In the week after the 2016 presidential election, Americans googled the term "self-care" almost twice as often as they ever had before. Like "introvert" and "gluten-intolerant," self-care is a term that gets tossed around a lot lately, mostly in ways that are only tangentially related, if not inimical, to its actual meaning.
The genesis of the concept is usually traced back to Audre Lorde's 1988 book A Burst of Light, in which the poet first articulated the theory that self-care is a political act. But just as agoraphobes and those with celiac disease might quibble with those who self-describe as introverts or gluten-intolerant, Lorde might consider the social-media version of self-care mightily watered down. She was suffering from liver cancer when she wrote, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation," and the essay that quote comes from uses the struggle for civil rights as a metaphorical parallel, drawing the conclusion that in order to fight – whether the fight is personal or political – one must tend to oneself.
So self-care was once a means of reclaiming autonomy from a system that neglected or violated women and people of color. But what began as a corrective to the injustices of unevenly distributed privilege became less about health and more about "wellness," that nebulous term that encompasses not just treatment of disease but promotion of, well, ease. Being easy in mind and body – that is, not stressed out and not sick – is the goal of self-care. But it's somewhat in danger of becoming a "treat yo'self" hall pass to binge on Netflix, Ben & Jerry's, and beauty treatments in the name of "wellness." It's been commodified, Instagrammed and you-go-girled. Not that buying a new lipstick can't give you a boost – but diving for your phone and your PayPal password the way you might grab for a Xanax is not a long-term solution to healing a troubled heart.
While reading isn't as direct a route to good health as, say, exercise or meditation, neither is it as dubious as $75 New Age dusts. (I blame Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop crew for those damn dusts; you can't order a smoothie without tripping over a cordyceps or an ashwagandha these days.) But it works for me. Acquiring a new book combines the small frisson of retail therapy with the possibility of being educated, enlightened or at least transported elsewhere mentally. I wondered if I was alone in that, so I went to the experts: the librarians.
Jo Ann Sampson, acquisitions services manager for the Orange County Library System, says, "Self-help related titles are one of the most used subject areas of our nonfiction collection in both print and digital formats. ... The book Rising Strong by Brené Brown was used a lot after the Pulse tragedy, along with other titles related to grief. We also noticed more children's and young adult books related to diversity being requested."
Also popular? Cookbooks. "There have been over 14,000 checkouts of cookbooks in the past year," Sampson says.
Check our website for a list of the top 10 most-checked-out books from OCLS this year (not a lot of surprises, but some good tips if you haven't already read them all), and read on for my current booklist.
If you truly want to care for yourself, read. Slow down. Live to fight another day.
The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley
Sometimes you just want to vanish into another world long enough to stop worrying. Pulley's fantastic tale of a journey to the Amazon is lightly salted with fairytale elements, but grounded in meticulous historical detail.
A Man of Shadows, by Jeff Noon
Jeff Noon (Vurt, Pollen, Automated Alice) is an acknowledged master of weird fiction, and this noir-ish mystery continues in his surreal tradition. A lot weirder and a lot darker than Bedlam Stacks, this is escapism for people who drink their coffee black.
After Andy: Adventures in Warhol Land, by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni
Gossip is gossip and always delicious, but it feels less like junk food when serious artists and cultural icons are the protagonists. Fraser-Cavassoni met Warhol when she was 16 and worked at the Factory through the end of the era, and her inside look at the superstars and money men in his circle is distraction reading deluxe.
New People, by Danzy Senna
Stop obsessing over whatever is troubling you, and stop bringing it up on Twitter and at parties. Read the book everyone is reading this minute, and you'll have something else to talk about. This month, that's Danzy Senna's buzzy New People, in which a perfect couple, "King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom," have to wonder whether they are part of the problem: gentrification.
The Futilitarians, by Anne Gisleson
This chronicle of sorrow is an object lesson in realizing no matter how bad you feel, someone else has it worse. Death, divorce, bankruptcy ... after some drinking and crying, the author formed the Existential Crisis Reading Group, and found a balm in books.
The World Broke in Two, by Bill Goldstein
Maybe your life isn't so bad? In 1922, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence all faced crippling creative doubts, yet all went on to write the masterpieces they're known for today. The title comes from a Willa Cather quote – "The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts" – which, again, is a good reminder that this is all a turning wheel, not a downward spiral.
You Play the Girl, by Carina Chocano
Carina Chocano is a vicious wit, in the best way – she tears into the same things that bother you and articulates that discontent better than you ever could. These essays analyze the conceptual creation of "the Girl," in all her many artificial and disempowering guises.
The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage, by Jared Yates Sexton
Dive right in and face it head-on. Sexton's book tracks the 2016 election season and it's just as heartrendingly, dumbfoundingly angering as you might expect. Consider it immersion therapy.
BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, by Stella Parks
When in doubt, bake. Lose yourself in the concentration and rule-following required to create perfect baked goods. Share the fruits with others to multiply happiness.