TPM’s Director of Audience Zainab Shah: 5 Books (Or Series) I Return To Every So Often

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We’re asking our fellow TPMers to share their own personal reading recommendations: books they love or that have shaped their lives.

Comment below with some of your favorites! Also: You can always purchase any of the books by visiting our TPM Bookshop profile page

Director of Audience Zainab Shah is up this month. Here are five books that have stuck with her over the years.

Emergent Strategy, by Adrienne Maree Brown

If you believe systemic change is the need of the moment — whether we’re talking about political, economic, or social systems — but you don’t know where to begin, this is an excellent book to get you started. One of many suggestions it contains for how to actively counter a sense of inertia when things feel too big to tackle: Small is good, small is all. The large is a reflection of the small. In other words start with what’s possible wherever you are and that’s enough. Another is that change is constant: our worlds, bodies and minds are in a constant state of flux.

The book is designed to help identify emerging patterns within this constant state of flux and help us shape futures we want to live in. The author, Adrienne Marie Brown, draws on her long history of organizing, Octavia Butler’s novels, and an understanding of the natural world to imagine environmentally just, political, social, and spiritual futures that may feel too big to grasp or out of reach right now. The book charts pathways for us as individuals toward futures that are in harmony with our collective interests. If there was ever a book to counter hopelessness, this is it. And because hopelessness is a recurring condition, I find myself picking up this book from time to time. It keeps me thinking and re-engaging with the present moment and it keeps me going. 

After this book was published, and because of its wide reception and praise, Brown and AK Press (“Worker-run. Collectively-managed. Anarchist publishing and distribution since 1990.”) turned it into a series. I haven’t read them all and hope to one day but I did pick up Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. If you, like me, enjoy nature documentaries and learning in particular about marine life, this book is for you. The author, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, spent hundreds of hours watching marine mammals, and the book contains her observations. It has a meditative quality and her writing is poetic — perhaps why it doesn’t feel didactic when she links mammalian behavior on dry land to the lessons we might learn from our oceanic kin.  

This Is How You Lose The Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

A stunning debut co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose The Time War is an epistolary novel that’ll delight history buffs, science fiction geeks, and hopeless romantics all at once. The book takes place during a “time war,” and agents on opposing sides start leaving each other letters as they make their way back and forth in time to influence the past and future outcomes of this war in favor of their own side winning. It is a dangerous game, and an unlikely correspondence develops between two rivals that leaves us speculating about the malleability of past and future events. Enemies, however, are not supposed to leave each other letters or truly talk to one another — that would be treason. How different would our world be today if that had happened more in history? Maybe it did, and maybe it can in the present and in the future. 

The Power Of Now, by Eckhart Tolle

Let me caveat this by saying the self-help genre is not my thing — especially not guides to spirituality, meditation, or the “right” way to live. But this book really got me. A few times prior to reading it I had tried meditating. Attempts always ended in frustration and well-what’s-the-point-of-it-all with a sprinkling of I’m-fine. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle is about (you guessed it) living in the moment — a pretty popular and somewhat simplistic mantra. Tolle’s style of writing brings a stunning clarity to a concept that is often oversimplified (“YOLO,” for example). Through the process of asking questions he leads the reader to a series of self realizations that can then form the basis of really, truly being present.

Think about it: how many minutes, hours, days or weeks do you spend mentally in the past (beyond processing it), fretting about the future (beyond planning for it) or zoning out altogether (think doom scrolling) to avoid the present moment. The book taught me new ways of interacting with my thoughts and especially helpful ways for interacting with unpleasant ones. It also taught me being present is a work in progress. So on days when the hamster wheel of time, work, life seems never ending and it feels like you’re flitting from thought to thought, task to task, breaking only to zombie scroll Instagram or Twitter — that time is melting into the next chunk of itself — I return to The Power of Now, and in a way I return to myself. 

The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin

“Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.” This is how N.K. Jemisin’s epic trilogy begins. The underlying assumption across all three books is that the world has ended many times and the world continues to end on a personal level for many, while others might occupy a different continuum. Though I read this years before the pandemic I returned to it at the beginning of what felt like a new kind of ending.

That’s the thing about this trilogy — and maybe broadly about science fiction. Imaginary worlds sometimes provide new ways of understanding and living through our reality. At its core the trilogy is about how systems are created, power is fought over and unequally distributed, and how justice (environmental, economic, political) for all is essential for survival. Jemisin is adept at making these claims through a riveting saga that plays out in a detailed fantastical world called the Stillness, and through one person’s quest to survive both unimaginable personal loss and an ongoing apocalypse. This person though can draw incredible power from reservoirs of the Earth and must learn to harness them. Thus begins the journey. It’s a lot, I know, but Jemisin’s skillful storytelling and worldbuilding is what makes this trilogy work, even if science fiction and fantasy are not your thing. It’s also, perhaps, why she’s the only writer to win the Hugo award three years in a row for each of the books in The Broken Earth Trilogy. 

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

An epic that spans four generations of Korean, Japanese, and sometimes American history, Pachinko is a story about sacrifice and survival through the annals of time. At once a personal, political and a family history, the book escapes an easy summarization. It is about the politically disenfranchised and the arbitrary and sometimes fatal categorization of those who belong and those who don’t.

The novel expertly weaves personal histories through big events: Japan’s colonization of Korea, World War II as experienced in East Asia, and talks about how the role of women has changed (or has not changed) throughout history. It’s a sprawling multi-generational novel and though the characters are fictional the detail with which Min Jin Lee creates these characters and tells their story against the backdrop of true historical events makes for a convincing reality.

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