I have always loved to read ever since I learned how, especially if the story was tragic or slightly frightening. I’m not really sure why I was so interested in the saddest parts of Greek mythology or why I read Baba Yaga so many times in elementary school. My favorite books, and now movies as well, have always been the ones that genuinely affected me emotionally or were weird and fantastic. As I’ve grown up I’ve lost just a little bit of that childhood intrigue, and a lot of my free time. But I still love to read and I have been heavily impacted by many of the books I’ve encountered over the last few years. These are a few of my favorites, all of which warrant a trip to the library.
For the Casual Psychologist: We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer’s by D.F. Swaab
I stumbled across We Are Our Brains when I was bored one day in study hall toward the end of my junior year of high school. I had always been interested in the brain and was pretty certain I wanted to major in Psychology when I got to college. However that decision wasn’t set in stone until I read this book. It is absolutely packed with information, but D.F. Swaab’s writing makes what could easily read like a textbook genuinely entertaining as well as informative. Neuroscience is incredibly complex, but We Are Our Brains gives a clear, educational, and fun introduction to the study of the brain, quite literally “from the womb to Alzheimer’s.”
For the Immigration Activist: Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat
Of all the books on this list, this one may be the most heartbreaking. It is also the kind of book you just can’t put down. Edwidge Danticat writes of her childhood in Haiti and her life after immigrating to the United States. It is a window looking into the political turmoil Haiti suffered in the late 20th century, as well as immigration in the U.S. This is a story of a close-knit family navigating through the struggles of separation, hopelessness, and tragedy. It is an important, moving perspective on issues that continue to be relevant today and is well worth the read.
For the Wannabe Hogwarts Student: The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Okay, this technically counts as seven books, but this absolute unit of classics deserves a spot on the list. These books shaped my childhood. I read all of them three times before I was 13, I had the hardcover boxed set, I bought the wands, and I rode the rides and drank the Butterbeer at Universal Studios. I. Was. Hooked. I still am! Harry Potter never gets old because of its wonder and magic truly shows that there is something in it for everyone. J.K. Rowling wove a story with twists and turns that completely captures anyone who reads it, young and old.
For the Government Conspiracy Theorist: 1984 by George Orwell
The first time I tried to read 1984, I was 10 or 11 and I had no idea what was going on. Now I’m glad that I abandoned it after the first chapter and gave it another go because it would’ve been a shame if I had spoiled the ending for myself before I actually understood it. The last sentence of this book has stuck with me and still gives me the chills to this day, but I won’t spoil it for you now, don’t worry. The future, post-World War II society of George Orwell’s imagination may not have been the exact fate of the world, but its cautionary message has eerie similarities to the reality of a society governed by the social media revolution we live in now.
For the Vigilante: Watchmen by Alan Moore
I think comic books are really cool, but I find myself watching Marvel and DC movies much more often than I read the original graphic novels. Watchmen was required for a Psychology in Literature class I took in high school. This book is an easy read. It’s action-packed and entertaining, but it also presents interesting moral dilemmas. The well-developed narrative combined with impressive, artful illustrations offers the reader an experience that makes it easy to see why this kind of literature has such a strong fan base.
For the City Slicker: The Answer is Always Yes by Monica Ferrell
At first glance, this seems like a pretty simple story about a new-to-the-scene kid in New York City experiencing self-discovery and self-destruction. But I have to say my favorite part of this book was the footnotes surprisingly. Monica Ferrell structures the fictional contents of the novel as the non-fictional research of a second, fictional author. She uses the footnotes to tell the story of this author. That is, the book is actually two narratives that parallel one another–that of the researcher and that of the subject.
For the European Historian: En la ardiente oscuridad (In the Burning Darkness) by Antonio Buero Vallejo
This play follows a group of students at an institution for the blind, who are perfectly happy in their sheltered world until they welcome in a new student. The newcomer hates that he is blind and feels burdened by his condition, which begins to spread to the rest of the students. Buero Vallejo makes a statement about life and censorship under the rule of Francisco Franco, using the students’ acceptance of their blindness and blissful ignorance of what exists beyond their small bubble to represent the Spanish population’s acceptance of Francoism.
For the Future Criminal Defense Attorney: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
This is probably the most infuriating book I have ever read, but it is also one of the most important and eye-opening. Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to end mass incarceration and racial inequality in the United States justice system. Just Mercy is an account of Stevenson’s experiences defending the unfairly incarcerated, many of whom are on death row in Alabama now. His cases are at times unbelievable, and his clients’ perspectives are absolutely worth considering when formulating your own opinions about the state of the criminal justice system in this country.
For the Dark Humorist: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
If Harry Potter shaped my childhood, then A Series of Unfortunate Events shaped my sense of humor. The story of the Baudelaires is really very sad, as the name suggests, but the books are witty, punny, and entertaining. Daniel Handler operates under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, who plays a role in the story itself. The characters in the series are all lovable, even the villains, and although it is meant for kids, it raises interesting points about the line between good and evil. The recent Netflix series did an amazing job of translating the books to live-action episodes. But I’d suggest reading them before binging the new series!
For the Black Mirror Enthusiast: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
This novel forces the reader to think about the path that technology and science are headed down with regard to artificial intelligence and scientifically engineered life. It is an ethical dilemma somewhat similar to the trolley problem, an experiment that goes something like this: You are standing next to the train tracks where five people are trapped right in the train’s path. You have control over a lever which would switch the train’s direction, but one person is tied to those tracks. Your choice is whether or not to pull the lever, killing one person but saving five. Never Let Me Go is not that exact narrative, but both pose the same question of “kill or let die?”