From Obama's "A Promised Land" to Isabel Wilkerson's highly praised "Caste," here are the perfect books for your Zoom background. (Credit: Crown Publishing; Knopf; Del Rey; Random House)
From Obama’s “A Promised Land” to Isabel Wilkerson’s highly praised “Caste,” here are the perfect books for your Zoom background. (Credit: Crown Publishing; Knopf; Del Rey; Random House)

For our book lovers, we’ve put together a list of titles that will make your Zoom backgrounds more aesthetically pleasing. 

But these titles aren’t just window dressing — they have been drawn from end-of-year must-read lists, as well as TSE personal favorites. They also make statements about our current cross-cultural and political moment, and expand our notions of race, gender and class. We hope there’s something in here for everyone.

1. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

When Roxane Gay tweets about a book, you know it’s worth some attention.

In this “instant American classic,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wilkerson argues that racism is not a strong enough word for the brutality Black people have endured — it is actually a “caste” system. While race has been around since the transatlantic slave trade, the concept of a caste system has been around for much longer — thousands of years. The widely lauded book is a must-have on home shelves.

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson is outstanding and one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever read,” Gay tweeted.

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2. A Burning by Megha Majumdar

After witnessing a terrorist attack, a Muslim girl in India uses the opportunity to post about it on Facebook — only to get arrested for committing a crime. This incident sets the story, told in multiple perspectives, in motion. It is an exposé of political corruption, classism and the dangers of social media.

The narratives follow different characters, but Majumdar manages to weave them all together in a satisfying ending.

3. Luster by Raven Leilani 

On its surface, Luster is about a porn-watching, 23-year-old Black woman in publishing named Edie. We follow her misadventures as Edie has cybersex with an older white man who is in an open marriage, and eventually becomes his mistress — and then ends up living in his house with his wife. 

The edgy plot might be enough to get your attention, but Leilani also has literary swagger to spare. Her novel encourages “sexual frankness,” meditates on what it means to be young, argues why corporate life absolutely sucks and takes a rather humorous stab at the topic of race.

4. A Promised Land by Barack Obama

In A Promised Land, more than anything, Obama contemplates his first presidential term — all while managing to sound relatable. He says in an interview with the Atlantic: “Anyone who reads this book will recognize the stress and discouragement I sometimes feel.” 

A book of thorough “self-questioning,” Obama gives readers deep insight into the thought-process behind every action he took as President — how he selected his cabinet, battled an economic crisis and crusaded for affordable healthcare. Obama spares no detail in his 700-page opus, but he stops at May 2011, leaving us eager for the second installment.  

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5. The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison

A collection of essays, speeches and meditations, The Source of Self-Regard is a call to action. Morrison serves up nonfiction over a period of four decades that is all too relevant in today’s social and political climate. 

Split into three sections, “The Foreigner’s Home,” “Black Matter(s)” and “God’s Language,” Morisson writes eloquently about globalisation and racism, arts and the humanities, religion and war — taking on each topic with her singular intelligence. Just like her literary contemporary, James Baldwin, her fiction and nonfiction act as a balm during difficult times. 

6. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

If you think our current Covid-world is as bad as it gets, Mandel brings an even worse worst-case scenario with her novel, Station Eleven. 

In this page-turner  — which might not feel so fictional anymore — a flu virus knocks out 99% percent of civilization, leaving behind unlucky survivors. In this post-pandemic world, borders and countries, cellphones and the internet, are things of the past. While self-proclaimed prophets pose danger, the only things that seem to keep people together are culture and history. Perhaps we can all learn something.

7. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This might not be a quiet read right before bed (take it from this NPR reporter who was worried about having nightmares while devouring the pages). 

Set in Mexico during the 1950s, Moreno-Garcia’s Gothic novel follows Noemi, who goes to help her cousin in a mansion where seriously creepy things happen. We’re talking sinister family members, snake motifs, hallucinations and overall ominous vibes — but the strong-headed women in this tale are steadily in charge of their fates, and the suspense keeps the pages turning.

8. This Too Shall Pass by Julia Samuel

This is a perfect nonfiction book to telegraph affirmations to your Zoom confidantes while you work from home, and worth a read. Psychotherapist Julia Samuel focuses on the outcomes of change — whether that means changes in health, love, work, or life. In sharing her own narrative along with the stories of her patients, Samuel’s aim is to let readers know that no matter what storm has taken over our lives, it will pass. 

Our lives have completely shifted in the past year, with many of us grieving loss. For those of us who read to heal, Samuel’s novel might just be our salvation.

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Senior Staff Writer Corinne Lestch contributed to this report.