Sometimes a book falls into the hands of a reader at the wrong time. Think about the one you put on hold because you were too busy to tackle an ambitious project; maybe another you ignored after being misjudged by the cover. Maybe a novel can’t be read, or hasn’t been published at the exact stage of your life that resonates the most. But those connections can still be made later: In fact, one of the greatest, bittersweet joys in life is finishing a title and thinking about how it might affect you—if only you could find it sooner. From our current vantage point, we can’t really know if or how a piece of literature has changed everything about us. But we can appreciate its power and we can recommend it to others. Here are seven novels our employees wish they had read when they were young.
black thunderAna Bontemps
In the summer of 2020, I picked up a letter to each other from Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and Ana Bontemps. I’m naturally familiar with Hughes, but I’m less familiar with Bontemps, the Louisiana-born novelist and poet who later catalogued black history for librarians and archivists.I decided to read some of his works and this is how I found his acclaimed books black thunder. This is a fictional account of Gabriel’s Revolt, a frustrated uprising of enslaved people in Virginia in 1800; it lyrically examines masculinity and the link between oppression and uprising. I spent most of my youth trying to figure out what interests me most, and it wasn’t until later in my college career that I realized the answer was history.when i pick up black thunder, The depth of Bontemps’ historical research jumps out, but so does the engaging subplot and robust characters. It’s a combination of my love for fiction, understanding the past, and factual prose. I wish I could get it sooner. — Adam Harris
How should one be?Sheila Hetty
“Misha’s responsibility is good, and Margaux’s irresponsibility is good. How do I know which is best for me?” Quick: Is this quote from Heti’s second novel or my middle school diary? I don’t know Misha or Margaux, but other than that, it sounds like 13-year-old me.I think everyone else seems so complete and specific they themselves, like they were born athletic, studious, or chatty, and I was the only one who didn’t know what role to play. Heti’s narrator (aka Sheila) also has this uncertainty: when she’s talking and fighting with friends, or trying to write a script and failing, she’s trying to figure out who she’s supposed to be, like she squints It’s like looking at a microscopic handbook of life. If I read this book as a teenager – skip the part about oral sex technique and cocaine – it would be a hit. As an adult, it continues to resonate; I still don’t know who I really am. But Sheila’s attempt at self-actualization reminds me of a time when I really wanted to build an optimal personality, or at least a well-defined one — and there may be no real self to discover until I realize that everyone is a little confused. — Faith Mountain
tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrowGabriel Zevin
When Sam and Sadie first met at a children’s hospital in Los Angeles, they had no idea that their shared love of video games would spark a decades-long bond. Then again, no one can predict the evolution of a relationship from the start. After reconnecting during college, the couple started a successful gaming company with their friend Max – but their friendship was tested by career conflicts and their own internal struggles with race, wealth, disability and gender . As I entered my 20s, I began to appreciate the unknown, fluid aspects of friendship and understand that true connection can withstand distance, conflict, and tragedy. But how reassuring it would have been to realize sooner that this relationship could be as messy and worrying as Sam and Sadie’s, but still cathartic and restorative. In the later period of the novel, Marx asks back: “What is a game?” His answer can also be used as the novel’s description of friendship: “Infinite rebirth, infinite redemption”. — Morgan Orm
sleepless nightElizabeth Hardwick
I should have read Hardwick’s 1979 short, puzzling novel, sleepless night, when I was a young writer and critic. After all, I was writing a biography of Jean Stafford, who married Robert Lowell before Hardwick in the 1980s. But I avoided this book. Maybe that’s because I read the second paragraph, which begins “if only one person knew what to remember or pretended to remember”. A woman’s prismatic exploration of all unreliable memories, no matter how brilliant, is not what I want. As I collect Stafford’s personal and literary recollections – especially Hardwick’s, I need to have confidence in the accuracy of my memory. Now I realize how helpful her elusive book—apparently fictional, but also refracted memoir—would be, and still is. For Hardwick and her narrator, both escaping from their narrow past and later trapped by a man, prose becomes a place for daring experimentation: they test the power of fragmentary glimpses and non-linear connections , to evoke a sense of self-loss and drift with time, but also bold.I finally finished reading sleepless night Last year, to my disappointment, I had no memory, no matter how vague, of the many haunting insights my younger self had disseminated about Hardwick, including this one: “The Underdog Has the purest sense of history. Anything can happen.” — Ann Herbert
Chinese Americanby Gene Luen Yang
Throughout high school, I tried to split myself in two. At home: speak Shanghainese, study and be a human being. At school: speaks English, craves party invitations, but obeys curfew anyway, obscuring qualities that might make me label “very Asian”. Not that healthy examples of navigating mixed-cultural identities don’t exist, but that my teenage brain would appreciate a literal parable. In Yang’s 2006 graphic novel, Chinese American, three storylines collide to form. The narrative in the middle is standard fare: After Wei-Chen, a Taiwanese student, arrives at his predominantly white suburban school, American-born Chinese immigrant Jin Wang begins to vehemently deny his Chinese identity. Bookends are more unusual. The first part is a confusing interpretation of the Chinese folklore Monkey King. Without spoilers, the third part is about the seemingly healthy American boy Danny and his Chinese cousin Chinky, who is disturbingly portrayed in racist stereotypes—queues, headdresses and many more.I read Chinese American This year for mundane reasons: Yang is a Marvel writer and I love comic books, so I bought his famous old work. The braided parts aren’t terribly complicated, but they remind me that at several stages in my life, I wished I was white and I wasn’t. Separating yourself will not fool anyone. – Wang Shan
want to knowBy RJ Palacio
I cheated on this assignment: I asked my 9 and 12 year old daughters to help. want to know, they all said, without a pause. Palacio’s popular novel follows a fifth-grader named Augie Pullman who is born with a genetic disorder that leaves his face deformed. He went to school in person for the first time, made friends, and dealt with bullies. “I know I look weird,” he told us. I was also a kid who struggled with feeling and looking weird – I had a condition called ptosis which caused my eyelids to droop and I stuttered very much throughout my childhood. Palacio’s multi-perspective approach—allowing us to see not just Augie’s perspective, but how others see and be influenced by him—perfectly captures the concerns of a child who feels different. Do they just see my weirdness? When I was 10, this question never came up in the books I read, mostly about perfectly normal kids being pushed into abnormal situations—say, going back in time, or being chased by monsters. What I really need is a character to help me make my differences feel like everyone will notice. Augie will help. — Gail Beckman
norwegian houseVigdis Hoss
I read Hjorth’s short and brilliant novel about Alma, a divorced Norwegian textile artist who lived alone in a semi-detached house when I first lived alone in Norway, where my mother came from . Alma was lonely by nature, and the needs of others made her nervous. She rents out a small apartment attached to her property, but hates how she and her Polish immigrant tenants are locked into an interdependent agreement: they need her housing; she needs their money. This book is an investigation and indictment of Scandinavian society: Alma, in a country enriched by oil extraction, between her ideals of diversity, liberalism, environmental awareness and her actual xenophobia distance is very far. Still, she’s never demonized, even if it’s hard to sympathize with her. norwegian house A look back at the classics of Norwegian writing – Hamsun, Solstad, Knausgaard – about alienated, isolated men trying to reconcile their daily lives with their creative and fundamental desires, and using female artists to add a new dimension. This book helped me at 20 to understand Norway as a unique place rather than a romantic fantasy, and it made me see my Norwegian passport as an obligation and an opportunity. If I had read it before then, I might have started improving my cultural and language skills earlier. But I’m working on it, and hopefully the next time I pick up this novel, it won’t be in Charlotte Barslund’s translation. — Emma Sarabo
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