Transformational Books, Updated

Back in 2012 I made a list of “transformational books,” which I defined as books that “have changed my idea of what it’s possible to write about and how it’s possible to write.” These are books “that excite me and make me want to share them. People who love (some of) these books are people whose taste I’m likely to trust.” That was eight years ago, so I thought it would be fun to see what books I want to add to the list after eight more years of reading.

First, some of the books on my first list strike me as strange choices now. Was I really that influenced by William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience or Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key? Looking back on it now, I’d say no. There are others on there I haven’t thought about much over the last eight years (The Quest for CorvoAmerican Primitive). But it’s a long list and most of the rest really did stay with me as books that have changed how I think.

So here are some books I’d like to add. Perhaps in 2028 I’ll take another look back and assess. My previous list was looking back at my whole adult reading life, and this list is only from the last eight years, so I may end up questioning even more of my decisions since they are more recent. Having many years of perspective is useful, but I’m not going to wait around for time to pass! 

A couple quick observations about how this list is different from my previous one: for one, this list is markedly less white. I used to read mostly white authors and I no longer do, and obviously that makes a difference. I also have more books in translation here than I did last time. Reading books in translation is a newer passion.

These are roughly in the order I read them. I looked through my LibraryThing catalog year by year to remind myself of what I’ve read. 

  • Phillip Lopate, To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
  • Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother
  • Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments
  • Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
  • Eula Biss, On Immunity
  • Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation
  • James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
  • Fran Ross, Oreo
  • Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock
  • Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
  • Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
  • Paul Beatty, The Sellout
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 1
  • Lina Meruane, Seeing Red
  • Marie NDiaye, Ladivine
  • Maggie Nelson, The Red Parts
  • Myriam Gurba, Mean
  • Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays
  • Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions
  • Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am
  • Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House
  • Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport
  • Anne Boyer, The Undying
  • Kate Zambreno, Drifts
  • Ariana Harwicz, Die, My Love

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