“I’m not sure what compelled me to pick up this book, but that’s true of many books I read. I simply felt like it was something I needed to read at that moment, and I’m very glad I did.” Rick Riordan
As a librarian, I encourage people to read, and read anything. If you want to read it, read it, no matter what anyone else thinks. If you’re not already a reader, hopefully you get hooked and keep on reading something else, and discover how great reading can be. Of course, we don’t want you to read just to keep us in a job. Reading really is good for you, like in an “eat your vegetables” kind of way. There’s research to show that reading helps reduce our need for a firm answer to a problem or aversion toward ambiguity. Reading improves brain function. Reading literary fiction can make you a more empathetic person. While reading fiction helps put you in the shoes of others, non-fiction is a powerful tool to explain the who, what, why and to encounter the issues that face us in our day to day lives.
People read books for so many reasons. While we often read for entertainment, and pick up anything that interests us, I think that often the book that we need finds us and teaches us, whether it’s giving us a cheerful, heartwarming escape, or a gritty look at the experiences of “others” around us. Sometimes I find myself circling certain themes, and when I do notice, I try to set an intention to expand on the topic that I have been subconsciously circling, because it is probably what I need then. It’s like a reading diet– for now, I’m only going to read X. A friend read books only by people of color this year. I found myself seeking out titles on feminism or by notable feminists. I seek out themes in my books because of a lack of knowledge I see in myself, or the information I’m receiving other ways. Goodreads, a social network for tracking the books you read or want to read, rating books, following your favorite authors, and getting and giving book recommendations, is a tool I use all the time. A feature I find myself using on Goodreads is their lists, which are curated by users around any topic you might think of and can be a powerful tool for linking us with the books that we need. I find that I need an outside perspective to challenge my own understanding and my own situation, and learn from them.
Books can help us better understand the world around us, to confront our issues or find comfort in the stories of others. Here are five books that do just that.
Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates
2015 National Book Award Non-Fiction
This book is written as a letter to the author’s adolescent son about being black in the US and the history of race and violence in American culture. It deals with the state of race in America, both historical and contemporary, the concerns of a father for his son, and the lessons he needs to teach, but wishes he didn’t have to. When I read this book, it felt wrong in some way. I felt like I was intruding, that it wasn’t meant for me. But I still felt like I needed to read the words, so I downloaded the audio version and listened to Coates speak the words to me. For some reason, it felt given rather than taken and I was educated through this book in a way no news story or academic teaching could.
When Breath Becomes Air Paul Kalanithi
Kalanithi is a young man, approaching the end of his training to be a neurosurgeon when his life is changed by a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. Just as he’s about to move into his career, for which he has been preparing for years, he must tackle end of life questions and the desire to live out his life the best he can without knowing how long he has left. Kalanithi spent his final year writing this book, urging us to live meaningfully, in whatever way you can. This is a book that you should read, but more importantly, you should live the lessons the book teaches you.
The Underground Railroad Colson Whitehead
2016 National Book Award Fiction
Whitehead reimagines the Underground Railroad as an actual railroad traveled by escaped slaves on their flight to the North. Cora, a woman convinced to escape from their plantations in Georgia by her traveling companion Caesar, travels from Georgia to North Carolina and Indiana. Each state she travels to reveal a new kind of suffering or evil through slavery. Whitehead reveals truths about the past through the harsh lens of his storytelling.
My Name is Lucy Barton Elizabeth Strout
Author of The Burgess Boys and Olive Kitteridge, Strout weaves the past and present of the eponymous Lucy Barton. When Lucy awakes after a long, unexpected hospital stint, she finds her mother at the foot of her bed. Lucy loves and wishes for an emotional connection with her mother, despite a financially and emotionally difficult upbringing. We learn about Lucy and her mother, but also about complicated relationships and their imperfections.
The Circle Dave Eggers
Though a bit of an older pick, The Circle is a thrilling story, as we see Mae Holland become more immersed in her job at the Circle, the world’s more powerful internet company. Mae’s role at the Circle grows with the help of her ambition and idealism. However, the Circle’s growing power and new stance that privacy is theft brings up questions about information, privacy, democracy, and what can happen despite the best of intentions.
What books did you read in 2016 that helped you better understand the world?