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It’s crazy out here! 25 books to save your life, right now

The Undefeated staff on books to comfort, inspire — and light a fire in your soul

The call was for “favorite” books, yes, but more specifically for books that resonate right now, In These Times. In these times when certainty and trust seem so rare, and books — highlightable and pixelated on a screen, or dusty and heavy from under the bed — can comfort and inspire and light a fire in one’s soul. The call was for treasured books, tomes that got you through something — and The Undefeated staff (and contributors) responded with faves that include fiction, short fiction, flash fiction, science fiction, nonfiction, satire, and young-adult literature. The list includes books published as far back as 1946 and as recently as last year. There’s a bunch of memoirs: Malcolm X is eternal, Nathan McCall is still making folks want to holler, and activist Anne Moody’s life story is still changing lives. There’s a handful of brilliant, restorative histories — hello, Paula Giddings and David Remnick and Howard Zinn. The newer storytellers are women: Desiree Cooper, and Yaa Gyasi. Toni Morrison is here for Paradise, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s shorts about the Bengali immigrant experience — both published awhile ago — seem particularly of the moment. And as is appropriate in a time when facts are dueling with “alternative facts,” there are two books here — one fiction, one nonfiction — with complex dual narratives. This list is meant to inspire more thinking, more learning, inclusivity, healing, some escape and joy, perhaps some organizing, and understanding. A tall order. And this is but a drop in the bucket. — Danyel Smith

The Street by Ann Petry (1946)

This novel illuminates the structural and social manifestations of racism, sexism, and classism as vividly and viscerally as any work of fiction written since its publication 71 years ago. In the book, the protagonist, Lutie, hopes to save her young son from the trappings of poverty in World War II-era Harlem. Her love and respect for Benjamin Franklin and his bootstrapping philosophy of prosperity motivates her to work hard and save so she can move out of a tenement building haunted by the presence of a superintendent hoping to prey on her dire circumstances. Like other works of naturalism, it’s not the intention or good nature of the protagonist that dictates whether she will leave her hard life behind, it’s the political forces of the time that determine her fate. Ann Petry is not here for happy endings or conflict resolution. — Monis Khan

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)

Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece tells the story of Okonkwo, a leader in his Nigerian village whose incessant pursuit of honor is halted by abrupt change. When he sees colonial influence diluting his culture and threatening the values he’s anchored by, his life bursts into the “This Is Fine” meme. And if we flash-forward to the present, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election has left many (the historically marginalized, especially) feeling as though the world around them has been similarly set ablaze. Aggressive change steeped in ethnocentrism poses an imminent threat to the rights people died for so we could have, but also serves as a reminder that both good and bad come in waves. Okonkwo’s raison d’être — his pride — is also his Achilles’ heel. This chest-out hubris makes it even harder for him to process the changes he’s experiencing. In the time since I first read Things Fall Apart as an eighth-grader, the book has served as a cautionary tale: a reminder of how not to react when everything you know begins to collapse. And today, with the powers that be hell-bent on ruining the very country they claim to want to improve, it’s imperative to remember that sometimes things get worse before they get better. Whenever I revisit Things Fall Apart, similar to whenever I read depressing national news headlines, I’m reminded that life is a seesaw of highs and lows. We’ve risen from scorched earth before, we’ll do it again. — Julian Kimble

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X with Alex Haley (1965)

This is the story of not just a man who came to power, notoriety and controversy during one of America’s most disputative period, but also of why America would never truly come to accept a voice like Malcolm X’s. The only way this book would cease to lose its importance is if this country magically woke up one morning and instantly reversed its ills. And since that’s not going to happen, Malcolm X’s autobiography will eternally rank as the blueprint of how to survive in America — and to hold America accountable for its shortcomings. Reread this memoir multiple times. I have, and it’s helped teach me the value of work ethic. It helped teach me about my status as a black man in America — and how humbling myself to its systemic racism should never be considered an option. This autobiography is responsible for strength when the coldest times of my life begged me to give up. Simply put, this the most important book ever written. Bar none. Yes, bar none. There’s so much game here that spans beyond the political. It’s a book about life — and about how it rarely goes our way. But the most important lesson is to simply keep living. Malcolm X did that until the day he died. He believed he could change the world — and you know what? He never lived to see it. But he did. Malcolm X’s fingerprints are all over 2017 and beyond. — Justin Tinsley

Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody (1968)

This memoir chronicles the horrors faced by the generation before mine. It’s about growing up in rural Mississippi under Jim Crow laws — and, sadly, much of the story still holds true in 2017. This is the book — written by a woman who in 1963 sat praying at a segregated Woolworth’s counter as condiments were poured over her before she was dragged 30 feet by her hair — made me want to be a writer. My mother gifted me this gem when I was a preteen and even then, I related to a young woman learning about her womanness and her blackness at a time when it was terrifying to be both. Much like Elie Wiesel’s horrifying Night, the account of his experience under Hitler’s regime, Coming of Age tells the gripping story of the American holocaust of black folks. And while Anne Moody never got her due (she died in 2015 after suffering from dementia), her book was wholly life-changing. And considering the headlines of 2017, her story — almost 50 years later — remains relevant and relatable. — Kelley L. Carter

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (1972)

History is hard to know. This book is important at this moment because of the parallels between 1960s counterculture and the movements we’re currently experiencing in America’s polarized atmosphere. In it, Thompson (who committed suicide in 2005) addresses police brutality, hypocrisy, and destructive recreational drug use (“There is nothing worse than a man in the throes of an ether bender.”). Thompson’s gonzo style of immersing himself into his work and subjects inspired me to find a career where I could live out experiences, no matter how wild, and to open the minds of people across the world. — Morgan Moody

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault (1975)

Visibility is a trap. This book introduced me to the idea of the Panopticon (which allows a watchman to observe occupants without the occupants knowing whether they are being watched). In the age of digital surveillance this is relevant. Panopticon is a kind of space where separation and registration are implemented. Those who deviate are cast aside. When I first read Discipline, the obvious parallel was society at large. Then, jail and prison. Now it’s the state’s security apparatus — something that we make sacrifices for every day. The Panopticon is alive and well, and we all opt into it. Folks should read this book so they can better understand the goals behind the state’s continued efforts to divide us. — Osman Noor

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (1980)

“Alternate facts” are currently being touted as gospel truth. Howard Zinn’s powerful, paradigm-changing thesis — that alternative facts (sometimes referred to as “lies”) can become alternative American history — gave this classic best-seller its bite. If you were in middle or high school before 1980, your textbooks may have been a minefield of ill-adapted or half-truthful information. Sing along with us, kids! Christopher Columbus sailed the seven seas … and he quickly became besties with the native peoples because he was an OG who liked turkey. George Washington had a thing for cherry trees and wooden dentures. Thomas Jefferson didn’t have a thing for Sally Hemings. The Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras got about a week each, and Watergate was in no way, shape or form the gateway drug to the fall of American exceptionalism. OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But pre-internet historiography (which is the history of how history is interpreted) is a narrow corridor built by and for white male elites. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But A People’s History of the United States asks that we do a collective dig into uncomfortable places. With blunt, prehistoric tools. Then we get to the really fun stuff like Russians and Soviets, the historic election of Barack Obama and, because history always manages to swing back around, Donald J. Trump. Fun times! — Jill Hudson

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee (1983)

Set in apartheid era South Africa during a fictional civil war (fought “so that the minorities can have a say in their own destinies”), Michael K is a book of silent resistance. K is a wanderer and a gardener caught in the crosshairs of a war he has no say in. His cleft lip brands him as voiceless and unworthy of society’s consideration. He must assert his humanity and so seeks to carve out a space of the South African landscape for his own use, a space that cannot be infringed upon by the larger powers at play. As someone who isn’t necessarily a front-line activist but still holds near and dear my convictions, I love the book’s thesis: that the revolution can begin within, remain within, and still change the world around you. — Tierra R. Wilkins

When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America by Paula J. Giddings (1984)

I don’t remember every single story in Giddings’ novelistic masterwork of gender and black American history, but it’s enough to recall on any given and stressful weekday that the book exists on this earth as a brilliant testament to the work and activism and vibrant creativity of black womanhood in the United States. It’s like someone saw, and took the notes, and wrote it all down, and I say, Thank you. Whether it’s Phillis Wheatley, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ella Baker — everyone is blood-flesh-and-soul human, and black women’s lives and accomplishments are detailed toward the fine point of precisely how they impacted and influenced the heart and machine of this country. Who are we as ourselves? This is what Giddings asks toward the tail of her preface. What would we say to Anita Hill outside the earshot of whites or men or our mothers and fathers? What do we feel about a Million Man March …Who are we when no one yearns for us, or when we are in full possession of our sexuality? Who are we when we are not someone’s mother, or daughter, or sister, or aunt, or church elder, or first black woman to be this or that? The genius Paula Giddings answers with aplomb. — Danyel Smith

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler (1987 – 1989)

If racism’s got you down, take a minute to contemplate the end of the human race as we know it. The brilliant, prolific and criminally underappreciated Octavia Butler constructs a chilling and all-too-possible future in which an alien species rescues humanity from self-destruction, but at an unimaginable price. As usual, Butler, a giant of science fiction who died in 2006, places a black woman at the center of her universe. The first book of the trilogy begins with protagonist Lilith fighting for life amid the wondrous, benevolent but inflexible invaders. Lilith’s offspring carry the story forward to a conclusion that renders childish our color-based classifications and proves there is only one race — the human one. — Jesse Washington

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (1988)

The Alchemistwhich has sold more than 65 million copies — takes readers on the journey of a shepherd boy named Santiago who has recurring dreams about traveling to find hidden treasures. Santiago meets many people along the way who both help and distract him, and (spoiler alert) in the end, Santiago learns that he’s the only person who can complete his journey. He also realizes the most important treasures of life were right in front of him the entire time. The Alchemist is so important at this moment because these days so many feel alone in their struggle. The Alchemist remains a go-to when I’m feeling lost, or dejected. The beauty of the book is no matter how many times you read it, it’s guaranteed you’ll find something you may have overlooked. — Maya Jones

Although this book is introduced to most in their youth, the moral of The Alchemist is only truly revealed to those who read (or reread) it as an adult. This perspective–changing and deeply human story is even more well received in today’s pretty trying times. Young Santiago’s odyssey leads him to surmise: “When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.” What seems like trivial notions are actually fondly illuminated in The Alchemist. People should feel as though they can follow their dreams, no matter their age, or lot in life. We could all use a Santiago walkabout to reveal what truly means the most to us — whether that’s overcoming fear or embracing the present. Go ahead, give it another read. — Ashley Melfi

Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America by Nathan McCall (1994)

Love was understood rather than expressed, and values were transmitted by example, not word of mouth. This autobiography is superimportant at this moment in history because the struggle continues. At the time of its publication, the book was called “gripping and candid,” and it is. Nathan McCall went from from thug-hustler in working-class Portsmouth, Virginia, to doing three years for armed robbery to becoming a journalist and working at The Washington Post. This book continues to save my life, because black men in this country have so many similar experiences even now — it explains so much about the frustration bruhs experience daily. McCall is underrated because he speaks the real truth. — Jason Reid

Paradise by Toni Morrison (1997)

They shoot the white girl first. This novel, to some reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s 1974 Sula, is superimportant at this moment in history because it makes you uneasy. It’s a difficult read, in all of the best ways. It speaks to so many things — race, culture, patriarchy, class, death, black girl magic, history — and the narrative makes you earn it all. Love is divine only and difficult always — and then it ends with an unanswered question which is fitting in today’s world: Isn’t every day uncertain and a little bit scary? — Breana Jones

King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick (1999)

This book came out three years after Muhammad Ali raised the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Games, when much of America worried about the legendary boxer’s health and wondered whether he still had the same influence worldwide. With the lighting of the torch (and this book), it became clear that Ali’s messages of sacrifice and conviction remain as contemporary today as they were in the late 1960s. It’s a reminder that a life lived only for material goods and fame is not a life well-lived. The beauty of Ali is his conviction to principle despite the world telling him to leave his religion — who he really was — behind. He became the Greatest not because of athletic prowess and showmanship in the ring; he became the Greatest because he used those gifts as a tool for greater good and not merely as a means to an end. David Remnick’s book brilliantly chronicles how Ali became Ali. — Mike Wise

The Land by Mildred D. Taylor (2001)

In this middle-school novel, a prequel to the classic, award-winning 1977 Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Paul-Edward is born to a slave mother and a white father and so learns to navigate being a part of both worlds. Taylor’s “depiction of the 19th-century South is anything but pretty, [but] her tone is more uplifting than bitter.” She covers colorism, sexism, racism and religion as she tells the story of Paul-Edward’s journey from being owned, to ownership. But “after arriving in Mississippi and setting his sights on the acreage he wants to buy, he soon discovers that becoming a landowner of color is more complicated and dangerous than he expected.” — Rhiannon Walker

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)

Malcolm Gladwell says that “what we do as a community, as a society, for each other, matters as much as what we do for ourselves.” That statement holds so true today — with where we are as a country. Togetherness matters more now than ever before. I identify with Gladwell — he opened up about his Jamaican roots: his mother, Joyce, a descendant of African slaves. And his ability to write very simply gets me every time. We’re all “outliers” – all exceptional in our own unique way. We first have to believe that and act on that — statistics be damned. — Mark Wright

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (2008)

As the daughter of immigrants, this collection of short stories means so much to me. Especially as the dialogue around the immigrant experience in America can be aggravatingly simplistic. Today’s stereotypes are either malicious (those dangerous “illegal” Latinos here to steal your jobs, and those even more dangerous Muslims here to cause terror) or naive (the hardworking Asian with impeccable character who goes against the odds to achieve the American dream). The experience of the majority of Asian immigrants is not that elementary, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters are fully human. She reveals their pain, their desires, their flaws, and their dreams — even those that may never go fulfilled. And on a personal level, this collection taught me that it’s OK, normal even, to have a flawed family history, one that contains disappointments and shame. You don’t have to try to configure your family story to (the myth of) the American Dream. To step out and take a risk by bringing your fragile hopes to a new land, to unaccustomed earth, even if you meet disappointment, is beautiful nonetheless. — Lois Nam

The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2009)

This novel is vital at this moment because it forces black folks to confront preconceived notions about ourselves. Few of us want to grapple with the complexity and complicity of the black experience, even though true understanding of ourselves is the way forward. Jones’ masterpiece, in which “characters survive by negotiating mazes of moral contradiction, but … speak with a raw and lyrical bluntness,” will make you think differently — plus it’s simply a gripping tale. — Jesse Washington

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore (2011)

Destiny is determined by big and small moments in everyone’s life. This book demonstrates how two boys — both named Wes Moore, and born blocks apart — turn out to have seemingly polar opposite lives: one ends up in prison, and the other becomes a Rhodes scholar. Set in the Bronx, and in Baltimore, fathers are absent, and while Moore creates “touching portraits of both mothers” who want good things for their sons, “those dreams don’t necessarily matter in the face of the life of the streets.” This is a story of a generation of boys trying to find their way in a hostile world. — John X. Miller

Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to be Black Now by Touré (2011)

Growing up in the shadow of Chris Rock’s infamous 1996 “Black people vs. Niggaz” stand-up routine, this book introduced to me to the idea, at the age of 22, that there are millions of ways to be black in this world. Who’s Afraid illustrates the many ways one can navigate society in one’s black skin. As Touré’s text states, to be “post-Black” — which is not to be confused with postracial — is to be “rooted in but not restricted by” one’s race. I can be me and be black at the same time. There are no limitations. In the current political climate, we can lose track of who we are and how far we’ve come. We can “fight” like our ancestors did for centuries but also build our own paths toward freedom in America. “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” for sure, but postblackness also gives blacks the latitude to take that historical context and apply it in an ever-changing world — however they see fit. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, can take cues from the civil rights movement, but it’s on this generation of activists to chart their own way. — Martenzie Johnson

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (2012)

In a complicated world that many of us make sense of by clinging to rigid narratives, this carefully reported and beautifully written book offers a vivid reminder that nuance is everything. Set in the unspeakable squalor of a marshy slum in the shadows of Mumbai’s gleaming Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers offers an intimate view of the lives of the people who live there. Children are bitten by rats and balded by worms. Others forage through garbage for scrap metal, or study desperately for a shot at university. None of this feels voyeuristic as this unforgettable book uses real lives, not government statistics or think tank generalizations, to raise big questions about the perils of extreme inequality, globalization and human nature itself. Boo is a celebrated journalist known for her on-the-ground reporting about the most unfortunate among us. She could never receive enough credit for that. — Michael A. Fletcher

Earl the Pearl: My Story by Earl Monroe with Quincy Troupe (2013)

Sometimes the best plan is no plan at all. It’s all about letting it all just flow. This is true whether you’re playing the game of basketball or looking forward to the next chapter of your life. Sometimes you have to take a play from the legend Earl Monroe — and improvise. And while what Monroe did on the court was dazzling, his perspective on life is even more so, and My Story features life advice from the timeless basketball legend. Monroe once said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with the ball, and if I don’t know, I’m quite sure the guy guarding me doesn’t know either.” The same is true for life. During these times when it’s difficult to know your next move, the key is exactly that: to move. Monroe’s life, from growing up in a tough South Philadelphia neighborhood, to his career at Winston-Salem State, all the way through his days as a key player of the legendary 1972-73 New York Knicks championship team, Monroe’s life is nothing but inspiration. His advice and perspective transcends the game — a perfect book for right now. — Trudy Joseph

The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2016)

More people should read this satirical novel because it’s an unusual, adept, and comedic autopsy of an undead American fixture, Racism. Brimming with black colloquialisms, hip-hop allusions, and street-corner humor, this book was awarded the U.K.’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction — the first time ever for an American. The book begins with the protagonist, Bonbon, a black man, being admonished by a black Supreme Court Justice: “N—–, are you crazy?” On trial for reinstituting slavery and segregation, Bonbon pleas “human,” which to him means guilty and innocent — and neither. The book doesn’t attempt to make broad racial commentary, but instead presents elements of America’s racial history (and present) from a one-of-a-kind perspective. No matter where you reside on the spectrum of “wokeness” — from Stacey Dash to Solange, this book will make you see race from a new angle. — Domonique Foxworth

Know the Mother by Desiree Cooper (2016)

Desiree Cooper writes about the interior lives of mothers with knowingness, tenderness and power. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, Detroit community activist, and former attorney, is a master of flash fiction. Each of the 33 short-short stories in her debut collection is a revelation across generations. She writes about black mothers in the fullness of who we are, how we live and grieve, our fears and our longings. We are widows with three young sons on a mule ride down a canyon wall. We are mothers caring for our mothers. We are raising children in the segregated South. This book is a welcome reprieve from the typical whitebread “momoir.” If those books are chardonnay, Know the Mother is bourbon. The collection fills voids by tallying the cost of motherhood, by counting the losses — of self, of adventure, of freedom — without tying on the obligatory ribbon of “ … but it’s all worth it!” For some mothers, that ribbon chokes. Instead, Cooper’s stories invite you to sit with these mothers and feel, as one character does, what it’s like “to be touched without desire or demand.” — Deesha Philyaw

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

In this debut novel, Yaa Gyasi masterfully interlaces parallel histories. Homegoing follows the descendants of two half-sisters born to different Ghanaian tribes during the transatlantic slave trade. The estranged young women live very different lives — one sister marries a British governor of the Cape Coast Castle, and the other — captured by raiders and sold to the British — is locked in the dungeons below, soon boarding a ship to America and slavery. Each chapter tells the story of the next generation — and each story has its own heartbreaks and triumphs. From Ghanaian wars over the slave trade to the prison labor system in America, this book moves seamlessly from generation to generation. Homegoing is empowering, uplifting and inspiring, moving me to wonder: Where do I came from? Regardless of where my roots are, this book makes me feel I’m getting closer to home. — Brittany Grant