“Who am I?” is a question we ask ourselves throughout our lives, in so many ways. Although popular imagination consigns self-discovery to adolescence, the work of finding yourself is lifelong. Understanding and deciding who we are can bring a clarity of purpose, a slow healing, and a steady sort of pleasure to our lives. Books about finding yourself abound, and you will find some of them on this list. Others on this list are not specifically about finding yourself, though they can aid you in that work just the same.
These are tip-of-the-iceberg books about finding yourself; think of this list as a starter syllabus to introduce possibilities that may interest you, experiences you may relate to, and material for reflection. These books about finding yourself are full of thoughtful ideas, but this list is not definitive. Its seven categories are not the only ways you can define and know yourself, but they cover a large swath of what makes up an identity.
Books About finding your Passion
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi
Whether or not “flow,” the state of mind where a person is completely absorbed in an activity and loses track of time, is the optimal experience is debatable; however, its connection to the creative process is solid. Learning about how to identify and seek out flow will help you to identify what creative activities move you most and will spur you on to cultivate them.
The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Celebrated artist, choreographer, and creator Twyla Tharp provides wisdom, examples, and exercises in balanced proportion as she leads you through the creative process. Read this if you have a general idea of what creative activities you like, but need help to integrate them into your daily life and identity.
Creative Quest by Questlove
Blending his own varied and prodigious experience with what he has learned from other creators, musician/producer/designer/more Questlove delves into the discovery and cultivation of creativity.
Books About Exploring Your Gender
Trans Bodies, Trans Selves; ed. Laura Erickson-Schroth
This is an excellent resource to explore and understand gender possibilities, something that can only help you to understand yourself (and others!) better.
Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Anne Fausto-Sterling
Part of exploring gender is revealing the instability of the sex categories that people often use to bolster arguments in favor of the gender binary. Intersex people have unique relationships to gender, and learning about attempts to politicize and control their bodies is important as well as instructive.
Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks
One way that sexism works is by distorting people’s self-image. This feminist primer will go a long way in exposing sexist thoughts and practices and replacing them with affirming thought and anti-oppressive actions. One of the effects of this will be finding a truer and more positive vision of yourself.
The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry
Perry wittily and thoughtfully imagines a positive masculinity. Use this book to understand the ways that machismo affects you, and how to imagine and create something better.
Books About Creating Your Personal Style
The Curated Closet by Anuschka Rees
Use this excellent step-by-step system to discover your personal aesthetic and build a wardrobe around it. Though it is illustrated by photos of one particular aesthetic, the steps are flexible so that you can create a look that is uniquely “you.”
Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton
Explore how hundreds of different women relate to clothing and express their style, then reflect on your own relationship to the way you dress.
Face Paint: The Story of Makeup by Lisa Eldridge
This history of makeup provides a basis of information on which you can base your own decisions about makeup, as well as beautiful inspiration for creating makeup looks you like.
Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015 by Sharon Sadako Takeda, Kaye Durland Spilker, and Clarissa M. Esguerra
This beautifully photographed and illustrated survey of men’s fashion provides a wide scope of inspiration and possibilities for people who want to define their style.
Books about Understanding Your Sexuality
The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability by Miriam Kaufman, Cory Silverberg, and Fran Odette
This excellent book opens possibilities, answers questions, and provides affirmation to help anyone with physical limitations enjoy their sexuality. It is especially useful for and intended for disabled people, but its consent-based, pleasure-centered, inclusive approach to sex will be refreshing and informative for abled people as well.
Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino
Your boundaries and desires for romantic and platonic relationships are important things to know about yourself. This book will give you a lot to reflect on, whether or not you identify and polyamorous.
Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, ed. Jaclyn Freeman and Jessica Valenti
Learn to identify the ways that rape culture affects your sexuality and how to create a sex life that is positive, affirming, and tailored to your and any partners’ desires and boundaries.
The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality by Julie Sondra Decker
This valuable resource lays out information about asexuality and the lives of ace people that will help anyone on or off the asexual spectrum to learn more about themselves.
This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson
This is a cool, funny, and eminently useful guide to lgbt life. Whether you want learn more about life as a lesbian, gay, bi, or trans person; want to learn if you are, in fact, lesbian, gay, bi, or trans; or if you want to know more about sexuality in general; this is a great book with which to find yourself.
Books About Finding Your Body
FAT!SO?: Because You Don’t have to Apologize for Your Size by Marilyn Wann
This is an affirming, funny, and fierce book about living an extraordinarily full life while fat. People at any size will find in it inspiration to throw off artificial limitations and the opportunity to see themselves more clearly.
Hunger: A Memoir of (my) Body by Roxane Gay
This intensely honest and thoughtful memoir is valuable in itself, of course, but it can also be a good jumping-off point for people to reflect on their own relationships to their bodies.
The Disability Studies Reader, ed. Lennard J. Davis
This reader explores disability issues from a variety of perspectives. Accepting and valuing bodily difference is key to accepting and valuing yourself. (Side note: if you can’t afford the latest edition, check out used copies of earlier ones!)
The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love by Sonya Renee Taylor
This is a book about healing from the psychic and physical wounds oppression inflicts and the power of loving the person and the body that you are.
Books About Probing Your Racial Identity
Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon
This extraordinary classic of critical race theory explores the black psyche in an anti-black world. Understanding these psychological mechanisms can help you to separate the person you are from the lies the world tells about you and others.
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua
Many people find their own identity through solidarity with others. Read this foundational collection of writings by women of color both for a greater awareness of others’ experiences as well as a clearer sense of yourself.
Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide by Sarah Ratliff and Bryony Sutherland
This book gives mixed-race people the opportunity to reflect on their experiences and identity and not-mixed people the opportunity to deepen and nuance their understanding of race.
Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham
This memoir is an exploration of cultural identity with the structure of a bike travelogue. Pham, who was born in Vietnam and raised in California, takes a year-long bike trip in Mexico, Japan, and Vietnam, reflecting on the narrow identities others impose on him and his more integrated understanding of himself.
Books About Your Work
The advice in this book isn’t limited to the career arena, but it can help you step outside of your comfort zone and make career decisions that will suit your best self.
Meaningful Work: A Quest to Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul by Shawn Askinosie with Lawren Askinosie
Learn about business and career options that you may want to pursue in this book about doing work that is meaningful to you and helpful to others.
Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel
This look at American workers is fascinating and enormous in its scope. There is tons of food for thought here on your relationship with your work and how it relates to your identity.
Want more books about finding yourself that are in the same wheelhouse? Here are 205: