There are exactly 47 unread books beside my bed, ranging from slim poetry collections to thick historical accounts of countries I have never visited. These unread stories are surrounded by an audience of books I have read. All these books have found their way to my literary—and literally—overflowing room by ways of purchases, gifts, finds, and exchanges. Often in moments of reflection, I will sit in front of these hardcovers and paperbacks and recall their stories, ponder their characters, and analyze their lessons. I open with this image of a surfeit of books because that was the first thing I could think of when seeing the Friends Journal prompt regarding books that have changed us, and it is the same response I give whenever someone asks what my favorite book is: how am I ever going to be able to choose only one?
To me, reading is a deeply spiritual act. The wide range of stories, fictitious or not, embody the Quaker principle of seeing that of Spirit in every person. Through the pages, you unpack the truths and realities of those whom you do not know, or you believe you know so well. It becomes again hard to think of a single text, as the accumulation of all of the stories that have helped me understand the infinite possibility of the Divine. The multiplicity of texts has always automatically translated into the multiplicity of our shared and sacred humanity. This is why, especially if I am feeling restless or undirected, I will bring a book to worship and feel myself fall ever deeper into the story and, thus for me, God.
As with relationships, certain books do come to mind more strongly than others. This does not devalue the impact other books have had on me, nor the impact these texts may have had on others, but rather it frames my personal experience. It shows who I am. This is why I believe it is important to step out of the vague and provide some titles that have pushed my thinking further: books that have helped me understand my privileged and marginalized identities, and how those coexist; books that have sheltered me in times of need; and books that have thrown me into the deep end, and confronted what needed to be confronted. Another part of that puzzle has been to choose books from beyond my culture. Growing up in the Netherlands and attending college in the United States, I have read so much that narrates the experiences of my cultural communities, written by people who look like me. Currently, I am challenging myself to go beyond that, and I encourage fellow white people to read the voices we might not have heard before. To people of color, I am not going to tell you what to read, because you don’t need me to, but I am an avid reader and hope you will find something that sparks your interest in the following recommendations.
Curiosity requires care and kindness. Knowledge production requires community input.
In The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara, we are introduced to a fictional scientist who travels with anthropologists to an equally fictional Pacific island where he encounters an indigenous people who have somehow found a way to live forever by eating a particular type of turtle. The side effect, however, is that the body stays young, while the mind does not. Without giving too much away, the scientist’s publications paired with an absurd adoption spree of many of the island’s children have catastrophic consequences for everyone and every place involved. The book changed me as it forced me to rethink the actions we undertake that are based in curiosity. To want to learn is something we readily praise, but how we learn can impact people in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.
Curiosity requires care and kindness. Knowledge production requires community input. The book also ponders how we build families, and, as a queer person with a wish for children, I imagine that cross-cultural adoption is how my family will be built. The novel shows the necessity for cultural sensitivity in child-raising practices, particularly for indigenous children when they belong to a different culture than they find themselves in. It also brings attention to important questions regarding the ethics of such international families.
Families carry their own complicated histories, and I have had moments of struggle with mine. Many families come with grief, and through The White Book by Han Kang and Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, I was able to witness two forms of grief and mourning, and learn more about myself and my family in the process. Kang shares the journey of coping with the death of her older sister, who passed two hours after she was born. Kang struggles with the idea of having taken her sister’s place, of unjustly filling a space originally belonging to someone else. Through an engagement with white objects, she unpacks and reconciles this feeling. This work highlights the interconnectivity of who we are as a family and as a human community throughout and after our lives. Meanwhile, Ward shares the stories of different family members and friends who were murdered at the hands of an anti-black colonial system. She creates space for recognizing and humanizing the African American suffering that is too often plastered on the media without understanding the communities that are hurt. The book pushed me to challenge my own complicity in these systems and to center the humanity of those that suffer from the injustices I benefit from. By narrating the moving through and healing from unjust loss, Ward teaches us that only by being with one another in community and solidarity can we survive and steer toward a better world. Both texts helped me understand the definition of family and community, of loss and reconciliation.
They have helped me see the complex constellation of inequity in which I myself am complicit. Of equal importance, they also celebrate and emphasize through our shared humanity the tangible possibilities for change.
The final few books I want to share are all ones that have helped me understand my place in the world, how that world came to be, and how different peoples around the world experience it. These books have made tangible the webs of connections among us all. They have radically changed my mind and illuminated things that were in shadow. Black Stone by the ni-Vanuatu poet and activist Grace Mera Molisa illustrates the intersectionality of gender and race in a framework of colonialism and resistance. Critically Sovereign: Indigenous Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, edited by Joanne Barker, is a powerful collection of academic writing showing how oppression is coded in the many different institutions and histories that make up much of our world, and liberation requires profound reimagination of all of our systems, including those that might appear to be granting freedom, such as marriage equality. The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz is one of the most important novels I have ever read, and transplants the warnings of writers like Orwell and Bradbury to an international, contemporary, and intersectional space. Abdel Aziz confronts topics such as gender, privacy, and technological and governmental authoritarianism with the most wonderful and absurdist twists. These three books, all written in very different styles and often placed in very different categories, have changed my life. They have helped me see the complex constellation of inequity in which I myself am complicit. Of equal importance, they also celebrate and emphasize through our shared humanity the tangible possibilities for change.
For me, that is what a good book ought to do: to show you what you did not yet know before; to affirm what you may have seen; to show you why things came to be; and to open up a window to a different world, waiting patiently inside all of us. This is why it has been impossible to think of only a single book that has changed me, for so many voices, each with that of God, have changed and will continue to change me. I selected the ones that I have, as I can recall the specific and continued ways these books are molding me. They are also all written by women of color from across the world, and I chose them to do my small part to amplify the voices I never heard growing up as a white person in a predominately white society and education system. As the universe changes, and we as Friends want to bend its arc toward justice slightly faster, I am reminded of consensus. The only way to reach this is through listening to all voices, and I believe through books we can start paying more attention and work toward more inclusive and sustainable change. We can create more seats at the table and maybe reimagine the table altogether.
And of course, if you do decide to purchase any or all of these texts, make sure to support your local independent bookstore in that process.