“Everything Got Better and Weirder”: On the Books that Changed Our Lives
By Molly McArdle
It’s a truism to say that books change lives, but the commonality of the sentiment doesn’t make it any less real. Brooklyn Magazine asked as many writers and editors and book people it could think of to talk about the piece of writing that changed them. Their answers are myriad, delightful, and as personal as a fingerprint. Time to head to your local bookstore (or library) and stock up.
LUCAS ADAMS cartoonist-writer and co-editor New York Review Comics McSweeney’s Quarterly Issue #13, edited by Chris Ware. I didn’t really know much about comics in high school, until an employee at Cody’s Books in Berkeley, California, handed me McSweeney’s Quarterly Issue #13—it was devoted solely to comics. It was like winning the lottery or inheriting some kind of estate: I suddenly had this whole world at my fingertips, and everything in my life got better and weirder.
LORI ADELMAN writer-advocate and executive director of Feministing I love fiction, but for me, the truly life-changing works are firmly of this world. In particular, I gravitate towards brutally smart women dishing out their hard truths. And when I’m honest with myself, the most cherished inhibiters of my bookshelves—hooks, Sontag, Didion, Solnit, Gay—all point back to that first and favorite essayist, Simone De Beauvoir. In particular, The Second Sex laid a theoretical base for my future feminist literary consumption, as it did for so many college-aged women, like a coating of oily french fries before a night out on the town. She came to write the book in what many would consider the purest of ways: when seeking to interrogate the human condition, she found as an inconvenient prerequisite the need to first understand her own womanhood. I count myself among the many who are indebted to her for the exploration that followed.
SANDRA ALLEN writer, forthcoming debut memoir A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Though it wore the clothes of a novel, it was born not of pure imagination but the so-called real world, and it therefore exploded what I had previously been made to understand about fiction being contemporary literature’s highest form. I was stunned how his meticulously crafted prose, when combined with a depth of reporting, transformed a mundane tragedy into art.
TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER contributing writer to GQ and the New York Times Magazine There’s this poem: “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins . A strange thing about me is that I’ve lived with astounding amounts of regret and nostalgia for someone who hasn’t really done anything that terrible or had that good of a childhood. When I turned ten, I remember thinking that I would kill in order to be able to do it all over. That didn’t change when I turned 40 this year. And when I discovered this poem, an acknowledgement that it was the human condition to long for and regret things that weren’t even all that good in the first place, I was introduced to an understanding of the comfort that poetry can provide if you let it.
JULIE BUNTIN associate editor at Catapult, forthcoming debut novel Marlena Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop. Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” is the first piece of art that articulated something I knew to be true, in my most essential self, but had never heard spoken aloud. That poem is one of my touchstones, for these lines: “But I felt: you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them. / Why should you be one, too?” It’s one of the great beauties of Geography III, a perfect book. The poems collected here are marvels of attention and wisdom and deep, primal insight.
RYAN CHAPMAN author of Conversation Sparks and director of marketing at BOMB Magazine Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Fariña, taught me to inject absurd levels of adventure into daily life. (Why not spend spring break with the Cuban revolution?) Fariña’s early death—two days after the book’s publication—taught me never to waste time.
JESSA CRISPIN editor of Bookslut, author of The Dead Ladies Project and the forthcoming Creative Tarot I can do this right now, actually, it seems that obvious: Pussycat Fever by Kathy Acker. I was a sheltered 15-year-old girl from Kansas, raised in a very strict, traditional family, when I found Kathy Acker’s profanity, blasphemy, and indecency. I was never the same. And darlings, I say this to you sincerely, thank god for that.
MICHELLE DEAN author of forthcoming Sharp Can I call The Virgin Suicides? This was the first work of contemporary literary fiction I read, handed to me by a 12th grade teacher after I turned in an essay about the stitches on my grandfather’s lips at his funeral. The teacher said: “This book will show you what it’s possible to do with words.” He was right.
MENSAH DEMARY associate editor at Catapult Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. In writing it, Achebe said that he “discovered the writer’s life, one that exists in the world of the pages of his or her story and then seamlessly steps into the realities of everyday life.” I read the novel when I was seventeen, on the verge of beginning my own life as a writer, and never before had I submerged so deep into a story, into a sense of place and time. Reading Achebe’s novel introduced me to the duality of life as a writer, and how the literary realm—the imagination expressed on the page—can inform and provide guidance in my daily existence.
JASON DIAMOND writer-editor, forthcoming memoir Searching for John Hughes Despite Everything: A Cometbus Omnibus by Aaron Cometbus. I knew I wanted to be a writer the first time I ever read an issue of the zine Cometbus. His stories and characters were so vivid and familiar to me that I knew I wanted to try and do something along those lines. I took my cues from him and put out my own zines that I knew weren’t any good, but I figured with practice that maybe I’d get better.
MARGARET EBY author of South Toward Home, features & essays editor at HelloGiggles
Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Tasteis one of the books that I wish I could pass out at street corners, or airdrop on parts of the country. It’s one of the smartest things I’ve ever read about Celine Dion, taste, and “reasonable people carting around cultural assumptions that make them assholes to millions of strangers.” It made me reassess those assumptions, and, honestly? Listen to Celine Dion again for the first time in a decade.
MICHELE FILGATE essayist, critic So many books have shaped me and made me into the person I am today! But Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youthchanged the way I think about the personal essay. I first read this pretty much perfect book when I was an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire. Now I teach one of the essays, ‘”Cousins,” in my Sackett Street creative nonfiction workshops. It’s always a hit with my students. Beard’s ability to make her own life into such a rich, compelling narrative is a reminder that nonfiction is a realm equally occupied by the creative sides of our brains.
ISAAC FITZGERALD Editor at BuzzFeed Books The Collected Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. I’ve given this book to more people than I care to remember. It is a beautiful, perfect piece of literature. A testament to what a short story collection can be.
JOSEPH FINK co-writer of Welcome to Night Vale Vacation by Deb Olin Unferth. I bought this novel because it was half off and had a cool cover. I knew nothing about the author. When I finished it, I immediately flipped back to the first page and started again. She used language in a way that I had never seen before. She didn’t create surprise just with plot and character, but with the structure of the sentences themselves. I immediately decided I needed to learn to write like that. It changed how I wrote completely.
PAUL FORD writer, co-founder of Postlight.com The Domesday Dictionary: Being an Inventory of the Artifacts and Conceits of a New Civilizationby Donald M. Kaplan and Armand Schwerner, edited by Louise J. Kaplan. This is a weird book, a couple hundred pages written by a poet and a psychiatrist, and published in 1965. It’s a dictionary of all the things that were awful back then. I found it in a bookstore when I was 15. It’s just dozens of horrible things in alphabetical order. Entries on wars and Dachau and Deadly Sins. In the entry on “Mushroom Cloud”: “These droplets are too misty to create rain, but they are large enough to reflect the white light of the sun.” The “dictionary” form, the mix of science and poetry, the way their irony carried news—it all warped my brain, forever. Writing can take any form, and writing can take on the whole world.