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These 13 Illuminating Books Should Be Required Reading

Getting ready to go back to school? Looking to start a book club? Here are 13 timeless books to read this fall.

Good morning, class. Raise your hand if you actually read your summer assignments, Great Expectations and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yes, raise your hand if you did read those books. Did read, yes. What’s that you say? An extension, you say? Too hot outside to focus? Well. I don’t know if I ― OK. But just this once.

Now that school’s back in sesh, and the oppressive gloom of the heat dome is giving way to crisp, snuggle-inducing air, we think it’s time for students and former students alike to push the boundaries of the usual syllabi and curl up with something new. Not that classics aren’t classics for a reason ― although some, if we’re to take students’ words for it, are a little outmoded in their language and themes.

But the Western canon is largely made up of a monolithic scheme of writers (read: white, male), so adding in variety would not only expand readers’ understanding of American life, it would better represent American readership.

We’ve rounded up a few books ― some of them new, some of them newish ― that we think should be required reading. Some directly confront women’s issues like infertility; others are lyrical explorations of black life in America. Have a look, and read on.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Whitehead pulls no punches in this deftly structured, brilliantly written novel, which takes on slavery, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, a white supremacist state similar to Nazi Germany, and the United States’ full history of white brutality against black people. The Underground Railroad is a necessary antidote to sanitized histories of America’s racial divide, as well as a stunning example of both historical and speculative fiction at their most powerful. ― Claire Fallon, Books and Culture Writer

Read our review of The Underground Railroad

I Love Dick by Chris Kraus

Kraus’ game-changing fictionalized memoir begins familiar enough, with a woman obsessed with a man. Yet over time the book changes shape, as Kraus’ emotional fixation becomes in itself an object of intellectual fascination, a work of art and a thing of beauty. She becomes empowered in her abilities as a writer and artist, unashamed of her feelings, sloppy and maniacal as they may be. The stunning piece of writing, a predecessor to brilliant and proudly difficult women like Lena Dunham and Sheila Heti, is a must-read for feminist writers and those who crush super hard. ― Priscilla Frank, Arts and Culture Writer

Read our interview with Chris Kraus

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah is a story about immigration that follows two teenagers, Ifemelu and Obinze, who, after falling in love in dictatorial Nigeria, wish to move to America. Alas, only Ifemelu sees her dream come true, while Obinze temporarily lives as an undocumented immigrant in London. In the U.S. though, Ifemelu is confronted with what she calls Racial Disorder Syndrome, a byproduct of the complex American power structures she decides to explore on her blog. The rest of the novel is heart-wrenching and smart, illuminating an incredibly human story tied to the legacies of boundaries, nationalism and injustice. ― Katherine Brooks, Senior Arts & Culture Editor

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson’s seamless transition from lyrical young adult novelist to author of a heartfelt, socially significant book for adults speaks to her breadth as a writer. Both Brown Girl Dreaming ― winner of the National Book Award and the Newbery Medal ― and Another Brooklyn are written in her distinctly spare and poetic style, but the latter carries an emotional weight with buoyancy. It’s about a young girl, August, who moves to Brooklyn from the South after her mother grows tragically absent, and fills the void with blossoming friendships. When she first sees three confident, quirky girls from her school walking arm-in-arm, she instantly longs for their companionship. But, as the group of young women grow out of their gangly frames and into the sometimes restrictive shape of adulthood, their relationships with one another change, too. Woodson writes as touchingly about friendship as she does about jazz, gentrification and the ‘70s. ― Maddie Crum, Books and Culture Writer

Read our review of Another Brooklyn

The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs

Does having kids really kill your dreams? How does in vitro fertilization actually work, and how much does it cost? Why do so many refuse to believe young women when they say they don’t want children? What are the logistics of pursuing adoption, in the United States and abroad? These are some of the questions answered in Belle Boggs’ collection of nuanced and unsparing essays. They revolve around the question of infertility, a disease which, for too long, has remained quarantined to women’s blogs and medical offices. Boggs interweaves her own experience with infertility with those of doctors, professors, unconventional families and even gorillas at the North Carolina zoo, shedding light on a complex human health issue that has remained cloaked in silence and shame. ― Priscilla Frank

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Octavia E. Butler’s Afrofuturist novel follows a black woman caught between two time periods ― California in the 1970s and Maryland before the Civil War. With the sci-fi/fantasy twist of time travel, Butler explores the inhumanities and cruel sacrifices black people faced during antebellum slavery, investigating how issues of power, gender and race can persist in America today. If it’s not already on your required reading list (and it might be, because it was published in 1979!), add it. ― Katherine Brooks

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

While “9/11” remains a national invocation of grief in the U.S., it’s less common for Americans to openly grapple with the quotidian terroristic violence elsewhere in the world: suicide blasts that kill a handful of bystanders, car bombs that tear through crowds. In Mahajan’s eye-opening novel, a single small terror attack in an Indian marketplace forms the crux of a saga that profoundly damages many people over the course of years. He delves into the psychology and troubled background of the bombmaker, the grief of the parents of two young boys who die, and the guilt and lingering bodily pain of their friend who survives. Though the justice system is eager to simply convict someone and get it all over with, and the victims of the attack quickly feel forgotten and alone, Mahajan’s empathetic and artistically startling exploration of the story offers one richly literary entry point into the important work of facing the global human impact of terror. ― Claire Fallon

Read our review of The Association of Small Bombs

Zero K by Don DeLillo

We live in a cultural landscape where a media outlet that prided itself in its scrappiness, its watchdog role, and its dedication to its readers can be shuttered due to the money, power and whims of an inordinately wealthy individual. That alone answers the question of why dystopian stories are popular; they mirror life’s grimmer realities. And Don DeLillo’s Zero K ― which may not be so neatly categorized as a dystopia ― speaks to those realities in a critical but uncynical way. DeLillo mocks the jargon-filled language of Silicon Valley types, but he also questions the value of technologies such as cryonics in an even-handed and fascinating way. ― Maddie Crum

Read our review of Zero K

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching is a coming-of-age story from a young black man who never fully expected to come of age. How could he when he grew up amid countless stories of other young black men whose lives were stolen from them, both in his community and on the news? Smith communicates the devastating reality for black men today, interweaving his own story with those of individuals from Trayvon Martin to Barack Obama. “The everyday condition of blackness in America is enough to drive you crazy,” he writes, and the message is impossible to look away from. ― Priscilla Frank

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

Looking for a fresh dystopian read? Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea paints a fascinating picture of future America, where “New Chinese” populations ― forced to leave China after environmental decline ― dominate urban centers like Baltimore. The story rests on the actions of Fan, a young woman who decides to leave the comforts of her self-contained and surveilled neighborhood ― B-Mor ― to search for her disappeared boyfriend. As she moves within the various social strata of her universe, readers are given a glimpse into what economic inequality and environmental degradation can amount to. ― Katherine Brooks

Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles

Chelsea Girls is not a memoir, but it’s written in the same luringly confessional tone. The narrator, Eileen, reflects on her childhood in Massachusetts, where she obliquely came to the realization that she identifies as queer. She remembers, with equal emotional weight, the death of her father (an alcoholic) and the Halloween when he dressed up as a woman, taking his children from door-to-door, playing the part of a goofy older sibling rather than a true authority figure. She reflects on first heartbreaks and first jobs in New York City, and stumbles into nuanced retellings of adulterous affairs and pill addictions. Myles’ style predates that of the first confessional bloggers, wearing her womanhood proudly, as a badge, rather than cowering behind the shame she’s been made to feel. ― Maddie Crum

Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens

What if, instead of making tender youths watch “The Miracle of Life” in health class, risking numerous teenagers passing out on the linoleum, we regularly exposed them to honest narratives about the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth? This slim, carefully observed novel about two women at different stages of pregnancy ― a nurse guarding an early, precarious one and her patient, a lonely woman going through labor without her partner, who left her for their best friend ― portrays childbirth with a clear-eyed simplicity that is both poetic and very educational. ― Claire Fallon

Read our review of Eleven Hours

Swamplandia by Karen Russell

Throughout the course of high school, students are typically tasked with reading a few coming-of-age stories ― you know, those books that introduce you to the term “bildungsroman.” Teachers assign Catcher in the Rye and This Boy’s Life, but they should consider Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, the story of an alligator-wrestling girl growing up in the isolated Everglades, who ― in one gorgeously written story ― experiences a fairy tale’s worth of death, trauma, and abandonment, with moments of familial bliss mixed in. It’s certainly not a traditional coming-of-age tale, but the ghosts, Seths, and gothic swamp vibes make it all the more worthy of a spot on a required reading list. ― Katherine Brooks

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