What Some of Our Greatest Writers Are Reading to Stay Sane in the Age of Trump

In their own words.


Almost as interesting as what our favorite authors write is what they read, and why. We asked more than two dozen—authors, bloggers, essayists, poets, comic artists—to recommend, in their own words, readings that bring solace and understanding in this age of political rancor. These are excerpts. Click on an author’s name or “more” to read their complete responses.

                     Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed
In times of great anxiety, what could be better than The Lord of the Rings? A horrible tyrant. An obsession with power. Nine dead guys running errands for him. Small folks doing their bit. It’s okay to have pointy ears. And it comes out all right at the end. Or sort of all right. (more)

George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
Anton Chekhov’s short stories, just because, in dark times, it’s important for people in resistance to fortify themselves with beauty, if only to remind ourselves that kindness, nuance, and ambiguity are real things. In particular: the beautiful trilogy consisting of “The Man in a Case,” “Gooseberries,and “About Love.(more)

Ana Castillo, Black Dove
Worth adding to any library is The Wind Is Spirit: The Life, Love, and Legacy of Audre Lordea collection of essays compiled by Gloria I. Joseph, Lorde’s romantic partner at the time of her death. It brings together memories from more than 50 contributors—such as Sonia Sanchez and Angela Davis—and reminds us not only of the significance of Lorde’s work but also of the importance of a writer’s perseverance in the face of political adversity. (more)

                         Daniel Alarcon

Daniel Alarcón, At Night We Walk in Circles
Sometimes I think dystopian literature is the only literature we can write these days. That Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale, feels so resonant more than 30 years after it was published is singularly depressing. Read it as a cautionary tale. (more)

Phil Klay, Redeployment
I’ve been thinking increasingly about Teddy Roosevelt’s 1883 speechThe Duties of American Citizenship.” Though some of his positions are dated—”the ideal citizen must be the father of many healthy children”—so much of it holds up as solid, practical advice in how to go about creating political change. Roosevelt continually stresses the hard work of building up organizations and institutions as the key component of American political life. “A great many of our men in business,” he says, “rather plume themselves upon being good citizens if they even vote; yet voting is the very least of their duties.” Sadly, he has little to say on the possibility of tweeting your way to a greater democracy. (more)

                            Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman, Orange Is the New Black
When I read Jesmyn Ward‘s Men We Reaped, it absolutely gutted me. I return to it again and again in my mind because it so perfectly crystallizes what’s at stake until we establish equality for all Americans when it comes to safety and freedom. Ward’s writing is heartbreakingly beautiful. The book that actually does provide me with solace is Alice in Wonderland. When I was a child I wanted to change my name to Alice. I had a copy in my locker when I was incarcerated, and there’s one on my bedside table now. (more)

Jesmyn Ward, The Fire This Time (editor)
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism: Author Edward E. Baptist builds a very compelling argument that slavery made the foundation and growth of the United States, as an independent country, possible. This book is so necessary because it seems we live in a time where those in power are invested in willful ignorance, “alternative facts,” and a revisionist view of the kind of real pain, suffering, and dehumanization that actually allowed this country to ascend to “greatness.” We need books like this to shine light on the darkness that beats at the heart of America today. (more)

                          William Gibson

William Gibson, The Peripheral
Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior, by Hilary Evans and Robert Bartholomew, is a compendium of the workings of rumor, fear, and the madness of crowds. Baffled by Trump’s popularity? Read Evans and Bartholomew on lycanthropy and laughing epidemics. Seriously. (more)

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West
Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl, because he takes us into the world of imperfect but resolutely defiant characters who triumph in the face of impossible odds, and because no matter how powerful the mechanical shovels that come for us, we can always dig, dig, until we make a better world.  (more)  

                             Karen Russell

Karen Russell, Sleep Donation
Because, if everything we write and read becomes dire and reactionary, Trump will have truly won, here’s a book that celebrates the radical freedom of the imagination: Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino is brimming with recombinatory energy, play and joy. Light by which to see into many different futures. (more)

Reza Farazmand, Poorly Drawn Lines
Somehow, Cat’s Cradle still manages to present a fictional political setting stranger than the one we’re in now. I can reread Kurt Vonnegut’s absurd parody of Cold War politics and think, “Well, at least things aren’t this weird yet.” (more)

W. Kamau Bell, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell
Lindy West, the author of Shrill, is a critical voice. If we all want to have any hope of not just surviving but thriving in the next four years to eight years and beyond, then we need to listen to her. Also, she’s funnier than probably everybody you know—unless you know her. (more)

                          Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light: A Memoir
Poetry helps me contend with the smallness of spirit—the greed, the dishonesty, the disregard for the lives of others—at the root of American politics. When I feel beaten down by all of the wrongheadedness, I turn to the wisdom, on what often feels like a cosmic scale, running through The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010. Clifton was one of America’s great poets, whose work throughout her lifetime was committed to chronicling and celebrating black lives. The honesty, joy, wisdom, and hope she brought to this task are regenerative. For years, I’ve been completely captivated by a poem cycle—”the message from the Ones (received in the late 70s)”—that appears in her 2004 collection, Mercy. What is the message? One we and our elected leaders need desperately to hear and to heed. (more)

Dave Eggers, Heroes of the Frontier
The Great Lie, edited by Flagg Taylor, collects essays by a wide range of writers who lived under tyranny, and the results are richly rewarding and surprisingly accessible. Taylor is a professor at Skidmore College and the book is about 800 pages, and yet it’s eminently approachable by anyone interested in seeing the parallels between our current flirtations with truthless fascism and those societies that were truly crushed by totalitarianism. Everyone you could think of is in there—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Václav Havel, Hannah Arendt—and some lesser-known essayists like Aurel Kolnai and Waldemar Gurian get their due, too. The title, of course, references the sort of lie told by authoritarian governments that’s so outrageous and unbelievable that citizens feel it must be true. In our age of alternative facts, this collection is timely and deeply unsettling. (more)

                    Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History
How could one not choose the timeless Henrik Ibsen play An Enemy of the People? A Norwegian doctor suspects that the municipal water in a town has been contaminated with toxins. He hesitates but ultimately follows his moral instincts to release the news to the public. He is dubbed an enemy of the people and publicly flayed. Perhaps the president forgot the irony of that title in using the phrase to describe the press. (more)

Rabbi Jack Moline, Growing Up Jewish
I can’t avoid including the Book of Psalms. Aside from the fact that it is the only book in the Jewish Bible that is of undisputed human authorship, it is a collection of essential yearnings and gratitudes that give me a sense that our current troubles, existential and political both, are neither new nor permanent. In addition, the melodies to which so many of the psalms have been set are inseparable from the words. And how can I not also hear Leonard Cohen in every “hallelujah.” (more)

 

 

                           Wendy C. Ortiz

Wendy C. Ortiz, Bruja
Handwriting, by Michael Ondaatje, lives in the drawer of my night table—it’s my antidote to despair of all kinds. The fragmentary nature and white space allow for breaths. I’ve memorized lines from this book over the years and consider it an influence on my prose, poetry, and my psyche. (more)

Kwame Alexander, The Crossover
There are so many incredible books that speak to our times, stories that take place in the past, present, and future. Stories that connect us to our ancestors or people who lived like our ancestors, or to the people who paved the way for our world today—stories like The Underground Railroad, All The Light We Cannot See, Freedom Over Me, March. Stories for adults, teens, and children. Stories that grab hold of us and show us all the pain and beauty that races through and weaves between covers—books like Speak, Pax, Brown Girl Dreaming, Radiant Child, Bridge to Terabithia, As Brave as You, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Tale of Despereaux. Selected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni (and Langston Hughes and Pablo Neruda). Books that will stick with us, comfort us, and strengthen us, long after we’ve read them. (more)

                        Peggy Orenstein

Peggy Orenstein, Girls & Sex
I’m reading My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Emil Ferris’ graphic novel about a 10-year-old Mexican-Irish-Cherokee girl growing up in 1960s Chicago, a social outcast who tries to solve the murder of her Holocaust-survivor neighbor. The radical politics of her present spiral with the fascism and kink of the Third Reich: The novel tackles race, gender, and what it means to be “monstrous” in big and small ways. It could not be more relevant to today’s climate. (more)

Joe Romm, Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know
The last time this country was so divided, the greatest orator and writer ever elected president repeatedly shared his thoughts on what the country needed to do to preserve liberty. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, edited by Roy Basler and Carl Sandburg, is one of the best collections. It includes classics like the Gettysburg Address alongside lesser-known gems like “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” in which a 28-year-old Lincoln explains the danger to the Republic of a demagogue just like Trump. (more)

Alex Kotlowitz, Never a City So Real
For all the obvious reasons (yes, Mr. Trump, history matters), I’m revisiting former Sen. Paul Simon’s Freedom’s Champion: Elijah Lovejoy. As if we need reminding what happens when good and decent people don’t stand up against the onerous assault on a free press. (more)

                     Gene Luen Yang

Gene Luen Yang, Secret Coders
Silence, by Shusaku Endo, is probably my favorite fiction book of all time. It’s about a Catholic missionary to 17th-century Japan who eventually loses his faith. The story reminds me that grace can be found even when things are horribly broken. (more)

Ayelet Waldman, A Really Good Day
It was as if Mohsin Hamid knew exactly what would convulse the world when he wrote Exit West. It’s a novel about refugees, about cruelty and empathy and compassion, and in the end—oddly—about the possibility of an odd kind of redemption. (more)

Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey
This Is an Uprising, by Paul and Mark Engler, is the best summary of all that the last 75 years has taught us about nonviolent organizing. It’s the book I wish I’d had a decade ago, because it would have saved a lot of trial-and-error experimentation as we got 350.org up and running. (more)

                       Darryl Pinckney

Darryl Pinckney, Black Deutschland
These days I turn to the consolations of poetry. James Fenton, his Yellow Tulips: Poems. (He’s my partner, my life.) I open the Donald Allen edition of The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara that I have had for decades. His poetry is a past I share with several friends. And then for the small hours there is Thomas Wyatt: “These bloody days have broken my heart.” (more)

Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop
Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics offers bracing commentary and vibrant analysis of the fringe political movements that have defined our nation in times of crisis, paying attention to the paranoia and conspiracy that fuel reactionary outlooks. That clearly helps us to put this Trumpian epoch in illuminating context. (more)

                             T Cooper

T Cooper, Changers (YA novel series with Allison Glock-Cooper)
I frequently find myself turning to Kiss of the Spider Woman, Manuel Puig’s brave and stunning novel from the mid-1970s, but it’s hitting a little close to home just about now—what with the “freak” and the revolutionary locked in a cell together by a corrupt and repressive government. Molina and Valentin make strange but necessary bedfellows who run into some gender trouble and the usual wretchedness (not to mention betrayal), but also uncover unexpected tenderness and hope inside the walls of the prison where most of the novel is set. Running through it all (in the form of 1930s and ’40s movie plots that Molina recounts to Valentin to pass time and ease their suffering) is the promise of stories that are perpetually unfolding somewhere “out there” in another world, despite the horrors happening “in here” in this one. I’m grateful for the escapism, even if sometimes it feels there’s no real chance of escape. (more)

Illustrations by Allegra Lockstadt