The right book read at the right time can alter not just what you think, but how. The effect can feel like putting on a new set of glasses: Everything remains the same, but you view reality with sudden clarity. It can also be more unsettling—great writing may make the ordinary utterly unfamiliar, so that the reader experiences it unmoored from prior assumptions.
Many books can pull off this life-altering trick, depending on how we encounter them; the timing is as important as the subject. The transformation can happen in childhood, when transcendent writing has the power to let loose imagination. Sometimes the book in question might look deceptively simple—an author reconsidering something as automatic as sleeping or breathing. The information may not be news to everyone: A revolution in one’s thinking can be both obvious and meaningful. You may find a writer who deploys language in unfamiliar, thrilling ways, or who changes your philosophy on raising children. The books below, selected by The Atlantic’s staff, demonstrate how writing can take a person apart and put them back together. Each left us with a fresh perspective that now bleeds into how we see the rest of the world.
The Invisible Kingdom, by Meghan O’Rourke
The best memoirs are those that take an occurrence, a life, or a history that is not our own, and so fully transport the reader into the world of the writer that our capacity for empathy expands in ways we could not have imagined. That is the experience I had reading O’Rourke’s The Invisible Kingdom, in which she writes beautifully and honestly about living with a chronic, mysterious, and often debilitating illness. Some of my loved ones live with their own enigmatic, ongoing health issues, and this book provided me with insight and context with which to more fully understand their experiences. O’Rourke places her life in conversation with the larger body of historical research on chronic illness, to provide a narrative that is both deeply personal and deeply investigated. In the age of COVID, when so many across the world are still living with the lingering, enervating symptoms of the virus, the lessons and stories here are becoming more relevant to all of us—just as they were for me. — Clint Smith
By Meghan O’Rourke
Still Born, by Guadalupe Nettel
Because many of my friends and peers are starting to think about parenthood, Still Born immediately caught my attention. It is a novel about two women: Laura, who’s so determined not to have children that she has her tubes tied, and her friend Alina, who is told by her doctors that her baby, conceived after months of desperate trying, won’t survive childbirth. Being a mother is so often portrayed in black and white—you either are one, or you aren’t. How could there be any in between? But Nettel argues, in subtle and thought-provoking ways, that the role of motherhood is actually “porous”—one can shift in and out of it. Laura becomes a mother of sorts to Inés, Alina’s baby, who miraculously survives birth but is severely disabled, and even more so to her neighbor’s son, who throws violent tantrums that his catatonically depressed mom can’t manage. Recent books, such as Angela Garbes’s Essential Labor and Kristen Ghodsee’s Everyday Utopia, have argued for raising children as a communal effort. Nettel’s novel showed me fiction’s power to address this question, offering a complicated portrait of the different, nuanced forms caregiving can take. — Maya Chung
Cruel Shoes, by Steve Martin
I read this collection when I was 8 years old. The titular story features Anna, a shoe addict. Against the advice of a salesman, she tries on a sadistically designed “hideous pair of black and white pumps.” She forces her feet into them: “One had a right angle turn with separate compartments that pointed the toes in impossible directions. The other shoe was six inches long and was curved inward like a rocking chair with a vise and razor blades to hold the foot in place.” She screams. She pays. She crawls bloody into the street. The stories are short, some scarcely a paragraph long, and the demented vibe of this one is representative. I knew nothing about the author, nor about the surreal comedy he had pioneered in the 1970s. A few years ago, I revisited the collection as an adult. It read as if written during an extended bout of ergot poisoning. It sent my mind in impossible directions, and I recommend it to children of all ages whose sensibilities are ready to be similarly and pleasurably warped. — Graeme Wood
Breath, by James Nestor
Breath is a book-length argument for a relatively simple idea: You should breathe through your nose. I’m a chronic mouth breather—I frequently can’t inhale through my nose at all because of severe allergies. (One time I got called out in yoga class because we were doing alternate-nostril breathing, which I was physically incapable of doing, and the teacher thought I was ignoring his directions on purpose.) But Nestor argues that nose-breathing is crucial because it’s more efficient and, weirdly, might even promote a better skeletal structure in your mouth. I haven’t taken things as far as Nestor does in the book; I don’t tape my mouth shut or anything. But occasionally, when I’m running, I’ll remind myself to try to breathe through my nose, and it kind of helps me keep going. Another bad habit of mine is to hold my breath for long periods of time while I’m working. After reading Breath, I’m now more likely to forcibly take in a sip of air if I notice I haven’t in a while. Breathing! Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. — Olga Khazan
By James Nestor
Up until my final months in college, I suppose I felt that writing was something you did until you either made a living from it or accepted that it was time to get a real job. But then, right as I was set to graduate, I read The Savage Detectives, Bolaño’s loose chronicling of his literary milieu in 1970s Mexico City. Its characters, a group of aspiring poets who want to radically reshape the world of letters in their image, never quite realize their dreams; instead, they die young, leave the country, pivot to journalism, or, in the best-case scenario, toil away as minor artists. Yet the survivors never lose their literary sensibility regardless of where their lives turn—an outcome that helped me conceive of writing as a craft I’d pursue for the rest of my life, regardless of how conventionally successful it made me. More than that, Bolaño’s obvious love for his friends, whom he turned into his novel’s characters, has stuck with me as I think about every writer and would-be writer I’ve ever met. The novel wasn’t only a declaration of aesthetic philosophy; it was also a beautiful tribute to the people he’d seen come and go. — Jeremy Gordon
By Roberto Bolaño
Black Land: Imperial Ethiopianism and African America, by Nadia Nurhussein
In January 1936, Time magazine named the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie I, “Man of the Year,” and praised his efforts to defend the country against the 1935 Italian invasion—though just four months later, he would abandon Ethiopia and flee to England for five years. Still, nearly a century later, Haile Selassie is widely venerated in the West: Growing up in an Ethiopian immigrant community in Southern California, I first learned about the emperor from similar hagiographies that cast him as an exceptional figure in Black history and framed the country as a beacon of Black independence. But Nurhussein’s book asks thorny questions about how Ethiopia came to be a widespread symbol for Black resistance to white colonization, and how accurate that portrayal really is. Without dismissing the narrative’s importance to many, she convincingly marshals a litany of historical examples that upend it; her book challenges the views I espoused about the emperor and the nation alike even into my 20s. — Hannah Giorgis
By Nadia Nurhussein
They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies That Raised Us, by Prachi Gupta
Metaphors of war are frequently used to talk about family estrangement: We talk of burned bridges, and using the nuclear option. Cutting off a family member tends to be seen in these extreme terms, most socially acceptable as a response to specific, often unspeakable transgressions. Gupta’s new memoir, written as an emotional, anguished letter to her mother, rewrote that script for me. She argues for estrangement not as a tool of anger, but one of love, especially self-love. She recounts her grandparents’ life in India, her family’s move to North America, and her childhood in Pennsylvania, then uses that context to make sense of the baffling way she says her father both supported her and verbally abused her. She doesn’t portray her eventual break with her parents and brother as a story of obvious villains and victims. Instead, her book weighs the beauty in her childhood against the toll of little cruelties that come and go, and identifies how the toxic pressure of the model-minority myth pushed her and her brother to achieve, then suffocated them. She explains better than any writer I’ve ever encountered how conflicts that may appear low-stakes—such as an argument over grades or extracurriculars—can tear open an unnavigable gulf. She does this while loving, and grieving, her formerly close family. — Emma Sarappo
By Prachi Gupta
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