Books to open your mind and improve your life

Books to open your mind

We all have favourite books. Some books explore the human condition, helping us understand ourselves and each other. Other books teach us about nature with fascinating stories of wildlife and wilderness. Books that have the power to change us are those that challenge our beliefs and offer new perspectives. These books can lead us to live a more conscientious and compassionate life.

I’d like to share some of my favourite books in the areas of health and wellness, sustainable and ethical living, wildlife conservation, and family and education. These books have enlightened and inspired me to live a more considered life. I hope some of these books may help you in your life too. 


How Not To Die by Michael Greger MD

Watching his dying grandmother go from a wheelchair to walking in just three weeks on a plant-based diet (and live for another 30 years) was the inspiration for Michael Greger’s medical career and his focus on educating people about plant-based nutrition for preventing and treating chronic disease.

This book is packed with scientific research to back up discussion and anecdotes on how nutrition can prevent and treat modern and often preventable diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, liver and kidney diseases, brain diseases, suicidal depression and even cancer.

Greger laments that while evidence has been available for decades, governments are more concerned with supporting food and pharmaceutical industries regardless of the health costs to people and the environment.

Over the years, as I’ve learned more about the impact of eating too many animal products on human health, wildlife, the environment and animal welfare, I’ve made changes to eat a whole-food plant-based diet. Reading Greger’s book has provided scientific evidence to support what I’ve read about health benefits in general. If you only read one book this year, make it this one!

How Not To Die Cookbook by Michael Greger MD with Gene Stone & Robin Robertson 

Just looking at the white cover edged in lime green makes you feel inspired and healthier! Inside, there are plenty of easy recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as snack foods to satisfy those munchie moments. Greger gives advice on what to keep in your store cupboard, as well as his Daily Dozen foods to eat every day for good health naturally. There’s also a short introduction with a summary of how a plant-based diet can reverse the chronic diseases covered in How Not to Die.

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

Richard Louv is a journalist and nature advocate deeply concerned by the technological takeover of our lives and the impact on children’s physical and mental health. He has written books and co-founded NGO Children & Nature Network to educate communities on the importance of nature to wellbeing.

The title of this New York Times bestseller reflects the scarcity of children playing outdoors, with or without their caregivers. Children need to spend time in nature for healthy physical, mental and emotional development. Louv explains why it’s important not just for our children’s welfare but for society too.

The Nature Principle by Richard Louv

Where Louv’s first book rang the alarm bell, this book provides help. Research, anecdotes and personal stories show how connecting with nature can restore our health, build better businesses and create sustainable lifestyles.

Rather than shun technology, Louv’s forward-thinking approach gives us ways to find a balance between technology and the natural world that will ultimately benefit us all.

Louv explains that we don’t need to go to faraway places to connect with nature. We can create or find what we need in our local area. Even in the city, we can find nature in unexpected places if we look for it.

Ecotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice by Martin Jordan & Joe Hinds

While this collection of practitioner experiences and insights is aimed at healthcare professionals using or considering ecotherapy as a mental health treatment, I found it an interesting read. Already aware of the benefits to my own health from regularly spending time outside in natural environments, whether gardening, walking, running or watching wildlife, this book provides clinical examples of patients whose lives have been transformed by ecotherapy.

Wildlife Conservation

Inglorious: Conflict in the Uplands by Mark Avery

This is Mark Avery‘s story of his passion and long campaign to save the rare hen harrier from the clutches of the driven grouse shooting industry. A passionate birder and superb storyteller, Avery takes you on his campaign trail.

Hen harriers feed on red grouse, unaware of estate boundaries and the desire of wealthy hunters to shoot grouse for sport. Hen harrier numbers have fallen to alarming levels, especially in the English uplands.

Avery is calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting to save this beautiful bird of prey. This book doesn’t just expose the illegal persecution of the hen harrier, it reveals how government policy is influenced by vested interests.

Birds of prey seem to ignite extremes of emotion but whatever people’s feeling, from an ethical stance, wildlife must be protected not persecuted. If you would like to read a more detailed review of Inglorious, you can find it on this blog here.

African Love Story by Daphne Sheldrick

I first came across the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Dame Daphne Sheldrick’s work when researching African elephant poaching for an article I was working on. The DSWT is a conservation organisation with small beginnings that now plays a major role in elephant rescue and rehabilitation in Kenya.

When I found out that Daphne Sheldrick had written a memoir, I couldn’t wait to learn more about this amazing woman who has dedicated her life to protecting wildlife. She tells the remarkable story of her devotion to her husband’s legacy and her beloved elephants that has driven her on despite many setbacks.

Many of us will never see Kenya’s landscapes and wildlife but reading this book, we get a sense of the scale of Africa’s beauty and the risk of losing its magnificent animals.

Update: Just after posting this article, I learned of the very sad news that Dame Daphne Sheldrick had lost her battle with cancer.

Kakapo: Rescued From the Brink of Extinction by Alison Ballance

While living in New Zealand, I had the pleasure of seeing wild animals I had never seen before, including the burrowing nocturnal kiwi, the forest-dwelling yellow-eyed penguin, and the mighty Royal albatross. But it was the flightless kakapo that most enchanted me, though I was never lucky enough to see one.

In my quest to learn more, I wrote about the world’s largest and rarest parrot but it was only later that I read conservationist and writer Alison Ballance’s unique insight into their lives. Even if you are never likely to see a kakapo, this charismatic parrot’s survival story is one to read.

Godwits by Keith Woodley

I’ve always enjoyed watching birds on a novice basis but until I moved to New Zealand, I hadn’t given much thought to bird migration. Living only a short journey from the Manawatu estuary where bar-tailed godwits return every spring, the topic of migration began to fascinate me.

In 2007, radio-tagged godwits set a new world record for the longest non-stop migratory flight, flying over 11,000 km direct from Alaska to New Zealand! Keith Woodley, manager of the Miranda Shorebird Centre, another godwit hot spot in New Zealand, tells the story of these incredible birds of endurance and his years of experience helping conserve them.

These stories of incredible journeys that animals make can help us appreciate nature and value its conservation.

Sustainable and Ethical Living

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser uncovers gross malpractice in U.S. slaughterhouses that impacts animal welfare, worker safety and human health, with outbreaks of food poisoning causing widespread illness and deaths.

In the pursuit of profit at any cost, mega feedlot farms taking over and small-scale cattle ranchers lose their livelihood, and in some cases their life. Although this book reports on U.S. farming, industrial farming is on the rise in the UK and even in “100% Pure” New Zealand.

It was this book that led me to read more about the cruelty inflicted on farm animals in the intensive farming industry and eventually to give up eating all animal products. You can read a more detailed review in a past post here.

The Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were by Philip Lymbery

In The Dead Zone, Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming, looks at the devastating impact of intensive farming on wildlife. Increasing human populations and a growing demand for cheap meat is causing habitat loss and species extinction on a scale we can no longer ignore.

In Sumatra, Indonesia, critically endangered elephants, tigers, rhinoceroses, sun bears, and orangutans are losing habitat as the rainforest is cut down and replaced by palm plantations. Native forests also hold soil in place and retain rainwater, helping to prevent flooding and landslides but monoculture works against nature. Animals face extinction while food manufacturers are making cheap foods with palm oil and farmers are feeding palm kernel to livestock.

In the U.S., mega farms are identified by bleak feedlots and slurry lagoons, a far cry from nature. In the Midwest, corn dominates the landscape, grown for processing into cattle feed, fuel or myriad sugars for junk food. Frankenstein GM corn crops are packed together so little else grows, all with the blessing of government subsidies.

In the UK, intensive farming and chemical use have left landscapes bare of hedgerows and wild margins and all the life they support, such as small mammals that barn owls feed on. In Europe and the U.S., bird populations are in serious decline as a result of modern farming.

Chemical producers, drug companies, breeders, farmers, supermarkets, fast food chains and equipment manufacturers are the winners, as well as the governments who support these businesses. The Dead Zone lifts the lid on intensive food production, revealing the dirty secrets of a system out of control.

How Did We Get Into This Mess? by George Monbiot 

This book is a collection of George Monbiot’s environmental articles written for the Guardian over the years. Together they form a discussion on how we are destroying our environment, either willfully or through ignorance. Unafraid of ruffling feathers, Monbiot shows journalism at its best.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan 

When I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I didn’t eat meat or fish but still ate eggs and dairy. Although I had made the decision not to eat meat whatever the source, as a writer on nature and sustainability, I was interested to learn more about the benefits of knowing where your meat comes from.

Pollan enlightens readers trying to navigate their way through American food choices from unethical fast food to more ethical organic food.

Bombarded by fad diets, agenda-driven science, media hype, advertising and government propaganda, consumers have a tough job deciding what to eat. Pollan shows why it matters where our food comes from and what we gain by making informed choices.

For reasons of health, animal welfare, environment and community, Pollan shows why organic polyculture farming practised by farmers like Joel Salatin at Polyface farm in Virginia should be the norm rather than the exception.

Whether you’re an omnivore, vegetarian, vegan or anything in between, you might find it hard to disagree that the slow food movement is the much-needed antidote to toxic fast food that is poisoning people and planet.

Education and Parenting

The Secret of Childhood and The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori 

Whether you’re a parent, carer, or education professional, Maria Montessori’s early childhood education philosophy could change your view of child development. Rather than seeing children as empty vessels waiting to be filled with adult knowledge, Montessori respects children’s capacity and need to be directors of their own learning, guided but not pushed by adults. Through using the five senses, the child explores and makes sense of their world.

Montessori’s scientific perspective on the “absorbent mind” is enlightening, compelling and inspiring. These books show us how to value each child’s uniqueness and to respect their strong desire for independence, as well as order, which shows itself long before they can fully communicate.

Montessori had a significant influence on our children’s early development and helped set them up for lifelong learning. My experience in a Montessori school is one I’ll always remember as life-changing.

Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life by Richard Louv

Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life is a guide to help people re-connect children with nature. Louv looks at how we can bring nature back into every aspect of our lives, including building nature-friendly houses with natural materials and using renewable energy, gardens with organic fruits and vegetables, camping and taking picnics and woodland walks, star gazing and bird-watching. Louv encourages us to look for nature in our local environment, making it easy to include nature in everyday life.

When we give children the opportunity to see and explore the natural world, we give them rich physical and emotional experiences that will last a lifetime, far longer than the latest piece of technology.

And it isn’t just children who need Vitamin N. When was the last time you rolled down a grassy bank or swished through autumn leaves? Sometimes we just need to be children again and enjoy the simplest of things!

Some of these books are on my bookshelf and others I’ve been able to borrow from our county library. Whether you read any from this list or it leads you to read other books on similar topics, I wish you happy reading!

Books on my reading wish list! 

The Price of Civilisation by Jeffrey Sachs
Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell
Farmageddon by Philip Lymbery
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein
Sustainable Development by Jeffrey Sachs
Out of the Wreckage by George Monbiot
Feral by George Monbiot
Rewilding our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Co-existence by Marc Bekoff
Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism by Melanie Joy
How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach by Tobia Leenaert
Mercy for Animals by Nathan Runkle

If you’ve read any of these books, I would love to hear what you think. Which books have influenced the way you think and live?