You can tell a lot about a person from what is on their bookshelves. In fact, I think it can be one of the most revealing things about them. Whenever I am over at a friend’s house, I love to snoop (with their permission, of course) around the books and ask them about any favorites they have recently devoured. For the most part, we all have significantly different tastes, which is great when you want to be introduced to reads outside of your comfort zone. So, I thought it would be fun (and I was very curious) to round-up a few of my best friends and ask them which books have meant the most to them over the years. One book showed up twice, but the rest of the picks were all unique, and it is fascinating to see the different ways that writing can touch a person. Be prepared; you are going to have a lot more books to add to your list! Here are the books that changed mine and my BFFs’ lives…
1. On The Road by Jack Kerouac: The story of On The Road and I reads like a love story. It was the beginning of my first solo international trip (age 17 in India), and my Mum and I went into an English-language bookstore in Ahmedabad before she left me to head back home. I picked up a selection of books to keep me occupied for the rest of the summer, and this happened to be one of them. As soon as I started reading it, I knew I had found a life-long friend. Based on the travels of Kerouac and his friends across 1950s America, the book is filled with jazz, sex, drugs, and desperate hunger for freedom and exuberant experiences. It came into my life at a time when I was bewildered about why I didn’t seem to want the same things as everyone else, and it instantly made me feel less alone. On my 19th birthday, while in Paris, I got “On The Road” tattoed on my body (in typewriter font), and I reread it every year.
2. The White Album by Joan Didion: When I get into something, I really get into it, so I have read all of Didion’s work – multiple times. It is a hard choice, but I think The White Album is my favorite. This collection of essays is a mosaic of American life in the late 1960s and early 1970s and examines the lives of famous and infamous people and places. Didion is my favorite essayist because of her unique ability to give well-observed and thoughtful snapshots to, well, everything. Her writing is sharp and elegant and, no matter how many times I have read one of her essays, I always find something new. As a wannabe essayist, she is my main inspiration.
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: This year, I have been reading lots of contemporary fiction, but, at heart, I am a classics girl. My 2008 Goodreads review of the Brontë classic reads, “We had to read this for school last year. I think I was the only girl in my entire grade who actually enjoyed reading it.” Hopefully, that wasn’t truly the case, because the book is bold and brilliant and a timeless reminder of why it is essential to break societal norms and persist against hardship. I think I am going to reread it soon…
4. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn: This classic (but odd) philosophical novel consists entirely of philosophical dialogues between a man and a gorilla, on the model of Plato’s Republic. The conversations give a highly general examination of the history of our civilization, illuminating the assumptions and philosophies at the heart of many global problems – most of which can be traced back to the agricultural revolution. When I read it in University, it was like a lightening-switch went off in my head because (as we are all well aware now), it’s clear that unrestrained population growth and an obsession with conquering the environment are among the critical issues of our times.
5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: I think about this book more than any other book I have read in the past couple of years. That might be because it is VERY long, like 834 pages long, or because of the complicated subject matter (I had to take a break for a couple of weeks which I never do). But, in reality, I think it is because I have never felt so connected to a group of characters – male characters no less! – before. I don’t want to say too much. All I will give you is that it is about four young men – friends from the same college – who move to New York to chase big careers. It is the perfect chronicle of our age of anxiety with the all-too-real-horrible-stuff (cutting, binges, childhood sexual abuse) and the solaces (drugs, travel, love affairs, and interior design). The part that won’t leave you though is the friendship between the men, which is exquisitely written that it borders on the real thing.
1. Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton: To say I’m a huge fan of Dolly Alderton’s writing would be an understatement. Everything I Know About Love swings between being wildly hilarious and heartbreaking, really capturing the emotions of what it’s like to be a twenty-something woman navigating friendships, jobs, relationships, family, and, really, the world. I read this book right after a rough break up and Dolly’s sentiments on the power of female friendship and how, really, your girlfriends are your soul mates, really helped me through it all. It’s a must-read for all women.
2. The Age of Innocence by Edith Warton: I fell in love with The Age of Innocence for the first time when I was in high school, and I’ve probably read it about five times since. As a New Yorker, I’m obsessed with old New York, and this book is a charming glimpse into upper-class life in the Gilded Age. Ellen Olenska has long been one of my favorite literary characters, and I love how she represents a changing New York with her bohemian, non-traditional way of life. She is at once beautiful and difficult, but aren’t we all?
3. Girls On Film by Julie Burchill: I originally picked up this book just to grab a few quotes for my college thesis, but it soon became an absolute favorite of mine and really helped to guide the direction of my thesis (The Blonde Myth: The implications of blonde stereotypes in American cinema, from 1930 to present day). It’s a captivating look at old Hollywood and the changing ways that women have been depicted on film over the years.
4. We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: I ran a book club in high school, and this is one of the first books I chose for us all to read. Little did I know how pertinent this book would be to all high schoolers, especially, sadly, in current-day America. In the book, the mother of a son who massacred his school mates comes to terms with the tragedy through a series of letters. It’s heartbreaking, devastating, and absolutely gripping.
5. Eating In The Light Of The Moon by Anita Johnston: For most of my teenage life, I struggled with anorexia. Despite going to treatment, therapy, and numerous doctors, I can attribute a lot of my recovery to Anita Johnston’s book Eating In The Life of The Moon. The book employs multicultural myths, ancient legends, and simple folk tales to shed light on the historical and biological reasons why so many women struggle with eating disorders. Of course, this book did not suddenly free me of all disordered patterns, but there is an abundance of wisdom in this book that has stuck with me for life.
1. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: Most people know how great this book is, and it probably has changed a lot of lives too. I guess I read it at the right time when I doubted the unknown because it was out of my comfort zone. But magic happens when you let the Universe pour it all over you, you just have to step in. This book taught me about love and courage.
2. The Shack by WM. Paul Young: In all honesty, I didn’t enjoy the first half of this book, so it took me months to get through it. However, I devoured the second half in one day. This book is more on the religious side, a guy who is very involved in his church gave it to me for my birthday. One sentence that continues to stand out for me is: “Paradigms power perception and perceptions power emotions. Most emotions are responses to perception – what you think is true about a given situation. If your perception is false, then your emotional response to it will be false too. So check your perceptions and beyond that check the truthfulness of your paradigms – what you believe. Just because you believe something firmly doesn’t make it true. Be willing to re-examine what you believe.”
3. The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom: Time is always an interesting topic for me. Being born and raised in the 2nd biggest city in the 4th most populated country in the world (Surabaya, Indonesia), every activity revolves around time. Then, I moved to a small town, where time seems to travel slower but limits people’s movements. After traveling solo and getting a sweet taste of not worrying about time as much, the concept of time became ambiguous. From this book, “Try to imagine a life without timekeeping. You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie. Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays and alone measures time. Man alone chimes the hour. And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.”
4. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Another one that a lot of people love! I have worked with young children as a teacher before, and I feel like I learned more from them than they learned from me. Their simplicity, the way they trust people, the way they tell the truth and ask without fear and, of course, their imagination! Many quotes touched me, but I especially loved this one: “I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups and asked them if my drawing frightened them. They answered: “Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?” My drawing did not represent a hat. It was supposed to be a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. So I made another drawing of the inside of the boa to enable the grown-ups to understand. They always need
5. Dare to Lead by Brene Brown: I don’t know if this is cheating because I haven’t actually read this book! However, around this time last year, I was strolling around a book shop and randomly found this book in the newly released section. I picked up this book written by Brene Brown, and I randomly opened up a page discussing vulnerability. Two things that hit me on that random page: 1.) Vulnerability is not a weakness. Being courageous means being able to manage your vulnerability. 2.) Owning your vulnerability. You can do vulnerability, or it can do you. Acknowledging it means you have more control over it rather than it controlling you.
1. Sam Bangs and Moonshine by Evaline Ness: An old children’s book published in 1966, this was my favorite book as a child. I even named my cat after one of the characters! The book is about a girl named Sam, the daughter of a fisherman who daydreams about fairytales and grandiose things. She exaggerates her stories to the point of making up lies, like telling her friend Thomas that her mother is a mermaid. Eventually, she learns her lessons to tell the difference between reality, and ‘moonshine’ (in these terms, moonshine means ‘lies’). As a child, I always made my mother change the gender of the main characters of books from male to female, as most children’s books with a heroic character were boys, and I wanted to identify closely with the protagonist in every story. Since the main character was a girl, this book always felt close to my heart.
2. Know My Name by Chanel Miller: The most recent book I’ve read. After being referred to as ‘Emily Doe’ for five years in an attempt to protect her identity through the entirety of her trial against Brock Turner, this brave book details Chanel Miller’s sexual assault story in her own words. What is most striking about this book is how accurately it sheds light on being a young woman in today’s world. And, the juxtaposition that Miller shows between acting like a young, carefree woman, looking to have fun with friends in a seemingly safe and familiar space, and a dangerous attack that she didn’t ask for. Not to mention the beratement she endured by the media and the justice system. While a quick read, I found it emotionally and empathetically dense and something that every person in today’s world, regardless of gender, should take the time to read.
3. Letters To A Young Poet by Rainer Marie Rilke: A series of 10 letters written by Rilke (a famed poet) to a young poet with writer’s block who reached out for advice on developing his poetic style. During five years of correspondence through letters, Rilke helps this young poet find his inner creativity and connectedness with his soul. More than just poetic advice, Rilke dives into questions about love and compassion. A stunning piece of work that came into my life during a coming-of-age period and allowed me to gain a new perspective on my struggles with openness, love, and ingenuity.
4. The I-Ching by the Zhou Dynasty: The I-Ching is the book of the Tao, and one of the oldest Chinese classics. It is also known as ‘The Book of Changes.’ It has served for thousands of years as the physical taxonomy of the universe by using the Tao to communicate questions of morality, centeredness, ethics, and guidance. I don’t identify with the religion, per se, but the book itself is a series of fantastic meditation points that have always helped me during times of self-reflection. I take the book with me everywhere I go!
5. Carrie by Stephen King: I know, I know, a horror/thriller book written by a super famous author whose books have been made into films time and time again. And, most people know the legendary story of Carrie and her trials with bullies at school that ultimately led to her gruesome revenge. BUT! This book has significance to me as it was the very first horror book I ever read. I found it in a collection of things my dad had stored away in a box in the basement, likely to keep out of reach of children. I read this book when I was ten and have been fascinated with the horror category of film and literature ever since. It’s led me to dive into deep horror classics like Frankenstein and Dracula, to easier quick reads like anything Ruth Ware. It’s definitely my guilty pleasure book and category.
1. Educated by Tara Westover: To say that this book was moving would be an understatement. Educated was chosen for my work’s book club…and I think we all finished it weeks in advance, it was that good! What I loved about the book is that Tara takes you on an emotional rollercoaster through the mental and physical abuse that she endured growing up. With every page, she leaves you questioning how she was able to find the inner grit and strength to keep going. While some scenes are extremely challenging to read, this book made me think deeply about my upbringing, the privilege that I had with my education, and the importance of empowering women.
2. Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton: I think I could write my own novel with all the reasons why I LOVE this book. I loved it so much that I’ve even sent copies to friends around the world with all the reasons why they need it. If you’re a woman in your 20s / 30s and dealing with the CHAOS that is dating/friendships/career/life/breathing/remembering to do all of the above, this book is everything you’ve wanted and more. Just trust me on this!
3. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker: As someone who has never had any kind of sleeping schedule and thinks that getting six hours is a luxury…this book scared me from the moment I downloaded it to my Kindle. I had been recommended it by friends who told me that it would change my perception of sleep and how vital it is to succeed in any aspect of my life. It did. Must read!
4. Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann: This book encapsulates the beauty, mystery, promise, and loneliness that comes with living in a big city – in this case, New York City in the 1970s. What I loved about it is how it makes you think about the fact that in some ways, our individual lives are all so separate but equally that they are the tapestry for a city’s ever-changing character and history.