Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.
As much as people like to look at Emily Ratajkowski, they like to read her, too. Her debut book, My Body (Metropolitan Books), just out in paperback, was an instant NYT bestseller when it came out last fall, and an essay in that collection, “Buying Myself Back” was the most-read article in New York in 2020. She’s also written for Los Angeles Review of Books and Harper’s Bazaar.
The London-born, Encinitas, CA-raised, and New York-based Ratajkowski is a familiar fashion face—she’s in Miu Miu’s fall campaign, has walked Versace among many others, appeared in Valentino’s Narratives campaign, and collaborated with Superga on a capsule sneaker collection. She also has her own line of swim and lingerie, Inamorata.
She spent childhood summers in west Cork, Ireland; majored in art at UCLA for a year before modeling full-time; sets a timer for an hour for Instagram, sold an NFT of herself for $175,000 at Christie’s; appeared on a Time 100 panel with Shelf Lifers Anita Hill and Tarana Burke; was arrested for protesting Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS nom; has a husky-malamute mix named Colombo; once dressed up as Marge Simpson for Halloween; and became a mom during the pandemic to Sylvester “Sly” Apollo.
Madame Bovary. I was 19 when I read it and I think ¾ of the way through, the tragedy of her mistakes and her misguided attempts at happiness really got me. I remember shoulder shaking crying for hours after I finished the book because I was so struck by it. I hadn’t expected to have such an emotional reaction—I had thought “oh you’re just reading a classic” and written it off as such. Now I always tell people, if you haven’t read Madame Bovary, you should definitely read it, it will reach you.
Lacy M. Johnson’s The Reckonings. I continue to recommend it over and over again because not a lot of people know it and I think it is truly excellent. Every time I’ve given or recommended it to a friend, they’re just blown away. Johnson’s essays are amazing; she covers a lot of women’s issues, but she also talks about race and class, and to me, it’s just this amazing piece of art about where our world is right now.
This is such a hard question because I feel like all the books I’ve read and loved have shaped my worldview! Early on in my life I read To Kill A Mockingbird and I think Atticus Finch’s lessons about goodness, empathy, and ethics impacted me. I also remember reading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and even though I was a little young for it, it taught me so much about race, women, and power; it was kind of my intro to those ideas. I would also say George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Politically, I’d say The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg which was recommended relatively recently to me. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time… those are the fundamentals in my mind.
I read a lot of books in one sitting just because if I put something down for too long and leave it, I’ll never finish it. But I’d have to say Play It as It Lays. It was not the first Didion I’d ever read, but it was one that I felt instantly sucked in by and it kind of reads like a fever dream, so it’s really good one to read in one go.
I loved Jessie Klein’s I’ll Show Myself Out. As a new mom myself, I loved the way she talks about becoming a mother. Her honesty is so refreshing and made me feel really seen. And it’s really funny but also very honest and dark. I highly recommend! It’s an essay collection as well.
I’d like to turn Lisa Taddeo’s opening story in her new book Ghost Lover into a Netflix show, so much so, that I actually looked into it but somebody else already has the rights! But it’s really, really brilliant.
This is really specific, but I’d say Junot Díaz’s short story The Sun, the Moon, the Stars. The ending is just so beautiful and poetic. I think about it a lot because of the writing. I read it kind of young, but the feeling I get from that ending has stuck with me forever.
Luster definitely will make you blush. There’s a sex scene towards the beginning that is just one of the most brilliantly written sex scenes I’ve ever read.
I would say How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee which is actually not a writing manual despite the title! He does write about his experience of writing a novel about his childhood but I think the writing itself is what taught me a lot. For structure, In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. I just think that’s one of the most interestingly structured books I’ve ever read, especially for memoir.
Anything by Rachel Cusk. I think she’s an amazing writer, but I always have a hard time getting into it at first.
I’d say for modern dialogue Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. She’s able to go from texting to real-life conversations to emails in a way that’s really special.
I would say John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. This question is so hard, because there are so many books that I think should be on college syllabuses. I would say The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan. And anything by Audre Lorde.
When I first moved to New York City after leaving college, I read Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help. I was maybe 19 or freshly turned 20 and I was blown away. I’m not sure it would do the same for everyone but that’s what I think of when I think of a gap year or a momentous moment. I was living in my first apartment alone in New York and I’ll never forget pouring over those stories!
The opening/title essay in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. I think it’s probably one of the best essays I’ve ever read in my life and whenever I have a little bit of writer’s block it’s the one I return to.
This one’s hard because I would say any good writing is literary comfort food. My friend Stephanie Danler’s writing is especially like that for me because I love her and I love thinking about her mind crafting each beautiful sentence.
Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. I gave it to a friend, and it just made us understand each other in a new way.
Girlhood by Melissa Febos. I related to so much of what she wrote about her experience of adolescence. I have never read anyone write so honestly and thoroughly about that period of life for young girls.
I love a ’70s book cover. I’d say any of the old Didion covers or more recently Trick Mirror; I thought it was just so well done.
I’d love to have Hilton Als’ White Girls signed by the author. He lives in New York, so it doesn’t feel completely impossible!