We've spent the past 15 months in the global equivalent of a diabolic Chuck E. Cheese ticket blaster. Locked in a quasi-preventable situation, the result of bad luck and worse decisions, we've been grasping at whatever will keep us safe, keep us sane, get us out, while being whipped by a virus, and often violence, that won't quit.
Some of us have been lonely. Others frightened, or angry. We're all exhausted. It's been a natural time to appraise how we got to this point of fracture and fragility, and how we heal; we want to know who we've been, and who we're becoming, and for that we've always turned to books. Which books have foretold the present, lit our paths, warned us back, egged us on? What books stand with us now, reflecting the present?
Our 50 Books for 50 Years list comes from this place of self-reflection, and is inspired by Powell's 50th anniversary year. From the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11; Edward Abbey's nascent environmental movement to Barry Lopez's luminous Arctic Dreams; Alice Walker's Celie and Shug to Jennifer Finney Boylan's groundbreaking work of trans autobiography; Jeff Chang's treatise on hip-hop to Patricia Lockwood's autopsy of Living Online, these 50 books not only show us who we have been as a country and a species and where we are going, but the power of the right words, at the right time, to act as a mirror and a beacon.
— Powell's Books, 2021
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Presbyterian minister Chris Hedges is as trenchant a writer as his writing is urgent. A sobering portrait of a nation in swift decline, America: The Farewell Tour is an incisive work equally devastating and disturbing. A failing health care system, the opioid crisis, debt servitude, the resurgence of hate groups, a for-profit carceral state, prostitution and sex trafficking, the decline of union membership and well-paying jobs, militarized law enforcement, corporate hegemony, governmental malfeasance, a flourishing kleptocracy, an exploitative capitalist system, Hedges’ chronicle of our accelerating, systemic woes is, no doubt about it, difficult to stomach — yet the death and decay he writes about so poignantly can be ignored only at our own increasing peril. In his unflinching book, Hedges calls for resistance, a break from hyper-individualism, and a dissolution of our collective estrangement. America: The Farewell Tour isn’t a requiem, but instead an entreaty. – Jeremy G.
Yugoslav author Dubravka Ugrešić may well be the smartest, wittiest, most captivating author you’re not (yet) reading. With more than a dozen fiction and nonfiction works available in English translation, Ugrešić's brilliance is amply displayed. American Fictionary — first published in 1993 and revised and republished 25 years later — is a collection of keen, sagacious essays originally written for a Dutch daily newspaper during an invited stay in the U.S., in a column she called “My American Dictionary." Whether expounding upon American culture, American idiosyncrasies, American excess, or the objective superiority of bagels to either muffins or donuts, Ugrešić's observations are consistently thoughtful, engaging, and generously wry. From the prosaic to the profound, Ugrešić's critical eye offers an outsider’s view of who we are on the inside. – Jeremy G.
This prophetic debut novel from Omar El Akkad has haunted me since I read it. American War paints a bleak future in which the North and South are warring for a second time in U.S. history, this time over fossil fuel use in the year 2074. In this sharply written book, El Akkad explores asymmetric warfare, climate change, rebellion, extrajudicial torture, refugees, and the ethics of unmanned drones raining death and destruction on innocent civilians. I cannot recommend it highly enough. A must-read vision of warfare and ethics in the coming century. – Mary S.
And the Band Played On is Randy Shilts’s pioneering investigative work into the first years of the AIDS crisis, and the confused and apathetic governmental response to it. This book is fascinating, gripping, and infuriating. Its truths echo today in the pervasive and institutional inequality of care offered to marginalized peoples. It is an emotional read, one that will open your heart and then break it. – Doug C.
It feels reductive to call Barry Lopez's work nature writing. He had a gift for taking the awe that the natural world can inspire and distilling it into prose. It is difficult to choose just one of his books to recommend — read them all! — but Arctic Dreams is exceptional. Epic in scope and execution, it covers every aspect of the Arctic: its Native peoples, flora, fauna, geology, explorers, climate. In Lopez's skilled hands the barren Arctic is transformed into a beautiful landscape teeming with life. His death late last year was a tremendous loss, but he continues to hold us together with his stories. – Emily B.
This may be the book on this list that will have the most altered emotional valence for many — but by no means all — readers today, as opposed to when it was published. In 1977, Assata Shakur was convicted of the murder of a New Jersey state trooper, after years of acquittals or dismissals of various charges. Perhaps her trial was fair, but her treatment surely wasn’t. In the era of COINTELPRO, Shakur was held up by the government as the face of forces it purported to regard as a significant danger. Even now, after decades as a fugitive in Cuba, she’s still pointed to as a cause for alarm. As Angela Davis asks in her introduction: “What has she been made to represent? What ideological work has this representation performed?” While Assata can’t be said to be the complete story, it is her story, and it should be heard. – Keith M.
Like Anne Carson herself (Poet? Classicist? Translator? Modern-day oracle?), Autobiography of Red defies classification. Novel in verse? Epic poem? Modern retelling? Original narrative? It’s all of the above and more. Grounded in the surviving fragments of Stesichorus’s account of Geryon — the red monster killed by Heracles as one of his 12 labors — Carson masterfully weaves a tale both ancient and modern, with cameras and airplanes and a winged boy (beast?) and the sword, maybe, of fate. This book touches on something truer than true: no matter the banality of our experiences, the depth of human emotion bathes them in the light of an epic of old. Here, as in our lives, a shopping trip or a chance encounter at a bar can be as holy and momentous as Odysseus’s wanderings. – Madeline S.
Impressively researched, unflinchingly honest, and at times deeply moving, Steven Greenhouse’s Beaten Down, Worked Up is a valuable resource both for those looking to learn about American labor history and for those looking to learn from it. Through case studies of pivotal workers’ rights campaigns and intimate portraits of the people who waged them, Greenhouse shows the trajectory of the labor movement from its heyday to the present day and gleans much-needed inspiration for its future. An engaging, informative, and ultimately hopeful read. – Tove H.
Journalist, historian, and music critic (and cofounder of one of the greatest hip-hop labels of all time!) Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is a sweeping cultural, political, and musical history of hip-hop (now the globe’s most lucrative genre). Spanning over three decades from its humble beginnings to the start of the new millennium, Chang’s comprehensive account of hip-hop culture has become its definitive text. As much a sociological examination as a proper historical account, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop situates a burgeoning musical movement within its contextual milieu of race, economics, disenfranchisement, social change, unrest, political policy, art, and more. Like an unforgettable novel with an exceptionally well-drawn cast of characters, Chang’s book isn’t just about hip-hop, it’s the story of late 20th-century America writ large. – Jeremy G.
A profound portrait of PTSD and cultural marginalization, on and off the Laguna Pueblo reservation, Silko’s classic novel remains cutting-edge 44 years after its original publication. Weaving between past and present, Native folklore and stark depictions of reservation life, Silko uses formal innovation and lyricism to convey how trauma, depression, and colonization coalesce to break the spirit, and the potential of Native storytelling and ceremony to heal it. – Rhianna W.
Alice Walker’s beautifully crafted epistolary tale about Celie, a poor Black woman finding her way to fulfillment and love in an ugly world, is an important book about race, identity, sisterhood, and human connection, and is more than worthy of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award it won. A brilliant work that is as timely today as when it was published almost 40 years ago. – Gigi L.
If you, like me, received an American public school education, the history of the world you learned probably began with Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, proceeded through the rise of Christianity, the European "Dark Ages" and Renaissance, and concluded with a series of world conflagrations and the rise of the US as a superpower. This version of history relegates Eastern history to a bit part in the West's Grand Story of Conquest and Triumph and we are poorer for it. Ansary's epic work presents a different view. From the life of Mohammed, the series of caliphates that formed after his death and the Sunni/Shi'a schism, through the many cultural, mathematical, and scientific advancements of the Islamic world, clashes between East and West, and the events of the 20th century, Ansary chronicles the Muslim view of world history. Engaging and accessible even for a lay reader, Destiny Disrupted will give you insight into recent geopolitics and fundamentally reorient the way you think about history. – Emily B.
Activist, author, and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams is as vital as the wildernesses she so magnificently writes about (whether on a map or located within). For nearly four decades now, this advocate, defender, and all-around American treasure has been an unwavering voice for environmental and social justice, encouraging compassion for and (re)connection with the natural world. In Erosion: Essays of Undoing, Williams balances empathy and outrage, anger and forgiveness, beauty and loss, hope and despair, thinking and feeling, knowledge and action. Williams, like Whitman before her, entertains and embodies paradoxes personal and political. With deep joy and deep sorrow, Williams writes with (com)passion and vulnerability; she and her subjects are unshakably stalwart yet ultimately fragile. Erosion is simultaneously a salvo and salve for our disquieting Anthropocenic age. – Jeremy G.
I whiled away many happy hours reading Calvin and Hobbes as a child. The comics are hilarious and delightful, but also something more. In retrospect, they were my first literary introduction to the absurdity of existence and the humor that makes that knowledge tolerable. I know that sounds like a bit much, but hear me out. There’s Calvin’s anguished snowman sculpture entitled, “The Torment of Existence Weighed Against the Horror of Nonbeing,” and Hobbes’s ensuing wisecrack about its lack of marketability. There’s Calvin’s dinner giving an impassioned performance of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, and Calvin quickly shoveling it into his mouth to make it stop. There are many sled and wagon rides in which Calvin and Hobbes discuss the passage of time and the fleeting nature of happiness, but always with a punchline to make it okay. No matter your age, Calvin and Hobbes portrays an imaginative world full of wit, wonder, and laughter. – Leah B.
In an unnamed country in the Middle East, besieged by violent militants, mysterious black doors begin to appear, offering escape into safer, Western terrain. Soon identical doors appear throughout the world, allowing millions of migrants to flood places like Greece, London, and Australia. Among these refugees are young lovers, Nadia and Saeed, through whom the reader gets to experience the extreme dislocation, privations, and freedoms of living in exile. Mohsin Hamid explores the current refugee crisis and Western responses to it in visceral, sometimes magical terms, crafting a novel that is both an elegy to homelands lost and an optimistic reframing of what "home" may mean in our rapidly changing world. – Rhianna W.
The Hate U Give has left such an indelible mark on YA fiction and the culture at large that it is hard to believe it was only published four years ago. This powerful, nuanced, and inspiring story of personal struggle amidst injustice and societal upheaval was both propelled by, and a catalyst for, current events. It wasn’t the first young adult book to speak truth to power — YA is a genre primed for such statements — but in speaking directly to the moment it opened the door for an explosion of YA fiction unafraid to demand action and young readers determined to do the same. It lives up to every accolade and bit of hype it has received. – Sarah R.
In the introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition, Sandra Cisneros refers to the collection of vignettes that make up The House on Mango Street as “a jar of buttons.” Mismatched “little stories” that came together in the telling into one of literature's most enduring portraits of a neighborhood, a time, a coming-of-age. The House on Mango Street was my first brush with vignettes — how exciting to find that a novel could be many things, could look like many things, could be flexible like poetry. Thirty-seven years after its publication, it is easy to see why this jar of buttons is still an English curriculum staple. Alongside its play with form, it never shies away from interrogations of tough subjects, from poverty to racism, sexuality to abuse, all while painting a deeply moving picture of a young girl finding her way. If you haven’t had the pleasure of revisiting this novel since your own high school English class, consider this your overdue invitation.– Sarah R.
Beautifully quiet, quirky, heartbreaking, transcendent. There are so many reasons to love Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Above all for me: the sentences. Her language is so beautiful that it occurred to me one day, simply reading a description of two women looking flushed in the steam of cooking stock in a kitchen, that Robinson’s language made me want to try harder to find things to be joyful about in my day. – Gigi L.
N. K. Jemisin is a powerhouse author — the first to win three consecutive Hugo Awards, to pick just one accolade. In How Long ’Til Black Future Month, Jemisin’s writing shines while she spins tales as varied as a steampunk New Orleans heist, a suspenseful mystery told only in the first-contact report remnants of a space crew, and a restaurant that can recreate any meal in remembered history. This collection offers a master class in science fiction, as every story pulls you into fascinating, fully realized worlds and leaves you wanting to make our world a better place. – Michelle C.
In all her work, Lahiri blends wry observation with the kind of expansive empathy we need when we’re at our worst, or loneliest. Nowhere is this gift more apparent than in her perfect short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. From an immigrant who craves the fish that remind her of home to a young housewife obsessed with Catholic idols to the titular interpreter, each familiar yet rare character is someone you’ll want to spend an entire novel with. – Rhianna W.
Some books are unforgettable. This one is indelible. Denis Johnson’s short stories don’t quite start, and they don’t quite end. They’re connected, but just how they fit together is unclear. Addiction is front and center in most of the stories, but this isn’t a cautionary tale, or at least not quite. There is a distinctive lack of authorial judgement of the decisions made and the impulses indulged. Questions about how to regard the book, its characters, or its subtle meanings may arise after you’ve finished it, but I doubt you’ll have time to contemplate them while reading; you’ll be too busy trying to catch your breath. – Keith M.
As a society, we expect a lot from our victims. We’d like them to be faultlessly virtuous and silent, or deeply flawed and perhaps culpable, because either scenario allows third parties to feel neither susceptible to, nor responsible for, such an outcome. Victims are often unnamed for many good reasons, but it has the perhaps unintended effect of making their suffering abstract, their pain unattributable to a specific face. In Know My Name, Chanel Miller bravely, beautifully tells her story. She fully renders the ongoing trauma of enduring a sexual assault and then the needlessly difficult processes that follow, from forensic exams to trial to sentencing. It was during that last stage when Miller’s writing first came to the world’s attention, credited to “Emily Doe,” but this is not the story of a victim. Rather, it is the story of a person, an artist, a writer, a survivor.– Keith M.
Suddenly I liked cowboy stories. Retired Texas Rangers, cattle drives, small western town shenanigans, what it means to get old, humor, drama (and, oh, the radishes!). This is why I read: a fictional world in which you can hide, a story you don’t want to end. – Doug C.
We are definitely living in the Golden Age of Essays. There’s a wealth of authors to choose from and a myriad of viewpoints. Leslie Jamison is among the best, starting with her 2014 Empathy Exams, and Make It Scream, Make it Burn is another fascinating collection from a top-notch author. – Mary Jo S.
This is a book about right now and next year and 50 years from now. A blistering yet quiet story about what climate change will do to us all. Somehow, hope is pulled out of utter hopelessness, kindness out of greed, humor out of darkness. Kim Stanley Robinson makes the science in his science fiction a place the reader can dwell, and he makes the characters into people we want to know and quietly support. – Doug C.
Nearly a half-century old now, Edward Abbey’s influential 1975 novel,The Monkey Wrench Gang, remains the classic novel of the environmental movement. A raucous work (credited with inspiring Earth First!, the radical advocacy organization), Cactus Ed’s most beloved fiction is the bold, boisterous tale of a rambunctious, ragtag foursome and their earnest efforts to save the American Southwest — by any means necessary — from the rapacious onslaught of developers. Abbey was a purposefully provocative writer and The Monkey Wrench Gang can indeed be polarizing, though his love for and devotion to preserving the American landscape (and most especially the desert Southwest) were emblematic of the era’s shifting attitudes toward environmental stewardship. If cartoonish hijinks and fictional sabotage aren’t your thing, however, the iconoclastic author’s nonfiction (most especially Desert Solitaire) is indispensable too. – Jeremy G.
David Sedaris’s second book — and his first to be composed entirely of autobiographical essays —Naked is the rare sophomore effort that is a truer reflection of the author than the debut. Sedaris was already known for "Santaland Diaries," his essay about working as a Macy’s elf that he read aloud on NPR. His voice is so distinctive that it became inseparable from his writing before he published anything. Sedaris is now an icon of American humor, and so it is somewhat striking to return to his early work and feel a distinct air of menace as he recounts hitchhiking across the country or volunteering in a psychiatric hospital. Still, all the hallmarks of his work are present here: he’s like a misanthropic anthropologist who populates all the spoken dialogue with a bizarre spin on Americana. And it’s hilarious. – Keith M.
There are a lot of important books on this list, but I hope this one is the most influential. It is said of the Velvet Underground that everyone who heard their first album started a band, and I suspect that a significant number of the readers of this book immediately became activists. What other reaction is appropriate, when the case made by this book — that the American carceral system is largely a racialized means of social control — is so well documented and compelling? Ten years on, the influence of this book is felt more than ever. The work demanded by this book is continuing, just like the relevance of Michelle Alexander’s analysis. – Keith M.
Despite the title, or perhaps because of it, I cannot stop telling people about this book. No One Is Talking About This is so deeply affecting and speaks so immersively to “now” — being both a love letter to and an indictment of our digital lives — that I can’t decide if I want all fiction to be like this from now on or nothing to be like it ever again. I spent the first half laughing aloud. At times, I felt like I was reading a modern Debord — The Society of the Spectacle with a Twitter account. Be forewarned however, the transition from delightfully weird experiments with form into a second half that quietly and intimately details family tragedy may leave you openly weeping. I am deeply grateful that such writing exists.– Sarah R.
On Tyranny is at once both inspiring and frightening. Small enough to not be a burden on those who normally do not read history or politics, yet with ideas big enough for the deepest thinkers. If you are puzzled by how the world got to today, this book might help. – Tracey T.
Out of print and highly sought after in the US for more than 25 years, Masanobu Fukuoka’s natural farming manifesto is no less revolutionary today than it was when it was first published in 1978, and arguably more necessary with time. A radical rethinking of agriculture, global food systems, and the relationship between humans and the earth we inhabit, The One-Straw Revolution contains both practical gardening advice and profound, revelatory insight into human behavior. Carve out an afternoon and, if possible, a peaceful outdoor reading spot for this quietly subversive tome — you'll be forever changed. – Tove H.
While reading The Only Plane in the Sky, my heart broke a thousand times. It is one thing to have witnessed (from the west coast on TV) the 9/11 attacks, yet quite another to see, smell, and hear the events as told by the survivors. My biggest takeaways are how much compassion was expressed for total strangers and how bravely many victims stepped forward into their deaths. Those brave people showed courage that pushed them past their fear to save others. The Only Plane in the Sky is an important book and I recommend it to everybody who cares about humanity. – Tracey T.
Trusting that truth was better than fiction, I first picked up Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? It’s wonderful, but Winterson’s wry take on her Pentecostal childhood made me eager to reencounter the same themes and characters in novel form, where she could play outside the dictates of lived experience. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit didn’t disappoint. It’s rich and playful, blending autobiography with fairy tale to explore how a young girl’s sexual awakening disrupts her family and faith, and how she uses storytelling to build herself a world nuanced enough to contain her multitudes. – Rhianna W.
Pachinko — part family saga, part historical epic — starts with a perfect line: “History has failed us, but no matter.” Min Jin Lee’s masterpiece unspools to cover nearly 80 years of the 20th century, following a Korean family from their occupied fishing village to uneasily inhabiting multiple Japanese cities, and the choices and circumstances of history that redirect their lives. It's a novel of astonishing depth, thanks to skillful writing that highlights the dreams, motivations, and disappointments of even minor characters. Pachinko is both quietly devastating and intensely nourishing, and will absolutely change your life. – Michelle C.
Carl Sagan wrote about our smallness in the universe in the most uplifting way imaginable. He understood it first-hand; the famous “Pale Blue Dot” photo was taken by Voyager on his recommendation to NASA. It would be easy to look at a photograph like that and say: “We are so small; nothing we do matters.” Instead, Sagan says: "[I]t underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish…the only home we've ever known.” In Pale Blue Dot, Sagan looks to our history as wanderers and adventurers and projects us forward into the cosmos, hypothesizing on our future as a space-faring species. We haven’t gotten there yet, not really, but if we can approach tomorrow with half of Sagan’s curiosity, excitement, and kindness, we’ve got a shot. – Madeline S.
We don’t shelve Parable of the Sower in the Horror section here at Powell’s, but this book scares the holy crap out of me. Although it first appeared in 1993, this smoldering gem of a dystopia reads like it was written recently. You could say this was Octavia Butler’s masterpiece, and you wouldn’t be wrong. – Mary Jo S.
Like so many people, I fell in love with the film first. It’s like the grandfather says: “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles.” There’s something for everyone, and it taps into something so magically, extraordinarily human. Also like so many people, I found a battered paperback with a broken spine on my shelf that I couldn’t remember buying, and then I fell in love all over again. Goldman’s “good parts” version of S. Morgenstern’s classic tale is a masterpiece (it might even be funnier than the film), and if you’ve never read it, go find that old paperback — for the terror of the Zoo of Death; for the journeys into Inigo and Fezzik’s pasts; for the final “editor’s” note, which I think might be absolutely perfect. (And if for some reason your paperback hasn’t appeared on your shelf yet, well. We have plenty of copies.)– Madeline S.
Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize-winning British author is one of the most celebrated writers of our time. Of his long list of novels, Booker Award-winning The Remains of the Day, published in 1989, stands out as one of the most highly regarded books of the past 50 years. In The Remains of the Day, Stevens, a dignified English butler at Darlington Hall, evaluates his life and considers how for decades he has been of service to others, supporting their lifestyles and fancies, while not being true to his desires and wishes. As the leadership of Darlington Hall changes to an American owner, Stevens has the opportunity to embark on a journey that changes his life, one in which he is able to reconnect with a lost love and come to terms with his regrets. Ishiguro offers us an amazing gift of humanity through Stevens’s story. – Kim S.
I read Rushdie’s infamous novel at the gym, which is almost as ridiculous as the fact that it still feels a little scary to go on the record as liking it. The story of Gibreel and Saladin, who survive a plane crash by transforming into the Archangel Gabriel and the Devil, respectively, The Satanic Verses is a picaresque fueled by religious hallucinations and mundane misfortunes. It’s a brilliant allegory for the internal and social growing pains of multicultural identity, something the outrage it caused is an unknowing allegory for too. – Rhianna W.
In the Western consciousness, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was defined by one moment, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 — the Cold War, and freedom, were won, roll credits — but the reality was far more complex. To the Soviet people, what the Western powers epitomized as the final triumph of liberal democracy was, for better or worse, a massive and ongoing rupture, a complete disintegration and reformation of their beliefs, values, and lives. Secondhand Time gives voice to those who lived through that rupture. Alexievich's genius is in her ability to get out of the way, to let her interviewees tell their stories in their own words. Her focus is not on creating a single narrative; rather, she plumbs the depths of her subjects' hearts and minds to create an oral history of a people living through the death of one way of life and the birth of a new one. – Emily B.
Not only was Jennifer Finney Boylan’s story groundbreaking — one of the first works to put the transgender experience on the page and on the world stage — her writing is beautiful, honest, irreverent, and very funny to boot.When She’s Not There debuted in 2003, Boylan’s candor, determination, and outrageous wit were the perfect combination to open hearts and inspire a generation of trans folks. And now, as half our country continues to open itself to and embrace trans people while the other half pushes hard to erode trans rights, this book, and Boylan’s perspective, are needed more than ever. – Gigi L.
First published in 1978, The Stand is a force to be reckoned with in the canon of post-apocalyptic literature. It’s a doorstop of a book that grabs hold of the reader, as all the best Stephen King books do, and the roller coaster of a plot will spit you out into an ending that is deeply satisfying. – Mary Jo S.
Toni Morrison started her career as an editor — the first Black female editor at Random House — and her literary criticism is incisive and brilliant. She had an unparalleled ability to apply those skills to her own works, and I can’t possibly do more justice to Sula (her second novel, which circles around expectations and expressions of Black womanhood in the mid-20th century) than she herself does in the foreword: “In much literature a woman’s escape from male rule led to regret, misery, if not complete disaster. In Sula I want to explore the consequences of what that escape might be, not only on a conventional black society, but on a female friendship." And in her meticulous prose, every perfectly chosen word there for a reason: “In 1969, in Queens, snatching liberty seemed compelling. Some of us thrived; some of us died. All of us had a taste.” – Madeline S.
In 2015, when Valeria Luiselli started interpreting for migrant youths in the New York immigration court, the system was in crisis and a target of demagogues and disinformation, but not nearly to the extent that it soon would be as American politics took a dehumanizing turn. When this book was published in 2017, it offered a much-needed corrective — it is a humane account that doesn’t traffic in answers; rather, it is literally centered on questions. And it doesn’t just raise these questions, it interrogates them. In considering the questions she was required to ask traumatized children, readers learn much from what their answers were, but more from the intentions of the bureaucracy that formulated those questions in the first place. As Luiselli demonstrates, when people at their most vulnerable are subjected to an impersonal system, that system must be constantly questioned. – Keith M.
No single book has had more of an impact on how I interact with fiction than Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Still, it is difficult to articulate just how monumental this novel is. I could tell you that this is the one book assigned in high school with a place of honor on my bookshelf. I could examine failings of US history classes and how O’Brien’s “war story” — his “love story” — was my first entry point to the Vietnam war. You could ask my college dormmates, who patiently sat while I read passages aloud telling them: “You have to hear this.” But nothing I say can measure up to the text itself, to the sunlight that killed Curt Lemon, that water buffalo, the Canadian border, the suffocating weight of the things they carried. I reread the first chapter any time I need to be reminded what it means to craft a powerful sentence. This is a book that will challenge your perceptions of truth, change the way you engage with history, and transform the way you read. – Sarah R.
From Hillbilly Elegy to Janesville, books purporting to explain the decline and polarization of rural America and the white working class have proliferated in the 21st century. Tightrope rises above the pack with its compassionate portrayal of its subjects, careful research, intersectional analysis, and thoughtful policy solutions. Focusing on the lives of Kristof's childhood peers in the working-class town of Yamhill, Oregon,Tightrope probes the consequences of 50 years of policy failure combined with the rapid disappearance of blue-collar jobs — from the dissolution of the social fabric to the sharp rise of "deaths of despair" from suicide, alcohol abuse, and opioids. Without a social safety net, his peers have become titular tightrope walkers with intergenerational poverty and misery one stumble away. Tightrope ends with recommended policy solutions — a robust social net with food and housing assistance, universal healthcare and Pre-K, programs to help restore opportunity and dignity — and an appendix, "Ten Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes to Make a Difference" that encourages readers to get involved. As Kristoff and WuDunn remind the reader, the original meaning of "pull oneself up by one's bootstraps" was "do the impossible.” – Emily B.
My dad used to read to me and my brother almost every night before bed, and those nights are some of my favorite childhood memories. Many of the books we read together have stuck with me through the intervening years, but I have particularly fond memories of listening to him read Watership Down. 25 years later, I can still remember the feeling of being completely absorbed in the story. I was so enthralled that, when he had to go on a business trip before we finished the book, I got it down from the shelf and sounded the words out myself because I just couldn't wait until he got back to find out what happened. Watership Down, along with my dad, gets the credit for teaching me to read, turning me into a bookworm, and all my subsequent bookish career and life choices. All of this made me afraid to reread it. I'm always scared to reread childhood favorites and revisiting this one felt particularly daunting. What if it isn't as magical as I remember? What if it's dated or problematic, or just doesn't live up to my memory of it? I shouldn't have worried. I finally read it again this past year and I can tell you that it is one of those rare books that is just timeless. At five, it was an epic adventure story about bunnies. At 30, it is a remarkably deep epic adventure story about bunnies and (49-year-old spoiler) Hazel's passing still makes me cry. – Emily B.
I was drawn to Diaz’s harsh, illuminative poems about watching her brother struggle with meth addiction, but her speakers contend with many kinds of appetite. The poems collected in When My Brother Was an Aztec range between mournful, angry, reflective, funny, and red hot, but at their centers are Diaz’s observations of life on the Mojave reservation where she grew up and her dizzying aptitudes for plainspokenness and the kind of surreal imagery that feels like being caught up in magic mid-spell. – Rhianna W.
I first read White Teeth as a teenager, and it was mind-blowing. The novel was propulsive and energetic in a way I’d never experienced, and the characters were dealing with microaggressions and frustrations that I recognized but had never seen put to print. The story of the Joneses and the Iqbals, brought together by the fathers' war service, contends with the reality that the past is always informing our future in surprising and (often) humorous ways. I’ve held a particular affection for the younger generation in the novel — Zadie Smith was only 24 when she wrote her debut, and I’ve always felt like she captures so many of the justified indignities of being a teen. As I’ve revisited the novel through the years, it's become clear that Smith captures many of the indignities of being a person, at every age. – Michelle C.
Reading Women, Race, and Class changed my understanding of feminism forever. The book opened my eyes to the deeply racist and classist history of feminism in America, and introduced me to the concept of intersectionality. Angela Davis gave me a history lesson like none I’d ever received in school. (How had none of my teachers ever even mentioned these things about Susan B. Anthony?!) The book spans from abolition to the publication date in 1981, and it remains as relevant as ever. Knowing our history is a crucial step in acknowledging and working to end the racism and classism that still exist in feminism today. Women, Race, and Class is a seminal work, and a must-read. – Leah B.
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