Jólabókaflód, Christmas + Book + Flood, is an Icelandic tradition embedded in how bookaholic Icelanders discern the Christmas holidays. Instead of stressing about gifts for family and friends, what if we enacted Iceland’s Jólabókaflód ritual with our children? Every book, curated with each person in mind. It would tell our loved ones that we do listen to them. On Christmas Eve, especially in 2020, when we can’t be together, we can imagine them cozying up with our gift in their favorite reading nook, tucked underneath a worn-out treasured blanket, or in front of the fire with a mug of hot cocoa or a glass of wine.
My love for books is rooted deeply in this tradition. Nothing prepared me for life like the books I read as a child. Pollyanna taught me the “glad game” to find the good in all situations. For a few hours, huddled under my duvet, I became Anne Frank. Hearing pabbi’s heavy steps approaching my bedroom door caused my heart to race in fear, then reality returned. Through books, I explored themes of friendship and loneliness, and love and loss. Books were my guides and mentors, expanding the boundaries of my inner perceptions of possibilities.
Of course, not all books are great company. Only books that challenge our thinking and touch our hearts, changing how we see the world are worthy of our time. A sixth grader’s parent called to express her objection to a book selection I’d made for my student, Bridge to Terebithia. “Sarah cried herself to sleep because the girl in the book died. I don’t think young kids should read about dying,” she said. The book had stretched Sarah’s capacity to empathize, which can take a toll on our emotions. We read to understand what others have experienced. It makes us better human beings.
The following eight best-selling titles are books that changed how I see the world.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Historian Harari explores how Homo sapiens evolved to dominate. He divides human history into themes. The Agricultural Era was harrowing. I’ve read and reread it for its historical structure, one to build on.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. A woman’s real-life story and that of her family, the scientific discovery, and the human consequences.
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker changed my thinking about the importance of sleep. No longer do I see my diet and exercise as most important for good health. Science can now tell how our sleep quality and duration impacts our memory, aging, accidents, weight, emotions, and physical fitness, to name a few.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, a novel, tells the story of twins born in Ethiopia. The mother is a Roman Catholic nun from India. The father, well, you have to read the book. I ordered three copies to hand out to Florida friends in the spirit of Jólabókaflod.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. An uplifting view focused on human progress.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. A best-seller in Amazon’s Corporate Finance section. I was unable to put the book down. This nonfiction reads like a thriller detailing the rise of a biotech start-up, Theranos. A beautiful young woman who starts a company based on falsehoods convinces powerful men like Henry Kissinger, James Mattis, and George Shultz to sit on its board. And it’s one hundred percent real.
Caste: The Origin of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson. Ms. Wilkerson explains caste as the bones, and race as visible characteristics and behavior. Impoverished black and brown people have two strikes against them, bones and race. Poor whites have one, bones. Isabel offers ample opportunities for the reader to walk in others’ shoes.
Little Fires Everywhere, a novel by Celeste Ng. A story about mothers and daughters and the caste system like Isabel talks about in her book, Caste. It’s a believable tale about imperfect people, heartbreaks, and self-searching. Fiercely engrossing.
Books I happened upon and glad I did:
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. Ernt Allbright, a former Vietnam POW, returns a changed man. He makes a decision that delivers consequences his wife and daughter couldn’t have anticipated.
A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler. After visiting the Biltmore Estate, I read this historical fiction with great interest. Ms. Fowler paints a world of wealth and power, social ambition, as she tells Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont’s story.
Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir. Audur’s only book translated to English is a darkly comic and uplifting tale of friends and lovers, motherhood, and self-discovery. Caution: This may not meet the approval of all people’s sensibilities.
Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush. My granddaughter told me of her professor’s book. Ms. Rush takes us from the Golden Coast of Miami to California’s Bay Area, to New York City’s shores, areas where climate change is most profound.
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant. Suppose you are ready to entertain the possibility that our road to good health is not through the doctor’s office. If so, read how Jo teases fact from fiction as she travels around the world to speak with professionals on the cutting edge of medicine.
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig. Grandmother raises Donal Cameron. When his grandmother needs surgery, she sends Donal to live with her sister. I fell in love with the innocence and Donal’s cowboy obsessions.
The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams. This book is an antidote to our technology addiction. Nature has more to offer than all the apps we can’t seem to live without.
With that, I wish you the best holiday season circumstance allow. May you find a few books under the Christmas tree, pearls that will shine and reside within you.