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Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.
The author that launched countless self-discovery trips to Bali and less spiritual (for some) pilgrimages to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in Naples, Elizabeth Gilbert is the creator of Onward Book Club, which celebrates the works of Black female writers; a TED talker whose “Your Elusive Creative Genius” has been viewed more than 20 million times (she also participated in a TED Connects conversation early in the pandemic); and an answer to a Jeopardy! clue.
Based in New Jersey and New York City, she has written a story collection, five works of nonfiction, and three novels, the most recent of which is City of Girls, set in 1940s New York. She teaches creativity workshops, though right now she’s at work on her next book; has a French bulldog named Chunky; established the Gilbert Scholarship with Project Home, a Philadelphia-based organization working to end homelessness; has three tattoos (“courage,” “compassion,” and “stubborn gladness” from the poem “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert, no relation); does polar plunges; and likes purple pens and dislikes heights, which didn’t stop her from skydiving in Fiji. To benefit the January Georgia Senate runoff races, she auctioned off her Oscar de la Renta Eat Pray Love New York premiere dress. She has good taste in books, too.
The book that:
…helped me through a breakup:
Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron. This book is a simple, compassionate introduction to mindfulness and meditation during hard times. There are moments in your life that you can only get through one breath at a time; this generous book showed me how.
…made me cry:
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. I was shattered by this story of a young Black boy in rural Mississippi, trying to figure out how to be a man in a world (and in a family) where nothing is simple and everything is dangerous. The scene where he comforts his grandfather at the end of the novel…I can’t even talk about it without crying.
…I recommend over and over again:
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. As long as I draw breath, I will never stop singing the praises of this glorious, slender, unlike-anything-else-I’ve-ever-read novel about a wild young girl and her equally wild grandmother, spending their summers together on a small island in the Gulf of Finland. It’s a pure celebration of the Divine Feminine, in its natural, unadulterated state.
…shaped my worldview:
Loving What Is by Byron Katie. Of all the living spiritual masters I’ve ever met (and I’ve made pilgrimages to study with them ALL, trust me), Byron Katie is the clearest, wisest, most direct and transformative teacher out there. I was never able to see reality, other people, or my own mind the same way after reading this book.
…changed my mind about something:
Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper. Dr. Cooper lays out a passionate and brilliantly written argument for how white feminists have utterly failed Black women again and again across American history. This book is a call to arms for white women to do better—much better, and immediately—and to practice genuine sisterhood instead of just giving lip service.
…I’d gift to a new graduate:
Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck. A clear-eyed, intelligent, and deeply loving guide to rejecting the warped and insane messages that our modern Western culture has taught us about what constitutes a meaningful life, and to live instead by our own true nature.
…made me laugh out loud:
Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh. This is Brosh’s long-awaited follow-up to her brilliant and hilarious first graphic memoir, Hyperbole and a Half. I would have said that there could not be any book funnier than Hyperbole and a Half, but I was wrong. This one is even better. Brosh is a beautiful, twisted genius.
…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:
Luster by Raven Leilani. This astonishing and razor-sharp first novel about a young Black woman developing a complicated personal relationship with the wife of the white man she’s been having an affair with is ripe material for a super-smart Netflix adaptation. Nobody is quite who you expect them to be in this brilliant novel, and I’d love to see all the complexities and twists played out by great actors on screen.
…I wish I’d written:
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. All must bow down before the queen.
…I first bought:
The Hidden Staircase [Nancy Drew Mystery Stories #2] by Carolyn Keene. Purchased with my own babysitting money!
…I last bought:
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom. It’s incredible—a sweeping memoir about a Black family’s deep, powerful history in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina.
…made me want to be a writer:
The tiny little intricately illustrated, hand-bound books my older sister Catherine Gilbert Murdock used to write and “publish” when we were kids. She was a natural storyteller, and her books often involved royalty, magic, and time travel. I wanted to be just like her. (Catherine grew up to be a Newbery Prize-winning Young Adult author, so it looks like I chose the right role model from an early age.)
…should be on every college syllabus:
Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad. This is a book that you don’t merely read, but work. And everybody needs to do this work.
…I’ve re-read the most:
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Open it to any page; genius dwells there.
…I consider literary comfort food:
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Van Arnim. An absolutely delicious 1922 novel about four barely acquainted British women who escape the drudgery of their London lives by renting a castle in the Italian Riviera for a month together. A confection, a joy, a sheer delight. And whip smart, too, and laugh-out-loud funny.
…everyone should read:
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor. It will change the way you breathe, the way you sleep, the way you exercise, the way you live. (Or at least, it did for me!)
…fills me with hope:
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I think of Whitman as my spiritual great-uncle, a beloved family member of my imagination. He saw the world for exactly what it is, and loved it anyway. He teaches us how to cherish life, and also how to hold it lightly. He heals me every time.
Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg. This is the very best novel told from the point of view of an 18th-century tortoise that you will ever read—I promise. I was shocked at how deeply I came to love our heroine—a silent and wise old female tortoise, stolen from Africa and deposited in a British naturalist’s vegetable garden. It’s a luminous, rich story.
…has the best title:
It’s awfully hard to beat Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn.
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