This is a short list. This is a hasty list, one that probably excludes some real gems. But no matter: I love to remember and pay tribute to the books that fed me in some significant way, and I also like to share with my friends what mindstuff I'm consuming these days. So here it is, all nonfiction (which is about 75% of what I read) and all just really lovely. Hopefully they will lift you up like they did me.
1. Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. I love books about grief and loss because I'm an emotional masochist (and like to prepare myself for the worst) so this book, naturally, took my heart and made it go all topsy-turvy. It made me cry over a glass of cheap Chardonnay in a bookstore cafe by myself. It made me go home and hug my partner like I hadn't seen him in years. It made me realize that little is needed for a lush, fully lived life other than to be always and always self-expressed, to make a home filled with love, and to have good food on the table. Thank you, thank you Elizabeth Alexander. Rest in peace, Ficre.
2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This book will fill you with rage and poetry and the weight of history. It will replenish you with its display of the fierce love of father for son. This book will make you look at the tragedy of race in America, to behold the urgency of the call to arms against the killing of black bodies. This book is (to batter an overused term) a must-read. Especially if you, like me, ever worry about how to intelligently, lovingly cross the chasm between the origins of your heartfelt but impotent concern for current affairs and your vast ignorance of what it's like to be in the skin of another.
3. Just Kids by Patti Smith (I'm cheating—some of the books in this list I read last year, but whatever). It's a meditation on love between friends, artistic partnership, about the legacy of creative genius we all inherit by being born into society. And one more thought: it's about, perhaps, the ecstasy of repaying this debt forward by letting our own hands then partake in the endless project of human creativity, with its own breed of curious, life-giving magic.
4. Upstream by Mary Oliver. If books can be totems, mementos that ground us in moments of need in who we are and who we want to be, then this is that book for me. It is a quiet, powerful collection of love. I can't call them "odes" because she is intimate, almost merging with the things she loves—Emerson's writings, the birds by her house, the small house she built, her little town. They are more like love letters, songs of praise, recognitions of our shared interconnectedness. And in the masterful poetry of her prose, you can't help but feel like your heart is gladdened, made expansive. This is a book—this is a poet, really—that bypasses your knowledge and speaks to your knowing.
5. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig (also cheating, as this is a book I read in one big gulp last year). I aspire to write books like this someday: short, simple sentences. Small chapters that are easy to cup in your palms, drink in slowly. Instructive. I had imagined the dementors of depression to be a certain (foreign) kind of hell, and now I know with more definition, more color exactly what kind. If you have ever questioned whether to go on or if you have a loved one who has, this is a manual for the heart. What to know, what to say. What not to say. How to understand something whose very nature escapes the neat order of words. I gave this to a friend in a time of need and it helped her, which is another reason I believe this book deserves a place in this list.