8 Books to Read When You’re Stuck in a Rut at Work

By Charlotte Cowles

The term 
bibliotherapy was first coined in 1916 by Samuel Crothers, a Unitarian minister who believed in prescribing books to help people deal with their troubles. More recently, bibliotherapy has been incorporated into medical treatment programs for depression and other psychological disorders, with positive results. Meanwhile, researchers have found that reading fiction improves general brain function and connectivity, boosting emotional intelligence and even muscle memory — handy skills for any job. The right book at the right time, be it a novel, an autobiography, or self-help literature, can be a real kick in the pants, workwise and elsewhere. Here are eight suggestions for your office ailments.

When you’re out of ideas:

This memoir-slash-life instruction manual is intimidating at first. One of the world’s most celebrated dance choreographers, Tharp is intensely disciplined and adheres to near-militaristic rituals: She rises before dawn every day to work out with her trainer, eats three hard-boiled egg whites for breakfast, and files reference materials for her projects (index cards, music albums, photographs) in meticulously organized cardboard boxes. Extreme? Sure, but it’s also a hyperspecific portrait of the granular, painstaking, day-to-day effort it takes to succeed at grand creative endeavors. Tharp also breaks down her own processes into small, simple exercises that anyone can do (questionnaires, memory prompts) and extols the benefits of what she calls “scratching” — groping around at little concepts until they cohere into something useful. You don’t need artistic aspirations to get a lot out of this book; it’s more of a general road map to developing bigger, better ideas, and staying focused on them.

When you’re feeling unappreciated:

Obviously, this book is funny, and therefore good for anyone in the dumps. I read it when I was trying to decide whether I should quit a miserable job that looked impressive on paper for a much less glamorous job that seemed fresh and different, and this passage pushed me over the edge: “Treat your career like a bad boyfriend,” Poehler writes. “Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around. It will forget you birthday and wreck your car. Your career will blow you off if you call it too much. It’s never going to leave its wife. Your career is fucking other people and everyone knows but you … If your career is a bad boyfriend, it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go sleep with somebody else.” Poehler’s advice isn’t to take yourself (or your career) less seriously — it’s a reminder to not let your pride get in the way of your options, and that you are never truly trapped.

When you’re apologizing nonstop and can’t seem to do anything right:

A best seller and cultural sensation when it was originally published more than 25 years ago, this book is a bit dated now (even the word self-esteem feels very ‘90s), but the message still resonates: A strong core of self-respect produces more fulfilled, productive people, and there’s a lot of data to prove it (the book is heavily footnoted). “Self esteem isn’t everything,” Steinem writes, “it’s just that there’s nothing without it.” She is not peddling blind, everyone-gets-a-trophy confidence; instead, the book is about fostering your own independence and individualism, pushing your own boundaries, and then squaring them with the obligations and pressures of our society (which, of course, has changed since the H.W. Bush era —but not by that much). Do some of the book’s exercises veer into finger-painting, drum-circle cheesiness? Yes. But they’re also fun and approachable (orgasms: recommended), and you’ve got to start somewhere.

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