Ask a Book Critic: Books to read when you’re losing your purpose

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Ask a Book Critic

Amanda Northrop/Vox

Vox’s book critic recommends books to suit your very specific mood.

Welcome to the latest installment of Vox’s Ask a Book Critic, in which I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, provide book recommendations to suit your very specific mood: either how you’re feeling right now or how you’d like to be feeling instead.

I have spent the last week poking around my galley pile, trying to find a book that fit my particular mood. I spent a long time with the forthcoming novel Beach Read, which aims to dramatize the old debate over whether “women’s fiction” is just as worthy of respect and acclaim as literary fiction is. That’s a debate I’m always interested in — but the characters in Beach Read spend all their time acting as though the problem the literary establishment cites with “women’s fiction” is the happy endings, and I truly do not believe that is the case! I ended up getting too frustrated and putting it down before I finished.

But even though I struck out on finding a book to fit my own mood, I’m still here for you. Tell me how you’re feeling, or how you’d like to feel, and I’ll find the perfect book to match.

The recommendation requests below, submitted to me via email and on Twitter, have been edited for length and clarity.

I’m looking for a book with the moody sophistication of Francis Abernathy from The Secret History (bonus if he’s written gay).

Try Real Life by Brandon Taylor. It’s a campus novel about a gay black man. Very carefully observed, with really gorgeous thoughtful prose. (And not for nothing, the characters wear some truly exceptional sweaters.)

I just read the complete works of Bertrand Russell. Can you recommend some other important philosophers and their books? Especially Americans.

Have you read Emile Durkheim yet? Elementary Forms of Religious Life is challenging, but it’s a fantastic book that honestly changed the way I saw the world. (Durkheim is a sociologist, and also French, but I think he’s interesting from a philosophical perspective.)

Since this is Vox, I would be remiss if I did not recommend Tim Scanlon, who invented the moral theory of contractualism and whose work underlies a lot of what my colleagues at Future Perfect are doing. (His work is also the basis for the ethics of The Good Place!) The book to start with is What We Owe to Each Other.

In terms of contemporary philosophers, I would also point you toward Martha Nussbaum, who writes about ethics and the law from a pretty classical liberal perspective; From Disgust to Humanity is her most famous book. I also think everyone should also read Judith Butler (start with Gender Trouble), if just to understand what “performativity” means.

And if you want to go earlier in the history of American philosophy, William James, who established pragmatism, is an interesting thinker. You could try Essays in Radical Empiricism.

I like dark, kinda depressing novels like the Shadow Country trilogy (Killing Mr. Watson) or anything Cormac McCarthy. Got any suggestions?

Have you tried Jonathan Lethem? Fortress of Solitude is astonishing, and also caused me to weep like a small child. It’s about two boys who are best friends in pre-gentrification Brooklyn — one white, and one black — and what happens as they grow up and systemic racism pushes them apart. Also there are superpowers!

I’m devoting this year to reading fiction written by women of color. The mood I prefer is something that may have historical overtones or rely on history, flashbacks, or generational knowledge. Might you have a suggestion or two?

Absolutely!

I’ve recommended The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles in this column before, but I’ll throw it out there again because I like it and it’s not read enough. It’s about two sisters in Brazil in the 1930s. Both of them are great seamstresses, but one of them marries rich, and the other one becomes an outlaw.

Brit Bennett’s The Mothers is set in a black SoCal community, narrated by a Greek chorus of church ladies. It’s about a 17-year-old girl who takes up with the pastor’s son and the complications that ensue.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli deals with the border crisis and is really beautiful.

Kathleen Collins was a brilliant black writer who died in 1988 and was somewhat ignored for a while, but a collection of her short stories came out a few years ago and they’re stunning. It’s titled Whatever Happened to Interracial Love.

I lost my job due to the coronavirus a few months ago and have felt like I am gradually and inexorably losing purpose and drive. What can I read to reinvigorate myself (or change how I find purpose)?

I’m going to recommend two books for you. First, for catharsis, try The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s very good at capturing what it feels like to have things that matter to you taken away, and when the Count responds to his loss by devoting himself to revenge, it gets extremely satisfying. (Fun fact: Alexandre Dumas based the count on his dad, who was this super charismatic general in the Revolutionary army and who Napoleon had imprisoned because he considered the general a threat to his own power. It’s basically his “What if my dad came back and beat you all up, you assholes” fantasy.) It’s also long and old-fashioned, so pushing through it can be a satisfying project.

After that, try Lincoln in the Bardo, which is (a) about finding a way to live while awful things are happening, and (b) extremely funny and tender.

Good luck!

If you’d like me to recommend a book for you, email me at constance.grady@vox.com with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!


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