Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel García Márquez
Choosing just one novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez felt impossible, so I chose the first of his works that I read. In his novel of unrequited love, readers meet the young Florentino, who’s in love with Fermina. When Fermina marries another man, Florentino lives the rest of his life as an unmarried man, but one who has 622 affairs as he waits for Fermina to come back to him. A novel that attests to the power of love and the nature of obsession, it’s packed with memorable characters and sensual details that will linger.
A Fine Balance
India experienced a crisis in the mid-1970s when the government of Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency. Lives were disrupted, and among them are Mistry’s four characters, who seek ways to avoid the draconian crackdowns imposed from above. Forced sterilizations, imprisonment, and torture awaited those caught up in sweeps, and how these characters carry on their daily lives while looking out for each other gives readers a view of India far from the romanticized versions written by westerners.
The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin changed science fiction with this novel that recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its release. On the planet Winter, the humanoid creatures born there are given the choice of gender and then change them later in life. When a lone human ambassador arrives on Winter, he carries with him his own cultural experiences and prejudices that combine to make it a difficult struggle for him to live on Winter. Many critics consider Le Guin’s book one of the most important feminist science-fiction texts ever published.
The Joy Luck Club
Four Chinese women begin gathering in 1949 in San Francisco. Recent immigrants, they gather to play mahjong and to talk. Over time, they all experience cultural transitions and family strife as their daughters are born in America and grow up with entirely different expectations of their lives. The novel lovingly explores the ties between mothers and daughters and the painful coming-of-age experiences that make that necessary separation happen. This was Tan’s debut novel, an instant classic, and the works she’s written since are all well-worth the read.
The Bluest Eye
Choosing among Morrison’s novels is impossible, but I’ve chosen one of her earliest. Before she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, announced the arrival of a riveting voice. Pecola Breedlove prays each day for the blond hair and blue eyes she believes will give her a better life. She’s the butt of jokes and bullying by other kids who focus their rage on the young girl’s curly hair and dark skin. Pecola thinks that if she meets her tormentors’ standard of beauty, they will accept her, but Morrison’s searing prose shows readers the myriad ways that young Black girls are taught they will never meet standards of white beauty.
The Underground Railroad
Imagine the Underground Railroad, the dangerous escape route traveled by enslaved persons prior to the Civil War, as a real operating railroad that runs beneath the South. Cora and Caesar set out on its tracks on a type of modern-day Gulliver’s Travels that reveals the best—and the worst—of human nature. The novel functions both as speculative fiction and searing historical fiction that reveals many of our past’s uncomfortable truths. Whitehead makes real the horror of slavery and the euphoria of freedom. Truly a book for the ages, it’s also the book that won Whitehead the kinds of critical accolades writers live for.
Choosing which classic novels to recommend was especially difficult, but the book that birthed at least two different genres (horror and modern science fiction) is a must-read, and it’s a fantastic novel to boot. Perhaps no book has had more misinterpretations of it committed to film and television treatments than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This gorgeous novel should be at the top of anyone’s list of books to read right away. Rather than the story of a murderous monster that stalks the countryside, Frankenstein contains within its pages a story of paternal abandonment, a child in search of comfort, and a society unwilling to accept the less-than-perfect.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
John le Carré
John le Carré was a spy prior to his stellar career as a novelist, and his novels of statecraft set a high bar for any who followed. In the early ’60s, the British Intelligence community was humiliated on a world stage when five of its agents defected to the USSR after serving as double agents for decades. In this intricate novel, le Carré takes readers into MI-5 as George Smiley works to ferret out the Soviet mole who has cost British agents their lives. Together with those loyal to him, Smiley sets traps for double agents, Soviet moles, and—if he plays his pieces close to his vest—maybe the Soviet spymaster himself.
Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie’s novel contextualizes one of the central conflicts of the 1960s. Between 1967 and 1970, civil war raged in Nigeria. Nigeria had gained its independence from Great Britain in 1963, but four years later, the people of Biafra, a southern province, declared their intention to secede. War erupted. For Adichie, the war cost her both of her grandfathers. She chronicles the war years through the perspectives of five characters whose stories she juggles with tremendous aplomb. She immerses readers in the time and texture of 1960s Nigeria and grants them access to what it felt like to be present as a young country faced its first disastrous challenge to nationhood.
A Lesson Before Dying
Ernest J. Gaines
Gaines’s novel exposes the cruelty of capital punishment. Set in 1948 in the fictional town of Bayonne, Louisiana, the story focuses on the relationship between a teacher and a student. The lesson before them is how to face death. Grant Wiggins is a primary school teacher who has come forward to teach Jefferson, a 21-year-old man who is scheduled to be executed. Both men are Black, though the class and educational differences between them make it difficult to communicate in meaningful ways. But as Wiggins commits himself to helping appeal Jefferson’s unjust sentence, he’s forced to confront how justice operates and the limits of what one man can teach another.
Rita Mae Brown
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle was a revolutionary book when it was published in 1973. What’s remarkable is that it still reads as something new and revolution-making. Its protagonist, Molly Bolt, is growing up and wreaking humorous havoc among her friends and the adults. When she hits puberty, Molly figures out that she’s a lesbian, and her adventures that grow from that self-knowledge are both funny and tragic. One of the great Bildungsroman about the LGTBQ+ experience, it’s a must-read.
The American Woman in the Chinese Hat
Maso’s brave fourth novel explores the limits of a woman’s erotic adventures. Catherine journeys to the French Riviera to recover from her brother’s death and from her lover’s betrayal. As Catherine explores the unfamiliar landscape, her hold on reality begins to slip. Maso couples Catherine’s shifting sense of identity with her plunge into multiple erotic relationships in which she explores the limits of her sexual imagination. A portrayal of love and sex, and the ways that sexual expression can provide both an escape and a path to destruction.
Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s
Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick is another of those writers who makes choosing among his path-breaking science fiction near impossible. Thus, I’ve chosen an omnibus that features Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick’s incantatory novel of a bounty hunter chasing down fugitive androids. The novel later became the basis for the film Bladerunner; both the book and film had enormous cultural impact. In The Man in the High Castle, Dick imagined an America where the Nazis had won World War II. His nightmare version of what American life would be like under fascism feels especially timely in a world where autocratic leaders and fascist politics have made inroads into democracies.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Another Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, this one’s a history of comic books, immigration, and Postwar America. Joe Kavalier arrives as a Jewish refugee from 1930s Germany. He and his cousin construct a world where, despite being too young to join up, they fight Hitler and the Nazis. The comic book they create becomes an enormous success, and Chabon follows the story of their hero, Escapist, as he becomes a hero to a generation living in the Golden Age of Comics. You don’t have to be a fan of comic books to become enthralled by Chabon’s evocation of America in the 1940s and 1950s.
The Handmaid's Tale
In the future world envisioned by Atwood, the rise of the Christian Right leads to a coup that destroys the American government. The new government institutes draconian laws that separate women who are still fertile from their families and makes them servants—handmaids—to party leadership couples. Envisioning a future that bore similarities to the experiences of women who had been enslaved, Atwood’s book is considered a classic of feminist and speculative writing.
William Shakespeare Complete Works
This is a massive cheat, including all of Shakespeare’s work on this list, but I couldn’t imagine leaving off his sonnets. Read Sonnet 151, or 105, or 14, and try to choose among them. Shakespeare addresses the milestones of human life in his sonnets, though many of them speak of his love for a woman. And asking to choose among the plays Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, or Macbeth is a fool’s errand. But a collection such as this covers the human condition in all its glories and follies. What a piece of work is Shakespeare, and every library should have him.
The Ministry of Special Cases
Nathan Englander’s work explores Jewish life across culture and time. In The Ministry of Special Cases, he tests the cement that held together the family of Kaddish and Lillian Poznan and their missing son, Pato, who’s disappeared into the nothingness created by the Argentinian secret police during the Argentine Dirty War in the 1970s. Englander tests not only each of his character’s Jewish faith but also moral codes that may have been constructed separate from Talmudic teachings. For the son, Kaddish’s beliefs are revealed in “a momentary deception natural to a man already in the midst of what he couldn’t bear to do.”
Angels in America
Tony Kushner’s epic stage play, later an HBO television series, chronicles the lives of gay men and women as they confront the disease of AIDS and also homophobia, which slowed down essential research. Described as a “gay fantasia,” the play was split into two parts to accommodate its eight-hour running time. The lives lost to AIDS and the roles they might have played in society are brought to life in Kushner’s fabulous dialogue. It’s difficult not to experience Angels in America as a shattering expression of grief and anger, but even 28 years after its debut on Broadway, it remains one of the most brilliant evocations of life under constant threat.
In this ultimate collection of Oliver’s poetry, readers have 480 pages of her observations of nature, love, dogs, and mortality. To read Oliver is to expand as one reads. Her poems don’t require you to trek into the woods to be able to access her understanding; something as ubiquitous as a garden flower could serve as her focus. Peonies were a new plant for me when I moved to the East. I watched as ants swarmed the tightly closed buds, eating away at the tough husk in order to release the blowsy beauty within. Oliver described them as “beauty the brave, the exemplary/blazing open.” She also posed the ultimate question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I’m still working on an answer.
When Kevin Young’s father died in a tragic accident, he wrote a short poem about grief. “In the night I brush/my teeth with a razor.” That is the entirety of the poem, eleven words that capture pain. In this collection of Young’s previous works, readers are treated to a career that has put into poetry the experiences of Black men and women in America and beyond. Whether the poems touch on personal experiences, the birth of his first son, the death of his father, or a childhood full of memories—or whether they address issues of injustice, a history of enslavement, or current events—each of these selected poems are meant to be read and savored.
A Bright Shining Lie
Vietnam disillusioned the generation who had grown up with their parents’ stories of World War II triumph. Instead, young men were drafted into a war many thought was immoral, but they faced charges of “cowardice” from other Americans who believed the cause must be righteous. In Sheehan’s groundbreaking work, readers meet John Paul Vann, “the one irreplaceable man in Vietnam,” who arrived in the country as a decorated lieutenant colonel and quickly recognized that the American’s approach to Vietnam was disastrous. This work by Sheehan won both the National Book Award for nonfiction and the Pulitzer Prize, and provides one of the best exegeses of a war that divided a nation and had an irrevocable impact on the young generation asked to fight it.
When I was in the midst of my divorce, this book provided me enormous comfort; it’s a perfect read for those experiencing a difficult transition. Anne Lamott started writing about her comedic struggles with perfectionism and addiction when she was a columnist for Salon. Since then, she’s written a number of books full of the wisdom, experience, and hope she’s acquired as she moves through life. Traveling Mercies was the first of these, a collection of essays in which she shares her struggles with alcoholism, food addiction, and body dysmorphia. Lamott’s writing makes readers laugh, but she balances the humor with a poignancy that often evokes tears.
A House of My Own
Sandra Cisneros burst onto the literary landscape with The House on Mango Street, a short novel that’s become required reading in high schools and colleges across the country. In this memoir, Cisneros shows readers her transformative memories of growing up, of life as a young woman, and now as a celebrated writer. In these collected personal essays, the theme that Cisneros returns to is the desire to own her own home. She compares it to the quest some women feel to find a husband. Cisneros offers her quest as a version of the American dream—a dream that, in principle, is open to everyone, regardless of the labels we assign to each other.
The first essay by Lopez I remember reading is “Apologia,” in which he documents the sad tally of roadkill as he drives across the country. In Horizon, Lopez writes of his life spent interacting and writing about the natural world and how human activities have shaped the landscape. He travels across the earth, from his home in Oregon to to the deserts of Kenya, and writes with grace and beauty of the natural world. At a time when incontrovertible evidence suggests we’re on the brink of worldwide ecological catastrophe, Lopez and his Cassandra-like voice is essential.
The Radical King
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
While politicians are renowned for trotting out selective quotations from the Civil Rights leader, in this collection, readers of King’s writings will see just how full of radical love Dr. King was. While certain views of King see him only as a man interested in advancing the cause of African American civil rights, in reality, King was a champion of the poor, an anti-war activist who, on his final trip to Memphis, had shown up to support a strike by sanitation workers. Readers who wish to understand Dr. King’s legacy and its impact on American history will learn about the man who worked to advance the lives of all Americans.
Grace and Power
Sally Bedell Smith
If there’s an event that defines the lives of Baby Boomers, it’s the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the end of “Camelot.” JFK was 43 and Jackie only 31 when they became America’s First Couple. They were raising two young children, and while the nation watched, they grieved the loss of their third child. In Smith’s meticulously researched biography of the pair, drawn from hundreds of interviews with Kennedy intimates, readers are re-introduced to the hope and joy the young Kennedys represented to millions of Americans. But Smith doesn’t overlook the faults that plagued JFK, including his serial philandering that spoiled any illusion of a perfect marriage. The Kennedys emerge from this biography as human beings, who, while radiant, were also as imperfect as the rest of us.
How to Survive a Plague
AIDS took some of the best and brightest from the Boomer generation as well as those who followed. In France’s story of how scientists and activists combined to search for an end to the epidemic, readers meet a team of men and women who worked ceaselessly for those suffering and at risk. It’s difficult to describe to those who didn’t live through the 1980s just how frightening the years were when a plague was killing thousands and no treatment seemed effective. France pays tribute to grief-stricken activists who turned themselves into medical detectives, sharing their findings with researchers all over the world.
The Unwinding of the Miracle
Death comes for us all. Life began for Yip-Williams in Vietnam. She was born blind, and during the aftershocks of the end of the Vietnam War, she was forced to flee as a young child aboard a boat that was barely seaworthy. When she landed in America, a surgeon restored part of her sight. She attended Harvard, became an attorney, married, had children. And then, while still a young woman, she was told that she had terminal metastatic colon cancer. This beautiful memoir of a life cut short makes death a topic of rational discussion.
Perhaps nothing scares a person approaching their senior years more than dementia. The idea of losing one’s own memories, personality, and ability to care for oneself also means it can be difficult to have conversations about it. Here, a bioethicist who watched her own grandmother struggle with the disease presents readers with a way of approaching and understanding the subject without fear-mongering. Whether introducing readers to Dr. Solomon Fuller, a Black doctor whose work advanced so much of what we know about this set of symptoms, or arguing that research on Alzheimer’s has interfered with our ability to research other diseases that afflict an aging population, Powell makes an intelligent companion as readers learn about dementia.
Letters to a Young Poet
Rainer Maria Rilke
This collection of letters penned by Rainer Maria Rilke to a young poet who asked his advice about writing is so much more than its premise. In beautiful prose—and with recollections of his own poignant memories—Rilke offers a view of life that has provided comfort to many of those who read it, myself included. On days when I feel down, I still turn to letter #8, in which Rilke counsels that sadnesses and transition can be frightening, but it’s the shock of the new that can make it so difficult. “Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad,” he writes—words that have applied to my own life more than once.
What You Have Heard Is True
It is impossible to understand what is and has been happening at the U.S. border without understanding the American role in Central America. Back in the 1980s, under the administration of Ronald Reagan, America pursued an anti-communist policy in Central American countries that contributed to the deaths of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans at the hands of death squads. In her memoir of that time, Carolyn Forché recounts meeting a man who convinces her to come with him to El Salvador to interview those who have been affected by the war.
Blood in the Water
Heather Ann Thompson
In this powerful history written by a researcher who uncovered thousands of previously hidden documents, readers learn about Attica and a day that changed America. On the morning of September 13, 1971, on the fourth day of a takeover by inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York state, hundreds of patrolmen, sheriff’s deputies, correctional officers, and park police stormed the D-yard, where 1,300 prisoners—armed with makeshift weapons but no firearms—had been holding a number of correctional officers and prison civilians as hostages. In the shooting free-for-all that followed, nine of the hostages and 28 prisoners were killed; the eventual death toll from the Attica uprising would be 43 men. What Thompson discovered about that day has changed all future narratives.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee
Like many Americans, David Treuer read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and believed its argument that most of Native American history died on that awful night. But Treuer, who is both a trained anthropologist and a member of the Ojibwe tribe, argues that Native history has not ended. Instead, he presents convincing evidence that Native Americans learned to adapt to the ways that the American government manipulated tribes and their leaders, and that modern-day Native Americans are adept at using the legal system to protect their rights and claims to land. Despite earlier policies that forced Native children to assimilate, Treuer argues that those schools incubated a new sense of identity. A book that attests to the resilience of the peoples who first occupied the North American continent, it is a must-read for those who seek to understand the legacy of a brutal genocide that launched the American nation.
The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou broke so many barriers as a writer. In her first memoir of growing up, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she takes readers on an intimate journey as she experiences racism and sex discrimination, and suffers sexual abuse at the hands of a trusted adult. In further autobiographies, she documented the growth and changes she experienced as a student, a wife, a mother, and as a well-respected member of the writing community. Angelou’s performance at Barack Obama’s first inauguration and her poem “And Still I Rise” introduced her to Americans unfamiliar with her poetry. A powerhouse of a woman who left behind a body of work that will continue to inspire generations to come.
Let's Take the Long Way Home
A gorgeous testament to the power of friendship, Gail Caldwell records the history of her relationship with the brilliant writer, Caroline Knapp. Knapp wrote luminous memoirs of her struggle with alcoholism, and a brilliant book about the impact of addiction on women’s lives in Appetites. Here, readers are introduced to Knapp as Caldwell knew her, a woman she first met when walking her dog and who grew to be Caldwell’s closest friend and confidante. When Knapp was diagnosed with breast cancer, Caldwell remained a strong presence in Knapp’s life, and her writing of those days is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Knapp died of cancer at the age of 42, but this tribute by her friend will keep her memory alive.
An Unquiet Mind
Kay Redfield Jamison
Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders were previously treated by extended stays in mental health facilities that were not always able to provide care. In Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir of her own experiences with bipolar disorder, she uses her education as a mental health professional to demystify its causes and treatments while also offering firsthand observations of what she experienced prior to finding medications to manage her disease. A reader-friendly guide and a beautiful memoir, An Unquiet Mind is a tonic to those who fear the stigma of mental illness and who seek answers to their own questions.
Moments of Reprieve
Primo Levi is one of the great chroniclers of the Holocaust. One could choose from any number of his volumes to feature in this list. Moments of Reprieve focuses on individual stories from Auschwitz, where Levi was imprisoned and made to work as a chemist. Levi looks at how individuals found ways of surviving—their “moments of reprieve”—through small manipulations of the human nature of the guards, or by grabbing at chances. Levi’s own moment of reprieve came when he was suffering from scarlet fever while imprisoned and was not expected to survive, which meant that he was not selected for a death march in which 20,000 perished.
The Vagina Monologues
The Vagina Monologues is a revolutionary document. When you consider that many newspapers treated the word vagina as profanity, or that universities such as Notre Dame and Providence would not allow productions to take place on campus, it’s clear that women speaking about their bodies, sexuality, childbirth, and aging makes some people uncomfortable. But if that part of our lives is shrouded in silence, when someone hurts us within that sphere, it gets swallowed up in that same silence. Many women don’t report rape or domestic abuse because of a sense of shame. This play seeks to relieve women of that shame and make it possible for them to tell the truth about their lives.
We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live
Joan Didion emerged as one of America’s greatest chroniclers with a series of books and articles that first appeared in the 1960s. Choosing among her works to select a single one was solved for me by this omnibus, which features seven of her full-length works: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, Salvador, Miami, After Henry, Political Fictions, and Where I Was From. And while Didion has been renowned for her reportage on politics and cultural changes, in collections like the The White Album, she writes of her lifelong struggle with migraines and other personal stories that would culminate in later life with the publication of the two memoirs she wrote about grief: The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. Didion’s gifts for observation and sharp analysis are brought to bear on the wars in El Salvador, the politics of Miami, and the music of Joan Baez and others.
The Joy of Sex
Alex Comfort taught millions of Americans about their sexual anatomy and how to derive joy and satisfaction from sex, a topic that even now many cannot bring themselves to ask their doctors about or to share stories with their friends. But Comfort takes this deeply private expression of love and affection for our partners and provides plenty of friendly advice and updated research on a plethora of topics. Comfort also provides information to aging couples who still want to enjoy intercourse beyond the reproductive years. In this updated version, the role of the internet in sexual education is included, and the book is illustrated throughout with drawings that help readers visualize techniques and anatomy.
The assignment was daunting: could I curate a list of 40 books for Baby Boomers? The problem was not coming up with 40 books that I thought might speak to the generation born between 1946 and 1964—the dilemma was cutting a list down to 40. In the weeks I’ve been working on this list, I’ve added and subtracted over 90 books.
My first list was heavy on nonfiction, especially history books that would provide context for the events Boomers have experienced or witnessed for themselves. But as I went deeper into the kinds of books I’ve needed as I move into a new phase of my life, I found that I wanted less history and more works located in emotional intelligence about life events.
My quandary over which novels to include was even more complicated. As someone who reads over 100 books per year, I realized that I had thousands of books from which to draw. In the end, I aimed to include those novels rooted in a writer’s emotional honesty in telling true stories about the human condition. Light on classics, the list is weighted toward books published in the past 119 years—though readers will easily identify the books that lie outside that soft border. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the book that experienced the most frequent addition and omission.)
I was able to bend the rules a little bit. I limited myself to one book per author in order for there to be a broader catchment of writers, but if a writer had an omnibus of collected works, I chose that omnibus. Here at Read It Forward, we’d love to hear your choices for books that make up the essential Baby Boomer reading list. Here are my final picks. (Quick—before I fiddle with the choices any more!)
Featured Image: @JulieK/Twenty20