1. Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

"I was in seventh grade, and we were reading a short-story anthology for kids that excerpted the 'Battle Royal' section from Invisible Man. I remember thinking, 'Now, here's a weird black guy writing weird stories.... I'm a weird black guy, and maybe I can write weird stories, too!'"

2. Sarah Sentilles, Draw Your Weapons

"Judith Butler's 2004 Precarious Life, written in the aftermath of 9/11, reframes the body and grief as granting us a shared vulnerability, which, when acknowledged, might help end war. 'Let's face it,' she writes. 'We're undone by each other. And if we're not, we're missing something.'"

3. Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

"In January, right after the presidential inauguration, I reread Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider, a collection of essays and speeches written and delivered by her between 1976 and 1984. To call Sister Outsider a book about feminism is like calling Walden a book about a pond. Yes, it's a book about feminism, but it's also about what it means to speak and what it means to listen. It's about self-awareness as a form of political awareness. When I wonder how to be an American right now, and whether it matters to do the things that can feel insignificant—knock on doors, show up for marches, send organizing emails—I remind myself of what Lorde said about revolution: 'It means doing the unromantic and tedious work.'"

4. George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

"The Bluest Eye had a very strange and wonderful effect on me when I read it for the first time at 33. It reenlivened a feeling I used to get as a young and enthusiastic Catholic—basically, that, yes, it was possible to see the world through the eyes of someone else, and that the effect of this would be a suffusion of love and compassion that would make a person, like Jesus, fearless. And that getting and sustaining that feeling was the ultimate goal of being alive. I'd forgotten that, or had forgotten to believe in it, and the book reminded me to have that aspiration."

5. Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove

"Lucy Corin's debut story collection, The Entire Predicament, jolted me into an entirely fresh way of seeing the familiar. Imagine suddenly seeing in ultraviolet. Corin takes such pedestrian nouns as airplane, dentist, mouse, and supermarket checkout machine and drills cleanly through their superficial normalcy to reveal the luminous, undulant strangeness inside 'everyday reality.' I want to read every word she's written."

6. Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

"I first read Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz in my 20s, in law school. I knew about the Holocaust, of course. But I had never really appreciated its relevance to me personally—to everyone—until reading this book. It was the author's initial surprise at being thought of as a Jew that hit me. I am still stunned by his realization: that any of us can be assigned to a group, regardless of our own sense of identity, and then subjected, arbitrarily, to eradication."