Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle

Madness, Rack, and Honey is less a book and more an eventthere’s everything you read before Madness, Rack, and Honey and there’s everything after. Endlessly insightful, this collection of lectures is a transcendent joy like no other. It should, at the very least, be on every writer’s bookshelf (but should probably be on everyone’s).

I Remember by Joe Brainard

It’s rare that a 40-year-old book can be surprising in both form and content while still being accessible and entertaining. I Remember is a history of awkward Americana, a story of growing up queer in post-war Tulsa, and an encyclopedia of universally unspoken moments.

Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

Criss Cross captures what it feels like, at any age, to get one step closer to figuring out what life is all about. Dream-like feel good summer read.

The End of the Love of Novel by Vivian Gornick

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With stunning, near-perfect, prose, Vivian Gornick takes us along the paths of various literary lives. But interest in the authors or the books she covers is not required—her insight is what makes this small book so large; the literature merely serves as a way in. Along the way she asks us what we’re really seeking when we look for love—whether in a book or in our lives—and how to ask more of stories today.

Nights and Days in a Dark Carnival: Time Spent With Juggalos by Craven Rock

Moments of Craven Rock’s book are so visceral that I often recount its stories as if they were my own. More than that, though, the book serves as an insightful and surprisingly open-minded analysis of a culture that is largely ridiculed. It makes you question your assumptions and check your preconceptions. Nights and Days in a Dark Carnival is an astounding book that carries the torch of ’60s New Journalism into the modern era.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

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This is the kind of book you don’t realize is as good as it is until it’s over. Then suddenly you want every book you read to make you feel like this. While clearly adorable, it also brings to life the fact that insecurities—at every age—are what keep people from showing love and being kind. That it works as both an intense story of class, race, and abuse and a superbly cute love story is what makes it so good.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

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Relentless and unforgiving, Jesus’ Son manages to function as both drug-addled tragedy and absurdist comedy. Oddly like nothing else.

Bellies and Buffalos by Tomas Moniz

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With a deep well of humanity beneath it and a propelling force behind it, Bellies and Buffalos takes you on a ride and drops you off feeling healed from the journey. It is sweet and funny and in no way pretentious. With characters so visceral, you’ll set the book down and feel like you’ve touched each of their bellies.

This is Between Us by Kevin Sampsell

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It’s not often that I finish a book in a single day, but This is Between Us is a book too good to be taken in moderation. Following the small moments of a single relationship, it somehow manages to transcend its simple plot-line and open a magic portal to encompass the very idea of relationships. It holds the microscope so close that reading it sometimes feels like looking at the love lives of another species or an alien race. It’s an expansive work built out of silly sex scenes, insecure arguments, and all the things that don’t get said in polite conversation.

The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song by Frank M. Young & David Lasky

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Telling the rags-to-riches story of the “First Family of Country Music,” Don’t Forget This Song is as much a biography as it is an immersing trip into bygone eras of American life. Beyond the stories that are told, the book plays with narrative conventions and comic panel work to make something that feels like a piece of the past. A decade in the making, this is an obsessively-researched book that manages to be as tender as it is intricate.

All-American Poem by Matthew Dickman

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Capturing the odd pride that comes from being familiar with where you come from, All-American Poem shines an ecstatic light on vast oceans of contradiction. It is, at turns, hilarious, sexy, and strangely profound. But its tenderness is what makes it all work together so well. At its best, the book is a re-interpretation of intimacy in all its forms. The ways we seek it, shy away from it, and find it in ways that are different than we ever expected.

Actual Air by David Berman

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Actual Air is one of those books of poetry that everyone should read. If only to think about that elusive idea of “what poetry can be.” The book often reads like a paradox about accessibility and experimentation. It’s John Cage writing a pop song.

While performing this feat, Berman also gives good reasons to question why these poems are poems and why they’re not short films, a series of photographs, a novel, a comic book. Since these ideas could be anything, why poetry?

There is nothing here that asks you to change your mind on anything. But, instead, it’s as if the book is saying, “There’s a different way to think about these things. It’s over here, let me show you.”

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

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I read Fierce Attachments as if I were reading a thriller—my eyes stumbling over the words on the page, constantly trying to read it faster. Rarely was it the story pulling me forward, but the immense pleasure of reading Vivian Gornick. Her prose deserves slow, measured, careful reading, but is so sweet that I can’t stop myself from taking it in large spoonfuls.

A classic of modern memoir, Fierce Attachments was ahead of its time in 1987 and remains exciting because Gornick writes the characters from her life in a way that shows the complexities of each person. There are no clear-cut heroes and villians here, just a lot of people trying to figure out how to be strong and kind at the same time.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

In Bluets, casual over-sharing and scholarly research team up to tell stories of obsession and pain. With a magician’s sleight-of-hand, it’s an incredibly expansive work that can still legitimately claim to be about a single color.

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

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The addictive qualities of The Third Policeman are as mysterious as the story itself. This absurdist comedy is near impossible to put down, but stopping anywhere in the text and actually considering where these ideas may have originated from, or why they are so humorous, will surely leave one baffled. Imagine the most irreverent Monty Python or SCTV skit taken to its furthest extreme and put to paper. Then add equal parts Italo Calvino, Richard Brautigan, Mark Z. Danielewski, and Gertrude Stein and you might be able to imagine the odd brilliance of this book.