10 Books to Read Before You Die from Before I Die Artist Candy Chang

10 Books to Read Before You Die from Before I Die Artist Candy Chang

In 2011, New Orleans-based artist Candy Chang took to the wall of an abandoned building in her neighborhood to launch a public art project called “Before I Die.” Community members were encouraged to fill in the blank after “Before I Die__” with anything they chose. As  the pictures on Chang’s website show, the answers varied widely (in one photo, “to love and be loved” is followed by “to live w/ the Amish”), but the spiritual mission of the project remained consistent: The wall was a no-holds-barred, public forum where community members could air their greatest fears and wishes. Since the launch of the first wall, Chang’s project has spread like wildfire: 350 “Before I Die” walls have been launched in 60 countries around the world, and the video of Chang’s TED Talk about the project has drawn nearly 2.5 million views. In her new book, Before I Die, she tells her personal story and gives her take on the hugely popular “Before I Die” walls. And, here, Chang—who is quite the book-lover—channels the spirit of her project to recommend 10 books everyone should read before they die.


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    1. Just Kids

    I read this in two days and finished it in tears. It’s the true and beautiful story of two artists and how they grew together. Patti Smith’s writing is sincere and lovely, and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe broke my heart. Just Kids is one of the greatest books about making art and loving another person.

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    2. The Little Prince

    I admire this book so much for its unassuming wisdom on many levels. As a kid, I loved it for the pictures and stories of outer space. Now, I also love it for the poignant lessons on what is important in life. It’s the perfect fable: tender, meditative, tragic, profound.

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    3. The Middle Passage

    During one of my gloomiest periods of despair and existential confusion, James Hollis gave me great comfort and still does. A Jungian analyst, he talks candidly about how we can find meaning through personal myth and rigorous self-examination. His books can be consoling as you’re making sense of your life.

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    4. The Devil in the White City

    I never had so much fun learning about urban planning history as I did when reading Devil in the White City. Erik Larson turns facts into page-turning drama and writes about the making of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago amid a true murder mystery. He got me hot and bothered about literary nonfiction.

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    5. The Early Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 2 (1920-1923)

    If, like me, you want to keep a better diary, Anaïs Nin’s is an aspirational example. Her stories of life with her artist friends in the 1930s and beyond is dreamy, and her self-questioning is ferocious. A lot of raw introspection is poured out on the page, with many moments of poetic clarity.

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    6. High-Rise

    If you enjoy reading disturbing visions of modern life played out to the extreme, read High-Rise. J.G. Ballard makes a society in a skyscraper where the least wealthy live at the bottom, the most wealthy live at the top, rules get broken and all hell breaks loose. Neighbors get feral. It’s dark and funny.

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    7. A Little History of the World

    Reading E.H. Gombrich is like learning about life over milk and cookies with a no-nonsense, affectionate grandfather. His first chapter, Once Upon A Time, is one of my favorite things and always helps me restore perspective and remember my place in the bigger picture.

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    8. Understanding Comics

    This is for anyone interested in presenting a message. Scott McCloud breaks down the history and art of visual communication in such a compelling way that it made me giddy about the possibilities. He draws everything from Egyptian paintings and Dada art to modern advertisements together in the most entertaining way.

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    9. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth

    Chris Ware’s graphic novel changed my perception of what a book can be. He takes his time telling the melancholy story about a lonely man trying to make sense of his life and his relationship with his father. The typography, colors, writing, and layouts add up to one big contemplative experience.

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    10. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

    If you’re interested in the design of cities, crush on William H. Whyte. In the 1970s, he recorded New Yorkers in streets and parks like a scientist on safari to better understand why some places work better than others. With modesty and love, he shows how we can make more compassionate places for people.

    Candy Chang is an artist who reimagines public spaces to help us make sense of our lives. She’s a TED Fellow, Tulane Urban Innovation Fellow, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. Before I Die is her first book with St. Martin’s Press. She lives in New Orleans. Visit her at www.candychang.com.

    This article was updated September 25, 2014


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