Reading Our Way Through Life
May 22, 2016
Brendan Nuse ’17 and Frances Casey ’17
As long as I can remember, I've been a reader. My parents read to me a lot when I was really young, and it was only a matter of time before I was devouring The Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew. I have many a fine memory of sitting in a butterfly chair in our backyard, eating buttery toast and balancing a ten-pound Harry Potter book on my knees. My hardback copies of the later Harry Potters actually have stains on the side from my smeary buttery fingers. Gross, I know.
I read for pleasure pretty consistently until the end of high school. But for years before that, I had started reading less and less. I suppose I was busier with schoolwork, and Netflix streaming had become a thing. By the time I got to college, I was reading only a couple of books per semester; after reading 200 pages of dense history-related journal articles, I was usually ready to just watch Arrested Development and zone out a little. But in the past year or so, I've actually made an effort to read more often than I would in the past, because I always end up enjoying it more than I expect.
Here are some books I have read in the past year/am still in the process of reading:
Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
Have you heard Beyoncé's song "***Flawless?" Of course you have. You have also heard Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian feminist writer whose TED talk is sampled throughout. After reading Adichie's novel Americanah, which got a lot of buzz, I read her earlier novel Half of a Yellow Sun. It's a novel with several related narrators who are living in Nigeria during the Biafran War, which took place in Nigeria from 1960 to 1963 after the country gained independence from Britain. As somebody who has taken a few African history classes, and really likes historical fiction (because #historymajor, duh), I was really interested in this subject matter. I found it fascinating to think about our often very Americanized vision of what the 1960s was like, and the ways in which that narrative (think the Beatles, Summer of Love, the American civil rights movement) often erases the rapid, tumultuous changes that were happening all over the world during that decade. I highly recommend this book. The 2013 film adaptation cast some marvelous actors (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, John Boyega), but isn't that great.
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
This novel took a while to grow on me, but the last 100 pages had me hooked. The premise is that its protagonist, Ursula Todd, relives her life time and time again. Ursula is born in 1910, and repeatedly relives the World Wars. Every time she meets her death, she begins again at her birth. It takes Ursula several lifetimes to realize what is causing her extreme déjà vu, and she eventually attempts to kill Adolf Hitler. Atkinson's portrayal of the Blitz in London is the best part of the novel, but it comes towards the end--I found the first half a bit plodding, but working through the slower parts leads you to a riveting ending.
Maisie Dobbs, by Jaqueline Winspear
This is the first of a long series of mystery novels by Jaqueline Wispear. The protagonist is Maisie Dobbs, a badass maid-turned-army nurse-turned detective working in the interbellum period in London. My mom is a huge fan of this series, and gave me the first book to read on my long flight to Amsterdam. I personally found Maisie Dobbs to be very slow for most of the book, with the real action concentrated in the last 40 pages or so. I kept reading based on the rave reviews, but I probably would have quit halfway through otherwise. I'll probably try the second book in the series, and see if it draws my interest a little more. Nevertheless, Maisie's character is awesome, and I'm all about historical fiction starring powerful lady detectives.
Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell
Fangirl isn't historical fiction--it's actually Young Adult, a genre I was justifiably passionate about at age 14, but haven't really experienced since I last read a John Green book. I picked up Fangirl at the American Book Center in Amsterdam because numerous people had recommended Rainbow Rowell to me (and no, I haven't read Eleanor and Park, because the ABC didn't have it.) I really liked Fangirl while I was reading it, because it really fulfills all those YA tropes that make the genre so fun: a quirky but complicated narrator, emotional labor, hormones, an identity crisis--the list goes on. The story centers on Cath, a college freshman who is dealing with...freshman year stuff, alongside her identical twin. I was sad when my 459 pages of light, paperback entertainment was over. However, after a few days went by, and I started thinking it over, I actually have a lot of problems with the way in which the characters were written. I won't go into detail, but I found the main character to be too passive, and her love interest was some kind of manic pixie dream guy who had a distressingly simple personality. Apparently, Eleanor and Park is better, so I'll probably check that one out. I can't enthusiastically recommend Fangirl, but I wouldn't enthusiastically take it to my local book burning, either.
In progress: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
So, this book definitely doesn't fall under the "pleasure reading" category, because mass incarceration is really hard to read about, but obviously necessary. The New Jim Crow is becoming required reading for those who are aiming to end systematic racism and white supremacy, so it was about time that I got ahold of a copy. The book analyzes the U.S. practice of mass incarceration of Black people, and the private prison industry that plays a huge role in our economy and politics. I've only read about 50 pages so far, but I can already tell that it's going to be a remarkable, yet devastating, read. Michelle Alexander wrote this in 2010, and I'm sure that the growing awareness of the United States' abhorrent prison system is due in part to her. When I purchased this at the American Book Center in Amsterdam, the cashier remarked that he had been meaning to read it, telling me "We're starting to do that here now, too." I suppose the current rise of right-wing, racist policies in Europe, along with the U.S., makes Alexander's message all the more salient.
About to begin: The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science, by Andrea Wulf
This weekend, I'm planning on starting this biography of Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian naturalist and explorer. I don't know much about him, but the Internet tells me that his work contributed to the idea that the universe is one interacting entity, which is huge, and I want to know more.
So, here's to more reading--for fun, for knowledge, for taking in the brilliance of women authors, and for making sure my brain doesn't rot.
"Why do all the Oberlin bloggers have 'reading' listed in their interests? That's not telling you anything. Everyone likes reading. How can you be in college and not like reading!?" -My friend Bridget circa 2014 (She doesn't actually recall saying this. It happened, though. I promise.)
"Where does vegetarianism end and feminism begin, or feminism end and vegetarianism begin?[...] Major moments in feminist history and major figures in women's literature conjoined feminism and vegetarianism in ways announcing continuity, not discontinuity. Recognizing this continuity is one aspect of developing a feminist-vegetarian theory; our meals either embody or negate feminist principles by the food choices they enact." -The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Carol Adams
The students that I tutor at the middle school in Oberlin read Fahrenheit 451 this semester. Although I have some issues with how its dystopian premise is framed, I certainly agree with one of its main messages-- it is hard to read in today's world. Part of this is a personal problem for me. I always feel bad if I am not doing something "efficient," and it is hard for me to justify reading books that aren't for class when I have to do work for class or other commitments. Luckily, I recently managed to make one of my commitments (that I am very passionate about) into an opportunity to read.
One of my goals for this semester was to get more actively involved in things and take more opportunities. Although I have participated in a variety of activities during my three years at Oberlin, I have always been more focused on school than anything outside of class, so I haven't really taken on leadership roles or gotten as actively involved in student groups as a lot of Oberlin students.
However, this semester I volunteered to bring a speaker to campus for Oberlin Animal Rights. As someone who hates talking on the phone and goes to great lengths to avoid doing so, this was a pretty daunting task. However, when Carol Adams (author of The Sexual Politics of Meat and noted activist) responded to my email within an hour asking to talk on the phone, I put aside these fears and picked up the phone.
I'm glad I did. Bringing Carol Adams to campus was a very exciting experience for me. Not only did I get to hear the lecture, but I also got to go to dinner with Carol Adams and see what organizing an event is really like. I was very worried during the time leading up to the event that no one would come, but it turned out that I did not need to worry, since the event surpassed my expectations in every possible way.
This was 5 minutes before the event started and people just kept filing in! I was shocked and I am still so grateful for the awesome turnout.
And now I even have a signed book! Wow!
Perhaps more important than what I learned from organizing the event was what I learned from reading the book. I had already heard a lot about Carol Adams's work in the past, and I actually had read excerpts of The Sexual Politics of Meat in Chinese for one of my classes last semester. However, reading the book itself was an entirely different experience. The book not only expanded on the theoretical framework that I had heard about by thoroughly explaining concepts like the "absent referent," but also gave many examples from literature and life of how women and animals are often conflated in problematic ways. If you're interested in animal rights, veganism, feminism, or social justice in general (and if you're interested in Oberlin, you probably are), I would definitely recommend reading this book. It is the kind of book that can really change the way you think if you have never really thought about these specific issues. If you're not interested in any of these issues, then that's even better! This book is a great one to make you start thinking about connections between different types of oppression in everyday life.
Although I sometimes get overly focused on classes, I think that reading outside of class is very important. It helps fill in gaps in our education-- sure, I learn a lot about China and the environment from my classes, but I only learn what is on the syllabus. It's easy to overlook the fact that the work that we read in school is curated by professors with their own opinions and interests, and therefore what we learn is seen through the filter of their experiences (as well as our own). The course content, therefore, is obviously going to lean towards work that is of interest to these professors. However, everyone has their own interests and expectations. Sometimes we don't even know that we have certain interests until we read something-- I had never heard of the Lahu ethnic minority in China until I read a book about gender relations in their culture. Similarly, books can expose us to ideas unrelated to any courses that we would take. For example, over Winter Term I read a book about book clubs in women's prisons. Before reading this book, it had never even occurred to me that these book clubs existed. However, I now know quite a bit about them, and I feel that that has had an impact on my worldview as a whole. Without "independent" reading, I would still be completely unaware of this topic.
One of my favorite parts of summer is that there is usually a lot of time to read. I've been home for a week now, and I have already been to the library four or five times-- I have 11 books checked out. I probably won't actually finish all of them, but if I do, I'll know more about museums, rape victims, raw veganism, the medicalization of our society, and so much more. It's easy to think that learning stops during the summer, but I'm just getting started.
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