Everything About Me Is Fake…and I’m Perfect
2004, Regan Books
In the 1970s and ’80s Janice Dickinson was one of the most successful models in the world; she’s now one of those people where you don’t know how to describe what they do, but instead kind of mumble, “Um, she was on reality TV…?” and trail off. And I don’t mean that as an insult—girl has some staying power. And this, her tell-all autobiography, is one of my favorite books. It made me laugh and cry, and for real it gave me new confidence. I know people who’ve watched Janice Dickinson on America’s Next Top Model and Celebrity Rehab probably see her as some kind of yell-y monster, but this book makes her human—even lovable. We learn about how much she loves her children and how she strives to be as honest with them as possible, about her own awful childhood with an abusive father, what it was actually like to be a supermodel back before AIDS, when people openly did drugs and had sex at nightclubs like Studio 54, and—and this is one of the best parts—her relationships with famous men. SHE ACTUALLY SPILLS THE TRUTH ON EVERYONE from Mick Jagger (who, according to Janice, was cheating on Jerry Hall with her) to John F. Kennedy, Jr. (bad kisser, says Janice), to Sylvester Stallone (cheap) to Jack Nicholson (can I say “well endowed” on a teen site?). She also gives advice to young women about relationships, confidence, power, and just LIFE. This book got me through high school and helped shape me as a woman. I love it so much that I after reading it I bought the audiobook, which I listened to on the plane during my first trip to NYC. As I sat there listening to Janice’s wise words, full of excitement about exploring the city where she experienced her first successes when she was about my age, the most beautiful woman walked by me on her way to the bathroom from first class. I suddenly realized that Janice was on the SAME PLANE as me, and of course the minute we landed I ran to the baggage claim to get my suitcase i.e. stalk her. I found her sitting alone, waiting for her assistant to fetch her Louis Vuitton bags, and as I nervously approached she shot me this look like “Great, another ANTM fan who’s going to ask me what Tyra is like, or how to become a model.” When I told her how much I loved her book, and thanked her for writing the truth without sugarcoating anything, she smiled, thanked me, and gave me a big hug. A day I will never forget <3 —Dana
This follow-up to Satrapi’s two amazing, autobiographical Persepolis books examines the intimate lives of the women who came before her. Over the course of one afternoon tea party, three generations of Iranian women—Satrapi’s female family and their friends—talk about things that tend to come out when men aren’t around: their sex lives, love lives, personal heartbreaks and sorrows. At times I felt a little uncomfortable reading so much dirty laundry about these absent men—I can only hope none of them ever get a hold of this book! But the stories are so frank, engrossing, and relatable, I tore through it, and I recommend you do the same. —Suzy
1851, Richard Bentley/Harper & Brothers
Note: This recommendation includes spoilers for a book written 160 years ago.
While reading Moby Dick, I kept thinking, this is the famous book that we’ve all heard of? Because it is a really weird book, like at least two different books mushed together: it’s an adventure story, but a doomed adventure that’s interrupted by encyclopedic passages about the different kinds whales and how you catch them. The plot you’ve probably heard of: crazy Captain Ahab is obsessed with the whale that bit off his leg, Moby Dick, and takes his crew to kill it. What’s annoying is that Herman Melville seems utterly uninterested in the normal rules of plot and character. He introduces interesting (if old-timey racist) characters like Queequeg the cannibal, then seems to forget about them altogether. And instead of having things actually happen to anyone, the book just piles on a laughable number of spooky omens letting us know that the trip is doomed: Just off the top of my head, there’s a prophesy, a dream, a bird, a warning from another ship, and a speech by the first mate telling everyone explicitly that the trip is doomed. OK, we get the point, they’re going to die!
The coolest thing about Moby Dick is that reading it = time travel. Melville has this weird fascination with explaining the minutest details of everything, for example how they killed whales in the year 1851, with no electricity, in boats powered by the wind and by oars. During the big chases, it’s just a bunch of guys rowing a tiny boat chasing a huge animal through the water. Crazy, right? There’s an entire chapter just about the rope they use. (Two-thirds of an inch thick, capable of pulling three tons, coiled meticulously to avoid tangles which could, when thrown to harpoon an animal, “take somebody’s arm, leg, or entire body off.” These are things I know about Ropes of the Past, thanks to Moby Dick.)
Like lots of old classics, the book is free online. The chapters are so short that when you find not one, not two, but three chapters about every painting of a whale every painted before 1851, you can skip ahead. The willful digressiveness of the whole work makes that feel OK—Moby Dick is kind of like a collage—it feels less a story in the traditional sense than it does a Tumblr of Herman Melville’s favorite Moby Dick-related links. And in that grab bag, there are truly incredible and wonderful moments. My very favorite is chapter 87, when the whaling ship arrives at the center of hundreds of whales in a herd:
Yes, we were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion…. We were occasionally visited by small tame cows and calves; the women and children of this routed host…. Like household dogs they came snuffling round us, right up to our gunwales, and touching them; till it almost seemed that some spell had suddenly domesticated them. Queequeg patted their foreheads; Starbuck [the ship’s first mate; yes, the coffee chain is named after him] scratched their backs with his lance.
It’s easy to believe that Melville either saw this himself or talked to someone who did. Fellow writers note: it wasn’t till Melville set out working on a whaling ship at the age of 21 that he had anything worth writing about at all. He later said his life began that day. —Ira Glass
An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris
This memoir tracks LaCava’s move to France as a teenager—awkward and lonely, she walks around her new neighborhood in vintage slips and cardigan sweaters, befriending scarabs and bouquets of violets. It’s a very melancholy and honest take on how it feels to be uprooted, and how you can feel uncomfortable in even the most beautiful setting. The story is told through the physical objects that LaCava takes solace in, in her loneliness—images of Jean Seberg, a necklace found in the street, even a wild mushroom. As a bonus, she includes research-laden footnotes explaining the history of some of her favorites—who knew where kaleidoscopes came from, or glass eyes? This book is a veritable cabinet of curiosities (as, by the way, is LaCava’s website). —Emma S.
Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives
What happens after you die? David Eagleman has written 40 different answers to that question, each one more imaginative and thought-provoking than the last. In one, you relive all the stuff you did on earth, like sleeping, showing, and contemplating—but all of your hours of sleeping are clumped together, so you sleep for 30 years straight. You spend 51 days just deciding what to wear. For three entire years you do nothing but swallow food. Which all makes you really think about how you want to spend you hours here and now, before you get there. In another story, you find out that the creator of the universe is the size of a microbe, and totally unaware of your existence. The possibilities are endless. No one has ever tackled the concepts of heaven, hell, and purgatory with as much wit and heart as David Eagleman. This book will stay with you for a long time regardless of your beliefs. —Emily G.
A Short History of Nearly Everything
2003, Black Swan/Broadway Books
On the top of my bookshelves, I have a row of books that I consider my ultimates, the ones that have changed my life. I like to keep them in view just to remind me that they exist. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the thickest book of the bunch, and one of them most comforting. I read it for the first time around this time of year, during that quiet period between Christmas and New Year, when you’re wont to reflect on life. I was having a really anxious winter, alternating between sleepless nights and days when I couldn’t make it out of bed. Then I started reading this book, and with each chapter I felt my faith in pure existence being renewed. By the end I had found a little bit of peace for the first time that season. Bill Bryson’s books are the only ones that actually make me laugh out loud. In this one he one explains a lot of science-y stuff like astronomy, physics, quantum mechanics, chemistry, and paleontology, but in a sort of chatty, friendly way. He writes like a normal human being with no pretensions of being a scientist or a historian, and that is what makes A Short History so relatable, warm, and easy to understand. It feels like you are Bill’s travelling companion on his quest for knowledge, because he is finding out all this stuff for the first time just like you. As someone who doesn’t get on that well with science but still wants to learn, I always need it packaged for me as more than facts, figures, and equations. It needs to be human. And I remember this book making me feel glad to be human. —Naomi
The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Goddess
I was introduced to this book my freshman year of college by a Wiccan friend who told me that when an apartment she and her mother lived in burned down, The Spiral Dance was the only book that survived. Whoa, I thought, now that’s magic! My copy never endured a fire, but it’s dog-eared and tattered and written all over, because it’s my resource for so many things. I’d been fascinated with Wicca and other goddess-based religions since junior high, but I didn’t know anything about witchcraft before reading this book, which is full of exercises and rituals for the practicing witch. (Many of them are designed to do in a group/coven, but I’ve found them easy to modify for solo witches like me.) Every time I cast a spell I consult the tables in the back, which tell you how various herbs, incences, stones, elements, heavenly bodies, days of the week, and moon cycles interact, and how those interactions affect parts of your life such as love, creativity, and justice. —Stephanie
The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story
Lemony Snicket (illustrated by Lisa Brown)
Everything Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) writes, for any age group, is brilliant and hilarious, including this amazing little picture book. The story is about a latke (a potato pancake), which, as Snicket explains, “is a traditional part of the celebration of Hanukkah, a holiday commemorating a miraculous Jewish military victory.” After being “born,” the latke hops out of his frying pan and runs through the surrounding village screaming. He tries to explain Hanukkah to a candy cane and other Christmas-themed objects, growing increasingly frustrated along the way. The book is brilliantly absurd, with great minimalist illustrations, and it’s really fun to read aloud because you get to scream a lot—there are a few pages with nothing but “AAAHHH!!” written on them. —Amber
Asterios Polyp is a somewhat arrogant architect who sees things only in absolute dualities (black or white, yes or no), and this book examines how that narrow worldview affects the whole of Polyp’s life. The story is so immersing that by the end you feel like you’ve lived a lifetime in Polyp’s shoes. I recommend reading the whole thing in one sitting—it is a deeply moving experience. The full-color art is beautiful, too. —Allegra ♦