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The Book That Changed My Life

Notable young artists, writers and journalists share the works that shaped their lives.

by James Napoli
July 24, 2020 | Living

A good book can entertain, inform and, at the very least, provide a short escape from the daily grind.

But a great book — a truly influential work — can shift the trajectory of your life. 

The best books make you feel more alive, help you through difficult times, transform your worldview, show you what it means to be human and inspire you to create a better future.

Rewire recently asked a group of young folks, each accomplished in their respective field, to discuss the books that have had the greatest impact on their lives. Their responses celebrate and pay tribute to the works that have meant the most to them.

Wind in a Box by Terrance Hayes

Over a decade ago, I suffered a concussion after being rear-ended at a stoplight by a car traveling nearly 70 miles per hour on a semi-residential road. In the time that followed, I experienced post-concussive symptoms like vertigo, tinnitus and significant memory issues.

It was as if my memories had been knocked out of their files, haphazardly gathered, then transported to a storage unit in another country. New memories stacked without sense or order. 

In an attempt to recover who I was before the accident, I shuffled through music on an old iPod. 

In the seconds-long pause between songs, on a day en route to somewhere I no longer remember, I suddenly heard the voice of Terrance Hayes recite one of "The Blue Terrance" poems from Wind in a Box. I listened on repeat to believe the lines, "Thump. Thump. // Thump. Everything I hold takes root." 

That poem so resonated that I committed it to memory before seeing what it looked like on the page. Until that collection, with its insistent repetitions, nothing stuck. The book rooted me.

Janine Joseph is the author of Driving Without a License (Alice James Books, 2016) and an assistant professor of creative writing at Oklahoma State University.

Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago by Lilia Fernández

On 18th Street, a door mural painted by Rufus Linus Jr. reads: "Bless the Children of Pilsen." 

I often wondered what it meant, at first connecting its meaning to the violence I had normalized growing up in the neighborhood. 

Street photography and books about segregation such as The Color of Law were some tools I utilized to seek answers. But it was Lilia Fernández's 2012 book, Brown in the Windy City, that made it clear how my life was a part of something much bigger. 

Pilsen was not only a place I called "home," it became a neighborhood with historic contributions to the labor movement and home-making through organizing and art. It was on every wall, mural, street name, park, high school, food, sounds — things that can be photographed and written in books.

Sebastián Hidalgo is an award-winning photojournalist and digital producer who uses photography as a tool to engage with many social and humanitarian issues affecting communities of color. View a selection of his Pilsen photography in the New York Times.

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

I read Giovanni's Room each year from the age of 16 to the age of 25. Baldwin made me understand the deep fear, the resistance, the self-loathing, the damage and the passion that loving a person you don't want to love can cause. 

Now that I have fallen in love and left the country, now that I have lost people I defined myself in relation to, I have come to understand that there are moments that can change your life for the better if you'll simply say yes. 

As the character Jacques says: "Somebody, your father or mine, should have told us that not many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour — and in the oddest places! — for the lack of it."

Maya Marshall is a writer, editor and co-founder of underbellymag.com, the journal on the practical magic of poetic revision. Her debut full-length collection is forthcoming from Haymarket Books.

This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom by Martin Hägglund

It's impossible to choose a single book that changed my life, as I trace my understanding of why I care about the things I do to some of the earliest books I read. But I want to highlight a revolutionary work I read last year that enriched that understanding by putting language to so many of the reasons I care about those things: This Life by Martin Hägglund. 

Hägglund argues that if, like me, you don't believe in God, you should consider time our most precious resource. Because of this, he says nontheists ought to have profound concern for how all people spend the tremendously short time we get, and that this concern should move us to dismantle capitalism and all of the dehumanization that accompanies it.

Though Hägglund argues for philosophical and political beliefs I already hold (atheism and democratic socialism), this book made me care about them anew. 

Urgent, accessible, and moving, This Life is the first nontheistic book for which I've wanted to proselytize. Not to "convert" others to atheism, but rather to help them understand why I think all of us — atheist or not — should desire a society in which everyone can live a life of meaning. This book offers the tools to both imagine and build that world.

Chris Stedman is a writer, speaker and community organizer who teaches in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Augsburg University. He is the author of IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives (forthcoming from Broadleaf Books).

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

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A great book can shift the trajectory of your life.   |  Credit: James Napoli

The book that changed my life was Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. I had just gone through a really intense breakup that shattered me. 

Up until that point in my life, sadness was an emotion I tried my hardest to avoid, because it was too painful. But Strayed's deeply personal collection of advice showed me the beauty of the human spirit, gave me the tools to be kind to myself and, most importantly, taught me that sadness and grief are things one must move through, not avoid. 

Now I'm much more comfortable letting myself sit in those hard feelings in order to heal. (I also recommend her other book, Wild!)

Melissa Li is a composer, lyricist, performer and writer based in New York City and Baltimore. Her upcoming projects include works commissioned by Playwrights Horizons, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Weston Playhouse, Keen Company and more.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

The book that changed my life is An Ember in the Ashes by the lovely Sabaa Tahir. This magical young adult fantasy put a spell on me when I read it after college. 

It was the first book that made me want to be a great writer, and it lit a fire in me to try and write something that deserved to share a shelf with that masterpiece. 

And, if that wasn't enough, the wonderful woman who wrote this life-changing novel is even more amazing than her stories. If you haven't read it, grab it today because it will sweep you away.

Tomi Adeyemi is a creative writing teacher and the Hugo & Nebula award-winning author of the New York Times bestselling books Children of Blood and Bone and Children of Virtue and Vengeance.

Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil

In Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil considers the essential conditions of salvation, the mysticism of work, differences between time and eternity, the importance of necessity and many other topics, all of which focus on the relationship between human existence and God.

Her writing bewilders: It is sometimes difficult to discern whether the book is written in Chinese or English. The rhythm of the passages and the timbre of Simone's language are reminiscent of traditional Chinese texts, such as the Tao Te Ching

I often walk away from these pages having accrued no new knowledge. And yet, this lack is precisely the reason I am able to return to them, again and again. 

One of my recent artworks is titled Device for a Child Standing at the Mouth of a Labyrinth. I am that child. Gravity and Grace is the device that I use for contemplation and protection. 

Hong Hong is an interdisciplinary artist whose practice spans sculpture, performance, printmaking, and installation. Her work explores the human perception of landscape in contemporary settings and the conditions that shape it.

Crow Indian Photographer: The Work of Richard Throssel by Peggy Albright

I first discovered this book in undergraduate school at Montana State University and quickly obtained my own copy. I continue to refer back to Richard Throssel's photographs of my community and have been inspired by his work to create my own images that capture the vibrancy of the Crow Nation.

Wendy Red Star is an Apsáalooke (Crow) photographer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work is informed both by her cultural heritage and her engagement with many forms of creative expression, including photography, sculpture, video, fiber arts, and performance.

The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison

The author that continues to change my life is Toni Morrison. 

Right now I am reading The Source of Self-Regard, a collection of her essays, speeches and meditations. To pinpoint one way that she impacts me is impossible; suffice to say I often find myself in humble, grateful tears when I read her work. 

She has helped me think, feel and love in new ways. I believe Morrison's combination of profound empathy and stunning intellect will be a gift for generations to come.

Lisa Sanaye Dring is a writer, director and actor. She recently founded the Evolving Playwrights Group with Circle X Theatre Co., a writing and mentorship program for emerging and mid-career playwrights.

Portrait of shaggy-haired local man with arms folded, wearing a cap, in front of pine trees
James Napoli ([email protected]) is an editor for Rewire and a freelance photographer, radio storyteller and event producer. Find him on Twitter @jamesnapoli_ or Instagram @james.napoli.
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