Books can serve a lot of purposes. Sometimes we read them to educate and sometimes we just want to be entertained. I have always appreciated the C.S. Lewis quote, "we read to know that we are not alone." Though I have never been an avid reader of Lewis, these words have certainly been true for me and for many people that I have known throughout my life. Sometimes we are interested in stories that help us to connect, understand, or share an experience that we have had that has made us feel isolated, silly, or maybe just plain weird. Recently, I asked my friends on my Facebook to name books that they have felt that they needed in their lives. It was not necessary for them to defend their choices or to illustrate how the book has any particular artistic merit. The request could be taken very literally--an ACT prep book, a book explaining how their VCR worked back in the 80's. However, it could also be taken as a request to share something more intimate, a book that helped them connect or feel understood at a difficult time.
As a writer, bookseller, blogger, and human being, I am always riveted by how we choose what to read and what books take an important place in our lives. Once, I had a man tell me that for him and many people that he knew, To Kill a Mockingbird was a life changer. He asked me if I had read it. I have read it and enjoyed it very much. However, it did not change my life. I enjoyed it, recalled a few moments fondly, and proceeded on with my life in the typical manner. I hated to disappoint him, but it was the truth. I'm curious what you, the reader, would choose.
Some authors seem to have a unique gift for being able to lay bare a difficult thing with a rather simple combination of words. I am always in awe of the talents of Dorothy Allison, Sherman Alexie, Junot Diaz, David Sedaris, and Jenny Lawson. Each of them bring something poignant to our discussion about the human condition.
Dorothy Allison explores gender, sexual orientation, poverty and abuse. Her work is humble, astute, and inquisitive. Even within the confines of her tiny memoir Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, there is a brutal sort of truth-telling that she makes seem effortless.
Book to know: Trash (short stories)
Sherman Alexie delves into race, specifically Native American race, and the experiences of people oppressed, impoverished, stuck in communities fraught with alcholism and dysfunction. Some have criticized his work for its negativity or for trotting out the stereotypes of alcoholism in Native communities. Alexie has stood by his work and asserted that he is writing about the kinds of lives that he has grown up witnessing. His work may be dark, but it is not without optimism and motive for change.
Book to know: Flight (Young Adult novel)
Junot Diaz is another writer with the ability to expand the conversation around racial politics. Diaz is Dominican American and his work is heavily steeped in exploring race and socio-economics. He can also write about interpersonal relationships with skill and insight. His work contains an intoxicating mix of fire and strength.
Book to know: Drown (short stories)
David Sedaris is so funny that you might just forget that he also comments rather insightfully about sexual orientation, family dynamics, and a barrage of other aspects of society. Reading him can feel like such a break from the more intense literature that surrounds us, yet we laugh because he is identifying something that we understand. There is a strength and resilience in the ability to find humor in hard places.
Book to know: Me Talk Pretty One Day (humor, memoir)
Jenny Lawson is another hilarious person that you just might need to read. She explores mental illness, creativity, rural America, poverty, and what it feels like to show up in an Australian zoo wearing a koala suit in the mistaken belief that you will be permitted to hold a koala during a photo op.
Book to know: Furiously Happy (humor, memoir)
What books have you needed? Come in and find them! Come in and have a discussion!