I live in books. If you know me at all, you’ll know that I always have some book in my bag, something else loaded on my phone, hold requests at the library, and a waterfall of books stacked down my staircase. A childhood isolated from mass media gave me the impulse to read anything I could get my eyes on.
Over the past year or two, I’ve begun to realize that - even if I manage to finagle my way to old age - I won’t get to read everything. Starting with Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge (an endeavor I’ve bonded over with the remarkable Lindsey Kerr), I began to think more seriously about reading as a practice - the types of work I’m reading, whose work I’m paying attention to and how I was reading it. I’ve been nudged further in this thinking through conversations on a variety of podcasts - Book Club for Masochists, Overdue, The Worst Bestsellers. I’ve also been inspired by our local UU’s social justice book club and the recommendations of Mandy Cowley.
After a year of consuming a lot of book-related media and exploring some of the associated reading challenges (including trying to expand my understanding by reading books by authors from different countries of the world), I’ve realized that - while these challenges might be good for some people, they don’t necessarily translate to a meaningful reading practice for me. Perhaps it was a late and naive realization - any challenge related to publishing is going to have a focus on selling more books and promoting recent publications. Neither of which is a bad aim, but not necessarily what I’m trying to do.
I’ve been letting the thought “how do I choose what to read” simmer for a while. When, in the usual imbricated way of contemporary life, a highly contingent chain of events (friend’s book recommendation, reading the book, rating on goodreads, link to a list based on the post) led me to A Planner’s Guide to Reading by Martin Weigel, which answers the question:
"What should I read to inform and inspire myself?"
Weigel lists 7 kinds of reading from which planners benefit:
“1. That which expands our capacity for empathy
2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy
3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built
4. That which illuminates the present state of things
5. That which lets us peer into the near-future
6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft
7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression”
Weigel goes on to provide a short reading list under each of these categories, with a brief explanation of his thinking around each category. His list felt solid, but not quite right for me. Some were a little too focused on marketing and advertising. Others were, perhaps, a little narrow.
I’ve thought about (and bounced a draft list off the ever-insightful Jared Barnes) how I’d frame such a list for myself. Here’s what I read:
I’m sure I’ll realize that I’ve left out something essential, but here is my own quick list of what I’ve been reading lately in each of these categories:
That which expands our capacity to love
Empathy isn’t enough.
Mister Loverman - Bernardine Evaristo
Crush - Richard Siken
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous - Ocean Vuong
Autumn - Ali Smith
Generations - Flavia Biondi
The Velvet Rage - Alan Downs
That which amplifies the past, illuminates the present state of things, and projects possible futures
Think about these as a continuum rather than as separate categories.
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States - Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Staying with the Trouble - Donna Haraway
Transmetropolitan, volumes 1-10 - Warren Ellis
Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place - bell hooks
White Fragility - Robin DiAngelo
That which provides vocabulary, concepts, frameworks, and models for describing thinking and experience
Queer theory and phenomenology are incredibly useful frameworks to help me make sense of the world.
Queer Phenomenology: Orientations - Sara Ahmed
The Queer Art of Failure - J Jack Halberstam
Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric - Madison Moore
Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity - Jose Esteban Munoz
Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality - Gayle Salamon
That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft
So you feel less alone and are compelled to keep making good, whole-hearted work.
How to Make Art at the End of the World - Natalie Loveless
On Writing Well - William Zinsser
Eat Up - Ruby Tandoh
Coal to Diamonds - Beth Ditto
Educating the Reflective Practitioner - Donald Schon
Create Dangerously - Edwidge Danticat
That which grounds us in our areas of expertise
Be informed - know the scholarship in your disciplines.
Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture - Bruce Pascoe
Overgrown: Practices Between Landscape Architecture and Gardening - Julian Raxworthy
Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape - Lauret Savoy
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City - Matthew Desmond
Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire - Ed. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, Bruce Erickson
I don’t expect that my five categories of reading - or my recent reads in each category - will be right for you. These lists are by no means comprehensive. They just demonstrate how some of my recent reading can fulfill the categories. Perhaps they’ll help you gain some clarity in thinking about your own reading practice. Go read!