcasts of the decade, and directly into the neighborhoods and homes of those families most affected by racism. 

9. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

As the survivor of four different Holocaust concentration camps, psychiatrist and author Viktor Frankl 's memoir Man's Search for Meaning, will definitely be one of the most meaningful books you ever read in your life. Frankl believed that while suffering was an unavoidable fact of life — and therefore fighting it would only lead to more suffering — meeting suffering with hope, purpose, and meaning is the key to resilience and survival. This book will literally help you get through anything and come out on the other side stronger. 

Image: mrhayata/flickr

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