U.S.A. by John Dos Passos (Mariner, $30).

A three-volume opus that runs more than 1,300 pages is bound to have slow moments. But the power of Dos Passos' novel outweighs its occasional clunkiness. It vividly captures the political and cultural explosion caused by the First World War in the very form it assumes: a flurry of the scraps of modern life that everyday Americans saw sifting down around them.

The People, Yes by Carl Sandburg (Mariner, $23).

Sandburg was a rock star (Gene Kelly danced to one of his poems), but he has slipped from our collective consciousness. This 1930 ode to the powerless leaves me inspired by the courage Sandburg showed in taking on inequality and injustice. Besides, the poem simply sings.

Ain't I a Woman by bell hooks (Routledge, $28).

To write a novel set in the Jim Crow South, I had to think deeply about the fraught timeline of race and gender politics in America. Discovering this energizing, important essay collection was one of the great rewards of that inquiry.

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Top Shelf, $50).

I picked up Book One of Congressman Lewis' three-part, graphic novel–style memoir to leaf through it. Next thing I knew, I had sat down and read the whole thing. The courage of the men and women of the civil rights movement made me want to cry — then to act.

The Multispecies Salon, edited by Eben Kirksey (Duke, $26).

What's more revolutionary than contemplating the rights and interconnectedness of plants, animals, fungi, even microbes — and then aspiring to a more expansive post-humanist society? This collection's contributors include such radical thinkers as Karen Barad and Donna Haraway. Reading it, my heart enlarges and my mind breaks free of its ruts.

The Unsettlers by Mark Sundeen (Riverhead, $26).

"When we try to pick out anything by itself," John Muir once wrote, "we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Sundeen follows three self-sufficient American families as they try to tease their lives free of 21st-century consumer culture. Their stories caused me to change my daily habits in enduring, reaffirming, joyful ways. When was the last time a book literally changed your life?

— Nashville-based writer Lydia Peelle has won numerous awards for her short fiction. Her first novel, The Midnight Cool, follows two Tennessee drifters who struggle to reconcile ambition with patriotic duty as America prepares to enter World War I.