It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness, wrote Robin Wall Kimmerer, the botanist, storyteller, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, in her celebration of natural wisdom, Braiding Sweetgrass.
There are some books that leave us feeling inspired, joyful, contemplative, and hopeful about the goodness and beauty of the world. Each of these books offers a unique perspective on life, and with their hopeful messages about the world’s innate beauty, they’re ideal to curl up with during troubled times.
To rekindle your love for the world, here are ten of my favourite books to remind you of the beauty of life, including beautiful books from Tove Jansson, Sy Montgomery, and Annie Dillard among other writers who cherish our natural world.
10 gentle books about the goodness and beauty of life
1. Notes from an Island by Tove Jansson
In her late forties, Tove Jansson, helped by a maverick seaman called Brunström, built a cabin on Klovharun, an almost barren outcrop of rock in the Gulf of Finland. For twenty-six summers Tove and her life partner, the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, retreated to the island to live, paint and write, inspired and energised by the solitude and shifting seascapes.
Notes from an Island, published in English for the first time, is Tove Jansson’s most personal book, featuring gorgeous illustrations by Tuulikki. It’s both a memoir and homage to the island the two women loved intensely and relinquished only when pressed by age, bringing together the meditative beauty of two artists’ work: Tove’s sparse prose, and Tuulikki’s subtle washes and aquatints.
2. Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by Dr James Doty
Into the Magic Shop is neurosurgeon Dr James Doty’s beautiful testament to the mysterious connections between the human heart and mind. It’s one of my favourite books on approaching life mindfully with a kind, open heart.
“There are a lot of things in life we can’t control. It’s hard, especially when you’re a child, to feel like you have control over anything. Like you can change anything. But you can control your body and you can control your mind. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s very powerful. It can change everything.”
3. The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama
In this graceful novel that will remind you of the beauty and goodness of life, a 20-year-old Chinese painter, Stephen, is sent to his family’s summer home in a Japanese coastal village to recover from a bout of tuberculosis. Here he is cared for by Matsu, a reticent housekeeper, master gardener, and samurai of the soul; above all, a man devoted to doing good and finding beauty in a cruel world.
Over the course of a year, Matsu helps him not just to recover his physical strength, but also to realise profound spiritual insights.
4. How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery
This beautiful memoir of a life well-lived with animals is a wonderful reminder of the kindness, generosity, and love that are innate parts of you, just like the other creatures that accompany us through life. It’s also one of my favourite beautifully illustrated books.
“Thousands of billions of mothers—from the gelatinous ancestors of Octavia, to my own mother—have taught their kind to love, and to know that love is the highest and best use of a life. Love alone matters, and makes its object worthy. And love is a living thing, even if Octavia’s eggs were not.”
5. Water, Wood & Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town by Hannah Kirshner
I came across this beautifully soothing and inspiring book in my local library recently and fell in love with it. Water, Wood & Wild Things is artist and food writer Hannah Kirshner’s journey through the culture and cuisine of Yamanaka, a misty Japanese mountain town with evergreen forests, local water, and smoke-filled artisan workshops.
Part travelogue, part meditation on the meaning of work, it’s a book about slowing down time, appreciating the joy of rituals, and finding purpose in cultivation, craft, and traditions.
From making a fine bowl to harvesting rice, this tender book is a celebration of the simple beauty of life, accompanied by Hannah’s gorgeous drawings and recipes inspired by her time in Japan.
6. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
What better book to help you marvel at the world’s beauty and goodness than Braiding Sweetgrass? This is a true love letter to the land, combining indigenous wisdom, science’s findings on the mysteries of nature, and the teachings of plants through truly beautiful writing.
Admiring the natural world is our first step to protecting it, even in the smaller ways accessible to us via our day-to-day choices about how to live our own lives, alongside the miniature ecosystems we create in our window boxes, balconies, and gardens.
“How do I show my girls I love them on a morning in June? I pick them wild strawberries. On a February afternoon we build snowmen and then sit by the fire. In March we make maple syrup. We pick violets in May and go swimming in July. On an August night we lay out blankets and watch meteor showers. In November, that great teacher the woodpile comes into our lives. That’s just the beginning. How do we show our children our love? Each in our own way by a shower of gifts and a heavy rain of lessons.”
7. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
For a beautifully slow, thoughtful, and meditative description of the natural world, read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This is the memoir of a dramatic year in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, accompanied by muskrats in the creek and fields full of grasshoppers, in which Annie Dillard set out to chronicle “beauty tangled in a rapture with violence.”
8. The Gift of the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
In this beloved and lyrical classic, Anne Morrow Lindbergh gracefully weaves her meditations on youth and age, love and marriage, and solitude and contentment as she settles into a vacation by the sea.
Drawing inspiration from the shells on the shore, the mother of five, acclaimed writer, and pioneering aviator casts an unsentimental eye on the trappings of modernity that threaten to overwhelm us, offering a reminder of the bliss to be found in carving out space for contemplation and creativity within our own lives.
9. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
Prodigal Summer is probably my all-time favourite book, weaving together the stories of interconnected characters as they witness and experience new life blooming by the mountains during a single summer. It’s a book to restore your faith in the goodness and beauty of the world, grounded in nature’s power for regeneration and human kindness after loss.
10. The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim
If you’re feeling burnt out and need a retreat from the world, Elizabeth von Arnim is an excellent starting point. She’s best known for The Enchanted April, which is another fantastic choice, but I’d also recommend The Solitary Summer.
The protagonist of this little book intends to spend a summer wholly alone to rediscover the joy of life. She isn’t wholly successful in remaining alone, but her effort is valiant, and we can share her enjoyment of magnificent larkspurs and nasturtiums, cooling forest walks, and the refuge of her beloved plants and books.
“Everybody must love something, and I know of no objects of love that give such substantial and unfailing returns as books and a garden.”
For more soothing books, you might like my collection of the most beautiful books to treasure, the most beautifully written books of all time, and the most relaxing books to calm your mind and soothe your soul.
Enjoy more from me
- Retreat into my new book, Your Life in Bloom: Finding Your Path and Your Courage, Grounded in the Wisdom of Nature.
- I'm also the author of Mountain Song: A Journey to Finding Quiet in the Swiss Alps, a book about my time living alone by the mountains.
- If you love books, are feeling a little lost right now, and would love some gentle comfort and guidance, join The Sanctuary, my seven-day course to rebalance your life.