Colleen Powers is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis.

Life-Changing Books I Read in 2016

In the last few weeks, I've tried to fend off sleeplessness by deleting Twitter from my phone and only checking it every few days (and then I immediately feel miserable). I loved so much of 2016's online silliness (like this tweet) and thoughtful sweetness (like this essay), but sitting down to read non-Internet things reminded me that it's good to go deeper and make connections, that a book is not just a long thinkpiece. Lately, I've appreciated books' ability to put stories and facts in context that I can't simply scroll past and forget.

In order of when I read them, here are some books that changed the way I thought in 2016:

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman

The topic of autism has become a battleground over vaccines and alternative treatments; NeuroTribes digs into the condition's history with depth and detail, making clear that autism is not new and that we're still learning so much about it. Ultimately, the book makes the humane case that autism needs to be supported and understood, not cured or shunned, and that people with autism are huge contributors not only to our present and future, but to our past as well, from Enlightenment-era scientific discoveries to early-twentieth-century fanzines to the creation of the Internet. As you can see, the book is also full of interesting historical figures and unexpected tangents.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Last year, I read Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, which reads as a catalog of racism, page after page of white people's dismissal and suspicion told in spare, cold prose poetry. Read in conjunction with Citizen, Coates' memoir and examination of police killings feels like a catalog of trying to survive, from "the streets" and "the schools" of his childhood in Baltimore to the library at Howard University to visiting Europe for the first time as an adult. 

What has stuck with me, and what I've thought of every time a new hashtag appears and I know police have killed another person, is Coates' emphasis that every death is the complete and irrevocable destruction of life, long and justice-bending moral arcs be damned. He writes, “But all our phrasing — race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy — serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this."

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

Reading a writer like Lindy West makes me realize how impressive it is to blend the personal and political seamlessly and compellingly. The topics West covers, like abortion, rape jokes, Internet trolls, and body positivity, are staples of the feminist Internet, but she breaks them down and makes her arguments fresh, moving, and persuasive. I listened to Shrill on audiobook (which I'd recommend; her funny, conversational tone probably feels most natural when read aloud), and I laughed and cried the whole way through. Mostly, what the book reinforced and made clear for me is that it is a feminist issue to not police people's bodies.

100 Crushes by Elisha Lim / Someone Please Have Sex With Me by Gina Wynbrandt

I'm combining these two because they're both comics collections by creators I hadn't heard of before, and because they make the crush into an art form. Their absorbing weirdness, their frank sexuality and longing, their unexpected but natural pop-culture references — reading these books, I wanted to make art that feels something like this.

Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs by Sally Mann

I read some edifying and enlightening books this year, but none more enjoyable than Sally Mann's Hold Still. Mann's book is a rich, candid examination of her life and her art, shifting between the two as she seeks to uncover the roots of her recurring photographic themes: death, the body, her children. Photos are woven throughout the book — many of her own, including outtakes that she uses to illustrate her process, as well as archival photos from her own family's history and from the history of Virginia. Mann digs deep into the lives of her parents and her husband's family, finding plenty of scandals that she retells in vivid detail, and she explores racism, the South, her family, her own art, and the ways they've all intersected.

Mann is most famous for a series of photos of her three kids in which they often appear nude, which to her was very natural — the pictures show them skinny-dipping on her family's private farm — but which caused a finger-wagging uproar when she was profiled in The New York Times Magazine in 1992. A fascinating chapter tells the full story of those photos and the aftermath: Mann takes responsibility for being naively unprepared for their reception, but remains proud of the series and confident in her work. It's a testament to artist-as-mother that doesn't compromise either part of who she is. And it comes not even halfway through the book! There's so much to love here.

Open City by Teju Cole

The narrator of this 2011 novel goes on long walks around New York City, slipping between thoughts about his ex-girlfriend, his childhood in Nigeria, music and art, and the history of New York. Most of what "happens" simply comes through conversation or in one-off enigmatic encounters, but the book is mesmerizing and thought-provoking. What made it especially memorable for me was how, in the narrator's Nigerian-Belgian heritage and in his reflections on New York's past, the book subtly connects threads of colonialism across centuries and decades, drawing a line between the World Wars and later twentieth-century conflicts in a way I hadn't seen before.

Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows

I had started to hear the term "systems thinking" a lot through work, so I picked up this book on a colleague's recommendation, thinking it would be dry but informative. Instead, as I read it on a solo, snowy Friday night right after the election, I stood up and paced around with excitement. Meadows (who sadly died in 2001 while working on the book) is compelling and even funny as she discusses how systems tend to work in nature and society, and how thinking only in the short-term and failing to see larger patterns leads to unintended consequences and the depletion of resources. It made me reflect on my part in larger networks and trends, and it made me feel both depressed (climate change!) and hopeful: Meadows argues for thoughtful and moral social behavior and for a willingness to see beyond the way things have always been.

We Gon' Be Alright by Jeff Chang

We Gon' Be Alright documents race and resistance in 2010s America in a way that goes deep, digs into the past, and draws lines of intersection that can be easy to miss when you're just reading tweets and online posts. Cultural scholar Jeff Chang places stories like gentrification and resegregation in U.S. cities, the campus protests at the University of Missouri and elsewhere, and #OscarsSoWhite into detailed context. A chapter called "The In-Betweens" blends a personal and complex reflection on what it means to be Asian American into notes on migration and citizenship and an examination of the case of Peter Liang, the Brooklyn cop who was indicted but received a light sentence for killing Akai Gurley. The book ends with an analysis of Lemonade, and a meditation on the idea of collective liberation through love, grace, and redemption.

At the center of We Gon' Be Alright is a breakdown of the timeline in Ferguson on August 9, 2014, and the immediate and then longer aftermath of Mike Brown's death. Chang writes about Damon Davis' All Hands On Deck, a series of photos of Black hands raised against white backgrounds, which the artist wheat-pasted on storefronts that had been boarded up in anticipation of post-verdict riots. Chang writes, "Authority demanded submission. But when people raised their hands together, they might be demanding recognition, defying injustice, or even reveling in collective joy."

Looking: Moonlight & Get Out

Arrival (2016)