I don’t know what came over me, but in January I felt a sudden and overwhelming need to clean house. Not literally, of course (if you ever hear of me vacuuming the curtains, it’s a cry for help), but bookishly. Maybe I was just sick of tripping over piles of books that had appeared above, next to, and between the shelves that line my hallway. Maybe I felt worried about inaccuracies in my to-be-read and to-be-bought lists. Whatever the case, I took the plunge: project Book Stocktake 2021. I thought I’d put together a little post on how I did it, and what I learned…
Book Stocktake Step 1: Starting Point
I didn’t start my book stocktake from zero, exactly. I had pretty much all of my books in one place (the hallway), excluding those on loan to trusted loved ones, and those in the URGENT stack next to my couch. The shelves were in at least rough alphabetical order, by author surname. I’d kept track of new acquisitions over the past couple of years with a spreadsheet, but I was very sure that there were gaps (and, in my brain, if it’s not accounted for in a spreadsheet, it doesn’t exist – thus, the need for a book stocktake).
Book Stocktake Step 2: Actually Start
Hilariously, I thought Book Stocktake 2021 would be something I could knock over in an afternoon. I was planning to maximise my efficiency by (a) simply taking a photo of each shelf, and using that to plug the particulars of each book into a brand-new spreadsheet, instead of pulling each book out individually, and (b) not actually cleaning or tidying as I went.
Two weeks later, I was still going. Turns out, there was quite a bit more to it than snap-photo-type-details-repeat. Even without any actual cleaning.
Book Stocktake Step 3: Separate Wheat from Chaff
I quickly realised that not every book needed to be… stocktaken (is that a word? stocktook?). For starters, all of my husband’s books had been merged in with mine; his collection is paltry by comparison, but still larger than the average booklover’s. I decided to pull all of his books – the ones I had absolutely no interest in reading and would not even notice if they disappeared – out of my shelves, and find someplace else for them. No wonder I’d run out of space! I didn’t want all of his junk cluttering up my shelves or my spreadsheet (and I don’t want to know what this says about me, thank you).
And then came the REALLY hard part: deciding which books to… send quietly into that good night. I almost never part with a book. I can’t actually remember the last one I donated or gave away. But faced with the mammoth task of a book stocktake, I was forced to admit it is time. I set aside a box, and as I went through each shelf, I pulled out any book that I could be 80% sure I would never read or use again, and put it in the box. Only two or three came back out upon later reflection, which I think is a pretty good hit rate!
Important note: it is much, much better if you do these things before you actually start entering books into your spreadsheet. The alternative is only thinking to do them once you’re half a book-case in and a little wine-drunk and having to scroll back through and delete all the entries that are no longer needed. Hear it, learn it, live it, Keeper Upperers!
Book Stocktake Step 4: Keep Going
As soon as I realised this book stocktake was going to be a larger and longer project than I had hoped, I decided to do a few shelves a day and just force myself to persevere. I’m a big believer in the magic of incremental effort; every little bit you do adds up to a whole lot in the end. The trick is not to focus on the finish line, but just the bit you’ve got in front of you. Plus, I tried to keep it fun, getting folks on Instagram to guess how many books I’d have in my final tally and so on. (Answer at the end of this post!)
Book Stocktake Step 5: Put Your Data To Work
Even once I’d entered the details of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, I wasn’t “done” with my book stocktake. Yes, it felt good to have a complete list of every book I owned, but that data means nothing if I didn’t put it to work. The first thing I did (actually, I started doing it as I went, which made the process much quicker) was to mark off all the books I had read already. I was actually pretty impressed with myself: 41%! That was far more than I was expecting, given the rate at which I accumulate books…
Then, I went through my to-be-bought book list, and made sure I didn’t actually already own any of the ones I was intending to buy. That saves on any wasted money and time/space with double-ups!
And finally, I copy and pasted all of the unread titles – my official, complete, to-be-read list, into a different spreadsheet (please don’t judge), the one where I keep track of everything I’m doing for Keeping Up With The Penguins. Because you should know by now I can’t read a book without sharing all my thoughts with all of you!
Book Stocktake 2021: Results
My shelves are now far neater, and more orderly. I feel like I have a better grip on my collection, more able to recall at the drop of a hat whether I own a particular title and where it’s located. There are still a few piles where shelves overflow, but for the most part, I’ve got my shit sorted. There’s far less tripping, now, too.
I have learned that I am a huge nerd. Okay, that wasn’t exactly a secret – let’s say I affirmed my identity as a huge nerd. I found this process so rewarding that I’m thinking of making it an annual event. (Oooh, maybe if I saved all of the previous stocktakes, I could take note of the changes from year to year, and… oh heck, there I go again.)
But, of course, the most important thing I learned was exactly how many books I own. Are you ready for it?
For longer than I care to admit, I nodded along blankly whenever someone talked about “epistolary novels”, because I had no clue what that meant. Turns out, it’s just a fancy word for novels written as letters, journals, or other documents. You’ve probably been reading epistolary novels all this time, and not even known it! I think the best ones draw from real life documents, or use the form in a new and interesting way. Here are 17 of the best epistolary novels…
A Room Made Of Leaves by Kate Grenville
A Room Made Of Leaves is an epistolary novel in the form of a memoir, imagined by Kate Grenville as that which might have been written by Elizabeth Macarthur. Her husband, John Macarthur, was a notorious Australian wool baron early in our colonial history, and his is the story most often retold in history books. But what of his silenced wife? She left behind a small collection of letters, and in those Grenville sensed another story, perhaps a truer story, that could be read between the lines.
A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
A Tale For The Time Being is an epistolary novel told largely through the diary entries of one of its protagonists. Nao is a sixteen-year-old Japanese American girl, dismayed and disgruntled by her parents’ choice to return to Tokyo and drag her along with them. She feels displaced, but finds comfort in her diary… which the story’s other protagonist, Ruth, finds washed up on the shore of British Colombia, inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. She begins a desperate search to find out what became of Nao, a presumed victim of the 2011 tsunami.
The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
As the title suggests, The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian is written as the (alright, more semi-autobiographical than absolutely true) diary of a Native American boy who attends an all-white school off the reservation on which he lives. It tracks Junior’s school year, and includes many funny and insightful drawings from the pen of the budding cartoonist. The book has been subject to countless challenges and bans because of its unflinching insider’s take on the real-life struggles facing teenagers, especially teenagers of colour and those who live with disabilities.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
An American Marriage is an epistolary novel written in the most heart-wrenching style of letters you can imagine: those to and from a wrongfully imprisoned man’s wife. Tayari Jones’s novel takes us beyond the cliches of black men behind bars, and pulls us in for a closer look. How much do we owe, to each other and to ourselves? How much is too much to give? There are no good guys or bad guys in this novel, only human hearts with human stories to tell. Read my full review of An American Marriage here.
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
Bridget Jones’s Diary was probably the first epistolary novel I ever read (though I didn’t know it at the time). It started as a newspaper column, styled as diary entries from a thirty-something self-proclaimed Singleton, living in ’90s London. It became such a sensation that the columns were compiled and conflated into a whole book: a diary of a year in the life of Bridget Jones, beloved but bumbling, humble and huggable, in search of a happily ever after to call her own.
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
One of the earliest examples of the epistolary novel can be found in Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Published in 1748, it is a cautionary tale hiding behind the thin veneer of a supposed romance. A young lady, Clarissa, seeks to live a quiet and virtuous life, only to be thwarted time and again by her family’s plans for her to marry and the unconscionable conduct of her would-be suitor. The sorry tale unfolds in letters to and from the lady in question, with a few asides here and there. Read my full review of Clarissa here.
Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Epistolary novels aren’t all diaries and letters. Take Daisy Jones and The Six, for instance. This worldwide best-seller is written as a transcript from a Behind The Music-style documentary. In it, each member of the titular band tells their version of events, from their formation to their smash hit album to their abrupt disbandment. This fly-on-the-wall style, and the contradictory stories each contributor swears to be true, makes for compelling reading. Read my full review of Daisy Jones and The Six here.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Some epistolary novels mix it up, with a variety of stylised documents. Dracula is one such novel. Through a combination of letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, and other scribblings, Bram Stoker depicts the emergence, chase, and ultimate demise of one of the 19th century’s most terrifying villains, Dracula. Sure, you might find yourself wondering where Van Helsing and co. found the time to do all this letter writing, when they were chasing the vampire up and down the country… but asking too many questions ruins the fun. Read my full review of Dracula here.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
Almost all of the action in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is triggered by the writing or receipt of a letter (how they ever turned such a book into a film is beyond me, they’re a credit to themselves!). It kicks off with Juliet writing to her publishers to tell them she doesn’t wish to write a sequel to her best-selling novel. Then, she receives a letter from a stranger, who lives in the out-of-the-way spot we call Guernsey, and he’s a member of the most intriguing little club…
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
At first, you might not even realise The Handmaid’s Tale is an epistolary novel. You’d have to hold out to the end for the epilogue (and wait another minute or two before you start searching for the socks that Atwood blew off you). While it initially reads as a deeply introspective internal narrative, the epilogue reveals that The Handmaid’s Tale is just that: a handmaid’s tale, recorded onto cassette and buried in the junk drawer until long after the Gilead era has passed, carefully transcribed by the scholars who meet at a conference each year to try and work out what the heck went down back then. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.
I Love Dick by Chris Krauss
One of the odder types of epistolary novel, I Love Dick combines fiction, memoir, academic essays, heartfelt missives, and… a lot of other stuff. It deliberately pushes the boundaries, in more ways than one. Chris, who we are to understand is both the protagonist of the novel and the author herself, develops an obsession with a cultural critic named Dick. Her obsession grows, deepens, as she chases him across the country, and he grows ever more elusive. This is not a book for the faint of heart (if for no other reason than you might get a few funny looks reading it in public).
The Martian by Andy Weir
An epistolary novel from the future: The Martian is written as a series of logs by Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded alone on Mars. Accidentally left behind by his crew, he has to figure out how to make his meager rations last long enough for a rescue mission to find him. Written largely for his own eyes (seemingly forgetting that the documents might become part of a historical record), Watney’s log is hilarious, disarming, and full of character. Read my full review of The Martian here.
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower straddles the fence of epistolary novels; while it’s written as letters from the main character, Charlie, he never receives a response, making them diaries in effect. Through these letters to no one, he reveals his innermost secrets and internalised trauma. In his own life, Charlie relishes the role of wallflower, standing on the sidelines of everything that happens. His anonymous friend, to whom he addresses the letters (and by extension the reader, you and I) fulfills that same role for Charlie, observing everything that happens to him and taking it all in without intervening.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
One of the few common threads through all epistolary novels is that the narrators are unreliable. When we’re writing our own version of events, we can’t help but be subjective, and communicate our own point of view as though it were irrefutable truth. While the diaries that make up Piranesi hold true to that tradition, there’s a key difference: Piranesi’s mistakes and oversights aren’t self-serving slips of the ego, they are a genuine product of his environment and his long-term isolation. I can’t say any more than that without spoiling it!
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Until recently, Anne Brontë was kind of the forgotten Brontë sister – but not anymore. She’s having her moment in the spotlight, largely thanks to this transgressive and subversive epistolary novel, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. The story unfolds through a series of letters from one Gilbert Markham, describing how he came to meet a young widow named Helen Graham, now a tenant of (you guessed it) Wildfell Hall. It’s the most scandalous and debauched of all the Brontë novels, which surely in and of itself makes it worth a read.
True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
It’s bold to call a fictitious memoir a “true history”, isn’t it? That’s what drew me to this epistolary novel, True History Of The Kelly Gang. Peter Carey imagines that Ned Kelly, inexplicably revered and infamous Australian bushranger, had a daughter, and what he might want to tell her about his life and crimes. It’s a conceit within a conceit, as each “volume” of Kelly’s “memoir” is preceded by a curator’s note about the state of the manuscript, and presumptions as to its origins. It’s also written in a delightfully unique and lyrical Irish-Australian dialect. Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Sorry to end on a bum note, but we need to talk about We Need To Talk About Kevin. It is a truly heart-wrenching epistolary novel, told through a series of letters from Eva Khatchadourian to her absentee husband, in which she endeavours to uncover where they went wrong with their son, and what they might have done to prevent his heinous crimes. Despite Kevin’s incarceration, and her own legal troubles, Eva up-ends her life to remain close to her son, and lays all of her shit bare to try and get to the bottom of it all.
Every celebrity and his dog has a book club now, but there are a few specific individuals who can pretty much guarantee best-seller status for their recommended reads. The first that springs to mind is Oprah (duh), and the second is Barack Obama. Every year he releases a list of books he’s enjoyed, and every year the named authors watch their book sales soar. What you might not know is that Michelle Obama has recommended a few cracking reads in her time, too. Here’s a list of nine books recommended by the Obamas (one or both of them)…
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
Girl, Woman, Other has been blessed a few times over when it comes to making the news. First, Evaristo wound up sharing the Booker Prize award with Margaret Atwood for The Testaments because the judges – very controversially – “couldn’t choose” between them. Then, not long after, the best-seller was included in Barack Obama’s list of books that made 2019 “a little brighter”. That’s enough to cement it into our bookshelves as one of the must-read books of the 2010s (besides the fact that it’s, y’know, great).
The Power by Naomi Alderman
We know that Barack Obama loves to surround himself with powerful women, so it makes sense that The Power would make his reading list (recommended by him back in 2017). In Alderman’s dystopian world (or utopian, depending on how you look at it), women gain an immense and almost-other-worldly physical power. This totally up-ends the patriarchy, which we would all assume to be a good thing – but are there perhaps some unintended consequences? You betchya.
Educated by Tara Westover
Educated is one of the rare memoirs that retains its status and cut-through even after everyone’s familiar with the writer’s life story. Michelle Obama called it “an engrossing read, a fresh perspective on the power of an education” and “a testament to the way grit and resilience can shape our lives”. Westover certainly has all of those qualities in spades, having spent almost her entire youth ensconced in an extremely isolated family of survivalists. Given Michelle Obama’s ethos of hard work and making the most of opportunity, it makes sense that she’d give this book five stars.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Here’s one I didn’t see Barack Obama reading (let alone enjoying): Normal People. Don’t get me wrong, Rooney is quite rightly a literary darling, but somehow I just can’t quite picture him curled up on the couch musing on Marianne and Connell’s latest relationship drama. Just goes to show, you never really know someone, I guess! He included this perennially popular book about the millennial condition in his list of must-reads for 2019. Perhaps one of his daughters gave it to him…? Read my full review of Normal People here.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Speaking of literary darlings: turns out Michelle Obama loves them, too. She’s said she’s a fan of White Teeth, and “love[s] the way the story weaves together so many complex and powerful forces… plus, it’s just plain funny,”. I’m sure the Obamas, more than anyone, would have appreciated any laughs they could get these past couple of years! I can’t say I’d recommend this one for the laughs, but if it tickles your funny bone, power to you.
The best essays are the ones that entertain you while they’re making you think, and that’s what Barack Obama found in Trick Mirror (and subsequently recommended to all of his followers in his 2019 reading list). In this collection of nine startling, original, and raw missives, Tolentino explores all manner of self delusion. This is “a book about the incentives that shape us, and about how hard it is to see ourselves clearly through a culture that revolves around the self”. I’d imagine the Obamas have more to say and think about that than most…
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I can only imagine what reading An American Marriage must have been like for the Obamas (yes, both of them – Barack recommended it in his 2018 reading list, and Michelle told a reporter that it was the book on her nightstand shortly after). It’s what could have been, in some ways. The main characters, Roy and Celestial, are a young black couple on the rise, as the Obamas were back in the day – only things go terribly wrong when Roy is falsely accused, and subsequently imprisoned, for a crime he did not commit. This is a story of a marriage under unimaginable pressure, against the backdrop of black incarceration in the U.S. Read my full review of An American Marriage here.
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
Not only was Trust Exercise one of Barack Obama’s picks for his 2019 reading list, it also won the National Book Award that year – two commendations to be held in equal esteem, surely! It was a remarkably timely release for a book interrogating sex and power and the abuse of both, with more #MeToo allegations coming to the world’s attention and the consequences for many of the initial revelations finally coming to fruition. The story is made all the more unforgettable for its eerie setting, the frightfully forced intimate environment of a performing arts school.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
And, just to really hammer home the nostalgia, let’s cast our eyes back all the way to when the Obamas still lived in the White House. In 2016, as his presidency wrapped up, Barack released his summer reading list and The Underground Railroad was on it. It’s only in retrospect that I can see how brave that really was, given that this book is a heart- and soul-wrenching speculative account of the horrors wrought by the slave trade and the lengths that slaves had to go to escape them. It’s “both the gripping tale of one woman’s will to escape the horrors of bondage—and a powerful meditation on the history we all share,”. Read my full review of The Underground Railroad here.
Memoirs are particularly powerful books. Above and beyond the qualities of fiction, they literally put us in someone else’s shoes and invite us to see the world as they do. As a white woman, I could never claim to understand the experiences of women of colour, but through reading their memoirs I catch a glimpse of their lived realities. Each of us must commit to dismantling racism in our own way, and I aim to do my part through reading and sharing literature. Here are nine amazing memoirs by women of colour, should you wish to do the same…
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was first published back in 1969, and yet it remains as resonant and relevant as ever. Angelou’s tender, powerful, and poetic account of her childhood – growing up in the American South, with all the poverty and prejudice that implies, and surviving a terrible attack – set the bar high for memoirs by women of colour. Angelou followed this debut with a number of other memoirs, but it remains the most well-known and the most beloved.
Paula by Isabel Allende
Allende is perhaps best known for her fiction, and her contributions to the strong tradition of magical realism, but her memoir, Paula, should always rate a mention. When her daughter (for whom the book is named) fell gravely ill, and laid comatose in hospital, Allende began feverishly writing everything she could remember of their lives together. This heart-wrenching memoir is full of family history, well-worn anecdotes of childhood, and the most intimate secrets.
The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Clarke grew up in a world very recognisable to all Australians: suburban streets, Vegemite sandwiches, the Ford Falcon for a family car, and sweltering summers. Her street was typical of all white middle-class streets in this country… except that the Clarkes are black. The Hate Race traces this “normal” childhood, with one glaring difference, from Clarke’s parents’ arrival in Australia through to her own coming-of-age. Reading it is like looking into a cracked mirror: you know what you should see when you look into it, but the picture comes back distorted. An essential read for all Australians who “don’t see colour”.
Hunger by Roxane Gay
Gay describes her body as “wildly undisciplined”. In addition to being a woman of colour, she is also fat and queer. Her body exists at the intersection of all that we have been taught to fear in femininity. She reclaims the powerful narrative about her body in Hunger, a memoir about a devastating assault she experienced as a teen and the ways in which it sculpted her body in to what it is today. In her usual frank and forthright style, she examines the boundaries we draw around women’s bodies, the way trauma manifests, and the way our worlds are structured around what our bodies “should” be.
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
Uncomfortable conversations are sometimes necessary. That’s the message underlying Good Talk: a graphic novel memoir, told in conversations. What starts as a harmless question from a child about Michael Jackson’s skin colour turns into a much bigger conversation about what it means to move through the world with brown skin. Jacob’s conversations with her parents, friends, husband, and complete strangers reveal much about the way that race factors in to every day life. Read my full review of Good Talk here.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
I will never, never, never tire of recommending this book. In The Dream House is like nothing you’ve ever read before. Drawing on tropes from dozens of literary traditions – the ghost story, the Choose Your Own Adventure novel, the self-help best-seller – Machado brings you in to the most intimate and terrifying situation many of us could imagine, that of being in love with an abusive partner. It’s not an easy read, but it is an essential one, and so beautifully crafted that it’s impossible to look away, even when your eyes are full of tears.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
How does a lower-middle-class black girl from Chicago’s South Side come to hold the second-most influential position in America? That’s the story that Obama tells in Becoming. From her humble beginnings (as a child, she dreamed of having a whole house just for her family), to the peak of her husband’s presidency (The White House was so big that her childhood home could have fit in one of the thirty five bathrooms), this a story of lucky breaks, hard work, missteps, and determination. In a world where we have to see it to be it, Obama is putting herself center-stage in the hopes that other girls might feel they can join her. Read my full review of Becoming here.
In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park
North Korea is one of the most mysterious, unfathomable countries in the world – our only glimpses inside it, to see what it’s really like, come from memoirs like In Order To Live. With inimitable bravery, Park shares her family’s escape from the dictatorship, why and how they were able to slip away to China, and the terror of realising that her journey to safety wasn’t finished there. Millions of North Koreans continue to live under unimaginably difficult conditions, force fed propaganda by their government on the one hand and forcibly deprived of freedom on the other. Park is shining a light on this dark corner of the world, if we dare to look.
We’re Going To Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union
Most people only know or remember union for her roles in ’90s movies like Bring It On. Those are the people who most need to read We’re Going To Need More Wine. It’s a collection of personal essays about the nature of womanhood, race, sex, and violence, all with a view to inspiring us to become more empathetic and kind. As the title suggests, it’s the kind of conversation you’d expect to have with a friend over a bottle of wine: the world might be shit, but there’s got to be a way we can make it better.
There’s no shortage of books out there that promise to change the way you think… in a very sanitary, self-help-y, put-post-its-on-the-mirror kind of way. I tend to steer clear of them. The best books for changing the way you think aren’t the ones that set out to do just that; rather, they present to you a different way of thinking about some aspect of the world, and your own thinking takes you the rest of the way. These books can be from any genre, as you’ll see from this list of 32 books that will change the way you think…
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
The Brain That Changes Itself will change the way you think about the way your brain works, what is “ingrained” or inevitable and what can be changed or improved. So, it’s kind of meta, in that regard. We’ve somehow adopted this idea that our brains are “set in stone” by a certain point, or that damage and trauma (physical and mental) can’t be overcome once it is hardwired. Doidge has written this book to show you that our soft, squishy brains remain wonderfully malleable until the day we die, which opens up a whole world of possibilities. Read my full review of The Brain That Changes Itself here.
Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton
Religion For Atheists will change the way you think about the role that religion plays in our lives (or the role it could play, if you are indeed an atheist, as the title assumes), and what we can do with what it teaches us. de Botton encourages you to steer away from “boring” questions like whether God exists or whether there’s a Heaven or a Hell, and instead focus on the actual value of religious practice. He posits that we can benefit from the wisdom and power of religion, honed over thousands of years, without having to have blind belief. Read my full review of Religion For Atheists here.
She Speaks by Yvette Cooper
She Speaks is a collection that will change the way you think about powerful speeches and their capacity to change the world (maybe that’s self-evident for any TED Talk devotee, but still). As Cooper points out in her introduction, most collections of transcribed speeches would have you believe that only wealthy white men are capable of exerting influence from behind a microphone. These forty speeches vary in subject, tone, and purpose, but they are all delivered by women who have changed the world.
Tender Is The Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
Tender Is The Flesh will change the way you think about state-sanctioned cruelty, as well as some broader questions around desire and fulfillment. If there were ever a book that would turn you vegan, this would probably be it. Bazterrica imagines a Soylent Green-esque world, where humans are farmed for food. There is nothing unique about the appalling conditions or cruelty to which the “heads” are subjected; we sanction it every time we buy beef or pork. It’s not one for the queasy, but if you can stomach it, you’ll find this book is unforgettable.
The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson
The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck will change the way you think about what you care about and what you put your energy towards. I know, you probably weren’t expecting to find actual self-help books in here, given the way I introduced this list, but I maintain that Manson is so against-the-grain in his approach that it barely counts. This book tears down all the myths we’ve built up for years, around “positive thinking” and “you can have it all”. The fact is, into every life some shit will fall, and we need to reckon with when we should give a fuck and when we needn’t bother.
No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani
No Friend But The Mountains will change the way you think about “illegal” immigrants and asylum seekers, and the conditions to which our government subjects them in our name. This is the book to hand to every loud-mouth relative with a “fuck off, we’re full” bumper sticker. At the time of writing, Boochani had been incarcerated for years – all for the “crime” of fleeing his country, where he faced pain of death for his journalism. He bravely and selflessly grants us unfettered and unprecedented access to what it is truly like to be an asylum seeker under the legacy regimes of altogether too many Australian governments.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Big Magic will change the way you think about creativity (bonus points if you listen to the podcast, too!). If you’re hung up on ideas about suffering for your art, or the starving artist dying of tuberculosis in a gutter, then this is the book you need. It’s not just for full-time Professional Creatives(TM), either. Gilbert’s philosophy extends to anyone who can or wants to derive joy from creating, whether that be through writing, visual, art, music, or anything resembling those kinds of endeavours. Her approach is optimistic, but pragmatic – and who couldn’t use a bit of that?
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
The Library Book will change the way you think about libraries, and the role that these vital institutions play in our lives. If you only know Susan Orlean from her awesome drunk tweets, it’ll probably change the way you think about her, too. Fair warning for your friends and loved ones, though: any bibliophile who reads this book will bombard everyone they know with fun facts about books and libraries for a good month while reading it (I made the mistake of taking it along with me on a road trip, eeek!). Read my full review of The Library Book here.
Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Freakonomics will change the way you think about… well, economics is too obvious, so let’s say human behaviour and the power of statistics. I still remember my high school economics teacher telling us one morning that murder rates tend to spike alongside ice cream sales, and challenging us to find the connection. Does dairy drive the lactose intolerant to violence? Do killers like to reward themselves with a sweet treat after a busy day’s murder? These kinds of ridiculous questions are the ones tackled by Levitt and Dubner. They make economics fun and accessible for even the most disinterested reader.
Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron
Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls will change the way you think about addiction, addicts, and the people who love them. Portraits of addiction tend to focus on the user, all-too-often romanticised versions of hitting rock bottom and finding the strength and will to stay sober. But what of the people who love them? They’re more than supporting cast, they have lives and dreams and hopes of their own that may be damaged or dashed by the addict they love. Aron draws from a deep well of personal experience in balancing the narrative, telling us just what it’s like to loan your lover forty bucks, knowing just what he intends to do with it…
A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
A Short History Of Nearly Everything will change the way you think about physics and evolutionary science – it’s not as boring as you might think! With his trademark folksy charm and humour, Bryson will take you from the chemistry of the Big Bang right through to what made the earliest humans walk upright. Sure, some of the content is a little dated now (is Pluto still a planet?), but for a general primer on how and why the universe exists, as well as just about everything in it, you can’t go past this popular science gem. Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.
The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan
The Great Pretender will change the way you think about psychology, psychiatry, and the scientific method. How can we distinguish sanity from insanity? It’s a personal question for Cahalan, who was destined for a psychiatric institution before a doctor corrected her misdiagnosis and saved her life. In this book, she takes a closer look at the one experimental study that changed psychology and psychiatry forever, when professor David Rosenhan sent ostensibly sane researchers into institutions undercover, to see whether the doctors really could discern madness. But did his results really show what we thought we saw? Apparently not…
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Outliers will change the way you think about success and what it takes to get there. Gladwell takes a look at the best and the brightest, the tops in their field, and asks: what makes them any different to the rest of us hum-drum Joe Blows? Without talking over your head, he’ll explain to you the fallacy of assuming ingrained traits in the highly successful, and encourage you instead to look at the foundations they built upon. Maybe this book won’t make you a millionaire, but it’ll at least help you understand how millionaires got there.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Okay, this one might be a bit of a stretch, because you can’t read it in isolation, but: taken together with the careful analysis surrounding its release and subsequent controversy, American Dirt will change the way you think about the need for #OwnVoices stories and the need for diversity and representation in publishing, all the way up and all the way down. Cummins said in her afterword that she “wished someone browner than her would write this book”. The fact is, plenty of people browner than her did write this book, and better. So, why weren’t they picked for Oprah’s book club?
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime And Punishment will change the way you think about “dull” and “dreary” Russian literature. I came to this book absolutely dreading it. I assumed it was going to be bleak, and wordy, and a real slog to get through. Didn’t I get a good kick up the arse when I discovered that it is actually hilarious and a ripping page-turner?! Don’t be alarmed if you read this one and find yourself rooting for – not to mention relating to – an actual axe murderer. There’s probably a broader lesson to be learned here, not judging a book by its cover maybe, but I reckon if it encourages you to give more Russian literature a go, that’s good enough. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My Brilliant Friend will change the way you think about female friendships, especially life-long ones. Prior to reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, beginning with this (book one), I’d assumed I just wasn’t particularly good at female friendships. That competitive edge, that ebb and flow of feeling and closeness… It turns out, I’m not the only one. These struggles are beautifully captured and rendered on the page through Elenna and Lila, best friends from childhood, though forced together (and apart) through circumstance moreso than any kindred spirit. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four will change the way you think about government power and resistance. My father bought me a copy when I was thirteen years old, and it was a true awakening. It’s difficult to talk about this now without sounding like you’re at the extreme of one or the other -wings, or a nut-bar conspiracy theorist with a tin-foil hat ready to go. The fact remains, however, that surveillance is a genuine threat to freedom, and truth can be manipulated. Orwell foresaw so many of today’s dangers, decades ago, and each time you read this book you’ll find in it new wisdom as to how to resist.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed will change the way you think about social media and our perceptions of “right” and “wrong” (bonus points if you watch his TED talk). Public shaming has become a near-daily occurrence, especially on Twitter. Sometimes, the recipients are lucky, in that their faux pas does the rounds for a day or two, then dies down. Others – like Justine, the woman who Tweeted about contracting AIDS in Africa – have their lives ruined, and their misstep follows them forever. Ronson has tracked down many victims of these worldwide pile-ons, and what he found will make you think twice before hitting retweet.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give will change the way you think about Black Lives Matter protests, the role of the police in our communities, and your convictions about “what you would do” in someone else’s shoes. As the protagonist, Starr, says herself: “I’ve Tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.” It’s impossible to know what you’ll do in the face of racially-motivated violence, but this book will prompt you to think about it at least, and put you in someone else’s shoes. Read my full review of The Hate U Give here.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
In The Dream House will change the way you think about domestic abuse, and – in a slightly more meta way – change the way you think about memoirs. Machado draws on all manner of literary traditions (including, notably, the Choose Your Own Adventure novel) to depict her experience of surviving an abusive partner. She puts to bed the stereotype of the battered woman cowering in the corner as her drunk husband raises his fists. There are far too few books out there about domestic abuse in queer relationships, which makes this one all the more important and timely. It is a truly innovative and riveting read.
The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper
The Arsonist will change the way you think about guilt, innocence, and culpability. Even if you’re not Australian, and don’t recall the horror of the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, you’ll find in these pages a breathtaking interrogation of how we determine that someone has committed a crime, and what happens to them as a result. I picked up this book assuming it would be a straight up-and-down true crime story about Brendan Sokaluk dropping a few lit cigarettes; instead, I came out of it with scary questions about who, why, and even whether. Read my full review of The Arsonist here.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
When Breath Becomes Air will change the way you think about living and dying. Our cultural perception of doctors – especially in the wake of the global pandemic – is that they are untouchable superheroes, capable of saving anyone and everyone. This heart-wrenching memoir reveals that they are all too human, and thus vulnerable to the same tragedies that befall us all. Kalanithi was an idealistic young neurosurgeon when he learned that he had stage IV lung cancer. In writing this book, he set out to answer the big questions: what makes life worth living? How much of a life is enough?
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
Good Talk will change the way you think about microagressions and uncomfortable conversations. By presenting her memoir as a graphic novel, with moments of charm and humour, Jacob is able to draw you in before walloping you with the reality. It starts off with a child’s innocent questions about Michael Jackson’s skin tone, and stretches all the way to the federal politics of race through the conversations we have with one another. This book will make you think more carefully about what you say, and why, and how it might affect others in the context of a world that already gives them plenty of reason to fear. Read my full review of Good Talk here.
She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
She Said will change the way you think about the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein downfall. If you think you know the story from the grabs you saw on the news, reading this book will prove you wrong. Kantor and Twohey are the New York Times journalists who worked tirelessly for months on end to outmaneuver Weinstein and his team, in order to bring you the unimpeachable story of his crimes. The lengths to which he – and subsequently other men in power – went to hide the truth are truly astonishing, and must be read to be believed.
Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl will change the way you think about sex and gender fluidity. The titular character, Paul, is (among other things) a shapeshifter, capable of presenting themselves to the world any way they choose. This magical realism merges seamlessly with the politics, queer theory, and throbbing ’90s soundtrack. Sure, it’s perhaps not part of the trans-lit canon in the strictest sense, but it’s the book I’m most inclined to push into the hands of readers who want to challenge their view of the way we police bodies and gender.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes will change the way you think about the Jazz Age, “gold diggers”, and the ways women can wield power. I won’t blame you if you didn’t even realise this was a book before it was a Marilyn Monroe film (I didn’t, until I read it!). Forget about stinkin’ Great Gatsby: this is the definitive American novel of the Jazz Age, complete with glitter and glamour and wealth and wooing. Loos plays with dialect, giving her protagonist – Lorelai Lee – a distinct and unique voice through her diaries. Despite her small-town upbringing, and her limited opportunities for education and personal advancement, Lorelai finds her way and you’ll be as enamoured with her as her suitors. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens will change the way you think about the evolution of us, the homo sapiens. Billed as a “brief history of humankind”, this book explains the conflation of historical and biological factors that have developed our concept of what it means to be human. Just one hundred thousand years ago, there were six different species of human wandering around on this planet of ours: what happened to the rest of them? Why did we survive? You don’t need to take my word for it: Harari’s book has been recommended to us by Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, among many, many others.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Convenience Store Woman will change the way you think about conformity and the pursuit of true happiness. Set in Tokyo, the main character faces all of the pressures of living in contemporary Japanese society. She is expected to marry, bear children, leave behind her beloved job as a convenience store attendant, but no one in her life seems to realise or care that she’s happy with her life just as it is. This book is short, sharp, and searing in its insight. You might be able to knock it over in an afternoon, but it will stay with you for far, far longer. Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such A Fun Age will change the way you think about “good intentions” and white guilt. If you’ve ever written off someone’s racist word or deed with the excuse that they “meant well”, this book will give you a lot to think about. The white people in this novel almost universally mean well, but they fall short in truly understanding their role in racist social structures. What’s more, when their shortcomings are pointed out to them, they put the burden of their guilt and discordant shame on others. A really provocative and timely read, packaged as a book you might take to the beach.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
The Weekend will change the way you think about the lived experience of older women (it’s not just shopping and bingo, you know). Most books portray these characters as frail and pitiable, preoccupied with their own mortality and lost youth. Wood presents a very different view, one of women with vitality and desires and ambitions, which far more accurately represents the older women I have been lucky enough to know. This is a brilliant Australian novel about friendships, memory, and connection, with characters that are as dynamic as they are multi-dimensional.
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance will change the way you think about… everything, kinda? Through the narrative of a motorcycle road trip shared by father and son, this book veers into very philosophical realms. How do we reconcile science and religion? How do we reckon with our own failings, and our own capacity? How do we live, and how could we live better? Pirsig doesn’t pull any punches.
Keeping Up With The Penguins operates on the lands of the Gadigal people, of the Eora nation. This land was never ceded or sold. Our First Nations communities have the oldest continuing storytelling tradition in the world, and custodianship of the land always was, always will be, theirs.
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