Gish Jen’s new book, The Girl at the Baggage Claim, explores differences in the way Easterners and Westerners view self and society. Below, the award-winning author of the novel Typical American recommends books that illuminate that cultural divide.
Best books...chosen by Gish Jen
Chameleon Readers: Teaching Children to Appreciate All Kinds of Good Stories by Allyssa McCabe (out of print). Do children of different cultures tell their stories differently? This book produced in me the proverbial shiver up the spine for which readers all read. I have returned to it repeatedly since its publication in 1995.
The Autobiographical Self in Time and Culture by Qi Wang (Oxford, $79). This is the book I ached to read as soon as I closed Chameleon Readers—but I had to wait 17 years. It was well worth the wait: Wang shines a light into the very heart of East-West narrative difference, rooting it in autobiography. My copy may be more marked up than any other book I’ve ever owned.
The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why by Richard E. Nisbett (Free Press, $16). Can there really be measurable differences in the way Easterners and Westerners perceive the world? With study after study, Nisbett manages not only to convince us that this is the case; he conveys the astonishment and excitement with which the findings were received. A classic.
Clash! How to Thrive in a Multicultural World by Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner (Plume, $17). So what does this difference in self, as described by Nisbett, have to do with race, class, and gender—not to mention regional and religious differences? Everything. Markus and her colleagues interpret their exhaustive research in what may be the ultimate navigational guide to our complicated time.
The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar (Twelve, $16). Intuitively, we may realize that culture affects not only every choice we make but also how we conceptualize our choices. Still, it takes the observational powers of a blind immigrant psychologist to make us see how profoundly true this is.
The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh (Simon & Schuster, $16). Is it any surprise that differences in self and culture give rise to radically different ideas about how to live? This lovely book ably distills an entire Harvard philosophy course. It imparts both knowledge and wisdom.