The Best Books about Addiction and Recovery

By Chris Burn, Addiction Therapist, and Author.

Art mirrors life, as Aristotle was the first to point out, and life itself is full of addictions. Unsurprisingly, there is an abundance of literature on the subject. Fyodor Dostoevsky, arguably the greatest novelist of the 19th century, wrote The Gambler drawing on his own chronic gambling experiences and there have been similar offerings by many other great writers too. Those in recovery today can gain insight, information, and inspiration from reading, and at Castle Craig Hospital we encourage this.

Reading Books About Addiction and Recovery

Reading books on recovery and addiction stories is an enjoyable pastime and a satisfying process that is good for self-discovery and for building self-esteem. It is particularly helpful for those suffering from trauma, addiction, or mood disorders, or for those who struggle to express feelings.

Poetry is increasingly used in healthcare as a recognised therapeutic tool. Writing poetry or indeed any form of creative writing can help the troubled mind to express deep emotions, to focus, and to organise thoughts. 

Can Books Stop Addiction?

In 2013 the New Yorker magazine featured an article ‘The Book That Will Make You Never Want to Drink Again’. That book was The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson, published in 1944 and made into an award-winning film. Despite the book’s commercial success, recovery from addiction is seldom going to result simply from reading a book.  Any addict will tell you that knowledge of dire consequences does not deter addicts from self-destructive behaviour. Nevertheless, there are plenty of ways in which those in recovery can benefit from reading about addiction – insight into behaviours, inspiration, helpful advice and the power of example are just a few of these.

From Self-Help Manuals to Daily Meditations

There is a huge variety of books on the subject of addiction – true stories, self-help manuals, novels, inspirational and spiritual tracts, and daily meditations. Many great writers have written about their involvement with addiction and many addicted people have seen fit to write about their experiences too, usually with the intention of helping others. Many have seen addiction as the source of their creativity. It has all been going on for a very long time and there is now perhaps an over-abundance of addiction literature, some better than others.

A Selection of the Best Books About Addiction and Recovery

With such a wide choice, it is hard to name just a few books. Here are some that are likely to benefit the reader in some way, perhaps by suggesting a new outlook, method, or simple fact that was not known by the reader beforehand.

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (the AA Big Book)

For many in recovery, their new life would be unimaginable without this essential tool. Compiled and largely written in 1939 by AA co-founder Bill W in collaboration with one hundred AA members, it was named one of the hundred most influential books in English since 1923 by Time magazine. Sales of over 35 million prove the point. Buy from AA.

  • Other 12 Step books

The AA Big Book engendered similar publications by connected organisations such as Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Overeaters Anonymous all of which have great relevance and merit for those with the relevant addiction. Also produced by AA and still highly popular is  Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions –  a guide to working the steps and traditions. Yet another is the historical account of the early years of the movement and the struggles they overcame – Not God. Buy from AA.

Recovery Meditation Books

A lot of people in recovery practice daily meditation, especially those on Twelve Step programmes. Highly popular is the original AA meditation book – 24 Hours A Day (over 12 million copies sold) since publication in 1954. It has religious overtones although the words ‘Christ’ and ‘Jesus’ are never mentioned. Other highly recommended Twelve Step meditation books are ‘A Day At A Time’ and ‘Daily Reflections’. 

  • The Recovering by Leslie Jamison (2018)

If allowed just one recovery book, for me it would be this. The author uses her personal story to deliver wise insights into social and cultural matters as well as a powerful recovery message. The impressionistic yet elegant and witty writing style makes her words especially memorable.  ‘Required reading’ in the words of Stephen King, no mean writer himself and an alcoholic to boot. Buy

  • In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté (2018)

One of the several books by Dr. Mate emphasises the human compassionate approach to addiction. Here he tells stories about his work with addicted people emphasising the personal, psychological, and spiritual sides of recovery and the need for connection. Highly relevant to healthcare workers as well as addicted people. Buy

  • Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari (2019)

This very readable book highlights the social and political causes and consequences of drug addiction, highlighting the need to treat addiction as an illness rather than a crime. It makes good reading for those concerned about the stigma attached to addiction. Buy

  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (1995)

Although not dealing with addiction, this book is about finding spirituality, making the right choices, and finding one’s path in life, all of which are important for addiction recovery. This wise and mystical work is a classic that should help anyone feeling lost or victimised by their addiction. Buy

  • The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle (1999)

This refreshingly short book (192 pages) has helped countless people find peace by simplifying their lives by focusing on the present moment. True spirituality comes when our aspirations and expectations are put aside, allowing our true selves to replace the Ego. Buy

  • Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? By John Powell (1999)

For those engaged in self-discovery and personal growth, this book provides many insights into communication and self-awareness that have rightly made it a minor classic. Buy

  • The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Grey (2017)

Sunday Times Bestseller. For those in early recovery who fear that sobriety will be boring, this book emphasises that recovery can and should be fun. It is also full of practical tips and advice for coping with difficult situations in early sobriety.

  • The Road Less Travelled by M Scott Peck (1978)

Addicts of any kind will relate to the opening words of this famous book: “Life is difficult.” Psychiatrist Scott Peck goes on to say that we largely make it so ourselves and show us what to do about it. Highly recommended for anyone in recovery. Buy

  • Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara (1934)

For many, this chilling story of self-destruction through alcoholism is even more powerful than The Lost Weekend. Ranked 22nd in the list of 100 best English Language Novels of the 20th Century by the Modern Library, it is still a terrifying read today that might just deter a person in the early stages who are worried about their drinking. Buy

The History of Addiction and Literature

Right from the earliest writings we have references to addiction. Homer’s Odyssey written around 800 BC with its Lotus Eaters, Sirens, and Circe the temptress is said to be a metaphor for drug taking.  Addiction has been featured in literature ever since then, and as it increased as a social problem, the volume of writing increased too. By the nineteenth century, it was almost de rigeur for writers to profess a brush with addiction of some kind – Dickens, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Walter Scott, Elizabeth Barret Browning, and Edgar Allen Poe were all self-proclaimed drug takers (mostly users of laudanum, a form of diluted opium and, or alcohol).

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Therapeutic Value of Reading and Writing

There are of course many other very powerful and helpful books not on this list. Each person may have a particular favourite. The more one reads, the more one learns. Many who write successful novels dealing with addiction are addicts of some kind– Stephen King (The Shining) and Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano) spring to mind – and may derive some kind of therapy themselves from doing so.

Likewise, anyone who writes about their own addiction is engaging in a kind of psychological healing process that can only be to their benefit. At Castle Craig Hospital we encourage people to write about their experiences both for therapeutic value and to encourage new skills and interests. Creative writing courses are held at certain times during the year.

Books by Christopher Burn

The author of this article, Christopher Burn, has been in recovery for 40 years and has worked in the addiction treatment field for 20 years. He is a published recovery author:

  1. The Fun We Had, 2016 – People in recovery have worked hard to understand themselves and overcome their demons. ‘The Fun We Had’ offers practical tools for self-examination and opens the mind up to new ideas about spirituality. The book describes the power of addiction, the dangers of relapse, and how to fill the void left after addiction treatment.
    Christopher encourages his readers to take responsibility for their lives by being proactive so that their recovery becomes something they can enjoy.
  2. Poetry Changes Lives, 2015 – This book of daily meditations draws inspiration from history and poetry. There is a poem to read and reflect on for each day of the year. 
  3. Pulp Verses, 2017 – 21 poems for light relief. Christopher wrote these poems over several years, as therapy and for relaxation. He says; “publishing one’s poetry is an act of breath-taking vanity for which there is no possible justification. I do it because I can and to show others that it can be done. The public, of course, can choose to ignore it. The pictures are nice though.”

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