It's easy in the holiday season to get swept up in materialism, consumerism, commercialism and all the other isms that result when commerce and media hack into what should be meaningful occasions with family and friends. What can be done? There are going to be crowds and credit cards, must-haves and must-buys and excesses of every sort. My wife and I try for our kids to strip the holidays down to their most meaningful moments—cooking together, helping others, walking the neighborhoods and reading lots of books. While the traffic and the spending and the family dramas may make you want to escape with a handle of gin into a Simpsons marathon, I suggest picking up a book instead, the more serious the better. This year, I decided to focus my holiday reading on the topic of East Germany. I started with Ana Funder's Stasiland and am moving on to Gary Bruce's The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi.
Last year, my holiday reading focused on the Rwandan Genocide. I started with Naomi Benaron's powerful and beautiful novel Running the Rift, then moved on to nonfiction with Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families and then confronted Jean Hatzfeld's essential trilogy Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak and The Antelope's Strategy: Living in Rwanda after the Genocide.
Personally, I find reading on serious topics to be the best antidote to the frivolities of the season. On that note, here are a couple gifts you might consider giving yourself to keep centered and grounded and in mind of how fortunate we are.
1. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
2. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
3. HHhH by Laurent Binet
4. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King
5. Drifting House by Krys Lee
6. Endurance and Suffering: Narratives of Disease in the 19th Century by John Wood
7. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Hwang Sun-mi
Adam Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist and short story writer.