I was in my parents’ living room the first time I tried to watch Magnolia. For as long as I can remember, my family has done this thing when we watch movies together. Right at the most emotional or romantic moment in the film, someone will pat the left part of his or her chest and say, as dramatically as possible, “Gets ya right here.” Then someone else would repeat it and pretty soon no one would be watching the movie anymore. We would even do this when guests were around.
My family has traditionally traveled a couple times a year to be with my mother’s family, just north of Pittsburgh. Our gathering place was originally my grandparents’ home: several acres of magnificent rural land that is still so vivid to me now. My mother had four siblings, and in addition to my own four siblings and me, one of my aunts also had five kids who were close to us in age. These cousins have often felt like a second set of siblings. We all ran amok all over that land, but my main partners-in-crime were Shane and an older female cousin ours. Shane was never afraid to get dirty or wet, and Samara and I would at least follow, if not embrace, his lead.
My reading hasn’t always been this focused, but I’ve found that almost everything I’ve read in the past few years could be classified into three categories: memoir, self-help, or social sciences/cultural commentary. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there are some commonalities those genres. Chalk it up to the the #therapythirties if you’d like, but I suppose at my core I’ve been interested in a few very basic questions. How does this world work? Is it possible to change? What is the good life?
It’s no stretch to say that the work (and the reading) has been fueled by its share of discontent, by the frustration and disappointment of feeling like life isn’t turning out the way I want it to. The good news is that the journey — both in and outside of the reading — has been incredibly rich and that there have been signs of progress along the way. I feel more hopeful now than I ever have before. For anyone who’s interested, here are 15 books — which I’ve grouped into six different topical categories — that I’ve found helpful along the way:
In wrestling with Philip Roth’s 1998, Pulitzer-prize winning novel, American Pastoral, it is useful to remember that the book’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, offered a kind of disclaimer to his story: “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”