May 7, 2021

Leave the World Behind’s Rumaan Alam on Self-Help & Harriet the Spy

5 min read

Welcome to Shelf Life,’s new 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.

First up is Rumaan Alam, author of three books, host of two Slate podcasts, contributing editor at The New Republic, father of two, and Brooklyn resident whose likes include coffee, egrets, Dr. Bronner’s almond soap, Acne Studios blazers, and Gucci leather driving shoes. His first two novels, Rich and Pretty and That Kind of Mother, featured privileged white women as protagonists. His most recent novel, the apocalyptic Leave the World Behind (Ecco) tells the story of a white family staying in a Hamptons Airbnb when its Black owners unexpectedly return. A bestselling National Book Award finalist, it is being adapted into a Netflix show starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts.

The book that…

…made me miss a train stop

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

“I was reading this on the subway to work, and so lost inside of it I got off at my stop, sat on a bench, and finished reading. That’s the kind of experience with a book I truly treasure.”

…I recommend over and over again

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

“No one ever takes me up on it, because it’s long and sounds boring (a man goes to visit his cousin, sick at a sanitorium, for a couple of weeks; he himself falls in and stays for seven years), but it’s an extraordinary read, and I will continue to recommend it.”

…currently sits on my nightstand

The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe

“Rufi’s first two novels—The Girls from Corona del Mar and Dear Fang, With Love—are funny and warm and smart and unpredictable, and her newest is, too. I’ve found myself staying up way too late reading.”

…made me want to be a writer

Self-Help by Lorrie Moore

“I discovered this book in high school and fell immediately under its spell. Moore’s voice is irresistible, her sentences electric, her worldview uniquely her own. Decades on I still turn to this book when I need to feel reinvigorated.”

…I’ve re-read the most

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

“I first read this book in third grade and probably reread it that very same year. Louise Fitzhugh’s novel is a classic because it doesn’t condescend to the young reader: It’s smart, and dark, and funny. I continue to find it enthralling as an adult.”

…I consider literary comfort food

Any novel by Anita Brookner

“My favorite of the author’s oeuvre is Look At Me, but any of her novels—all remarkably consistent in theme and form—are an absolute delight. There’s not necessarily comfort in the stories, which can be sad and angry, but in the books’ wisdom, their confident language, their attention to the world in which we live.”

…surprised me

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

Is Kingston’s masterpiece a memoir, or a novel, or something else altogether? The surprise here is not just in the work’s formal slipperiness; it’s in the astonishing language, the pure artistry.”

…made me laugh out loud

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

“This novel is so audacious, so unruly, and so truly, genuinely funny. It discomfits as it entertains, it makes you think and makes you feel, but it truly also makes you laugh.”

…I last bought

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

“He’s one of my favorite writers, and I purposefully didn’t buy this one when it came out a few years back—I was saving it, and I’ve just decided it’s time to dip into it at last. It’s next in my pile, and I can’t wait.”

…I’d like turned into a Netflix show

The Last Hundred Years Trilogy: A Family Saga (Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age) by Jane Smiley

“This is the tale of a single American clan over the course of a century. It’s massive, audacious, and a thrill to read. It’s an epic, with a cast of dozens—I’d love to watch it unfold on the screen.”

…made me cry

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

“This is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. That’s an endorsement, not a warning. Read it.”

…features the coolest or most beautiful book jacket ever

Notes from the Fog by Ben Marcus

“You can’t judge a book that way, but as it happens, Marcus’s cool, complex stories are as beautiful as the volume’s cover suggests.”

…I’d want signed by the author for my library

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow

“One of my absolute favorite books, constructed of the most extraordinary sentences I’ve ever read. What a genius; what a gift.”

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