10 books everyone should read

(in my opinion)

I was excited to get a request from my friend Andres, for a list of my "10 books everyone should read," because it forced me (non-reluctantly) back to my bookshelf to see which books have had the biggest impact on the way I view the world. That is my criteria. Because while there are many books that interest based on my own personal taste and penchants (this includes South Asian politics and history, linguistics, Georgia history, travelogues), I recognize that this is not the material that needs to be on a list "for everyone to read." Spots on this short-list must be reserved for those books whose stories and message endure beyond their particular topic or subject at hand, and instead resonate with the human spirit, our universal soul.

These are the 10 books that have changed the way I see the world, and which continue to resonate deeply with me. Their subjects dive deep into universal love, pain, suffering, faith, healing, goodness, and evil. Humanity.

Fiction:

The Kite Runner, written by Khaled Hosseini (2004) - You will never see Afghanistan the same way. Possibly the most affecting book I have ever read. I wept for a nation.

Things Fall Apart, written by Chinua Achebe (1994) - I was supposed to read this book for World Lit in college, and couldn't devote enough time to it to learn the African names; I ended up with Sparknotes to pass the test. But it was assigned to me again in a West African History course the following year, and this time, I was absorbed in the story, blown away by the way its historical point echoes significantly on the state of modern Africa and post-colonial strife on that continent. The title comes from a famous poem ("things fall apart / the center cannot hold..."), and we witness how things do fall tragically and magically apart within one African tribe, when Christian missionaries arrive. It is a tale of the very good and the very bad to come of missionary work in Africa. Achebe forces you to examine both essential parts.

Brave New World, written by Aldous Huxley (1931) - If you've ever had a conversation with me about literature, chances are I've professed my love for this short-list classic dystopian thriller. I read it in high school and again in college, and its comments on the modern world ring truer today than when he wrote it more than 80 years ago. The other famous dystpoian tale, George Orwell's 1984, is based on a society where the Big Brother government is so controlling we have no freedom. Huxley's tale is set in a society where they have so much pleasure--in the form of free sex, pornography ("the feelies"--just your regular cinema experience that often ends in an orgy), and soma drugs to stay happy and carefree--that there is no need to keep us under control-- our addiction to pleasures does that for us. Imagine a world where we are so seduced by comforts that no one needs to be controlled by a repressive state. Far scarier, and far more accurate a depiction of what a dystopic future might look like (in my humble opinion). Gripping story.

American Born Chinese, written by Gene Luen Yang (2006) - If you don't feel like mulling over the failures of humanity (as a few of these others might), then start with this, an illustrated tale of life as a Chinese-American kid. It was my first foray into the world of the graphic novel, and I was blown away by how much emotion can be expressed in an illustrated little boy's face. (But then again, I should know already how emotional cartoons can be, after 18 years of watching Pixar movies.) A tale of cultural overlapping combines with the Chinese folk tale of the Monkey King, to make for a lighthearted, humorous commentary on growing up as a hyphenated American; in his case, Chinese-American.

Candide: Or Optimism, written by Voltaire (1759) -  This is another book that I basically ignored the first time it was put in front of me, and which became a stunning revelation when it was assigned to me a second time. I guess my high school perspective missed the massive amounts of humor in this classic work of satire. Voltaire's commentary on the relentless optimism of man--even in the face of never-ending bad news and disaster--is still a touchstone today. Read it (duh).

 

Non-fiction: 

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, written by Malcolm Gladwell (2009) - I swear to you, Malcolm Gladwell's brain does not operate like the rest of ours. He sees the world in a fascinating way, and asks the questions many of us would never think to ask. Why are there numerous kinds and flavors of mustard, but only one kind of Ketchup? Is plagiarism really even a thing? (And does it matter all that much?) Are smart people overrated? This is a collection of the best articles Gladwell has written for the New Yorker in the last decade or so. And they will blow your little, intelligent mind. My favorite in the whole book: "John Rock's Error: What the Inventor of the Birth Control Pill Didn't Know About Women's Health." Among many other "why-didn't-I-think-of-this-before?" questions. And blessedly, he has some answers.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, written by Randy Shilts (1987) - Shilts wrote The Book on the early HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the successes and failures of activists, politicians, doctors, scientists, and everyday people faced with the disease of a century. You can read my Amazon.com review if you don't believe me: this book is one of most important books I have ever read. It also confirms another truth: journalists are fantastic history writers. Shilts weaves a tale of human drama, and it reads like fiction. How else would I commit to 600 pages on this subject?

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion, written by Edward J. Larson (1998) - I'll give you a clue--the famous Tennessee trial on teaching evolution in public schools was nothing like you think it was. It was purposely challenged, and Scopes, a still-green young teacher, was the volunteer offender, who would be used to launch a legal war over the still-touchy subject of science and religion in schools. If you read one history book, read this one. Highly relevant today.

 

On Georgia and the South (Everyone should understand the South a little better, whether you live here or not!)

Beach Musica novel, written by Pat Conroy (1995) - The writing is extraordinary, and the drama compares to nothing else. This is a sweeping tale of a South Carolina family across several generations, spanning a century and tackling racial prejudice, a changing South, the Holocaust, multiple wars, and the battle wounds inflicted on a generation in Vietnam. Add a lot of family drama and coming-of-age tales of love (and loss), and you've got Beach Music. Perfect for the approaching long, hot Georgia summer.

Praying for Sheetrock: A work of nonfiction, written by Melissa Fay Greene (1991) - Greene lives in Atlanta now (and has written a wide variety of other works), but she was living near the places and events this book recounts in the 1970s and 1980s, when McIntosh County -- on the Georgia coast -- was still lagging far behind the rest of the state in grappling with desegregation and racial prejudices and injustices. The events really happened, though it reads like fiction. An important piece of history for anyone who lives in the South, or feels they want to understand it a bit better (or maybe this will only add to your complicated image of it--rightly so).

 

A note: I own all these books. I am willing to lend them out.

 

On my year of living alone

For one year, which was the maximum amount of time my (then-more-limited) budget could handle it, I lived alone. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my cat, and I adored it.

The New York Times reported on the "freedom, and perils, of living alone" a few months ago, and spoke to many of the great and terrible aspects of this less-rare decadence of the modern age.

IF there is any doubt that we’re living in the age of the individual, a look at the housing data confirms it. For millenniums, people have huddled together, in caves, in mud huts, in split-levels and Cape Cods. But these days, 1 in every 4 American households is occupied by someone living alone; in Manhattan, mythic land of the singleton, the number is nearly 1 in 2.

I don't live in Manhattan, and I actually do not know very many people who have spent time living alone, with not one other human soul. There are appealing delights in the entire set-up, that I appreciate even more so now that I no longer have them. If I happen to have a messy week, it bothers no one except myself; so only when I am annoyed by the dished left on the counter do I have to do anything about them. (Being messy: most decadent of behavior.) You grow quickly fond of walking around completely naked as you do things in the mornings or evenings. (Truly.) There is quiet when you want it, and loud also when you want it. There is always a dance floor in your living room, with an audience of one (the cat, who is not in the least judgmental of your moves) and no one will barge in on your party-of-one. Push the couch out of the way if it's getting really serious. Solitude when you need it, a space to recharge, foster creativity, watch any damn thing you want to. No one's opinion matters here except your own. We all need tiny spaces  where this is what dictates the way of things; even if, obviously for many, that space is not your own, magnificent single-occupancy apartment.

Because that is also where the peril lies. "The single-occupant home can be a breeding ground for eccentricities," the NYT reports, to no one's surprise or shock. Think of, "Kramer on 'Seinfeld,' washing vegetables in the shower or deciding, on a whim, to ditch his furniture in favor of 'levels.'" Because it offends no one else!

One woman, Amy Kennedy, featured in the article readily admits that she can see, over the six years she has lived alone in North Carolina, that she has gotten "quirkier and quirkier." I can absolutely see how this would happen. Amy:

“The entire apartment is your room,” Ms. Kennedy said, by way of explanation. “If I leave a bra on the kitchen table, I don’t think much about it.”

Living alone breeds very strange wardrobe decisions, as others in article point out, and to which I can readily attest. Weird, embarrassing stretchy pants and third-day greasy hair? No one's there to see. Other usual suspect habits? Leaving the bathroom door open. Talking to yourself. And eating strange versions of "recipes"--what I call "single-people food"--inventions that arise out of the need to eat without the urge to prepare anything too time-consuming or elaborate for a party of one. Cereal. A can of black beans mixed in with some other can of soup. Expensive cheese, by itself. Cereal. Something that is usually a side-dish but I choose to make the whole meal. And so on.

What emerges from this much time spent alone?

What emerges over time, for those who live alone, is an at-home self that is markedly different — in ways big and small — from the self they present to the world. We all have private selves, of course, but people who live alone spend a good deal more time exploring them.

This can have good and bad consequences, depending on how well you handle the quirks that arise. One of the perils the article mentions is the work of resocialization when you do eventually cohabitate. As a lifelong introvert, I'm quite skilled in manuvering myself within a social world without neglecting the need for quiet, solitary space.  I lived naturally alone, just as I live quite naturally and happily with others. But it was such a lovely year, one I cherish.What emerges over time, for those who live alone, is an at-home self that is markedly different — in ways big and small — from the self they present to the world. We all have private selves, of course, but people who live alone spend a good deal more time exploring them.

For me it was such a pleasure (albeit, too expensive). It wasn't that all my time was spent alone. But I am a person who cherishes, relishes, in time I have to myself, and I continue to relish evenings or mornings or afternoons of solitude, time to devote to a skill, a project, a paper, a book, an exercise machine (less often), a cup of coffee, a bookstore outing, a quiet meal, a movie alone, a design idea, a blog post, research, a recipe, a cat snugglefest, a dance party for one. Sometimes, I even clean.

 

Year 1: babies illustrating humanity and, of course, themselves

The Babies didn't need many words; but I do. Anyone who knows me could diagnose the documentary film Babies (Bébés, Focus Features, 2010) as a Jessie-must-see: four babies from four different countries and cultures spend their first year in front of a camera, illustrating what is similar and what is different about their simultaneous childhoods. The moment I saw the Mongolian infant sitting in a water basin while a cow poked its head in to investigate, I was sold. And the whole layered story, which ultimately tells one story--that of the first year of life--is told without dialogue or narration; the babies speak for themselves with their expressions, exclamations, cries, and babble.

This lack of adult voice immediately makes the story a universal human tale, removing language entirely and making it a tale of existence and survival, learning and growing. The things these babies are seeing for the first time were once seen by each of us for the first time as well. And the film makes that point again with its lack of dialogue, because babies don't use explanations or chatter to experience this wondrous place; what random conversations can be heard go over your head anyway, unless you speak all four of the languages surrounding these tiny children, so the story becomes even more about the babies, not the adults who have brought them here.

Ponijao lives in rural Namibia. Bayar lives in pastoral Mongolia. Hattie lives in free-spirited San Francisco, California. Mari lives in bustling Tokyo, Japan. Ponijao is not born in a hospital, while the latter three are. Ponijao also toddles around in a loin-cloth-like outfit, in direct contrast to Hattie, who wears a onesie; Ponijao regularly encounters flies and her head is dusted and smoothed with a coppery pigment, while Hattie rolls on the floor with the vacuum cleaner and encounters the lint roller first-hand. Hattie and Mari go to the doctor regularly; Bayar goes less frequently and Ponijao never does. The experiences of each child echoes the society into which they were born, illustrating the vivid contrasts in lifestyles worldwide.

But within this is the more significant point: the variation in location and custom does not change the essential experience of these four babies. Each one eats, poops, bathes, laughs, cries. Each one discovers the feeling of water. Each one bonds with his parents. Bayar and Ponijao bond with their older siblings just the same way I bonded with my younger ones. Ponijao plays with stones, puts them in her mouth. Bayar wanders around with baby goats. Bayar, Mari, and Hattie all play with their pet cats, in a particularly charming series of scenes. As a very young infant, Bayar meets a rooster, who jumps right up on the cot with him; Bayar's eyes are wide with the glow of seeing something enchanting for the first time. Mari is driven through the insane consumerism of the developed world in her stroller, and we watch her take it all in. As all four start moving--crawling, standing, falling, walking--we share their wonder as they push further, watching their worlds expand. Hattie seems to intuit how to eat a banana, carefully peeling each section of the peel away and handing them off to her dad. Panijao has a knack for dancing, to the delight of her mother.

The romp through human life, year one, reminds the older audience of the sheer amount of things there are to absorb in this world, and how, for the most part, these things do not depend much on where you live, or whether your family lives in a hut, an apartment, or a house. There are animals; there is grass; there is music, and fruit, and older brothers. There are grandmothers' fingers, and buckets of water, and Legos--whether made of plastic or stone. And yes, there are mothers. We watch the babies struggle to get their point across with no words to use towards expressing it. This is the life of a baby, regardless of space or time. The differentiation between Ponijao, Mari, Bayar, and Hattie allows us to revel in diversity and appreciate the many ways motherhood and childhood are experienced around the world, but it also reminds us that there are certain essential parts of being human--and that babies can still survive, and thrive, without home nurseries, SUVs, and antibacterial hand sanitizer.