The Measure of Our Lives
At once the ideal introduction to Toni Morrison and a lovely and moving keepsake for her devoted readers: a treasury of quotations from her work. With a foreword from Zadie Smith, this inspirational book juxtaposes quotations, one to a page, drawn from Toni Morrison’s entire body of work, both fiction and nonfiction—from The Bluest Eye to God Help the Child, from Playing in the Dark to The Source of Self-Regard—to tell a story of self-actualization. It aims to evoke the totality of Toni Morrison’s literary vision.
How to Be an Antiracist
Ibram X. Kendi
In this powerful book by Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, racism isn’t framed as a simple set of wrongheaded personal beliefs. Instead, Kendi breaks down the ways policy and rhetoric perpetuate racist systems upheld by racist ideas, and positions antiracism as the opposite: as policies, rhetoric, and ideas that lead to racial equity. Delving into his own history of internalized racism, Kendi exposes the toxic policies and narratives at the heart of American society, but also explores how to pull the wool from our eyes in order to promote change.
Into her teens, Tara Westover was ignorant of certain things many of us assume are common knowledge: the Holocaust, the existence of the World Trade Center towers and the attack that felled them. But Westover was raised in a strictly religious and survivalist family, was never sent to school, and was kept away from popular culture. Still, she was a reader, and she wanted to see more of the world. So when one of her brothers went to Brigham Young University, Westover knew it was possible to get out, and she followed his lead, escaping her other brother and his cruelties. From Brigham Young, Westover kept going—on to Cambridge and Harvard, all the way to her doctoral degree. She never entirely let go of her family, though, and in trying to understand her future, she re-examines her past.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned. Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.
In the vein of Barbara Ehrenreich and Katherine Boo, Harvard sociology professor Matthew Desmond’s research into poverty and the housing crisis in America is fully immersive. In Evicted, he takes us into the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee, even living in a trailer park himself, bearing witness to the swift and unfeeling eviction process that forces single mothers and struggling families into shelters, onto the streets or into increasingly dangerous neighborhoods. Told through personal stories and firsthand accounts, Desmond argues that eviction and homelessness actually beget poverty, not the other way around. This incredibly well-researched and important narrative is a must-read; it will not only forever change how you look at inequality in this country, the tales of resilience in the face of hardship will inspire.
We Should All Be Feminists
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In this personal, eloquently-argued essay—adapted from the much-admired TEDx talk of the same name—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century, one rooted in inclusion and awareness. Drawing extensively on her own experiences and her deep understanding of the often masked realities of sexual politics, here is one remarkable author’s exploration of what it means to be a woman now—and an of-the-moment rallying cry for why we should all be feminists.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer whose ancestors were slaves, but she gained immortality in the scientific community when her cells were taken without her permission and used for innumerable experiments and medical breakthroughs from the 1950s through present day. Skloot investigates the untold story of Henrietta’s life and works with her family to uncover the truth behind the testing that Henrietta and her family unknowingly underwent.
Born a Crime
Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother’s unconventional, unconditional love.
An immediate runaway bestseller, the former First Lady is far more than just that. Sharing her journey from a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago to the prestigious Princeton and then Harvard Law School, Obama’s resilience, strength, and monumental intelligence are clear. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t hardships along the way, nor that life became easy with her now-famous husband. Candid and frank, Obama shares the difficulties of being the wife of such an ambitious politician as well as moving to a house where she couldn’t control the goings-on, and where she had to fight to maintain a normal childhood for her daughters. A lovely memoir from one of our truly best women.
This Is My America
Every week, seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont writes letters to Innocence X, asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row. After seven years, Tracy is running out of time—her dad has only 267 days left. Then the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy’s older brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a “thug” on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Determined to save her brother, Tracy investigates what really happened between Jamal and Angela down at the Pike. But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering of the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the present?
The World According to Garp
T.S. Garp is the son of feminist icon Jenny Fields, whose book, A Sexual Suspect, made her a celebrity. Garp, a writer himself, grapples with his mother’s fame as well as his own problems, including his obsessive worry over the safety of his kids. Filled with shocking scenes, biting satire, and a Dickensian array of richly drawn characters, Irving’s breakout 1978 novel remains a contemporary classic and a complex portrait of its time.
“Bring the huge vernacular,” Ann Lauterbach writes early in Spell, her tenth poetry collection, and oh, does she. A widely acclaimed poet and a MacArthur Genius grant recipient, Lauterbach is exceptionally adept at investigating language—its complex meanings, its history, and its bewildering multiplicity. Here, the National Book Award nominee scrutinizes the many iterations of the word spell, and the resulting book is, appropriately, spellbinding.
Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra
In the recent Netflix show Maniac, the character Annie wants to read Don Quixote to prove she can, but we’re here to argue that Cervantes’ monumental classic (referred to by some as the first true novel) isn’t such a labor to read. In fact, the story of an aging man’s adventures in delusions (most of them derived from the thousands of romances he’s read) is an utterly fun reading experience. Full of hilarious set pieces and way-ahead-of-their-time literary devices, Don Quixote remains an entertaining and necessary part of the canon.
Inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel Rebecca (itself a must-read-in-your-life book), Lisa Gabriele’s The Winters updates du Maurier’s Gothic tale and replaces Manderley with the Asherley estate in the Hamptons. With vivid and evocative prose, Gabriele shows that a great writer can breathe new life into even seminal works. Like du Maurier’s original, The Winters is about a young woman’s quick engagement to a wealthy widower, but when she’s brought to his home and meets his teenage daughter, she discovers that the family keeps disturbing secrets involving her fiancé’s previous wife, Rebekah.
We That Are Young
In the early years of this decade, protests spread across India, advocating against the vast corruption in the country’s government. Set against this tumultuous time, Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young takes Shakespeare’s King Lear and thrusts it into the contemporary world of India’s fast-growing economy. It tells the story of The Company, a giant corporation with its hands in everything, and the power struggle that ensues when its founder gives The Company to his two daughters.
Katherine J. Chen
In another classic novel reimagining, Katherine J. Chen takes on Jane Austen’s masterpiece Pride and Prejudice by focusing on the youngest of the Bennett sisters, Mary, who exists on the periphery of Austen’s original comedy. In Chen’s telling, Mary is a bookish woman with literary ambitions, stuck in an era when female independence is next to impossible. It’s a brilliant stroke of perspective and a story as rich and funny as any of Austen’s.
If Beale Street Could Talk
One of the great writers of the 20th century, James Baldwin wrote numerous works of unsurpassed power and beauty, and we think his 1974 novel makes a fantastic introduction to his truly remarkable oeuvre. The story of Tish and Fonny, a young couple in love and living in an atmosphere of racial injustice and corrupt police, If Beale Street Could Talk (recently adapted into a film by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins) is a riveting work of issues that remain relevant and deeply troubling.
The Invisible Man
H. G. Wells
Some ideas simply can’t be improved upon. H. G. Wells’ game-changing novella about a man who’s figured out a way to become invisible—but who can’t find a way to turn himself back—is still one of the creepiest and most imaginative works of science fiction, and it does what sci-fi does best: explores the startling ramifications of human progress and technology, something infinitely more relevant now than it was in 1897.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Most people are familiar with Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel of surrealism, paradox, and whimsy—but we’re here to recommend a specific edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Yayoi Kusama is a world-renowned pop artist who’s long had a condition that makes her see spots, which comes out in her art. Her visuals accompanying this masterpiece are so powerful and original, so stunning and bizarre, they make the experience of reading this classic completely fresh and new.
The Frolic of the Beasts
Yukio Mishima published numerous widely acclaimed novels in his life before committing suicide in 1970. The Frolic of the Beasts, the story of a dark and complex love triangle between a student, his professor, and the professor’s wife, was published in 1961 and is now available in English for the first time. A haunting love story, Mishima’s novel introduces English readers to a major figure in Japanese literature.
Here at Read It Forward, we talk a lot about new books because, well, we love books. But that doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten about the classics, those tried-and-true stories that never get old. So, we’ve put together a group of books everyone should read in their lifetime, including some titles you may not find on other lists like this (though of course, there a few classics too wonderful not to include). A few new books made the list, too—we couldn’t help it!—but trust us, you don’t want to miss them. And if you’re craving some brand-spanking-new reads, check out our favorite books of 2020.
Featured Image: Chelsea Fone