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“I’m going to the post office later,” a friend texted me last week. “Do you want me to send you How to Die in Paris?”

Um, YES, I thumb-typed back, though it could’ve gone without saying.

Books have always been a kind of currency among the women I know. We beg, borrow, barter, buy, rate and sell our stories. The most popular of them–the truly hot commodities–are discussed for weeks, even months.  The trashy, but irresistible ones are traded quickly, giggled about, then discarded. The bad ones are sadly cast aside, with little more than tacit agreement that, yes: that book sucked hard.

But there are some books–the absolute best of the lot–that we cannot part with, under any circumstances. We’ll recommend them to everyone, and for our closest girls, we’ll even buy copies. But that trusty original never leaves our bookcase. It will never, ever be loaned.

Books like these are the game-changers. They’re re-read, re-examined, and found to have only appreciated with time. We sacrifice sleep for them, unable to resist the turn of another page. And in the end, when we pull our eyes up from the last sentence, we find the whole world greatly altered.

The books that profoundly change our views of people, places, politics, emotion… these are the gems. We don’t just discover them; we discover ourselves through them.

Do you remember your earliest encounter with your own literary game-changer? Are you still reeling from your last one? While you reflect, I’ll share a few of mine:

1. Motown and Didi – Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers is a paragon. This was the first of his novels that I read. Truth be told it was one of the earliest romances I read, too.  Set against the backdrop of crack-riddled Harlem, this young adult novel tackles the very adult issues teens face, when they’re left to raise themselves. Myers’ commitment to treating children and young adults like fully formed humans, rather than clay for parents and guardians to mold, inspired my own attitude toward writing for, talking to, and heck, being a young person.

2. If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin

This book has everything: healthy black families, childhood sweethearts, struggle, tension, class warfare, art, and the incomparable James Baldwin writing from a young pregnant woman’s perspective. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. I carry its central characters, Fonny and Tish, with me every day. (Poor Fonny…)

3. Comedy, American Style – Jessie Fauset

Jessie Fauset is my literary “she-ro,” and this, the last of her novels was the most affecting for me. The story of a deeply controlling, color-struck mother who deeply damages her children, particularly the most beautiful (and the darkest): her youngest son, Comedy, American Style offers a fascinating glimpse into a bygone time, and yet the issues it raises still persist today. It’s definitely a read that lingers and one that changed the way I viewed Fauset as a writer and myself as a woman and as a daughter.

I could certainly go on. (Honorable mentions to John Oliver Killens’ The Cotillion; Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant’s Mama, Ph.D.: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life; and W.E.B. DuBois’ Dark Princess.) But it’s your turn. What books have been game-changers in your life? What book recommendations are you definitely planning to read in 2012?

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