Here at the Reading Group Center, we believe that one of the greatest gifts that books offer us is the incredible opportunity to see the world through another person’s eyes, however temporarily. Reading books that portray a variety of experiences may be as close as we’ll ever get to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, opening the door to a greater understanding and sense of empathy for one another. Inspired by Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods, which tells the extraordinary true story of the Maine hermit Christopher Knight, we’ve compiled a list of books that reveal a new perspective for you and your reading group. From the fictionalized struggles of a group of young immigrants to the memoir of a brilliant doctor struggling with mental illness, these reads will give you the chance to step outside your own life and see the world through a new lens.
The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
“A meditation on solitude, wildness and survival.” —The Wall Street Journal
Many people dream of escaping modern life. Most will never act on it—but in 1986, twenty-year-old Christopher Knight did just that when he left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the woods. He would not have a conversation with another person for the next twenty-seven years.
Drawing on extensive interviews with Knight himself, journalist Michael Finkel shows how Knight lived in a tent in a secluded encampment, developing ingenious ways to store provisions and stave off frostbite during the winters. A former alarm technician, he stealthily broke into nearby cottages for food, books, and supplies, taking only what he needed but sowing unease in a community plagued by his mysterious burglaries. Since returning to the world, he has faced unique challenges—and compelled us to reexamine our assumptions about what makes a good life. By turns riveting and thought-provoking, The Stranger in the Woods gives us a deeply moving portrait of a man determined to live his own way.
“Vivid. . . . Striking. . . . A ringing paean to love in general: to the love between man and wife, parent and child, outsider and newcomer, pilgrims and promised land.” —The Washington Post
When fifteen-year-old Maribel Rivera sustains a terrible injury, the Riveras leave behind a comfortable life in Mexico and risk everything to come to the United States so that Maribel can have the care she needs. Once they arrive, it’s not long before Maribel attracts the attention of Mayor Toro, the son of one of their new neighbors, who sees a kindred spirit in this beautiful, damaged outsider. Their love story sets in motion events that will have profound repercussions for everyone involved. Here Henríquez seamlessly interweaves the story of these star-crossed lovers, and of the Rivera and Toro families, with the testimonials of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Latin America. The Book of Unknown Americans is a stunning novel of hopes and dreams, guilt and love—a book that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be American.
“One of Bohjalian’s most compelling books so far, combining an explosive premise, a timely social topic, and fast-paced storytelling with a purpose.” — Miami Herald
When Kristin Chapman agrees to let her husband, Richard, host his brother’s bachelor party, she expects a certain amount of debauchery. She takes their young daughter to Manhattan for the evening, leaving her Westchester home to the men and their hired entertainment. What she does not expect is that the entertainment—two scared young women brought there by force—will kill their captors and drive off into the night.
With their house now a crime scene, Kristin’s and Richard’s life spirals into nightmare. Kristin is unable to forgive her husband for his lapses in judgment, or for the moment he shared with a dark-haired girl in the guest room. But for the dark-haired girl, Alexandra, the danger is just beginning.
“Engrossing. . . . Thrilling. . . . Does for botany what Oliver Sacks’s essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology.” —The New York Times
Geobiologist Hope Jahren has spent her life studying trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Lab Girl is her revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also a celebration of the lifelong curiosity, humility, and passion that drive every scientist. In these pages, Hope takes us back to her Minnesota childhood, where she spent hours in unfettered play in her father’s college laboratory. She tells us how she found a sanctuary in science, learning to perform lab work “with both the heart and the hands.” She introduces us to Bill, her brilliant, eccentric lab manager. And she extends the mantle of scientist to each one of her readers, inviting us to join her in observing and protecting our environment. Warm, luminous, compulsively readable, Lab Girl vividly demonstrates the mountains that we can move when love and work come together.
An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison
“An invaluable memoir of manic depression, at once medically knowledgeable, deeply human and beautifully written . . . at times poetic, at times straightforward, always unashamedly honest.” —The New York Times Book Review
Dr. Jamison is one of the foremost authorities on manic-depressive (bipolar) illness; she has also experienced it firsthand. For even while she was pursuing her career in academic medicine, Jamison found herself succumbing to the same exhilarating highs and catastrophic depressions that afflicted many of her patients, as her disorder launched her into ruinous spending sprees, episodes of violence, and an attempted suicide.
Here Jamison examines bipolar illness from the dual perspectives of the healer and the healed, revealing both its terrors and the cruel allure that at times prompted her to resist taking medication. An Unquiet Mind is a memoir of enormous candor, vividness, and wisdom—a deeply powerful book that has both transformed and saved lives.
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
“Deeply affecting. . . . No recent novel does a more powerful job of capturing the day-to-day lives of . . . immigrants.” —The New York Times
In the north of England, a group of young Indian immigrants struggle to begin something new—to support their families; to build their futures; to show their worth; to escape their pasts. An epic for our times, The Year of the Runaways is a stunning work of fiction that explores what it means and what it costs to make a new life, the capaciousness of the human spirit, and the power of humanity in the face of unspeakable suffering.
I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin
“I Am Not Your Negro is a kaleidoscopic journey through the life and mind of James Baldwin, whose voice speaks even more powerfully today than it did fifty years ago. . . . He was the prose-poet of our injustice and inhumanity. . . . The times have caught up with his scalding eloquence.” —Variety
To compose his stunning documentary film I Am Not Your Negro, acclaimed filmmaker Raoul Peck mined James Baldwin’s published and unpublished oeuvre, selecting passages from his books, essays, letters, notes, and interviews that are every bit as incisive and pertinent now as they have ever been. Weaving these texts together, Peck brilliantly imagines the book that Baldwin never wrote. In his final years, Baldwin had envisioned a book about his three assassinated friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. His deeply personal notes for the project had never been published before. Peck’s film uses them to jump through time, juxtaposing Baldwin’s private words with his public statements, in a blazing examination of the tragic history of race in America.