In All Ages, Globe Books asks authors to dig deep for memorable books that span their lifetime, from childhood to what’s on their reading list right now.
Lisa Genova is a Harvard-graduated neuroscientist who has turned her deep reserve of scientific knowledge toward deeply human novels such as Still Alice. Her latest book, Every Note Played (Gallery/Scout Press), tells the story of Richard, a world-renowned pianist who sees his life and career permanently altered when he is diagnosed with ALS. Here are Genova’s mind-opening picks.
What did you read as a kid?
I don’t remember. My mother says it was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Everything about that answer disturbs me.
What did you read in grade school?
I loved the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. Again, I don’t remember much about them, except that Ramona was feisty, always getting into trouble and I liked her.
What did you read in college?
I was in college, taking a course in physiological psychology, when I first read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. This book blew me away. It still does. Told with compassion and an infectious curiosity about how the mind works, this book is a collection of case studies describing real patients with extraordinary neurological impairments. I’d known that I wanted to be a biologist, but taking that course and reading this book sharpened my focus and ignited my passion for neuroscience. How do our brains work to allow us to think, feel, remember, desire, empathize, laugh, love, walk and talk? I find this infinitely fascinating. Oliver Sacks wrote, “In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life.” This is what I hope I do with my writing.
What have you read as an adult?
I continued to love books that explore the relationship between brain, perception, identity and behavior.
Jean-Dominque Bauby wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly one painstaking wink at a time after a massive brain-stem stroke left him completely paralyzed but for his left eye. His body a prison, his mind nonetheless remained sharply intact. Stunning and eloquent, Bauby’s words still haunt me.
Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman is a thrilling tour through the conscious and subconscious mind, left and right brain, the perceptual versus the real world. Mindbendingly fun and fascinating!
I also loved The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran. Phantom limbs, synesthesia, the evolution of language, the underpinnings of empathy, art appreciation, a sense of self: How do our brains allow us to perceive, understand, interact with, and enjoy the world around us? I find these questions as intriguing as the theories and answers.
What are you reading right now?
These days, I read a little of everything and always two or three books at once. I read contemporary fiction to keep refining my craft, and because I love a great story. But historical fiction tends to captivate me the most. I enjoy being immersed in characters and places from another time and, when done well, to marvel at the extensive research the author did to build such seamless believability. I still read non-fiction texts on neuroscience, psychology and medicine to keep learning and because these subjects will forever fascinate me. And I read self-help because I’m committed to continually growing, and the tools and reminders offered in these books inspire me to live and love bigger. Here are a few of my recent favourites:
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: This book blew me away. It’s a master class in page-turning narrative; nuanced, unique, three-dimensional characters; gorgeous sentences that made me weep; exquisite sensory details. I savoured every breath-taking page.
- The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael Singer: This gem of a book was transformational for me. It offers insights for developing an awareness of negative, limiting thoughts and energy, and for realizing that we don’t have to absorb or cling to them. We can let them go; they are not who we are. This is the book I most often give to others.
- The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman: My favourite of Alice Hoffman’s many brilliant books. The research she must’ve done to write this mesmerizing story, to create these unforgettable fictional women with such vivid authenticity is astounding. Set nearly 2,000 years ago, during the siege at Masada, I feel like I lived and breathed every page.
- You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero: You are not here to live a self-limited, modest, ho-hum version of yourself. You are here to be the biggest, brightest, most badass YOU possible. And anything is possible. Sincero’s writing is entertaining, playful, and spot-on brilliant.
- Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky: This bookpeels back the layers of human behaviour and examines why we do the things we do. Sapolsky has so much passion for neuroscience storytelling. I’ve been a fan ever since I was a graduate student.