The Books We Read Too Late—And That You Should Read Now
One of the great, bittersweet pleasures of life is finishing a title and thinking about how it might have affected you—if only you’d found it sooner.
Sometimes, a book falls into a reader’s hands at the wrong time. Think of one you’ve put aside because you were too busy to tackle an ambitious project; perhaps there’s another you ignored after misjudging its contents by its cover. Maybe a novel was inaccessible or hadn’t yet been published at the precise stage in your life when it would have resonated most. But these connections can still be made later: In fact, one of the great, bittersweet pleasures of life is finishing a title and thinking about how it might have affected you—if only you’d found it sooner. From our vantage in the present, we can’t truly know if, or how, a single piece of literature would have changed things for us. But we can appreciate its power, and we can recommend it to others. Below are seven novels our staffers wish they’d read when they were younger.
Black Thunder, by Arna Bontemps
During the summer of 2020, I picked up a collection of letters the Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps wrote to each other. I was naturally familiar with Hughes, but I was less familiar with Bontemps, the Louisiana-born novelist and poet who later cataloged Black history as a librarian and archivist. I decided to read some of his work, which is how I found his critically acclaimed book Black Thunder. It’s a fictionalized account of Gabriel’s Rebellion, a thwarted revolt of enslaved people in Virginia in 1800; it lyrically examines masculinity as well as the links between oppression and uprising. I spent a large chunk of my younger years trying to figure out what I was most interested in, and it wasn’t until late in my college career that I realized that the answer was history. When I picked up Black Thunder, the depths of Bontemps’s historical research leapt off the page, but so too did the engaging subplots and robust characters. It was a marriage of my loves for fiction, for understanding the past, and for matter-of-fact prose. I wish I’d gotten to it sooner. — Adam Harris
How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti
“Responsibility looks so good on Misha, and irresponsibility looks so good on Margaux. How could I know which would look best on me?” Quick: Is this quote from Heti’s second novel or my middle-school diary? I knew no Misha or Margaux, but otherwise, it sounds just like me at 13. I thought that everyone else seemed so fully and specifically themselves, like they were born to be sporty or studious or chatty, and that I was the only one who didn’t know what role to inhabit. Heti’s narrator (also named Sheila) shares this uncertainty: While she talks and fights with her friends, or tries and fails to write a play, she’s struggling to make out who she should be, like she’s squinting at a microscopic manual for life. If I’d read this book as a tween—skipping over the parts about blowjob technique and cocaine—it would have hit hard. As an adult, it continues to resonate; I still don’t know who exactly I am. But Sheila’s self-actualization attempts remind me of a time when I actually hoped to construct an optimal personality, or at least a clearly defined one—before I realized that everyone’s a little mushy, and there might be no real self to discover. — Faith Hill
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin
When Sam and Sadie first meet at a children’s hospital in Los Angeles, they have no idea that their shared love of video games will spur a decades-long connection. Then again, no one can predict a relationship’s evolution at its outset. After reconnecting during college, the pair start a successful gaming company with their friend Marx—but their friendship is tested by professional clashes as well as their own internal struggles with race, wealth, disability, and gender. As I enter my mid-20s, I’ve come to appreciate the unknown, fluid aspects of friendship, understanding that genuine connections can withstand distance, conflict, and tragedy. But what a comfort it would have been to realize earlier that a bond could be as messy and fraught as Sam and Sadie’s, yet still be cathartic and restorative. Late in the novel, Marx asks rhetorically, “What is a game?” His answer can also serve as the novel’s description of friendship: “It’s the possibility of infinite rebirth, infinite redemption.” — Morgan Ome
Sleepless Nights, by Elizabeth Hardwick
I should have read Hardwick’s short, mind-bending 1979 novel, Sleepless Nights, when I was a young writer and critic. After all, I was at work in the 1980s on a biography of the writer Jean Stafford, who had been married to Robert Lowell before Hardwick was. But I shied away from the book. Perhaps that’s because I got as far as the second paragraph, which begins “If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember.” A woman’s prismatic exploration of memory in all its unreliability, however brilliant, was not what I wanted. I needed to have faith in memory’s exactitude as I gathered personal and literary reminiscences of Stafford—not least Hardwick’s. Now I realize how helpful her elusive book—clearly fiction, yet also refracted memoir—would have been, and is. For Hardwick and her narrator, both escapees from a narrow past and both later stranded by a man, prose becomes a place for daring experiments: They test the power of fragmentary glimpses and nonlinear connections to evoke a self bereft and adrift in time, but also bold. I finally read Sleepless Nights last year, disappointed that I had no memories, however blurry, of what my younger self had made of the many haunting insights Hardwick scatters as she goes, including this one: “The weak have the purest sense of history. Anything can happen.” — Ann Hulbert
American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang
All through high school, I tried to cleave myself in two. At home: speaking Shanghainese, studying, being good. At school: speaking English, yearning for party invites but being too curfew-abiding to show up anyway, obscuring qualities that might get me labeled “very Asian.” It’s not that healthy examples of navigating mixed cultural identities didn’t exist, but my teenage brain would’ve appreciated a literal parable. In Yang’s 2006 graphic novel, American Born Chinese, three story lines collide to form just that. The middle narrative is standard fare: After a Taiwanese student, Wei-Chen, arrives at his mostly white suburban school, Jin Wang, born in the U.S. to Chinese immigrants, begins to intensely disavow his Chineseness. The bookends are more unusual. Part one is a chaotic interpretation of Chinese folklore about the Monkey King. Without spoiling its twist, part three is about the seemingly wholesome all-American boy Danny and his Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee, who is disturbingly illustrated as a racist stereotype—queue, headwear, and all. I read American Born Chinese this year for mundane reasons: Yang is a Marvel author, and I enjoy comic books, so I bought his well-known older work. The braided parts aren’t terribly complex, but they reminded me how jarring it is that at several points in my life, I wished to be white when I wasn’t. Separating your selves fools no one. — Shan Wang
Wonder, by R. J. Palacio
I’m cheating a bit on this assignment: I asked my daughters, 9 and 12, to help. Wonder, they both said, without a pause. Palacio’s massively popular novel is about a fifth grader named Auggie Pullman, who was born with a genetic disorder that has disfigured his face. He navigates going to school in person for the first time, making friends, and dealing with a bully. “I know I’m weird-looking,” he tells us. I was also a kid who struggled with feeling and looking weird—I had a condition called ptosis that made my eyelid droop, and I stuttered terribly all through childhood. Palacio’s multiperspective approach—letting us see not just Auggie’s point of view, but how others perceive and are affected by him—perfectly captures the concerns of a kid who feels different. Do they only see my weirdness? When I was 10, that question never showed up in the books I devoured, which were mostly about perfectly normal kids thrust into abnormal situations—flung back in time, say, or chased by monsters. What I really needed was a character to help me dispel the feeling that my difference was all anyone would ever notice. Auggie would have helped. — Gal Beckerman
A House in Norway, by Vigdis Hjorth
I read Hjorth’s short, incisive novel about Alma, a divorced Norwegian textile artist who lives alone in a semi-isolated house, during my first solo stay in Norway, where my mother is from. Alma is naturally solitary, and others’ needs fray her nerves. She rents out a small apartment attached to her property but loathes how she and her Polish-immigrant tenants are locked in a pact of mutual dependence: They need her for housing; she needs them for money. The book is a survey, and an indictment, of Scandinavian society: Alma struggles with the distance between her pluralistic, liberal, environmentally conscious ideals and her actual xenophobia in a country grown rich from oil extraction. Still, she’s never demonized, even when it becomes hard to sympathize with her. A House in Norway recalls a canon of Norwegian writing—Hamsun, Solstad, Knausgaard—about alienated, disconnected men trying to reconcile their daily life with their creative and base desires, and uses a female artist to add a new dimension. The book helped me, when I was 20, understand Norway as a distinct place, not a romantic fantasy, and it made me think of my Norwegian passport as an obligation as well as an opportunity. If I’d read it before then, I might have started improving my cultural and language skills earlier. But I am trying, and hopefully the next time I pick up the novel, it won’t be in Charlotte Barslund’s translation. — Emma Sarappo
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