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In ‘Ex Libris,’ Literary Critic Michiko Kakutani Writes a Contagiously Joyous Ode to Books

If Chrissy Teigen shares her skincare routine, you sprint to your own medicine cabinet. If Ina Garten praises a $22 vanilla extract you splurge on a bottle. If Michiko Kakutani opens up about the books that have changed her life, you head to Bookshop and order them all. 

Dedicated “to readers and writers everywhere,’ Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread is a wide-ranging homage to the power of books and reading by the Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic (formerly the chief book critic for The New York Times).

In the introduction, Kakutani describes books as “tiny time machines that can transport us back to the past to learn the lessons of history, and forward to idealized or dystopian futures.” She talks about being a voracious reader from a young age, recognizing early on that books “give us the stories of men and women we will never meet in person, illuminate the discoveries made by great minds, and allow us access to the wisdom of earlier generations.” From there, she lists more than 100 books of varying eras and genres that have shaped her life, alongside concise but illuminating essays about her connection to the work.

Her selections are as diverse as they are plentiful: The Plays of William Shakespeare are bookended by chapters about by Dr. Seuss and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; books by Vladimir Nabokov (not including Lolita) are followed by Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi’s 2003 memoir which uses Lolita as a metaphor for life in the Islamic Republic of Iran; the ‘sports’ section is comprised solely of books by and about Muhammad Ali, who Kakutani describes as, “a larger-than-life figure: not just an incandescent athlete dancing under the lights, but a man of conscience who spoke truth to power, as well as a captivating showman, poet, philosopher, performance artist, statesman, and hip-hop pioneer, a man compared to Whitman, Robeson, Malcolm X, Ellington, and Chaplin.” 

For each book, Kakutani touches on the plot (there aren’t spoilers, but if you’ve never read a certain work, you won’t be totally in the dark), and writes succinctly but eloquently about why these books matter. Whether or not you’ve read the titles in question is kind of irrelevant; Kakutani’s passion for these works is palpable, and her respect for their authors immense. Of Joan Didion, she writes, “When I hunted down a copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I was blown away by Didion’s voice and the idiosyncratic power of her prose—its surgical precision, its almost incantatory rhythms. Her fascination with “extreme and doomed commitments” and her awareness of “the edge” also resonated with my teenager’s melodramatic imagination.”

Reading is more important than ever, Kakutani writes. Not only because it offers a means for focusing our attention as we’re being pelted with distractions, but mostly because, she says, books can catalyze empathy. “In a world riven by political and social divisions,” she writes, “literature can connect people across time zones and zip codes, across cultures and religions, national boundaries and historical eras. It can give us an understanding of lives very different from our own, and a sense of the shared joys and losses of human experience.”

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