Books That Shove You Out of Your Comfort Zone
As someone who reads a lot and reads widely, I’m often asked why I read when I’m not in school. I loathe this question because is both tired and a little sad to me, but I’m willing to fight for bibliophiles everywhere and I’m ready with a list. I read for fun, I read to go to places I could never otherwise go, I read to learn more about humanity, I read to keep my mind fresh even though I’m not involved in higher learning, and on and on the list goes.
Lately, I’ve seen the purpose of reading as to make myself uncomfortable. That sounds a little like I want to torture myself to some people. After all, our culture is built around comfort. There’s an entire recliner empire based on it! But me, one reason I continue to read is because I don’t want to be comfortable. If I am constantly content I won’t be growing and learning. I’ll be stagnant. I don’t know about you, but that’s not something I want to be.
Below are books I recommend if you also want to take yourself firmly out of your comfort zone and question things you’ve always held to be true and want to learn more about some issues facing us today.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson—I almost feel bad admitting this, but I spent a lot of time trying to define the two main characters in this memoir. And by define, I mean categorize their sexuality. Maggie Nelson, the writer of this short but powerful tome, is chronicling a truly unique time in her life; she is preparing for IVF while her partner, the artist Harry Dodge, is transitioning. (Hormones everywhere!) Sprinkled with gender and identity theory, Nelson tells stories that are sewn together with words and a truly intimate feeling.
The book holds up to rereading, especially if you’re like me and you were trying to categorize both Nelson and Dodge. I did, and then stopped when I read a conversation that featured Nelson and her mother. The mother is us, the stand-in for readers who might be asking questions. Nelson calls her mother (re: me) out, but doesn’t belittle the naive reader who wonders if she’s gay, bisexual, pansexual, etc. Instead, she shows us an intimate world where that doesn’t matter. Her concluding passage on Harry Dodge is beautiful and truly humanizing. It was the passage that made me see Harry not only as a person, but a person like all of us—complicated. When I got over my inability to categorize our protagonists, I was able to see the story for what it truly was. It was an eye opening read as it relates to transgendered issues.
Open City by Teju Cole— Open City essentially chronicles the wanderings of a young black psychiatrist student, immigrated from Nigeria and integrating himself to life in New York City. At least, that’s the book on first glance. The book is both dream-like in it’s episodic style but you get a sense from our character that something is missing, a la Camus’ protagonist in The Stranger. He seems delayed or detached to the other people in his orbit.
At the end of the novel, our character has a revelation that “profoundly changes the way he sees himself” according to the jacket copy. That’s true, but it also changes the way we the reader sees him. When I sort of felt sorry for the man, finding out he may have forever harmed someone (harm is an understatement, but I’m trying not to spoil) really changed my entire perspective on what I read before. And it made me question A LOT. I usually put down books feeling a sense of satisfaction or enjoyment. This book (and don’t get me wrong, it’s really well written) made me question men and women and their relationships and how they experience each other.
Leftovers by Laura Weiss—Not to be confused with the HBO show, Leftovers is a dark young adult book that proves the genre has serious and morally complicated stories. The novel focuses on Blair and Ardith, two girls who are coming of age and trying things out for the first time—boys, family issues, fitting in while making a name for yourself, and female friendship. They’re extremely close and throughout the book their relationship is tested, yet steadfast.
Another girl, Dellesandra, appears on the scene and what happens is a game of high stakes that results in the two seeking out revenge on this not-so-innocent third party. What’s super uncomfortable is that we start off the story knowing they did something unforgivable and then flash back to fill in the gaps and explain the reasons. The whole time the reader is trying to justify things and not feel sorry for the girls. Literally their whole world is against them and they did it out of love. But does that make what they did okay? And what would it be like to live with that? I read this book four years ago in one sitting and still can’t stop thinking about it.
Native Son by Richard Wright- A classic widely taught in classrooms for many reasons, least of all its profound and readable style, Native Son is the story of Bigger, a black man who is nothing shy of a sociopath and murders a white woman, the daughter of the family he was hired to work for. The book explores both the human capacity for evil and the systemic issues related to black crime.
The book was both uncomfortable and challenging because Wright never apologizes for Bigger’s actions, but he doesn’t shy away from detailing the systemic issues that make Bigger a product of the society he lives in. The white people in the book are shown as progressives on the outside. They want to hire Bigger and treat him well because they don’t want to be seen as racist whites. But behind closed doors they are anything but the saviors they desire to be and instead they contribute to a faulty system. The book can essentially be boiled down to a look at how we treat each other on race. It doesn’t look good either. Now, more than ever, people should read Native Son.