Between the raw, blistering heat of summer and the frigid depths of winter, autumn is a grace period. It is the no man’s land that we trek through annually from one end of the year to another, serving as a period of transition between the extremes of each year.
While some readers find this time peaceful and others find this time more hectic, everyone—no matter what walk of life they may be traversing—can benefit from being exposed to new literature and expanding their perspectives. From informative texts to relationship thrillers, books on this list will prepare readers for academic, cultural, and physical challenges that they might face in this new season. Some are popular, “mainstream” novels while others are hidden gems—but all have the power to transform and inform your worldview.
Atul Gawande is the person to speak to about the world of medicine: he is a former practicing surgeon, a professor at Harvard’s school of medicine, and an executive director of a medical innovation lab. His work has taken him everywhere, and Gawande has performed operations from kidney bypasses to open-heart surgery. In The Checklist Manifesto, he discusses the single-most effective way he has used to surmount failure in his life-and-death work: a checklist. Starting with surgery but eventually branching out to airline safety and other fields, Gawande demonstrates how breaking down nerve-wracking, complex jobs into simple steps can radically improve performance in almost every task. The Checklist Manifesto is a New York Times bestseller.
Malcolm Gladwell has one of the most unique nonfiction literary voices out there; he is celebrated for his “pop economics” writing, a style that The Guardian has described as “beautifully executed tomb robberies of old sociology papers” while maintaining the “unusual gift for making the complex seem simple and for seeking common-sense explanations.” Outliers fits perfectly in this mold, and it seeks to answer two central questions: What is behind success, and why are some people—outliers—so much more successful than others? Gladwell debunks the notion of talent, and instead pulls from anecdotal/academic examples that point to a different progenitor to success, one that has cultural, socioeconomic, and familial foundations. Outliers (as well as two of his other books, The Tipping Point and Blink) is a #1 New York Times bestseller.
Survival Math is an autobiography structured in a unique manner. Rather than linking a series of stories together like a traditional memoir, it piles a hodgepodge of letters, essays, poetry, and narratives over one another to provide an “experience” rather than a “story.” Each one is centered around the author’s experience growing up Black within the overwhelmingly White city of Portland, Oregon. Jackson was raised under the care of his single mother, a recovering drug addict, in the midst of the crack epidemic; in the book, his past racially-charged experiences (and comprehensive research) inform his portrayal of an America that still sags under racial decay. In a review of the book for Adroit, Lisa Grgas described the book’s style as having an “overwhelming effect,” a constant reminder “racial and social injustices that continue to pervade contemporary society.”
Unlike the previous books on this list, which are heavy-hitting, informative and illustrative texts, Less is a satirical comedy novel. It follows the life of gay writer Arthur Less, a failed novelist just set to turn fifty. He receives a wedding invitation in the mail—for his former boyfriend of nine years, who has found someone else. He can’t say yes—it would be too awkward—and he can’t say no—it would look like defeat; as such, Less arranges to leave town during the event and travels to a series of small literary events throughout the world instead. Throughout his travels, he almost falls in love, almost dies, almost gets trapped in a sandstorm, and runs into plenty of other close calls. Less is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and a New York Times bestseller.
For those of you who have entered into the world of higher education this fall, you may be experiencing the first true transition into adulthood and all that is associated with it: physical autonomy, new relationships, and more responsibility—but also greater isolation, loss, and grief. In Be With, Forrest Gander examines the latter set of experiences. His book is a collection of poetry that Tess Taylor of the New York Times described in a review as “dazzling fragments, unraveling syntax—poems that, in their ghostliness, also force us to be alert to our own fragile lives.” Be With is the winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
The Great Believers is a novel that starts with one of its protagonists, Fiona, considering where her life will go. She is in her fifties; everyone she loved has “died or left,” and she lives in a “bloodbath.” Fiona isn’t caught in a war—she’s caught in the Chicago AIDS epidemic, one that has been so singularly destructive that she considers it “a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy.” After this initial scene, the novel unfolds following Fiona and a parallel character, Yale, across two timelines. One plays out in 1985 at the start of the carnage, and another unfolds thirty years later; throughout both, each character grapples with the devastating impact of AIDS, both in their own lives and in their relationships with others. The Great Believers is the winner of the 2019 Carnegie Medal and a New York Times Top Ten Books of 2018.
In 2013, Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced the closure of 330 Chicago schools. Emmanuel claimed the closures were for economic purposes—and these schools were often in very poor, neglected neighborhoods—but they also occurred nearly uniformly in majority Black areas. As such, a few questions arose: First, how would neighborhoods respond to this announcement that schools—one of the only viable paths to socioeconomic advancement—were being closed? Second, what role did race, power, and history play in this troubling observation that Black neighborhoods dominated the economically unsustainable areas? In what Jacob Pagano described in an Adroit review as “equal parts historical narration and intimate, journalist-style engagement,” Ghosts in the Schoolyard uses methodologies from statistical analysis to family interviews to provide a comprehensive account of Chicago’s housing and schooling systems. Ewing’s book also shines light on the wider legacy that discriminatory housing policies have left on cities across America. Ghosts in the Schoolyard received the “Best Nonfiction Book” award from the Chicago Review of Books.
On Immunity centers around a thorny situation: although most people disregard “anti-vaxxers” as fluff, what should an actual mother—who wants to protect her child—do when her child must take a barrage of vaccines? Will they hurt her daughter in a hidden way, or are they completely safe? Biss begins her book with this idea of physical immunity (what is in our food, clothing, medicine, etc.) and proceeds to expand it into metaphorical and historical ideas of immunity, from Achilles’s heel to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. After reflecting on our true interconnected nature as a human species, she reaches the conclusion that we cannot immunize our children—or ourselves—against the world; the only thing we can inoculate ourselves against is the fear of immunity. On Immunity is a New York Times bestseller and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist.
Note: This particular book has another stamp of approval aside from numerous accolades and praise: the author of this article actually loved it so much that he traveled to a Eula Biss event to get his personal copy signed. He also highly recommends her book Notes From No Man’s Land, a collection of essays centered around racial identity in America.
In the first line of her review of the book for Adroit, Madeline Diamond hails Sloane Crosley as “one of today’s masters of the personal essay.” Unlike On Immunity and some of the other academic essay-type collections in this list, Look Alive Out There is entirely personal; it discusses topics from elementary school grudges to fertility. Using careful dialogue, clever wit, and effective rhetoric, Crosley explores the entire range of emotion, “toggling effortlessly between hilarity and heartbreak.”
When asked about the current state of India, the average Westerner would probably note its booming population, growing economy, and perhaps mention Gandhi, colonialism, or the caste system for some historical context. Unlike China, which seems to bathe in the world’s media spotlight every other day, India is a rapidly growing country about which most could probably only offer a few sentences of commentary. For all intents and purposes, India is a blind spot in the world’s mirror. In The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga defeats two notions: The first, that India is not worth our attention; the second connected with the first—India is worth our attention because those aforementioned events of “historical context” are still very much present today. The novel is structured as an easy-to-read series of retrospective narratives from Balram Halwai, a village boy who breaks out of his impoverished class by murdering a wealthy boss. Through a deft storytelling voice, Adiga illustrates the issues of religion, caste, loyalty, corruption and poverty in India in an extremely engaging story, mixing elements of biography, mystery, and thriller into his novel. The White Tiger is the winner of the 2008 Man Booker prize.
While this list may seem like a disparate collection of popular books, these books do have the potential to profoundly change the way that you view the world. Each one has the power to completely sway your opinion on an issue. I sincerely hope that, upon reading these, you feel the same way.
Featured image: “Sunset in the Backyard” by Ifada Nisa from Issue Thirty.