Sometimes we just need to take a deep breath and relax – but it’s not always that easy. Reading a calming book can make it simpler, though.
Carving out regular reading time with a good book (even if you have to force yourself to sit still) can be one of the best ways to help you rebalance and get back on track when you’re stressed out.
Note to self-improvement junkies: business books and most personal development books aren’t calming. I love these books, but I know they’ll make me want to start a new project and feel bad about sitting doing nothing. They don’t help me to wind down before bed and sleep soundly, so I save them for my morning reading time and other breaks during the day.
When we need to chill out, especially before bed, we can turn to calming books that slow our heart rate, reduce anxiety, and help us to check in with ourselves.
The selection below is a mix of relaxing fiction, memoirs, non-fiction, and poetry. I hope you can calm your mind and unwind with these peaceful books too.
12 of the best calming books to help you relax when you’re stressed
1. The Bear by Andrew Krivak
I’m reading The Bear at the moment and want to recommend it to everyone (including my husband, who I’ve been reading sections to aloud at every opportunity). It’s a gorgeous book set in an Edenic future of calm streams, towering forests, and windflower-covered mountainsides that offers a wonderfully poetic tribute to nature’s dominion.
This relaxing fiction book is about the two last inhabitants on Earth, a girl and her father living in the shadow of a lone mountain. The father is preparing his daughter for adulthood close to nature, teaching her how to fish and hunt, the secrets of the seasons, and how to read stars. But when the girl finds herself alone in an unknown landscape, it is a bear that will lead her back home through the vast wilderness. His greatest message to her is that there are lessons all around, if only she can learn to listen.
“One morning, they found a patch of goldenrod in a meadow, blooming like the sun, and the bear stopped and watched as bees drifted from flower to flower, then flew off with their lading of pollen. Each one he followed with his snout and stared in the distance after them, as if content with observing their labor alone, until he said to the girl, This way.”The Bear
2. The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down: How to Be Calm and Mindful in a Fast-Paced World by Haemin Sunim
In this relaxing book that you’ll want to return to again and again, Haemin Sunim, a Buddhist meditation teacher born in Korea and educated in the US, shares his advice for wellbeing, mindfulness and joy in eight areas, including love, friendship, work, and spirituality.
The book is beautiful, and not just for its writing: it contains over thirty full-page colourful and calming illustrations to help you slow down. To best enjoy these, get the little hardback edition if you can.
“What our mind focuses on becomes our world. Seen this way, the mind does not seem so insignificant in relation to the world out there, does it?”The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down
3. Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga by Sylvain Tesson
Walden is easily on my shortlist of calming books to help me relax. But what about other books that talk about escaping into the woods and leaving society for a while? My top vote is Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson, “a meditation on escaping the chaos of modern life and rediscovering the luxury of solitude”.
Sylvain Tesson takes it to the extreme by exiling himself to a wooden cabin on Siberia’s Lake Baikal. He lives a full day’s hike from any neighbour, with his thoughts, his books, a couple of dogs, and many bottles of vodka for company.
Writing from February to July, Sylvain Tesson celebrates the ultimate freedom of owning your own time, recording his impressions, struggles, and joy in the face of silence.
“As long as there is a cabin deep in the woods, nothing is completely lost.“Consolations of the Forest
4. Collected Poems by William Wordsworth
When you’re feeling stressed, take a step into the world of the English Romantics. Join them in marvelling at the powerful natural world and take a big deep breath. Alongside W. B. Yeats and Edward Thomas, Wordsworth will always be one of my go-to poets; I find so much magic in his writing.
I’ve also memorised a few of his poems to mull over on train journeys, while hiking in beautiful places, or when I need some time out – I think there are far worse ways I could use up my mental space.
My heart leaps up when I beholdWilliam Wordsworth
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety
5. How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh has a selection of these “Mindfulness Essentials” books – including How to Relax, How to Focus, and How to Fight – and I think they’re perfect for relaxing reading when you’re stressed.
How to Relax would have been a more obvious choice to include in this list, but How to Love has got to be my favourite (read more of my thoughts here). I think Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing will always be calming, and I especially enjoy it when he’s talking about our connections with others.
“Our true home is inside, but it’s also in our loved ones around us. When you’re in a loving relationship, you and the other person can be a true home for each other. In Vietnamese, the nickname for a person’s life partner is ‘my home.'”How to Love
6. A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver
The podcast On Being with Krista Tippett has a lovely episode with poet Mary Oliver called “Listening to the World”. I would recommend giving it a listen and then diving into the universe of Oliver’s poems – her work is some of of the most perceptive and gently wise writing on the natural world and our place within it.
In any case, try to get a copy of one of Mary Oliver’s anthologies and head outside, find a lovely spot to sit, and take in her peaceful words surrounded by fresh air and with the sun on your face.
I Go Down To The ShoreMary Oliver
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
7. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers 1) by Becky Chambers
Commenting on the first book of the series, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Reddit user Synney writes: “I can’t recommend this enough. It leaves you feeling incredibly warm and wholesome and like everything will be ok”.
“Humans’ preoccupation with ‘being happy’ was something he had never been able to figure out. No sapient could sustain happiness all of the time, just as no one could live permanently within anger, or boredom, or grief.”The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
8. A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy gathered, translated, abbreviated and expanded on quotations from a huge range of sources, including the New Testament, the Koran, Greek philosophy, Lao-Tzu, Buddhist thought, and the poetry, novels, and essays of both ancient writers and contemporary thinkers.
It’s Tolstoy’s spiritual guide and collection of the quotes that formed his mind, but it leaves enough space and variety to help us to form our own. A Calendar of Wisdom is a superb book to keep lying around ready to be picked up for some calming reading instead of hidden away on a shelf.
Goodbye, Things is not only a remarkably peaceful book to read, but also a fantastic guide to decluttering your life and making room for what’s most important. Fumio Sasaki doesn’t claim to be a minimalism expert or a decluttering guru – he’s just a regular guy who wanted to say goodbye to everything he didn’t absolutely need. This book is the story of his journey and the results.
“Want to know how to make yourself instantly unhappy? Compare yourself with someone else.”
– Goodbye, Things
10. The Haiku of Bashō
There’s just something about reading a haiku to help to calm your mind and feel less stressed. I keep a collection of Bashō’s poetry near me when I’m working and often read a calming haiku or two when I need a break.
and the grass grows, by itself.
11. Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li
How much time do you spend in nature? Do you have a forest near you that you can escape to? Written by Dr. Qing Li, who specialises in forest medicine, this is his definitive guide to the therapeutic Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”: the art and science of how trees can promote health and happiness.
Like The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, it’s another book that’s beautifully designed, in this case showcasing the beauty of trees and the natural world.
Another fantastic tree-celebration that’s also very relaxing to read is The Hidden Life of Trees: The International Bestseller – What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben.
12. Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
From the master of aviation writing, Wind, Sand and Stars is one of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s best-loved books (after The Little Prince, that is). It’s a great little book to take with you when travelling, or it can be the source of another adventure – sitting at home and leaping into a book.
I can’t help but feel calm when I read his descriptions of the natural world:
“When I opened my eyes I saw nothing but the pool of nocturnal sky, for I was lying on my back with out-stretched arms, face to face with that hatchery of stars. Only half awake, still unaware that those depths were sky, having no roof between those depths and me…“Wind, Sand and Stars
For more hand-picked relaxing book recommendations, you might like my lists of books to read when you’re stressed, the best bedtime books to help you sleep soundly, and calming coloring books for creative mindfulness.
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.