Required reading

In her review of Becoming Nicole (which we are considering for next year’s Community Read), my co-worker included a few related titles: “Other books on the topic that I recommend are She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan (who was mentioned in this book as well) and Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree which has a chapter on transgender kids, and which is on my extremely short list of books that everybody should read” (emphasis added).

Most readers can get a little evangelical about their favorite books; when you read something marvelous, you want everyone else to read it too. (Or you have the opposite reaction and want to keep it to yourself, lest it become popular and therefore somehow less special. Though I suppose Harry Potter puts the lie to that logic.)

But going back to the idea of a short list of books that everybody should read…that’s a different sort of list. The books that I love and recommend are usually novels, but as a librarian, I recognize that “every book its reader, every reader his/her book”: that is, reading is subjective, and just because I love a book doesn’t mean everyone will.

The books I would prescribe to everyone, then, tend to be nonfiction; the sorts of books that expand minds, encourage deep thinking, and may require the reevaluation of one’s world view. Although it’s quite long, I’d agree with the inclusion of Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon, because it gives insight into many different kinds of difference, using research and science as well as personal stories, case studies, and anecdotes. This blend of quantitative and qualitative, respectively, serves all readers well, whether you prefer numbers or stories.

Here are a few others:

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz and/or I don’t know: in praise of admitting ignorance (except when you shouldn’t) by Leah Hager Cohen: Being Wrong is the book Drew Gilpin Faust wished that all incoming Harvard freshmen would read, and her review is how I heard of this book. It is about ideas and beliefs, rightness and wrongness, how we err and learn (or don’t) from our errors. Schulz points out that, when using the Scientific Method, “Errors do not lead us away from the truth. Instead, they edge us incrementally toward it.” But people are incredibly uncomfortable with not knowing – it’s why we generally won’t let go of a belief, even if we know it’s wrong, until we can replace it with something else. Cohen’s book, essentially a long essay, is about getting more comfortable in that space. This is important both on a personal and a societal level. She writes, “Real civil discourse necessarily leaves room for doubt. That doesn’t make us wishy-washy…We can still hold fervent beliefs. The difference is, we don’t let those beliefs calcify into unconsidered doctrine.” Doubt has a value, and one ought to be able to change one’s mind when presented with new information – or at least consider that what you “know” may be wrong.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit is a short, serious essay collection. The title essay is available online (read the original essay here). Solnit connects the dots between the subtle kind of sexism that can seem almost harmless and the kind that is violent and unquestionably dangerous and damaging; it’s not that much of a leap. For more on feminism: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran; Shrill by Lindy West; Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay; Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter.

On a related note, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler was an eye-opening and heart-wrenching book. I wish anyone who challenges the rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade would read some of these stories first.

“If we do something over and over, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over, it becomes normal.” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum and “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh were on the syllabus for a Multicultural Education class I took in college, and they both helped me see some things that had indeed been “invisible” to me. This is still clearly a hot topic (the Black Lives Matter movement, etc.). Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist, above) explains the importance of acknowledging one’s privilege and the importance of valuing others’ experience:

“We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone….You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about.” -Roxane Gay

The books on my list are there because they expose inequality or shine a light on difference, in the hopes of raising awareness, demystifying the other, and increasing familiarity and therefore empathy. “The other,” of course, is also subjective; the point is to read about people, places, experiences, and points of view other than your own, to understand them better. Reading this way can break down barriers, soften boundaries, widen the circle of “us” until it also includes “them.”

Reading fiction increases empathy too. One of my favorite passages in any book, one that has stuck with me since ninth grade, is from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Pigs in Heaven. A woman is at a gas station watching a stranger, who surprises her when he begins to speak to his companion in another language. Then: “This ordinary man in jeans, whose thoughts she believed she knew, opens his mouth and becomes a foreigner. It occurs to her that there is one thing about people you can never understand well enough: how entirely inside themselves they are.” We can never know other people as well as we know ourselves, but we can endeavor to try. And when we fall short, there is the Golden Rule to fall back on, and even that can be reduced to just two words. When in doubt, be kind.

“Be a little kinder than you have to.” -E. Lockhart

If you made a list of “books everyone should read,” which books would you include?