In some ways, every book is about the body. No one lives apart from theirs, and so no writer, speaker or character exists fully removed from the simultaneously fragile and indispensable fact of a corporeal existence. Stories are lived in bodies and made in them; language itself is created in breathing and muscle, in gesture, contraction, release. I could list hundreds of books that draw on rich traditions of writing about illness; disability; gender; race; desire, politics; parenthood; daughterhood; living; and dying, all of them anchored in our bodies.
But instead, here are 10, across genres, and styles, and periods, that influenced the writing of my book Places I’ve Taken My Body and the living that led to it. Every list inevitably leaves something out, but I trust that these 10 books will lead you to a thousand more.
1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
When Victor Frankenstein’s mother dies, he goes to university occupied with the “deepest mysteries of creation”, intent on learning how to make a living being, so that he might combat loss, death and decay. He sutures a man from salvaged parts, then animates the body he’s made. But the Creature, wonderful in theory, horrifies him once it is alive. The devastation that this wreaks for both creator and his Creature is without end. This is a dark and indispensable book about both building and having a body.
2. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry
An analysis of physical suffering that spans arenas from philosophy to medicine, religion to literature, and art, The Body in Pain is a reckoning with the foundational, inexpressible and inescapable nature of pain. A nuanced and expansive study of the ways that, throughout history, human beings have both inflicted and faced pain, and worked to articulate it, and to live with and through it. This book is one I return to again and again.
3. The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken
This tender, extraordinary novel about a small-town librarian named Peggy Court and the “over-tall” James Carlson Sweatt – who is six feet by age 11, then seven, and then eight – is a love story above all else. But it’s also an examination of the profound ways a body can both other and connect you, and of how you can love a body even as it fails you, or fails someone you love. It is both glorious and painful to be alive: this book knows both things in equal measure.
4. Poster Child by Emily Rapp Black
At the most basic level, this is a memoir about growing up as an amputee. Rapp Black’s left foot was amputated at the age of four as the result of a congenital defect, and the title refers to the time she spent as a poster child for the US nonprofit March of Dimes. But the book is really a look at what it means to come of age in a culture that impels you to despise yourself. Sharp and smart, this book has been essential company for me in both adolescence and adulthood.
5. Inseminating the Elephant by Lucia Perillo
The poems in this collection are endlessly inventive. Beautiful and funny, surprising and searching and wry, they rebuff your expectations the same way a mortal, changing, and changeable body does. Perillo had multiple sclerosis, and these poems are informed both obliquely and explicitly by her particular experiences of disability and embodiment. They’re also an extraordinary record of loving the world despite its darkness, and of singular and sparing epiphanies: “How immense the drowning when you’re the boy who drowns.”
6. The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso
Slender, strange, and lyric, this book turns the “illness narrative” inside out. A record of the years she spent with a rare and profoundly unpredictable blood disorder, the book articulates an experience of illness not from the temporal or linguistic remove of recovery, but in the language, shape, and timescale of sickness itself. This is a difficult, beautiful and absolutely singular book.
7. A Guidebook to Relative Strangers by Camille T Dungy
Dungy is a poet, and this collection of essays – travelogue, memoir, and cultural study – proceeds with a poet’s exacting attention as it ranges across history and landscapes to explore motherhood, womanhood, writing, and the natural world. Concerned with the particular vulnerability and power of living in a black body, it is a masterclass in grappling with the many ways our bodies shape and attend us everywhere.
8. The Carrying by Ada Limon
A collection of poems about daughterhood and infertility, ageing and grief, the rapture and rupture of the body and the brutal, ecstatic, animal force of wanting, this book is crystalline and clear, and beautiful enough to break your heart: “Fine then, / I’ll take it … I’ll take it all.”
9. Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
There are all kinds of ways to characterise this book. A memoir about race and health, devotion and abuse. A story of growing up the black son of a single mother in Jackson, Mississippi. A book that unflinchingly interrogates the intersections between systemic and individual violence. A love letter. A bloodletting. An invocation, apology and rebuke. All of them are true, and all of them insufficient. Heavy is a gorgeous, difficult engagement with the weight(s) our bodies carry, conjure, wield and resist.
10. Teratology by Susannah Nevison
A poetry collection rooted in a series of birth defects that affect the author’s legs and feet, and in a lifetime of surgical interventions, Nevison’s book is an act of myth-making, meaning-making and survival. “If your daughter is born / and her legs aren’t made / for standing,” the collection begins – and a whole, extraordinary world unfurls.