Sarah Seltzer’s Books For Tough Times

Dark times (like having a President who apparently doesn’t read much, if at all) call for bright and brilliant books. To that end, we offer you a curated list of classic and recent titles to give you solace and hope, on one hand, and to get you riled up and ready to take action on the other. From novels to essays to polemics, this is a reading list that functions as a hand that pats you soothingly on the back, then gives you a shove out the door to the next protest.

For solace or distraction:

Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. This selection of essays from Strayed’s once-anonymous “Dear Sugar” column at literary website The Rumpus is sort of a modern, thinking, feeling woman’s bible of coping. Touching on everything from feminism to infidelity, the book leaves you feeling like the struggle to live in the face of sadness and to improve yourself and your world is a worthy one. “Nobody will protect you from your suffering,” she writes. “You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on….”

Rebecca Solnit’s A Hope in the Dark. This slim book is being passed around activists circles like candy right now, since its very purpose is meant to shore up the fighters for justice with words of wisdom and comfort. “Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine act of insurrection,” Solnit writes.

Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies. Traister’s book of social history demonstrates just how impressively far certain kinds of progress have taken us, which can be reassuring to remember. “Across classes, and races, we are seeing a wholesale revision of what female life might entail,” Traister tells us. “We are living through the invention of independent female adulthood as a norm, not an aberration, and the creation of an entirely new population: adult women who are no longer economically, socially, sexually, or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men they marry.”

Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. This quintessential novel about women finding solidarity, family and hope in tough circumstances still manages to amaze on a second or third reading. Shug Avery’s philosophy (“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it”) about the divine being found in blades of grass, in the titular color, has rightly become an iconic literary moment. This is a novel of resilience, faith and joy in a world that wants to rob you of those precious things.

Ilene Beckerman’s Love, Loss and What I Wore. Ilene Beckerman’s sartorial memoir which inspired the hit play of the same name by Nora and Delia Ephron is a modern classic that heals through laughter—not to mention the way it makes readers nod and say “uh huh, been there.” A wistful, funny, witty book along these lines is just the thing to remind us that there’s depth and meaning to be found in even the most everyday acts, and that self- love goes much deeper than the beauty counter and the dressing room mirror.

For action:

Vivian Gornick’s Emma Goldman, Revolution as a Way of Life. Two formidable Jewish women, sharp-penned, brilliant critic Gornick and firebrand, revolutionary and visionary Red Emma herself, come together in this book. Goldman’s commitment to her many social justice causes even in the face of brutal repression remains a model for budding rebels everywhere, as does her vivacious spirit. This is a map for how to be uncompromisingly radical for an entire lifetime.

The Essential Ellen Willis, edited by Nona Willis-Aronowitz. This recent collection of cultural critic Willis’s critical and political writings is the definition of bracing. She writes particularly well about the rise of rock ‘n’ roll and the birthing pangs of feminism. As a writer, Willis is both radical and critical of radical ideas that put too high a burden on women. Her sheer smarts, and her insistence on remaining both idealistic and clear-eyed, will make you want to take action after reading her most trenchant essays.

A Grace Paley Reader, edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley. Noticing a theme here? Another brilliant, committed Jewish writer, Paley offers a guide for all of us looking to balance duty to home, community, artistic craft, and social activism. Kirkus, reviewing this new collection of fiction, poetry and essays, describes her as “a kind of conscience to the culture, an activist who saw art-making as political from the start,” from the local to the national. This anthology comes out in spring, a perfect time to revisit Paley’s work.

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. A dystopian novel by a Jewish writer imagines what would have happened if Nazi-era fascism had come to the United States, and assumed power. Hmm. Seems relevant. Reading a book like this (or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) is a reminder of the ways our society already is dystopian, and crucially the ways it’s not—pointing out the freedoms we must fight for right here and right now.

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider. This crucial collection of Lorde’s essays on activism, race and gender includes her dialogue with Jewish lesbian poet Adrienne Rich. On the internet, people quote Lorde all the time, sometimes too glibly, but reapproaching her actual words in their context will get you fired up. “Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence,” she writes. “It becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.” In other words: don’t just feel bad. Do something!

Sarah Seltzer is a writer in New York, a regular contributor to Lilith, and the editor of Jewish parenting site