I have a theory about readers and the otherwise emotionally inclined: It's that since we're adept at navigating a particularly broad range of emotions, it means that we need our emotional thrills to be even more extreme than the masses can take. It's like we've built up an emotional tolerance already, from all the roller-coastering we've been through. And chances are, when your emotions speak in hyperbole, you probably have a hard time choosing a book, right?
Luckily, this doesn't mean you're a commitment-phobe — it probably just means you have no patience for superficial sh-t, being a big-hearted badass surrounded by insensitive brutes all the time.
There's nothing worse than wasting your time on a book that can't engage you because the author just isn't at your level. We're basically the emotional elite, and there's plenty of mindless garbage out there to sift through before finding an author who can actually break through the surface. If you're the emotionally adventurous type that isn't afraid to let art take you to your very depths, let me spare you the anguish of another unfruitful trip to the bookstore.
Next choose one of these emotionally engaging reads that will not disappoint. Wherever your mood takes you, there's something for you on this list.
1. If you're feeling... in awe of what a hot mess your 20s can be, even if the exhaustion and grunginess doesn't show outwardly, check out Sweetbitter by newcomer Stephanie Danler. On second thought, this one's good for any mood. But if you've ever wanted to pick up, start over, and see what raw adventures life might throw at you, this book is absolutely for you.
Sweetbitter first made waves for causing a bidding war among publicists and piquing the interest of 11 different publishers. But newcomer author and babe-in-her-own-right Stephanie Danler wrote her debut novel from the perspective of protagonist Tess, who moves to New York City and finds her life transformed by the restaurant industry after landing her first job at an esteemed spot.
Just to give you a sense of how good this one is? Halfway through, when I realized it wasn't a memoir, I was heartbroken. I loved this book, and I highly, highly recommend it. And, really, if you're the type of chick who's ever started fresh, screwed up, made new friends, lusted after someone who's emotionally damaged, acted embarrassingly emotional, and felt more than a little bit dark? You'll love Tess. Just read it: It's the down-and-dirty on the 20-something life of every girl who didn't take the marriage-and-baby path straight to adulthood. Tess is like the rest of us — she lives and learns the hard way.
2. If you're feeling... inspired, or if you're in dire need of some inspiration, pick up a copy of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
I strongly believe this book is one worth reading over and over again (and the more times the better). I've read it at least four times — once in my teens and three or more times in my 20s. I even found it once in the lost and found at my old job — jackpot! I started reading it at work, too. Tess from Sweetbitter could've used a guide like this, but, actually, I guess she had one. Basically, this is the fictional embodiment of the answer to every existential crisis you've ever had.
Before you judge, check it out. It's written like the simplest of folk tales, but it resonates somewhere so much deeper. Paulo Coelho is an artist that speaks to your soul. The Alchemist is one of my all-time favorites, and it literally might inspire you to change your life.
3. If you're feeling... lighthearted, check out a copy of What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty.
And quickly, too, because soon they'll be making this one into a movie, and you know you'll want to read the book before it hits theaters, right? This book was a surprisingly enjoyable read, considering I can be pretty picky when it comes to choosing a lighthearted beach read. Sure, they're enjoyable, but they're usually forgettable. What Alice Forgot is the exception. It's like a rom-com with substance. Only someone who has watched love unravel and been deeply hurt — but who also believes in the redemptive possibilities of love — could write this.
4. If you're feeling... romantic, or like you need to remember that tortured love might just be the truest, pick up a copy of The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.
This book is guaranteed to make you cry. Niffenegger is smart, impressively philosophical, and boy does she get how to hook you emotionally — and then crush you. It's basically the most intense, passionate fling you've ever had, with the most manipulative, emotionally intense, and damaged (or quite possibly deranged) lust object. Catch my drift? It's a world of waiting around, clinging to half-assed promises, and loving every minute of it in a sick, dysfunctional way. Except it's actually a gorgeous love story, full of incredible writing and the best of intentions.
Prepare to become emotionally invested in Clare and Henry, and even though it'll make you bawl your eyes out, it's so worth it.
5. If you're feeling... like you're need of a major reality check and are ready to be humbled, read What Is the What by Dave Eggers. It'll make you a better person for it.
Back in 2006, Eggers published this quasi-novel slash autobiography hybrid, which is based on the actual experiences of Valentino Achek Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Deng, along with some 20,000 other displaced children, were forced to flee Sudan on foot following the violence of the Civil War in Sudan.
With the use of child soldiers rampant, not to mention the violence of living in a war-torn country and the dangers of traversing rural Africa, the mostly orphaned Lost Boys relied only on each other for guidance while making their way towards refugee camps across the border in Ethiopia and Kenya.
This powerful and politically relevant story will acquaint you to the unspeakable adversity that Deng and so many others faced, all to make their way to safety. You'll also continue to follow Deng through his experiences once being granted asylum status and immigrating to the United States. (Hint: His troubles didn't end after leaving Africa.)
This is an incredibly important read. It'll firmly entrench the plight of refugees into your heart while at the same time fuel some serious shame and anger toward the rest of humanity, all due to the atrocities humans are capable of when power is deemed more valuable than the cost of human life. As if the grim reality of child soldiers isn't bad enough, this book just might make an advocate out of you.
6. If you're feeling... like you REALLY need to laugh, you can't go wrong with Naked by David Sedaris.
That being said, my favorite personal essayist of all time is David Sedaris, the brother of Amy Sedaris, if you've heard of her. Take it from someone who is terrified of flying, but who found herself laughing out loud in spite of being on a propeller plane, because that's how funny Sedaris' quirky take on the world is. From the get-go, Sedaris' hilarious accounts of his childhood OCD and his skilled writing will hook you — and it doesn't disappoint.
Neither do the rest of his books of personal essays, like Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim, which I own and have read and try to pawn off on all my friends. Sedaris is a good one, and Naked is worth a read. Plus, he's way smarter than he lets on and is a regular contributor on NPR. He's a cool dude.
7. If you're feeling... open to being surprised by the unlikeliest of celebrities, then My Booky Wook by Russell Brand is the perfect choice.
If you like memoirs, laughing, and can open your mind to the fact that in spite of his dramatic antics Russell Brand is actually pretty damn smart, you'll enjoy this read. I'm biased, because I think he's hilarious and I'm a huge fan of psychologically minded folks, but I enjoyed this one tremendously.
I was amazed by his skilled writing, his level of self-awareness and insight (which came after a whole lot of mucking up), and the extent of his battle with addiction and mental illness. Here is an inspirational figure who truly sank to the depths of his own character, of society, and to that often-referenced "rock bottom," but who has overcome his serious struggles with addiction and salvaged his life and career. Of course, his self-deprecating humor helps too — a lot. Plus, he's an advocate for the underserved. Having been a heroin addict for years familiarized him with the so-called "underclass," which makes his political beliefs both heartfelt and insightful.
P.S. When he describes his childhood love of chocolate penguins, it's LOL-level funny.
P.P.S. Katy Perry fans: In his second Booky Wook, he describes their meeting in the most romantical, whimsical, and endearing of terms. It'll make you sad they ever broke up and maybe stop hating him if you're die-hard Team Katy.
8. If you're feeling... like you want to be moved (emotionally), your best bet will be to go with Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.
You'v probably heard of the title – a movie version starring Elijah Wood was released in 2005 — and Jonathan Safran Foer's other novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, was made into a film starring Tom Hanks. How's that for a track record? Two for two.
As much as I enjoyed the movie, nothing can compare to the experience of reading the novel. It's hard to describe the premise unless you're familiar with JSF (as my college BFF and I fondly call him), whose style tends to weave and intermingle the present with the past, because after all:
"Everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us...on the inside, looking out."
This particular novel follows a quirky, OCD-esque American who travels to Ukraine in order to uncover the secrets of his family history. While there, his tour guide, a hilarious narrator who speaks in broken English, discovers his own family's roots and historical ties to the history of the pogroms that swept through Ukraine. Now, this book isn't for the faint of heart; it'll take you on a veritable roller-coaster ride of emotions. Do you enjoy historical fiction, hilarious writing and a journey so emotional that you'll be moved to tears? If so, you're in the clear.
The book is dark and somehow equal parts brilliant, yet full of the light of insight and the process it takes, as you makes your way to a new understanding in the present, by revisiting and rehashing the past. This is a life-changing read and one of my all-time favorites. JSF's writing is multi-layered and complex — and calling him "talented" is an understatement. His mind works at a different level. Even though I'm a huge fan, I caught on to some of the connections, like, months later, after watching the movie. Plus, the Brooklyn-based author's wife is Nicole Krauss, and if ever two writing styles could ever be indicative of soulmate status, theirs made a believer out of me. If you absolutely love the novel as much as I did, check out hers, too, it's called The History of Love.
9. If you're feeling... in the mood for something dark, suspenseful, and full of mystery, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is a must-read for you.
They've already picked out a cast for the film adaptation of this psychological thriller. It was largely marketed toward those who enjoyed Gone Girl, but I didn't find the stories all that similar — not the characters, anyway. The subject matter is dark, certainly, but when it comes to the protagonist, you'll find yourself unabashedly on her side. It's an exciting read, full of twists and plot turns, with flawed, complicated characters. But a word to the wise? Don't read it before bed unless you're able to sleep when seriously freaked out. The plot twist at the end will make for an awesome movie, but it's worth it to experience it first in print.
Oh, yeah, and afterward, when you're drowning in the emotions these soulful reads evoke from your depths — it happens — pick up anything by Pema Chodron to decompress. If picking up a book full of Buddhist wisdom of equanimity doesn't sound entertaining, it's because it's not meant to be. But it'll take writers like Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh, Adyashanti, or even Deepak Chopra combined with the endorphins of a workout to pull you out of your emotional stupor and back into reality again. It's OK, though. If you're an emotional elitist, you can totally handle it.
So, what's up next on my own list of must-reads? Well, I just picked up a copy of The Dinner by Herman Koch. Apparently it's disturbing, dark, and psychologically gripping. Here's to hoping it can skim the surface of my dark and complicated psyche.