Books + Comics

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

Books about imagination, creation, and making things up.

Collected Fictions
Jorge Luis Borges
1998, Penguin

Oh, man, if we want to talk about the invention of worlds, and ideas, and bizarro mental states, we should both start and finish that conversation by talking about the labyrinth-obsessed Jorge Luis Borges, aka the mack daddy of postmodernism, which is a literary genre that’s all about altering, dismantling, and generally fucking with all different kinds of realities. Borges, my spiritual boyfriend, wrote gorgeous, mind-gymnastic-inducing short stories that explored concepts by building stories about mazes, and this collection compiles the best of them. One of my most beloved ones, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” is a spy story, sure, but it’s mostly concerned with how our choices affect our realities, and what would happen if you could choose everything at once. Let me tell you: it will completely turn your brain inside out. So too will “The Circular Ruins,” my number-one favorite of this bunch, which is about a wizard who agonizes every day, trying to mentally will someone into existence. The end is a total PLOT TWIST, y’all. Finally, I’ll recommend “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which also uses the model of a detective story and finds Borges himself written into the fiction. His character is researching the lost fictional nation of Tlön. Borges (the writer, not the character) creates a language, culture, and philosophy for this nation, all the while keeping up his usual tricks of making you double back again and again in your thoughts by incessantly questioning existence and reality. I love Borges, because trying to figure out the proper mental/philosophical path to take when considering his work is a constant challenge and pleasure. (A hint: the answer is all of the paths. Also? NONE OF THEM.) If you want, you can read mad Borges online for free, too! Enjoy, and don’t get too lost in the labyrinth. —Amy Rose

Building Stories
Chris Ware
2012, Pantheon

Building Stories isn’t really a book. It’s more like a box filled with books. And half of them aren’t books, exactly, they’re like, pamphlets, and posters, and a board. I’m fairly certain I’ll never be qualified to write about this box of books and other things, because every time I go back through one of the books or one of the things, I notice a bunch of details I missed the first and second time around. It doesn’t matter where you start or finish, or if you hop around from book to book; each one is supposed to flow in the way memories, dreams, and fantasies often intersect. (There’s even this quotation from Pablo Picasso on the inside cover: “Everything you can imagine is real.”) You’d think, then, that it’s about something super magical, but it basically just tells the stories of different residents of an apartment building, and finds bits of magic in their occasionally intersecting lives. It’s jarring how perfectly Chris Ware can convey the worst of feelings in a series of panels that may not even have any dialogue—one pamphlet in there is about a bee, and nobody talks because it’s about a bee, and it perfectly captures the feeling of “how do I be a good person and what happens when I hate life and oh wait it’s kind of beautiful sometimes.” This book will make you feel less alone, strangely connected to humanity, and inspired to create something of your own, and that’s maybe the best one can hope for. —Tavi

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer
Steven Millhauser
1996, Random House

Whenever I meet someone who has never read anything by Steven Millhauser, I immediately turn into Fairuza Balk after she “calls the corners” in The Craft, and I start screaming about how “these are GIFTS!” before I calm down and explain that hey, man, you should read Steven Millhauser, because he is the best and his stories (and novels, and novellas, and probably his method for eating cereal) are a beautiful, weird celebration of the powers of the imagination. Martin Dressler won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, and it follows the life of a young man as he moves from cigar-peddling to building hotels, most notably the Grand Cosmo, a Wonka-esque creation that is filled with themed floors that essentially attempt to wrap the universe in one building. The writing is so descriptive and gorgeous that you accept the reality of it—you believe in the impossible, even as the cracks start to show—and when it’s over, you want to (and should) read everything else Millhauser has ever written, because it’s like being in the greatest amusement park of all time. —Pixie

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Haruki Murakami
1998, Vintage International

Toru Okada is a simple man with a simple life who is between jobs and unsure of what he is supposed to be doing. When his wife’s cat disappears, he dedicates his days to trying to find it. Soon, his wife also disappears, without any trace or explanation. As Toru tries to make sense of what is happening, he meets a series of characters with elaborate backstories. A lot of the information introduced in this book seems as if it is leading to some ultimate climax where everything falls into place and makes sense, but if you approach The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle from this perspective, you will drive yourself mad. Murakami’s text is like a dream, full of symbolism and surreal details, shifting timelines and realities. The tone can go from pleasant to horrifying in a matter of pages, and even the most placid scenes can seem unsettling. Don’t worry about where it’s is going; just enjoy the trippy ride.—Anna

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Brian Selznick
2007, Scholastic

This is one of the most magical books I’ve ever read. I discovered the book when my younger brother was reading it, and even though it’s a children’s book, my parents told me “it reads like a movie!” (It was later adapted into a movie by Martin Scorsese.) Hugo is the story of an orphan who changes clocks in a Paris train station circa 1930, and he wants to solve the mystery of a secret machine. Instead of just illustrating the chapters, Selznick allows the images to explain parts of the narrative. And there are so many good quotes: “Did you ever notice that all machines are made for some reason? They are built to make you laugh, or to fill you with wonder, like the automaton. Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do…Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose…it’s like you’re broken.” So much wisdom! Read this. —Tara

Generation T: 108 Ways to Transform a T-shirt
Megan Nicolay
2006, Workman Publishing

This book and its sequel (Generation T: Beyond Fashion: 120 New Ways to Transform a T-shirt) are literally the best thing to ever happen to my wardrobe. I went through this very insecure phase where I bought all my shirts way too big for me, and as a result I had a bunch of awesome tees that I never wore but couldn’t bring myself to get rid of. Also, I tend to get bored of my clothes quickly, but don’t have a lot of money to replace them. Then I happened upon Generation T with its very simple instructions on how to turn shirts big and small into scarves, bags, skirts, dresses, and other shirts. I have rudimentary sewing skills at best, but there are some no-sew designs (like adorable back- or side-lace-up shirts), and a ranking system so I could slowly work my way up. Now two XL T-shirts are a fitted halter top with a bow at the back! An XL tee and a small tee are a baby-doll dress! I go to the thrift store just looking at the designs on shirts rather than the size, because I could turn them into ANYTHING. I spend very little, end up with super cute clothes, and get to feel all accomplished and crafty to boot! —Stephanie

Scrambled Eggs Super!
Dr. Seuss
1953, Random House

According to young Peter T. Hooper, “If you want to get eggs you can’t buy at a store, you have to do things never thought of before.” Tired of eating boring old scrambled eggs from a hen, Peter tells his little sister how he set out to find a new way of making the breakfast staple, which requires, naturally, securing eggs from all sorts of Seussian birds (with the exception of a few duds, like the Twiddler Owls, whose eggs taste like “dust from inside a bass fiddle” and the Stroodel, whose eggs “taste like fleece…[and] bicycle grease”). Peter climbs mountains, travels through forests, sends teams out beyond the North Pole, and flies among cliffs and bluffs to secure the eggs he needs, eventually mixing them with a mess of ingredients, like nuts, sugar, prunes, ginger, cinnamon, and “parsley, quite sparsely.” Would I eat Peter T. Hooper’s Scrambled Eggs Super-Dee-Dooper-Dee-Booper? Probably not. But I admire his inventive spirit just the same. —Pixie

Hairstyles of the Damned
Joe Meno
2004, Akashic/Punk Planet

Hairstyles of the Damned probably would have been the story of my life if I were a guy, and it is definitely my all-time favorite story about figuring out who the hell you are. Brian is a junior at a Catholic high school on the South Side of Chicago who loves metal and desperately wants a van. He also might be in love with his best friend Gretchen, a brawling punk rocker who has an unfortunate affection for a 26-year-old white-power asshole named Tony. This book deals with the intense issues of race, class, and personal identity with an incredible sense of humor—the kind that really helps you cope with said intense issues—and a ton of mix-tape playlists like “Badass songs about the Devil to play while stabbing somebody like, I dunno, Tony-fucking-Degan maybe, as you offer up his soul to fucking Satan for all eternity.” Joe Meno has one of the best, most unique and relatable voices in modern fiction, and I love all of his books and short stories, but Hairstyles is my favorite because it’s fun and real at the same time. —Stephanie

Wreck This Journal
Keri Smith
2007, Penguin

Ah! I love Wreck This Journal so much. It’s an amazing set of creative prompts, all of which ask you to write in a diary, but in such a way that you get your hands a little dirty in the process. Each page has its own instruction, and although they’re predominantly focused on drawing, writing, and other traditionally creative arts and crafts, you’ll sometimes come across something like this: “Document your dinner. Rub, smear, and splatter your food. Use this page as a napkin.” OH, OK! This is a diary for those who like to dig in flower beds and would totally eat the worms that they found if someone dared them, a logbook for introverts longing to get in touch with their rough-and-tumble sides, and a journal for those who want a break from writing about school and crushes and parents and would rather just WRECK SOMETHING FOR ONCE. Sounds fun, right? That’s because it is. —Amy Rose

The Westing Game
Ellen Raskin
1978, Puffin

This book BLEW MY MIND the first time I read it. It’s about a carefully crafted murder mystery that residents of a fancy apartment building have to solve. They’re paired up seemingly at random and given weird clues, and one of them is this badass tween named Turtle who wears her hair in braids and kicks everyone all the time. Some people are not what they seem! Some of them are the SAME people! I don’t know how to tell you why this book is so great without giving away the end. It’s a quick read and so good, so you should, in the words of Nike, just do it. —Tavi

My Wonderful World of Fashion
Nina Chakrabarti
2009, Laurence King

Some days you have these amazing ideas for elaborate art projects that you can funnel all your creativity into. And some days, you just want to color. If you’re gonna go the coloring route, may I recommend Nina Chakrabarti’s book? What surprised me the first time I flipped through it was, well, how fashion-y it is. There are pages of Vivienne Westwood boots and references to Roger Vivier and Marc Jacobs throughout. There are also DIY ideas and things to cut out. I was impressed by Chakrabarti’s ability to avoid ethnocentricity—she features different cultural styles in a way that always feels informative and inclusive instead of appropriative. Mostly, though, it’s a good book for getting your creative juices flowing. I’ll leave this book lying around the apartment, and I’ll find my artist roommate will have colored in a bunch of pages with her fancy pencil crayons. Get this for your little sister for Christmas, and then steal it when she’s not looking. —Anna

A Series of Unfortunate Events
Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Brett Helquist
1999-2006, HarperCollins

I regret to say that the series I am recommending to you is rather grim and depressing. What begins as a cheerful tale soon turns into a tragic one. In the first chapter of The Bad Beginning, the Baudelaire children—Violet, Klaus, and Sunny—are enjoying a perfectly overcast day at Briny Beach when a family friend appears out of the fog to tell them that their house has burned down, killing their parents. Newly orphaned and too young to inherit their fortunes, the children go from one terrible situation to another in the course of 13 books. The first finds them under the care of the scheming Count Olaf, the man who will pursue their fortunes and seek to do them every harm in the course of the series. Neat-o! Also, Snicket, the pseudonym of author Daniel Handler, is a character in the stories, and his narration is always described as “gathering evidence.” I always loved his letters to the editor at the end of the book, which would offer instructions like: “Please go to the Café Kafka at 4 PM next Wednesday, and order a pot of jasmine tea from the tallest waiter on duty.” Sometimes theses letters are typed-out, but others are written on fancy stationery, or ripped to shreds by lions. Anyway, his relationship to the characters within the story is not revealed until the end of the last book, and by then you may find you know the meaning of words like “phantasmagorical” and understand how crowd psychology works. I could have invented a new drinking game while reading it—every time a character appears who has the name of an author or poet, or every time Lemony defines a word, you could take a shot—but that would lead to a series of unfortunate events for both you and me. —Katherine

32 Stories: The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-Comics
Adrian Tomine
2002, Drawn & Quarterly

32 Stories is a frankly beautiful set of the first seven issues of Optic Nerve, the comic that Adrian Tomine started publishing in high school before he would eventually become one of the most successful cartoonists in the whole wide woooorld. Even the earliest issues are really good, but seeing his overall growth is inspiring. Within these pages, he remembers strange dreams, weird adventures with friends, and humiliating interactions, making the general embarrassment of being a human slightly more tolerable, especially those moments when you are absolutely mortified that you’re ever allowed out into the world to talk to other people. My favorites are when he takes something like a miscommunication between two people in a relationship and makes it super dramatic—each panel looks like a film still, and the dialogue is very cryptic, and you know, it’s actually not that dramatic because that’s totally how those things feel. —Tavi

31 Comments

  • lianaisferal November 22nd, 2012 11:14 PM

    Literally such a coincidence because I literally JUST as in a matter of hours, got Building Stories! It’s super super cool. Also, Murakami is the best. Ever.

  • spudzine November 22nd, 2012 11:23 PM

    Brill! I couldn’t believe that Wreck This Journal was reviewed! Cool! And Building Stories seems like the coolest thing ever! Thanks Rookie!

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com

  • caro nation November 22nd, 2012 11:30 PM

    TAVS YOU KNOW WHATS UP IN COMIX

    ASOUE & The Westing Game made me the most precocious in my 3rd grade class.

    Also, Amy Rose, we love all the same books; have you read any Thomas Pynchon?

  • Lillypod November 22nd, 2012 11:31 PM

    woah so many favorites here!
    I LOVED the lemony snicket books from ages 8-14 and was so sad about the series ending that I decided not to read the last book..
    And BORGES!! i have a complete anthology of his essays, they are astounding/

  • Guinevere November 22nd, 2012 11:38 PM

    I love The Westing Game! Building Stories seems really interesting, too. ;)

    Another great book is Invitation to the Game by Monica Hughes. I guess it’s pretty sci-fi, so I don’t know how well it fits into this list, but I (or at self my sixth grade self) found it to be really interesting. It kind of reminds me of The Westing Game, though I’m not sure why.
    Also…ELSEWHERE by Gabrielle Zevin. I really loved it!

    And that Pablo Picasso quote! <3

  • Martinapovolo November 22nd, 2012 11:42 PM

    it’s too bad that the only book I want to read off this list isn’t at my library :/

  • jenaimarley November 22nd, 2012 11:45 PM

    The wind-up bird chronicle!!!!

  • sarahhaviland November 23rd, 2012 12:59 AM

    the never ending story is one of my favorites, and it definitely falls into this category. i watched the movie a lot growing up and didn’t even realize it was based off of a book until my mom bought it for me! and the book is AMAZING, i recommend it to everyone

  • Kaleidoscopeeyes November 23rd, 2012 1:34 AM

    I only read about a quarter of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle because, while I absolutely loved it, and plan on going back to it some time in the future, I had to put it down because that one woman’s (god, I can’t even remember her name anymore……healing properties of water, named herself after and island, had a sister, red vinyl hat?) story really disturbed me.

  • Moxx November 23rd, 2012 5:48 AM

    Aaaaaaaaa I love hairstyles of the damned
    As far as “coming of age” books or whatever, that was pretty good for a recent one, since recent good ones are pretty hard to find I feel

    Also Optic Neeeeerve

    Also Wreck this journal looks cool and when I was in 1st grade I thought the westing game was like the most brilliant book and I’ve re-read it a bunch of times and it’s pretty great!

    BOOKS

  • AliceS November 23rd, 2012 6:29 AM

    I love Wreck This Journal! I think that everyone should have one!!

    http://toomuchlightburnsthenegative.blogspot.it/

  • soretudaaa November 23rd, 2012 8:29 AM

    JORGE LUIS BORGES IS MY HOMEBOY.
    everyone who quickly skipped the review because they never heard of him GO BACK AND READ IT AND THEN READ EVERYTHING HE’S EVER WRITTEN.

    • ladyjenna November 23rd, 2012 2:28 PM

      BORGES BORGES ALL THE WAY

      whoop whoop whoop

  • Martinapovolo November 23rd, 2012 10:48 AM

    another good book is the theory of everything by j j Johnson I’d recommend that y’all read it

  • purrr November 23rd, 2012 11:30 AM

    I love/hate these series of posts on rookie because they always bulk up my wishlist – I think my wishlist is the longest page on the internet that I have created :/

    I don’t know Tara too well but when I realised someone was reviewing a romantic french story that involves film i couldn’t not guess it was her writing about it.

    http://sanctifiedyouth.blogspot.com/

    • Tara November 23rd, 2012 2:27 PM

      aw though you don’t know me you seem to know me so well! and you really should read The Invention of Hugo Cabret-it is positively amazing!!!!!

  • lxmldrt November 23rd, 2012 12:34 PM

    GO BORGES, GO ARGENTINA! Amy Rose, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, but another ass-kicking science-fiction argentinian writer is Adolfo Bioy Casares. You should totally read Morel’s Invention.

  • forevernymph November 23rd, 2012 12:54 PM

    Ooh I love Murakami, though I have yet to finish The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I’ve had it for ages, but I can’t seem to start it.
    Also, I really need to read A Series of Unfortunate Events. I read up to the 6th one years ago, but I never finished…something to put down on my Christmas list.

  • all-art-is-quite-useless November 23rd, 2012 1:09 PM

    Lemony Snicket is the best. I also blame him for my inability to read about Schopenhauer (the most pessimistic philosopher ever) without periodically having laughing fits because he wrote things like “Even as a child of six, my parents, returning one evening from a walk, found me in deep despair” – it is Lemony Snicket’s fault that my sense of humour has developed in a perverse way.

  • Anna F. November 23rd, 2012 2:31 PM

    I love A Series of Unfortunate Events! I work at a children’s bookstore and have convinced so many customers to buy The Bad Beginning that my manager actually had to tell me, “You know Anna, we have other books for sale as well.”

  • Caitlin H. November 23rd, 2012 2:34 PM

    Building Stories is going on my christmas list RIGHT NOW, and I loved ‘Wreck This Journal’ until I realized I was too much of a perfectionist to actually wreck it, so for all people like me out there I’d also suggest Keri Smith’s “This Is Not A Book”- the slightly less messy creative alternative!

  • Sophii November 23rd, 2012 3:10 PM

    OMG A Series of Unfortunate events reminds me so much of my childhood. That, Harry Potter, Dick King Smith and Jacqueline Wilson was pretty much all I read until I was 9. They were so good. I might read them again one day.
    Hairstyles of the Damned and My Wonderful World of Fashion sound like my kind of books. I’m getting a Wreck this Journal for Christmas; so excited :)

    http://thechicmuse000.blogspot.co.uk

  • mayaautumn November 23rd, 2012 7:04 PM

    I NEED THAT CHRIS WARE BOOK.
    going on my Xmas list right nowww!
    plus TSOUE = my life….a few years ago…

    http://mayathapapaya.tumblr.com

  • Helenus November 23rd, 2012 8:37 PM

    Ah! Hairstyles of the Damned! I read that book probably a zillion times when I was a wee crouton in middle school.

    Great post, as always.

  • Barbs November 23rd, 2012 9:52 PM

    I can’t believe that The Westing Game is on this list, for years I have praised it and told people about it, but it seems like the only way to know the awesomeness that is The Westing Game is to read it. (and maybe read it again and again like I have) It was the first book that I read that I truly enjoyed. I recommend this book to everyone, it has a modge podge of characters that work together and against ech other to solve a mystery and ‘to win’ (twin, you would get it if you read the book). Even though it isn’t a very sad book, I can’t help but cry durring the last few chapters, somewhat because of the ending but also because the book is done :(

  • raggedyanarchy November 24th, 2012 12:32 AM

    Aww! I love books about making up stories/worlds/anything! Are we really going to leave out The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett? Oh! And Bridge to Terabithia was always one of my favorite school reading books in elementary school.
    I love my Wreck This Journal! It’s really a lot of fun to finish a page!

  • KatGirl November 24th, 2012 9:37 AM

    My favourite character in The Westing Game is the delivery boy XD

  • Melissa @ WildFlowerChild November 24th, 2012 9:53 AM

    Thank you for all of these wonderful suggestions! I’m adding these to a list of books for me to read on my month off at the holidays!

    <3 Melissa
    http://wildflwrchild.blogspot.com

  • Milala November 25th, 2012 8:55 AM

    As an argentinian, I’m so glad to see Borges in this section! He’s a genius and Collected Fictions is definitely one of my favourite books (“The Circular Ruins” is the best story there, by far). You should also read his poetry, since he was bilingual he translated most of it by himself with help of a translator (as a future translator, this is also super interesting to me) Go rookie!
    I’ve been dying to get a copy of Wreck this journal, too. Amy Rose, you rock.

  • Isil December 10th, 2012 4:34 PM

    I wanted to buy Building Stories but it’s too expensive :(

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica February 2nd, 2013 8:01 AM

    OMG THE WESTING GAME. My class read that in fifth grade and it was A.MA.ZING. I should totally read it again.