Six Books to Read When You Want to Feel Closer to Others
The following six titles are correctives to isolation. Anytime Ive felt adrift or lonely, literature has been a bridge leading me back to other people. When I moved to a new country after living in the same city for three decades, I sought out literary events to meet fellow artists. Back when I was a disillusioned law student, frustrated with the limitations of the curriculum, I convened a reading group that addressed the gaps in our education and breathed new meaning into my degree. Writing is an isolating and unpredictable line of work, so today, I consistently rely on the solidarity offered by others engaged in the same pursuit. Many of us are bombarded with cultural messages insisting that we must be self-sufficient. Books can help us resist that idea. They are also one of the most powerful tools we have for building connections with others. Reading allows us to learn about history, discover new thoughts, join with like-minded people, and reimagine the world from how it is into how it could be. (Partly because of that subversive potential, the freedom to read is also under threat .) The following six titles are a corrective to feeling like an island. By exploring a range of bondscasual interactions over a shared hobby, say, or the knottiness of family tiesthey remind us that, contrary to how it may seem at times, we are far from alone; our lives extend in multiple directions, influenced by and influencing those around us. Son of Elsewhere , by Elamin Abdelmahmoud At age 12, Abdelmahmoud moved with his family from Khartoum, Sudan, to Kingston, Ontario, one of the whitest cities in Canada, he writes in this memoir. Over here, were Black, a cousin told him about their new country. For Abdelmahmoud, this was an entirely different manner of thinking about himself; in Khartoum, he identified primarily as Arab. He explains that his Blackness presented an obstacle to fitting in, and at first he repudiated it by mimicking the speech of his white classmates, embracing cultural signifiers such as Linkin Park and wrestling, and even introducing himself as Stan. Although his teenage interests originate as attempts to belong, Abdelmahmoud develops authentic bonds with these pursuitsand with the people he meets through them. Wrestling leads him to e-federationsforums for fan fiction about fightersand he finds his voice as a writer. Rock shows are cathartic, and let him work out his feelings in a crowd there to do the same. As he continues to think through his relationship to race, music and books by Black artists give him a more capacious way to understand his identity. Eventually, his jubilant, expansive love of pop culture becomes a path to genuine connection with his new neighbors. Read: Adjusting to life in a new country, with a friend A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life , by Robert McGill McGills propulsive, dizzyingly surreal third novel follows Regan, an 18-year-old with absent parents, a devastating athletic injury, and a pile of college rejections, who decides that living wasnt for her, maybe. She heads to the dark web and orders an unexpected means of suicide: a person from a pandemic-ravaged country who has been flat-packed and shipped out like furniture. Once unpacked, the refugee will inflate and expel toxic packing gases over several days, providing the recipient with a painless method of dying. Unfurling is a kind of second birth for Ulle, the woman delivered to Regans home. Her memories have been wiped clean; her English is elementary; one of her first actions, to Regans dismay, is to address her new companion as mama . As Regan waits for the gas to take effect, her plans begin to deviate: More mysterious packages arrive on her doorstep, Ulles past starts to come back to her, and she and Regan are surveilled by the organization that brought them together. The bond between the two women is initially meant to be transactional. But as Regan becomes Ulles de facto caregiver, the novel offers a surprising, deeply moving portrait of people finding an unconventional kind of family. Thin Skin , by Jenn Shapland In five lengthy essays, Shapland explores the idea that the borders between individual lives are not as fixed as we may like to believe. Rather, our behaviors inevitably affect others, and vice versa. For Shapland, the question of thin skin is quite literalshe was told by a dermatologist that shes missing an epidermal layer. The human bodys vulnerable membrane provides a metaphor for the rest of the collection, which probes how our existence is neither autonomous nor inviolable, exemplified for Shapland by the polluted world, segregated cities, unequal resources. Believing that anyone is entirely self-contained, Shapland asserts, is a fantasy. Even someone who had no direct role in these ills may be affected byor benefit fromthe fallout. The essays unfold through association, sliding from subject to subject while implying the uneasy boundaries between them. To be alive right now and to try to be aware of the broader impacts of my own actions feels like drowning, she writes. By tracing these uncomfortable connections, Thin Skin repudiates the notion that we are wholly separate from one another. Read: Environmentalism was once a social-justice movement Rehearsals for Living , by Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson During the initial wave of COVID-19 shutdowns in 2020, Maynard and Simpson, two radical writers, scholars, and activists, began exchanging the letters collected in Rehearsals for Living . Maynard is the author of the best-selling Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada From Slavery to the Present and has led a number of initiatives on police and prison abolition; Simpson has written seven previous books and spent decades teaching Indigenous forms of knowledge. At first, the letters simply enabled two friends to keep in touch during a dark time. As the year continued, both Maynard and Simpson joined the swelling, unprecedented Black Lives Matter and Indigenous land-defense movements, and their writing collaboratively imagined a society with, for example, no police and abundant shared resources. As they reflect on the many ways that the state has harmed their respective communitiesincluding overpolicing and neglectful public-health responses to the pandemicthe letters contemplate what the future could look like, and writing becomes a form of coalition-building. Ancestor Trouble , by Maud Newton In this deeply researched memoir, Newton explores our connections with biological family. For Newton, that particular kind of relation can be vexed. She has long been fascinated by stories about the generations that preceded her, but she must also face the difficult parts of that historyfor example, the virulent racism of her estranged father, the casual bigotry of her beloved grandmother, or, further back, her relatives who enslaved people. Its one thing to acknowledge bigotry and inhumanity where we expect it, Newton writes; its another thing to face and acknowledge it in the people we love most. Her meticulous excavation of her family tree is both an engaging narrative and a clear-eyed reckoning. Ancestor Trouble asks not only what we owe those who came before us but also how the wrongs of our forebears inform what we owe those alive with us today. Newton has a passionate interest in the secrets of her bloodline and how they might eruptgenetically, dispositionally, psychologicallyin her own life. Her research leads her into an exploration of the genealogy industry and global practices of ancestor worship, presenting a panoramic case for the value of honoring and reconciling ones relationship to a challenging heritage. Read: Coming to terms with my fathers racism Alive at the End of the World , by Saeed Jones Joness second book of poetry is a sharp, darkly comic celebration of Black life and art amidst the daily apocalypses of American life. His lucid lines mourn how mass shootings, the climate crisis, and rampant racism have made everyday violence feel normal: In America, a gathering of people / is called target practice or a funeral , / depending on who lives long enough / to define the terms, he writes. He makes art in response to his grief, and he connects our present moment, and his own poetry, to a longer history of Black artists who also worked under the collective weight of oppressive conditions. He invokes figures such as Little Richard, Paul Mooney, and Aretha Franklin, building a lineage of Black artistry while articulating how its output has been alternately fetishized, tokenized, and compromised. Jones places his work in this tradition and asserts its presence and depth, rejecting the patronizing notion that Black creative achievements are uncommon or exceptional. In a poem that takes the voice of the actress Diahann Carroll, he writes, Let the pale reporters and their pointed questions about being / the first and only hang from trees like the warnings they are. When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.