• We Should All Be Feminists - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2014
    • Adichie's manifesto is a brief one—adapted from her TEDTalk, it barely exceeds fifty pages—but it's a remarkably efficient introduction to feminism. That's the key word: introduction. There are a number of feminist and feminist-adjacent issues that Adichie either glosses over or doesn't mention, but they are safely beyond the scope of the text. We Should All Be Feminists lays out all the bones of feminism in no uncertain terms, and it serves as the perfect crash course for those just beginning to learn about it. 
  • Meditations on First Philosophy - Rene Descartes, 1641
    • Meditations on First Philosophy famously attempts to scour all logical thought back to its roots and rebuild true knowledge from the one thing that Descartes actually knows: he exists. Even a first-year philosophy student could explain how the arguments fall apart after the second meditation, but the influence of this text on the whole of modern philosophical thought cannot be overstated. Philosophy was reborn in the crucible of Meditations on First Philosophy, and that makes it worth reading. 
  • Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory - Caitlin Doughty, 2014
    • Like a sooty slap in the face, Caitlin Doughty's memoir of her experiences working in a crematory is a revelatory exploration not only of herself and the corpse-disposal industry, but a deconstruction of the stigma surrounding death in the Western world. Doughty writes with the bluntness and humor that a book like this requires, and the result caught fire: this is one of the most quietly important nonfiction gems of the early 21st century, a breath of fresh air for readers tired of trite pseudo-comforting bullshit.
  • Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution - Mona Eltahawy, 2015
    • Bold. Fiery. Indignant. Mona Eltahawy takes a sword to the Gordian knot of politics and religion and sexuality in this series of always-riveting and frequently-horrifying essays that expose the hypocrisy in the ways that people treat and react to bodies not just in the Middle East, but all around the world (Eltahawy is hyper-conscious of technology and its ability to reveal the persistence of prejudice across different cultures and to incite action from oppressed people). Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution is a damning and all-too-necessary book. 
  • Norse Mythology - Neil Gaiman, 2017
    • The iconic stories of Norse mythology—the theft of Thor's hammer, the binding of Loki, Ragnarok—were around for centuries before these skillful retellings by Neil Gaiman, but under his hand they come alive as never before. He lends them a sense of narrative movement by threading references to key plots across the tales and brings out the humor through unexpected and clever uses of structure; vivid, passionate, and thrilling, Gaiman's Norse Mythology is the perfect introduction to the nine worlds. 
  • Utopia - Thomas More, 1516
    • Thomas More's maybe-satirical book of political philosophy lays out the template for a "perfect" society, located on the fictional island of Utopia, which makes it exceeding difficult to pin down the actual point being made. A critique of 16th-century Europe? A gentle jab at ideas that sound too good to be true? A straight-faced attempt to construct a blueprint for an ideal world? Hell if I know. But Utopia is an interesting read by an metric, and it defined one of the most essential words in the English language. 
  • Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family - Amy Ellis Nutt, 2015
    • Becoming Nicole is both an exceptionally clear-eyed introduction to trans issues and the moving story of one woman's transition. It could have benefited from slightly more comprehensive explanations of key distinctions, such as the difference between transgender and transsexual, and direct contributions from Nicole herself would have been welcome, but still—when it comes to crisp, compelling, readable texts about the experience of being transgender, you can't do much better than Becoming Nicole
  • Existentialism is a Humanism - Jean-Paul Sartre, 1946
    • Sartre's brief essay on the basic principles of existentialist thought is the perfect introduction: shallow, but clear and readable. He draws a convincing connection between meaning and morals that also serves as an inspiring call to action for those who are just beginning to learn about this branch of philosophy; for those readers who want more, he has a significant body of meatier work to explore. 
  • Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness - William Styron, 1990
    • Coming in at less than one hundred pages, Styron's reflection on his battle with depression is perhaps the clearest and most cutting text ever written on the subject. It's obviously impossible to understand what depression feels like if you've never suffered from it, but this memoir comes dangerously close to the impossible: it's a window into mental illness and an unusually powerful statement of hope.