The New Year is upon us. 2021 was a whirlwind of a year. Seeing the world attempt to get back to normal as things still did not feel normal was a challenge for us all. Things felt like they were constantly changing and around every corner, there seemed to be a new thing to worry you. The challenges just never seemed to end.
For me personally, I finished my last year of college during the pandemic and graduated school. I got my first full-time job, moved full-time to a new city and apartment, and started navigating “real life”. There were lots of new things personally and professionally. My life just seemed to be in a constant state of change.
With all this change, came the joys of reading books. Although I did not read nearly as many books as I had aimed to this year, there were still many that truly shaped my year. They showed me things about myself, my work, and my life. Sometimes, you just read the right book at the right time.
Here are the five books that impacted me the most this year. Some helped me laugh and smile while I was struggling, others made me think while I was in a decision-making state, but each one helped me make it to 2022.
1. The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
This was a very empowering way to start off the year. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a non-fiction story that reads more heart-warming and interesting than most other fiction books. It follows Wonder Woman’s creator William Moulton Marston and the incredible women he loved who inspired the character.
Although it gives comic book fans all the historical publishing information and inspirations for the character, it does a whole lot more than just that. Throughout the book, there are examinations of power women, femininity, unorthodox relationships, and ownership of your own ideas. Lepore examines how Wonder Woman has shaped the modern woman and how women and their roles in society have shaped Diana Prince.
As a young woman entering her final semester of college, I needed a little boost in my self-confidence. I felt like I was floundering, with a very unnerved sense about the future. I was ready to move on, but not ready to go just yet. The struggles that Wonder Woman faced seemed to mirror some of my own, and if she got through them, so could I.
2. The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Reading The Crucible was not in fact a choice, but a job demand. In finishing my last year of college, I began student teaching. This Arthur Miller play was required reading for one of the courses I was teaching, so I had to read it for the first time.
At this stage, I wasn’t just learning how to teach in a classroom, but I was learning the content I was teaching at the same time. Teaching something you’ve read a million times, like Romeo and Juliet which I taught later that year, isn’t that scary. Teaching something you’ve only just read the week before is downright nerve wracking. But nonetheless, reading this classic was a great decision for me all around.
The play examines truth, justice, judgement and community hysteria in the time of the Salem Witch Trials. Miller uses this as a background to discuss his own time period during McCarthyism and The Red Scare. In the recent political climate, this story could not be relevant.
While reading, I was reminded of our current cancel culture and asking questions of myself and others. Who has gotten canceled and deserved it? Who didn’t deserve it? Why do have this need within ourselves to be better than others, to be holier than others?
These existential questions were a bit overwhelming in my current busy state of apartment hunting, graduation plans, and job searching, but in discussing these themes with my students, I was nothing but reassured. They made brilliant points about how to be kinder to one another, how to hold people accountable but in a productive way, and how we need to reflect on ourselves more than judge others. It reminded me of the brilliance and the empathy that young people have and how much I don’t want to forget that myself as I enter a new phase in my life.
3. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
At this point in early April, I was truly struggling. I was just about to begin my second student teaching placement, but had been quarantined for being a close contact at school. I was stuck in a dorm room alone for my entire Spring break, going slightly out of my mind.
Although I used some of this alone time to be productive on my ever-growing and constantly stressful to-do list, I also spent a lot of time watching Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives with the cable I was going to lose when I left school. By the fourth day of crying to old country music, I began reading 84, Charing Cross Road.
Helene Hanff is a sometimes struggling, sometimes successful writer, who gets books from a particular book store in London while she lives in New York. This book is comprised of letters between the author and the bookseller over the course of twenty years. Though for some, that may seem a little dry it is a heart-warming as it is heartbreaking.
After spending four years reading books for English department courses and content I needed to teach in the classroom, this book really reminded me of the beauty of reading. It is something that brings people together, that bridges divides, across oceans or across aisles.
Although this had me crying in my quarantine, they were warm tears that reminded me I was human and there would be a great big world waiting for me when I got out. The first day I could leave my cramped room, I bought a new bikini and a new book to head to the beach, on a mission to enjoy reading in the real world, for myself again.
4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Rebecca Skloot tells the slightly unbelievable but extraordinarily true story of how Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cells have changed the course of medical history. She has saved countless lives and cured several diseases, without being anything but an unwilling patient.
Skloot dissects racist and unethical practices in the medical field as well as the real lives of people dealing with these institutional injustices. If you’re looking dismantle some of your own biased thinking or learn more about the evolution of the medical field in the 20th century, this is a book to pick up.
Especially in the Covid era, this was an eye-opening book. There were times I wondered if Skloot had a time machine because she wrote about problems that were amplified by Covid-19. It was a whirlwind to read in a moment of a global pandemic and gave me a new perspective on some of the issues we are dealing with right now.
But the final reason this book makes the list: it took me almost two full years to read this book. I began reading this book in the May of 2019 and didn’t finish it until April 2021. I remember being fully engrossed in the story and the themes, but I got “too busy” to finish the book. I picked it up in early 2020 too, but the pandemic helped me to put the book back on the shelf again. But when I finally picked up the story for a third time, I finished it.
We often have this perception that we need to read a certain number of books or we need to read books quickly and move onto the next. There is a pressure in the book community to always be reading the hottest, newest thing. People love bragging about how many books they’ve read in a year and it can get downright competitive.
This book reminded me that I need to read what I want, no matter how long it takes me. This book didn’t make the list of books I read in 2019 or 2020, though it could have if I would have pressured myself to finish it.
Maybe there is a book that has been sitting on your shelf for a year, five years, ten. Don’t give up on that book. There will be a time and a place and a moment when it is right for you.
5. Paris, France by Gertrude Stein
Now, this might seem very out of left field, but I have a confession. I am obsessed with Gertrude Stein in a way that some might examine with a therapist, but I chose to write about here. She is my favorite author by far, not contest. I wrote my thesis on her work, I write about her in my own creative writing, she is my everything. I truly have no apologies.
Paris, France brought me much closer to her in a way that made me giddy. I read this in the summer after I graduated college. I had just moved into a new apartment, found a full-time teaching job for the next school year, and seemed to have gotten my life in order. That to-do list that had been weighing down on me for months was finally coming to an end.
But in order to pay the bills for the next few months, I went back to an old summer job where I ended up being massively unhappy and constantly stressed. It was not quite how I imagined my first summer on my own in the world, but it was where I was stuck.
For Stein fans, this book has her eccentric writing style and her slightly nonsensical signature, but it also helped me fall into a pure fantasy of Paris, France. Her discussions of french food, fashion, art, and living gave me something to dream about, while her cultural observations made me deconstruct this fantasy at the same time.
Especially in the social media age, we often romanticize how others live. We see a TikTok of someone traipsing around a big city with a coffee in hand or see an instagram post of someone surrounded by flowers in a field and wish our lives looked like that. We often forget to think that their life probably doesn’t look like that and that someone else may envy our lives.
I’ve always envied both Stein’s work and her life, but this book reminded me to romanticize my own life and to enjoy the beauty that surrounds me. As I sat reading this stuck in a waterpark in the middle of the midwest, I remembered that my life isn’t picture perfect, but 1920s Paris wasn’t perfect either.