Summer may be speeding to its end, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pump the brakes and soak up every single second. One of the most enjoyable ways to do that? Lazing around with a great book. Not only is losing yourself in a story relaxing, it’s a perfect—and instant—way to escape whatever may be weighing you down, your health included.
But the type of books you choose can make a difference in your mood and attitudes, says Arthur A. Raney, Ph.D., a professor of communication at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Negative content can increase aggression, stereotypical thinking, and other unhealthy mindsets, he says. Positive storylines on the other hand? Those boost your mood and can help you feel connected to others. Even depression, anxiety, and insomnia are soothed by watching funny films, according to a recent review published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing.
While much of the research has focused on movies, some 75% of people have felt moved while reading a book, according to a study Raney coauthored in Mass Communication and Society.
Of course, what feels enjoyable or inspiring is in the eye of the beholder, says Mary Beth Oliver, Ph.D., professor of media studies at Penn State University and another researcher in this burgeoning field of “meaningful media experiences.” The same book might make someone feel elated or inspired while another is bored or annoyed. That’s just the risk you take when you crack one open—or hit download on your e-reader.
The new summer reads I’m suggesting here have all left me feeling happier and hopeful. I can only hope they'll do the same for you.
3 Picks for Non-Fiction Fans
By Melinda Gates
What it’s about: You might think a book about big problems in the world—maternal death, child marriage, grinding poverty, discrimination against women—would be the mother of all downers. But then you’re not Melinda Gates, co-chair with her husband, Bill, of The Gates Foundation, a nonprofit with enough money to make huge strides against all of them. For more than 20 years, Gates has worked with advocates in Africa, Asia, and the U.S. to educate and empower women, guided by the belief that lifting them up is how you raise entire societies. Each chapter focuses on a different problem and the incredible people aiming to solve it.
What you’ll love: By showcasing the heroes working on behalf of marginalized women—everyone from Malala Yousafzai fighting for girls’ education in Pakistan to a Kenyan woman breaking her culture’s taboos against sharing birth-control advice—you feel a sense of renewed hope. You’ll also undoubtedly feel like calling a soup kitchen or homeless shelter to do your part, too.
by Lori Gottlieb
What it’s about: Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb offers an unvarnished, behind-the-scenes peek at what goes on in therapy with her patients. Gottlieb is warm and understanding as she deals with John, a man with a troubled marriage and overblown ego, Rita, who’s revolted by her own life choices, and more. And after her own fiancé bolts, Gottlieb takes a therapist of her own, sharing her own fears and defenses.
What you’ll love: You'll cheer when John, Rita, and Gottlieb herself grasp what makes them behave as they do, using that new self-awareness to transform their lives. We also learn a lot about our own psyches, thanks to the tools Gottlieb sprinkles throughout the book, which will make us better partners, friends, bosses, and humans.
by Cathy Guisewite
What it’s about: This book of 48 short essays is what the character in the beloved comic strip Cathy would write if she got older and turned to prose. That’s because Guisewite is indeed the creator of that ubiquitous strip. Like her namesake, Guisewite grapples with warmth and wit about everything from her shockingly growing feet and why she loves retail therapy to post-retirement confusion and her fast-growing teen. (“When I left two hours ago, she was three years old and getting tucked in for her nap by a babysitter. Now there’s a 19-year-old sprawled on the couch covered in potato chip crumbs and electronic devices,” she writes.)
What you’ll love: Guisewite is funny and relatable—who hasn’t lost their minds trying to organize decades worth of photos, or been overpowered with love in their mother’s kitchen when she makes soup for her now-adult brood? Plus, the 100 drawings illustrating the book will make Cathy-lovers smile.
3 Picks for Fiction Lovers
by Christina Lauren
What it’s about: In this adorable rom-com, Olive and Ethan are the only ones at a big family wedding who passed on the seafood buffet, sparing them the food poisoning the fells everyone else—including the bride and groom. The stricken newlyweds urge the pair to take their non-refundable Maui honeymoon, even though they’ve never gotten along. They accept with the plan of not spending time together, but…well, I won’t ruin the ending for you.
What you’ll love: Not only does love conquer all, we get to watch usually skittish Olive grow as a person, overcoming her fears and self-doubts so she can make decisions about her life and career that are actually good for her (and not merely safe).
by Laurie Gelman
What it’s about: Jen Dixon is not just a mom, she’s a class mom. Anyone with kids understands what this means: She not only has to deal with her own challenging children, she must placate dozens of other parents, teachers, and the micromanaging head of the PTA. In this standalone follow-up to Gelman’s Class Mom, Jen is a snarky but loveable minivan-driving superhero aiming to survive her son’s challenging third grade while juggling two rebellious adult daughters and an actual job.
What you’ll love: Gelman nails the brutal world of third-grade class politics in a way that will have you laughing out loud.
by Susan Jane Gilman
What it’s about: Donna is the quirky narrator of her own exploding life after this 45-year-old failed punk rocker and Midwest mom unexpectedly discovers her husband in wearing nothing but ladies' underwear and a curly wig—his dominatrix standing by. To figure out who she is and what she wants, Donna runs—first to her college roommate in New York, then to an old boyfriend in Tennessee. Eventually, she finds herself in Greece, volunteering in a refugee camp for war-fleeing Syrians.
What you’ll love: Donna is frank and funny in the way we want our girlfriends to be. (“Nobody tells you that perimenopause is like puberty in reverse. Just a snow globe of emotions all over again, and some days I was in so much sexual heat, I was sure it was boiling off me in a vapor,” she confesses.) And while she is self-absorbed for much of the novel, she eventually comes around, realizing that real happiness is found outside yourself.