Elizabeth Gilbert, the bestselling author of books such as the 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love and last year’s Big Magic, is as much a fan of reading as she is of great crafting books. She once said, “If I could read while I was driving, showering, socializing, or sleeping, I would do it.” Check out our curated list of what Gilbert spends her time reading — from fiction to memoirs and poetry to philosophy — complete with publishers’ descriptions below.
Harley Loco by Rayya Elias
When she was seven, Rayya Elias and her family fled the political conflict in their native Syria, settling in Detroit. Bullied in school and caught between the world of her traditional family and her tough American classmates, she rebelled early.
Elias moved to New York City to become a musician and kept herself afloat with an uncommon talent for cutting hair. At the height of the punk movement, life on the Lower East Side was full of adventure, creative inspiration, and temptation. Eventually, Elias’s passionate affairs with lovers of both sexes went awry, her (more than) occasional drug use turned to addiction, and she found herself living on the streets—between her visits to jail.
This debut memoir charts four decades of a life lived in the moment, a path from harrowing loss and darkness to a place of peace and redemption. Elias’s wit and lack of self-pity in the face of her extreme highs and lows make Harley Loco a powerful read that’s sure to appeal to fans of Patti Smith, Augusten Burroughs, and Eleanor Henderson.
Gilbert says: “The book I loved [in 2013] was Harley Loco by (full disclosure) my dear friend Rayya Elias… I’ve known Rayya for years and I’ve been begging her forever to tell her story. Finally she did, and the results are searing and amazing.”
The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes
The Age of Wonder is a colorful and utterly absorbing history of the men and women whose discoveries and inventions at the end of the 18th century gave birth to the Romantic Age of Science.
When young Joseph Banks stepped onto a Tahitian beach in 1769, he hoped to discover Paadise. Inspired by the scientific ferment sweeping through Britain, the botanist had sailed with Captain Cook in search of new worlds. Other voyages of discovery —astronomical, chemical, poetical, philosophical — swiftly follow in Richard Holmes’s thrilling evocation of the second scientific revolution. Through the lives of William Herschel and his sister Caroline, who forever changed the public conception of the solar system; of Humphry Davy, whose near-suicidal gas experiments revolutionized chemistry; and of the great Romantic writers, from Mary Shelley to Coleridge and Keats, who were inspired by the scientific breakthroughs of their day, Holmes brings to life the era in which we first realized both the awe-inspiring and the frightening possibilities of science — an era whose consequences are with us still.
Gilbert says: “It’s a thrilling portrait of the greatest scientists of the romantic era. Action-adventure science! It makes you want to buy a microscope, build a balloon, discover a planet.”
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
This is the novel Dickens regarded as his ‘favorite child’ and is considered his most autobiographical. As David recounts his experience from childhood to the discovery of his vocation as a successful novelist, Dickens draws openly and revealingly on his own life. Among the gloriously vivid cast of characters are Rosa Dartle, Dora, Steerforth, and the ‘umble Uriah Heep, along with Mr Micawber, a portrait of Dickens’s own father, evoking a mixture of love, nostalgia, and guilt.
Gilbert calls this her favorite novel, adding: “David Copperfield was Dickens’s own favorite among his novels — no better recommendation than that!”
Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart
Constance Kopp doesn’t quite fit the mold. She towers over most men, has no interest in marriage or domestic affairs, and has been isolated from the world since a family secret sent her and her sisters into hiding 15 years ago. One day a belligerent and powerful silk factory owner runs down their buggy, and a dispute over damages turns into a war of bricks, bullets, and threats as he unleashes his gang on their family farm. When the sheriff enlists her help in convicting the men, Constance is forced to confront her past and defend her family — and she does it in a way that few women of 1914 would have dared.
Gilbert says: “This is my favorite novel of the year … My hope is that book clubs across the country will fall in love with Girl Waits with Gun and that it will become a big word-of-mouth hit.”
The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
In The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander finds herself at an existential crossroads after the sudden death of her husband. Channeling her poetic sensibilities into a rich, lucid price, Alexander tells a love story that is, itself, a story of loss. As she reflects on the beauty of her married life, the trauma resulting from her husband’s death, and the solace found in caring for her two teenage sons, Alexander universalizes a very personal quest for meaning and acceptance in the wake of loss.
Gilbert says: “It’s a heartbreaking story, but also soul-lifting. Theirs was a true love story… and true love stories are rare and precious. Alexander honors that love to the utmost of her ability as a writer… and her ability is vast.”
The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman
An irresistible invitation to experience life through a beloved artist’s psyche, The Principles of Uncertainty is a compilation of Maira Kalman’s New York Times columns. Part personal narrative, part documentary, part travelogue, part chapbook, and all Kalman, these brilliant, whimsical paintings, ideas, and images, which initially appear random, ultimately form an intricately interconnected worldview, an idiosyncratic inner monologue.
Gilbert says: “The only book I have ever bought by the crate-load. I give copies of this sumptuous masterpiece to everyone I care about.”
Rising Strong by Brené Brown
Social scientist Brené Brown has ignited a global conversation on courage, vulnerability, shame, and worthiness. Her pioneering work uncovered a profound truth: Vulnerability — the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome — is the only path to more love, belonging, creativity, and joy. But living a brave life is not always easy: We are, inevitably, going to stumble and fall.
It is the rise from falling that Brown takes as her subject in Rising Strong. As a grounded theory researcher, Brown has listened as a range of people — from leaders in Fortune 500 companies and the military to artists, couples in long-term relationships, teachers, and parents — shared their stories of being brave, falling, and getting back up. She asked herself, What do these people with strong and loving relationships, leaders nurturing creativity, artists pushing innovation, and clergy walking with people through faith and mystery have in common? The answer was clear: They recognize the power of emotion and they’re not afraid to lean in to discomfort.
Walking into our stories of hurt can feel dangerous. But the process of regaining our footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Our stories of struggle can be big ones, like the loss of a job or the end of a relationship, or smaller ones, like a conflict with a friend or colleague. Regardless of magnitude or circumstance, the rising strong process is the same: We reckon with our emotions and get curious about what we’re feeling; we rumble with our stories until we get to a place of truth; and we live this process, every day, until it becomes a practice and creates nothing short of a revolution in our lives. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness. It’s the process, Brown writes, that teaches us the most about who we are.
Gilbert says: “Without once diminishing the true cost of failure, [Brown] shows how it is indeed possible to rise up after a failure with resilience and grace — coming back not only stronger but (miraculously) perhaps even kinder.”
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
When three-month-old Lia Lee Arrived at the county hospital emergency room in Merced, California, a chain of events was set in motion from which neither she nor her parents nor her doctors would ever recover. Lia’s parents, Foua and Nao Kao, were part of a large Hmong community in Merced, refugees from the CIA-run “Quiet War” in Laos. The Hmong, traditionally a close-knit and fiercely people, have been less amenable to assimilation than most immigrants, adhering steadfastly to the rituals and beliefs of their ancestors. Lia’s pediatricians, Neil Ernst and his wife, Peggy Philip, cleaved just as strongly to another tradition: that of Western medicine. When Lia Lee Entered the American medical system, diagnosed as an epileptic, her story became a tragic case history of cultural miscommunication.
Parents and doctors both wanted the best for Lia, but their ideas about the causes of her illness and its treatment could hardly have been more different. The Hmong see illness aand healing as spiritual matters linked to virtually everything in the universe, while medical community marks a division between body and soul, and concerns itself almost exclusively with the former. Lia’s doctors ascribed her seizures to the misfiring of her cerebral neurons; her parents called her illness, qaug dab peg — the spirit catches you and you fall down — and ascribed it to the wandering of her soul. The doctors prescribed anticonvulsants; her parents preferred animal sacrifices.
Gilbert says: “This is a masterpiece of compassion… In nonfiction, it’s the book I most deeply admire.”
A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas
When Abigail Thomas’s husband, Rich, was hit by a car, his brain shattered. Subject to rages, terrors, and hallucinations, he must live the rest of his life in an institution. He has no memory of what he did the hour, the day, the year before. This tragedy is the ground on which Abigail had to build a new life. How she built that life is a story of great courage and great change, of moving to a small country town, of a new family composed of three dogs, knitting, and friendship, of facing down guilt and discovering gratitude. It is also about her relationship with Rich, a man who lives in the eternal present, and the eerie poetry of his often uncanny perceptions. This wise, plainspoken, beautiful book enacts the truth Abigail discovered in the five years since the accident: You might not find meaning in disaster, but you might, with effort, make something useful of it.
Gilbert says: “The best American memoir of late… Thomas’s writing shines with honest intelligence.”
Want Not by Jonathan Miles
A highly inventive and corrosively funny story of our times, Want Not exposes three different worlds in various states of disrepair — a young freegan couple living off the grid in New York City; a once-prominent linguist, sacked at midlife by the dissolution of his marriage and his father’s losing battle with Alzheimer’s; and a self-made debt-collecting magnate, whose brute talent for squeezing money out of unlikely places has yielded him a royal existence, trophy wife included.
Want and desire propel these characters forward toward something, anything, more, until their worlds collide, briefly, randomly, yet irrevocably, in a shattering ending that will haunt readers long after the last page is turned.
Gilbert says: “Every generation or so, an American novel appears that holds up a mirror to our lives and shows us exactly who we are right at this very moment. Want Not is that book right now — a searing but compassionate look at modern Americans and their stuff. ”
What Are You Optimistic About? by John Brockman
The nightly news and conventional wisdom tell us that things are bad and getting worse. Yet despite dire predictions, scientists see many good things on the horizon. John Brockman, publisher of Edge, the influential online salon, recently asked more than 150 high-powered scientific thinkers to answer a vital question for our frequently pessimistic times: “What are you optimistic about?”
Spanning a wide range of topics — from string theory to education, from population growth to medicine, and even from global warming to the end of world — What Are You Optimistic About? is an impressive array of what world-class minds (including Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, New York Times bestselling authors, and Harvard professors, among others) have weighed in to offer carefully considered optimistic visions of tomorrow. Their provocative and controversial ideas may rouse skepticism, but they might possibly change our perceptions of humanity’s future.
Gilbert says: “In a world of grim news, this book is a beacon of light… It is not always easy to find optimism that is also intelligent, but this book has it. It will make you feel better, trust me.”
The Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum
In a terrifying instant of darkness, a tornado snatches up Dorothy Gale and her dog Toto, whirling them on the wild wind out of Kansas and straight to Oz.
In this wondrous world of sorcery and danger, Munchkins, flying monkeys, talking mice and fighting trees, all Dorothy wants to do is go home…
Together with the Scarecrow who wants a brain, the Tin Man who wants a heart, and the Cowardly Lion who wants courage, Dorothy and Toto must follow the Yellow Brick Road to find the Wizard of the Emerald City. But before the wizard of Oz will grant their wishes, Dorothy and her friends must do the impossible — Destroy the all-powerful Wicked Witch of the West.
Gilbert says: “I always credit these books with making me into a traveler and a writer. If you have an especially dreamy little girl in your house, forget about Disney videos; just get her a box set of these books — with the original, magical illustrations.”
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of 20 years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. The quest for the king’s freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum.
Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: He is also a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
In inimitable style, Hilary Mantel presents a picture of a half-made society on the cusp of change, where individuals fight or embrace their fate with passion and courage. With a vast array of characters, overflowing with incident, the novel recreates an era when the personal and political are separated by a hairbreadth, where success brings unlimited power but a single failure means death.
Gilbert says: “This is the best contemporary novel about 16th-century political intrigue you’ll ever read… It’s like literary Breaking Bad. I can’t stay away from it.”
Have you read any of Elizabeth Gilbert’s recommendations? Share in the comments!
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