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Hot take: Books are the best thing that humans have created. What other medium allows you to create worlds and people in your mind all through the stringing together of words? None? That’s right.

Books are magic. They encourage connections, acceptance. They, for the most part, make our shared existence better.

One of the most remarkable traits about reading is its ability to teach, to turn on lights in parts of the world that had otherwise been dark to us, changing, if only subtly, our view of humanity.

This year, I was lucky enough to read several books that fit in that category, and that to this day continue to make me think. If you’re looking for a book to tilt your world view, or just a great story, I offer you my top five recommendations for 2022. (Note: Many of these are second-hand recommendations from Reese’s Book Club. What can I say? The lady picks amazing reads).

True Biz by Sara Novic

Near the top of the list of the wonderful things about reading is how it offers us access to other cultures in ways that we may never have had the privilege to explore otherwise—and, if we’re being honest, cultures that we may not think too deeply about because they do not touch us personally. True Biz is a prime example of this, as author Sara Novic brings us three remarkable characters sharing their experience as part of both the deaf and hearing communities (that is if you can hear and do not have family members who are unable to).

Taking place at a school for the deaf, the novel is told from three perspectives: a teenage girl who, while deaf, has never been around other deaf people before; a teenage boy, whose family for generations has been deaf; and the headmistress, who is the daughter of two deaf parents. As we learn about their lives and the joys, the struggles, and intersections of each, the book teaches us about deaf culture, offering history lessons about the formation and staunching of sign language and education for the deaf in the United States. Between each narrative chapter, readers also receive instruction on how to speak sign language relevant to the story.

How Novic pulls this off is a miracle, striking an entertaining tone and pace, while walking the fine line that separates writing a story that is too weighty or too textbook-like. All at once it is eye-opening, intriguing, heartbreaking, and infuriating. I cried as I finished this book, moved by the characters of course, but also by anger of the repeated injustices inflicted upon the deaf community.

Of the many lessons True Biz teaches, one that carries through its entirety is that so often those in power force the beliefs and ideas of their culture on others, employing a cookie cutter method of governing with themselves as the template. In the process, many times these cultures have their progress stymied, and all that comes of it is harm. After reading True Biz, you’ll be left wondering how much more progress could’ve been made if the powers-at-be listened to those in the minority rather than acting as if they, who had never walked a mile in their shoeslived their lives, knew best what they needed.

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

Books ripped from shelves. People attacked and discriminated against because of their Asian heritage. Patriotism promoted in excess in the name of “putting our country first.” Is this present-day America you ask? No, it’s actually the setting of Celeste Ng’s novel Our Missing Hearts, her far too-realistic entry into the dystopian genre.

Set in what could very easily be the present day, the story centers on Bird, a 12-year-old boy, growing up in an America where all things “anti-American” (AKA pro-China) or critical of the government are restricted. Punishments range from arrest to having your child taken away from you to implied death. For Bird’s mom, it means going into hiding, disappearing from your child’s life, and having him and your husband deny any further connection to you to keep themselves safe.

In more than one way, I found the book held up a mirror to society. The discrimination against people of Asian descent is ripped from our headlines. The circumstances may be different, but the thought process underlying our current reality and the book is the same: because you are different, you don’t belong. Because of your skin color, I am better than you. It’s atrocious and seeing how very similar it is to our current society makes it all the more sickening.

That increases when it is paired with one of the prevailing sentiments of the book: too often when something does not affect us, we choose to look away. We remain ignorant to other people’s suffering because it is not our own. In the book, that is reflected in people’s indifferent reaction to witnessing the discrimination and violence against the Asian population, and in the acceptance and prevalence of child separations. The scenarios are real in our world, too, and unfortunately, our reaction is the same: we ignore until someone puts it right in front of our face and forces us to look. As I held this mirror up to myself, I knew I, too, had to evaluate the issues I turn away from in the name of comfort.

Our Missing Hearts asks us to not live that way, but instead to care deeply, even when it hurts, and work to understand, even when it would be easier to not to.

Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America by Cody Keenan

Okay, you got me. Sometimes I cry while reading, but I surprised even myself when the book that moved me to tears the most was one about politics. Written by President Barack Obama’s former Director of Speechwriting Cody Keenan, Grace is the story of ten momentous days in American history, bookended by the shooting in Charleston in which a white supremacist murdered nine Black churchgoers, and the funeral for the church’s pastor Clementa C. Pinckney where Obama sang “Amazing Grace. 

Keenan shares the struggle of what went into crafting such a renowned speech, as Americans reeled from another mass shooting and hate crime. How does one address the pandemic of mass shootings when we’ve had to address it over and over to little avail? How does a country reckon with its past and present of discrimination and race when it’s controversial for its first Black president to talk about race? How do you use words to help heal a nation that can’t save itself from bleeding out? They’re questions that Keenan, Obama, and we as readers weigh throughout the book, and continue to weigh to this day.

Although this may seem quite heavy, the book is buoyed by moments of its titular grace. Families of the shooting victims told the shooter they forgave him, and in turn, did not give him the race war he had hoped to start. The Supreme Court decided that the Affordable Care Act could remain intact. SCOTUS also handed down Obergefell v. Hodges, requiring that all states allow and recognize same-sex marriage. People celebrated on the steps of the Supreme Court. Officials lowered the Confederate flag outside of the South Carolina State Capitol. Couples who didn’t before have the ability to wed, married. The White House lit up in the colors of the rainbow. The country watched in awe as people whose lives had been torn apart by hate chose love and mercy. Scene after scene of beauty and progress.

One of the things I found most emotional about the book was the contrast it offered to our politics now. I would be naïve to say that things were great then. There was still division and obviously discrimination. Our government functioned less like checks and balances and more like tit-for-tat. Despite that, 2015 seems like a completely different era, separated by decades instead of just seven years. In so many ways, it feels as though we have moved backwards, our factures deepening. Grace is a reminder of how it didn’t always feel this way, and that feeling alone delivered a gut punch.

But, just as much as this book was a rumination on grace itself, it also was one on hope: how America’s story is one of continual progress. Incremental, yes, but progress all the same. Recent history has shown us this, in race, equality, climate change, and gun control. Here, Grace offers another reminder: Change comes through service, and if all of us who want to see the world become better for everyone work together towards that goal, there’s no saying that what once was can’t be again.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

How much of our language has been lost because it was deemed unimportant by the ruling caste? This is the question that The Dictionary of Lost Words asks the reader to consider. Taking place in the late 1880s and into the early 1920s, the book follows the life of Esme, the daughter of a lexicographer who is working to compile the Oxford English Dictionary. As she goes up in the Scriptorium, Esme learns that some words and definitions are discarded if they have no written source from which they came, or if they are deemed too unsuitable for polite society. In doing so, she sees how women, particularly working-class women, have been edited out of lexicon. As many were not literate, their words, although just as important, were treated as less because they were spoken, not written and published like those of the rich and educated.

In giving a voice to these women and sharing their stories, the book acted as an open invitation for me to consider how much of our world is formed by language, and how many people’s experiences, especially minorities, have been discounted or blotted away because the words by which they defined themselves were deemed as unworthy by those in the majority.

Beautiful, tragic, and inspiring, The Dictionary of Lost Words taught me that if to give a name to something is to give it power, then to deprive it of one is to keep it subjugated. Laying this out in the most elegant of terms, the book reminded me of the impact words carry and that injustice, even if it is linguistically, is injustice all the same. Because of it, I will always see language in a new way.

Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Some books change the way we look at the world. Others change the way we look at ourselves. For me this year, Book Lovers accomplished the latter.

Of the books on this list, it’s definitely the lightest. A rom-com with a workaholic shark of a main character and her nemesis as the love interest, it would be easy to reduce this book to tropes. In fact, it employs many of them, but only to turn them on their heads.

What makes Book Lovers, and Emily Henry’s books as a whole, stand out is their depth. Rather than making the love story its sole focus, Book Lovers is a story of personal growth, diving deep into what makes the characters human, and the events that have shaped them. Here is where I saw myself.

I am very different from the main character, Nora. Yet, her reactions to trauma, fear to push beyond her comfort zone at the risk of failure, care for family, and belief that she is the problem in many situations, resonated with me. To feel seen in any context is powerful, but to have it come from someone you never met speaks to stories’ ability to connect, to let people who may feel alone see that somewhere in the world, someone has had the very same thoughts as they have. It shows why representation is so important. If you read it, you can be it.

Towards the end of the novel, Nora describes herself as living at “half-volume,” making choices within the box of safety she had constructed. However, by staying within that safety, she had kept herself from dreaming beyond and living the life she wanted, even if she couldn’t admit it. Little did Emily Henry know it, but she had just held up a mirror to a reader in Wisconsin, struggling with the very same thing. In helping me see myself a little more clearly, the novel helped me to change how I viewed myself too一specifically what was possible. If I knew what it felt like to experience similar hardships and failures to Nora, I may also one day experience similar high points. It would simply require taking a risk and living beyond half-volume.

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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