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Reading is one of the best ways I take care of myself. For me, self-care has a lot to do with how I take care of my mind–and reading books that make me think (even when I don’t feel like it) is a big part of that.
Yes, I try to be mindful all of the typical self-care things like exercise, sleep, and eating well, but when I feel really taxed it’s usually because my mind is spinning in circles.
Sometimes this has to do with the tasks on my list, sometimes it’s more about the world’s dumpster fires that creep in and stress me out, and other times it’s just me being off balance and unable to focus and get my mind right.
At times like these, my inclination is often to cocoon into mindless TV and unchallenging books. That can be the right solution, when there really is too much going on and I just.can’t anymore.
As I’ve struggled with this change in seasons–more than ever this year, for some reason–a big part of me wants to dive into that cocoon. But I’ve also been discontent with my scattered mind and want to get it back together. Some of the busiest months of the year are coming up, and sliding into them feeling discontent and slothful won’t help me get through them.
Finding the Books that Make You Smarter
Just pushing through my normal tasks doesn’t seem to be working, but getting my mind focused on smart, thoughtful books is usually the one thing that can help me feel…well, smart and thoughtful again.
I find that the books that make you feel smarter tend to dive deep into the lives of interesting characters, thorny issues, and provocative questions.
They don’t offer easy answers, but they prompt you to contemplate your own worldview. Here are my recommendations for books like this–I’d love to hear yours.
10 Books that Make You Think (Even When You Don’t Really Want To)
The Likeness–the second book in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series–is less thriller and more exploration of the psychology of commitment, identity, and friendship. The premise of a murdered girl who looks exactly like Detective Cassie Maddox and calls herself by an old alias of Cassie’s is implausible but intriguing. As Cassie goes undercover as the dead girl to find answers, the questions keep coming: Who is this girl? What motivated her? Who wanted her dead and why? Will Cassie be found out, and what will be the consequences? This one reminds me a bit of The Secret History (but it’s a little less twisted).
The Orphan Master’s Son is the story of Pak Jun Do (“John Doe”), the son of a man who runs an orphan work camp in North Korea. Jun Do grows up and rises through the ranks of the North Korean bureaucracy, navigating the changing demands of a volatile leadership to stay alive and make his way closer to Kim Jong Il and the woman he loves. This is an illuminating, thrilling, and horrifying look at life inside North Korea. I was riveted; this is a book that has stayed with me and I still think of it frequently even years after reading it.
This is one of the more unusual World War II books I’ve ever read. Told through a journal written by “Verity,” a female English pilot captured in German-occupied France, and by her friend Maddie in the second half of the book. Verity has been tortured and she is writing for her life, charged by her captors with revealing codes and information about the Allies. Both to fulfill her obligation and to maintain some sense of sanity, she weaves the tale of a friendship and how she landed in her present situation. Often written with surprising humor given the dark circumstances, this book often has a light tone throughout that is only one of the misleading elements. If you haven’t read this one, don’t read much more before picking it up–the twists and spy games will be all the more satisfying.
The Human Stain is the third in Philip Roth’s American Trilogy, but it can be read on its own. When Classics professor Coleman Silk is accused of racism by students at the small liberal arts college where he teaches, he is forced to retire–though the charge is false. Silk has kept a secret for 50 years, and fighting would mean revealing it and reckoning with that history. Roth weaves a masterful story that manages to address questions of language, race, identity, feminism, and power dynamics.
Set in Tokyo, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 is one of the strangest and most compelling books I’ve ever read. Between the two moons that suddenly appear in the sky, the small people that creep into rooms at night, and the tangled web of connections leading to–among other things–a cult and a philanthropic dowager–it doesn’t seem like this story should work. But somehow it does. At the heart of it are Aomame and Tengo, who are brought together through a series of strange circumstances that lead them to believe they are living in a parallel existence. Strange and difficult to summarize, this book will keep your mind working–in part just trying to figure out what’s going on.
An old English estate and a decades-old mystery give this slow-burner of a book its atmosphere, but Morton’s sharp storytelling keeps you trying to work out the puzzle from start to finish. Sixteen-year-old Alice’s family is torn apart when her baby brother disappears during a midsummer’s even garden party. He is never found, and the house is abandoned. When a wandering detective discovers it years later, she unearths the old mystery and secrets that had been long forgotten.
This smart, funny, and absurd epistolary novel is perfect for academics (or lapsed academics). Told solely through the letters of recommendation written by a creative writing professor at a small liberal arts university, anyone who has spent any time in a university will recognize the frustrations of the institution. Professor Fitger uses these letters to both exercise his creative writing chops (relentlessly called on for this very task, rather than actual creative writing) and to vent his frustrations with the bureaucracy and injustices of academia. You’ll laugh along and sympathize with Fitger if you’re currently in higher education, or if you’ve left it, you might just be glad you did.
This book about an interracial family living in a Massachusetts university town is by turns funny, snide, and pointedly observant. The family has a cast of characters who couldn’t be more different–especially the parents, who are experiencing crisis in their marriage. The arrival of another family on the opposite end of the political spectrum furthers the disarray. The academic setting invites philosophical and political discussions backdropped by petty maneuverings, ego-driven outrages, and divergent cultural aspirations of the various characters.
If you haven’t already heard about this book, it’s best to go in blind. Just know that this book about a group of boarding school friends who come back together later in life will have you questioning what you thought you knew, what’s to come, and the ethics of many of our societal decisions.
Homegoing is an epic generational novel following the family lines of two half-sisters born in Ghana 300 years ago: one is married off to an English slave trader while the other is sold into slavery. Each chapter follows a new descendant of the women, illustrating how events and injustices of the past reverberate through the lives and struggles of future generations. An astonishing, emotional novel that deftly answers the question of how the descendants of slaves continue to be oppressed by the institution of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism, even 150 years after abolition. One of my best reads of 2017.
What are the books that make you think?