The GOOD Gift Guide: Non-Self-Help Books That Will Improve Your Life

5 lovely, inspiring, informative books that don’t scream “you need help.”

Under no circumstances should you ever gift someone a self-help book. But giving a present that has the end result of improving the receiver’s life? That just might be priceless. It’s a hard trick to pull off, though. We’ve selected a few nifty, new publications that happen to be both aesthetically dreamy and intellectually stimulating, all but assuring your loved one will be more creative, a better cook, more globally savvy, happier, or perhaps just the coolest person at their next party.

A Pretty, Easy Way into Mindfulness

For the harried man or woman in your life that you desperately wish would just chill the fuck out once in a while, Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe is a surprisingly subtle hint, despite the title. The brainchild of comic book artist Yumi Sakugawa, this guide provides “a hand-drawn path to inner peace.” Sakugawa’s inky illustrations are marvelously creative, rendered in a simple style that mimics the no-nonsense musings and gentle assignments she imparts to readers. As if speaking to your overbooked friend or relative directly, Sakugawa asks rhetorically, “how can we possibly feel oneness with the universe if we aren’t creating any space to really listen to what the universe is trying to tell us?” It’s an important question, posed in truly beautiful way.

For the Person Who Has and Knows Everything

Both know-it-alls and have-it-alls will be stumped by this reproduction of the famed Voynich Manuscript. The 15th-century tome, first mentioned in Central Europe in the 1600s and re-discovered in 1912, appears to depict imaginary flora, astrological symbols, potions, and anatomy. But the fine script accompanying each illustration is written in a language or cipher no codebreaker has been able to grasp in the 500-plus years since the manuscript’s creation. While there is only one authentic copy known, for a couple of benjamins you can have a hand-stitched reproduction made, right down to the velum pages and leather cover. It’s sure to spark endless cocktail chatter, tons of materialistic envy, and hours of conspiracy theory.

Learning to Cook for Veggie-loving Recipe-haters

Some people follow recipes down to the eighth-of-a-teaspoon. Others don’t, to varying degrees of success. Karen Page’s Flavor Bible is a much-lauded alternative for the seat-of-their-pants set, and this year she’s released The Vegetarian Flavor Bible for non-meat eaters as well as anyone interested in unlocking the most potential from their produce. Instead of recipes, this encyclopedia methodically and exhaustively catalogues ingredients, from sunchokes to sumac, and cross-references them with other ingredients that together create excellent flavor combinations. Pairings particularly favored by professional cooks appear in bold, and Page also includes many quotes from celebrated chefs sounding off on their favorite way to prepare leafy greens, earthy roots, and exotic fruits. In the notes for each ingredient, she also provides possible substitutes, a feature alone worth the list price.

Getting Shamelessly Creative

Alternative newspaper nerds know Lynda Barry for her long-running Ernie Pook’s Comeek, a comic strip that graced the pages of free, rabble-rousing publications like the Village Voice for decades. But others may be more familiar with her second career act, as a teacher and student of creativity, most notably at the Image Lab at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. While some may be wary of anything as vague and feel-good as learning to unlock your inner creative, Barry’s humble, funny, and funky approach has made her a sought-after speaker and professor. In her latest book, Syllabus, Barry stresses the importance of journaling by collecting her own notebooks used during the development and teaching of her popular courses at the Image Lab and the University of Wisconsin. Presented in a delightfully e-reader defying way, the collages, drawings, lesson plans, and lessons learned challenge the notion of “good” or “bad” art, focusing instead on the creative act itself, with dozens of exercises to get readers (especially teachers!) spilling the contents of their brains onto the pages of their own journals.

A Gateway to International Relations

For those who want to be informed of global events without pretending to like The Economist, consider Oxford University Press’ Atlas of the World. Updated annually since the atlas’ inception 21 years ago, the large-format book features breathtaking satellite imagery courtesy of NASA, spreads highlighting the effects of climate change, and even special designations connoting Crimea’s contested borders. Of course, there’s maps aplenty, detailed enough to make Google blush, but what will really excite the budding poli sci major or globetrotting businesswoman is Oxford’s notable “Gazetteer of Nations” with one-sheets on individual countries and their political economies. Plus, it looks great on a coffee table.

NHM Vienna/Hans Reschreiter

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