If you are anything like me, anxiety and despair are running on overdrive these days given the state of the world and our country. It’s hard not to feel hopeless and helpless. What can we do? What should we do? And does diving into a great book have any value? Spoiler alert: you won’t be shocked to hear that my answer is a resounding YES, but allow me to offer some thoughts on the matter…
I often say most of what I “know” about the world I learned from novels. I was never much of a history student—the facts and figures didn’t stick with me. I loved psychology, but theories were never as interesting to me as the people. Science solved some important mysteries, but I often forgot what I’d learned because I had no emotional connection to it. The most important things I’ve come to learn about how the world operates often arrived in the form of an engrossing story, usually a fictitious one.
The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe caused me to consider the existence of worlds outside our immediate grasp, and to contemplate the excruciating beauty of sacrifice. Agatha Christie taught me how devious self-interested people can be. Later, Ahab’s Wife and The Red Tent opened my eyes to the power of female connection, while The Power of One introduced me to South Africa and the seeds of apartheid. I’d never considered the lasting repercussions of the Armenian genocide until reading The Bastard of Instanbul, nor had I had any insight into the often solitary and painful lives of Chinese women in the 1800s until Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
When I got to business school, the investment bankers and management consultants often thought they had it made. Unlike me (who had never taken so much as an economics class in college) they all understood a P&L and the workings of the stock market, so what else was there? Some found classes in Organizational Behavior or Interpersonal Dynamics to be “overly dramatic”—as if a company isn’t the sum of its (always complicated and often dramatic) people. I began to wonder If any of them had ever read a novel.
Great stories, fictional and true, share one thing in common—an access point to the source of human connection. They offer us the chance to release ourselves from our current reality so that we can try to understand people with lived experiences different from our own on their terms while we try to navigate their version of the world for a spell– all without having to leave the couch.
Eleven books that have (lately) helped ground me
In the last two years, as I have felt less and less able to navigate the noise of the news and the constant barrage of information (and disinformation), I’ve come to rely ever more on an inner “knowing,” a gut feel for what’s most important at the heart of important topics—which always centers on the people involved. There is no easier way to form that connection than through books.
THE BLACK EXPERIENCE IN AMERICA
An epic exploration of the impact of slavery on the generations of families that call a stretch of land in the south their home, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Dubois is a feminist masterwork about the task of overcoming inherited trauma and systemic racism in a society determined to keep black women down.
I gained an emotional connection to the plight of the environment within the pages of The Overstory. My favorite character is a tree (seriously), and I weep for it still. And for a sweeping contemplation of the sources and possible future of climate change, Cloud Cuckoo Land is remarkable (while also acting as a love letter to the importance of books and stories in general, so a win for me across the board).
LOVE, LOSS and FINDING HOPE
Great memoirs, for me, read just like excellent novels—with characters that become friends, dramatic twists and turns, tears of sorrow and yelps of triumph. Two memoirs in particular moved me deeply this year. Crying in H Mart tells the story of one woman’s quest to overcome the grief of losing her mother through a reconnection with her Korean roots, often through food. Another food-centered tale is the incredible story of restauranteur Erin French in her awe-inspiring memoir, Finding Freedom: Remaking a Life from Scratch. If you need a little reassurance that overcoming impossible odds is in fact possible, this one’s for you.
AN IMMIGRANT’S VIEW
I love everything Thirty Umrigar writes. I was moved this year by Honor, which takes on the complex perspective of an American reporter forced to confront her difficult childhood in India and her country’s sometimes brutal treatment of women.
THE COMPLEXITY OF LOVE AND FAMILY
Had a little too much of your own family under one roof? Escape into a few tales different than your own. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves contemplates the power of sibling bonds and our assumptions about what makes relationships valid in a remarkably singular way. The more recent The Paper Palace is a fabulous tangle of charged relationships. And for entertainment value, I highly recommend the audio version of Daisy Jones and the Six. It’s told by an amazing cast of performers and explores love, music, fame and the sources of our own self-worth.
ANCIENT HISTORY, RETOLD
In listing some of my favorite reads of the last year, I would be remiss not to include the latest from Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings, a truly remarkable work of fiction which tells the story of a woman struggling against cultural norms to find artistic and personal freedom, a woman who just happens to meet and marry a carpenter named Jesus. This book gave me license to believe that ANY story can be reclaimed and shared from a new point of view.