What did I read this year? Not a lot that I loved, to be honest. And kind of a mishmash. It was a strange year…
I started 2021 distressed like everyone on the planet, but also coping with heartbreak. Enough, I decided. I’m tired. I picked up bell hooks, because I needed Feminism-with-a-capital-F, and (in my humble opinion) you gotta go back to Gloria Jean for the real thing. I read Ain’t I a Woman, All About Love, Communion, Art on My Mind…and I recommend all of it. But it was The Will to Change that kicked my ass and, literally, changed everything—more specifically, changed the way I thought about myself as a so-called strong woman and made me reassess my right (and increasing habit) to whinge about male emotional intelligence. If ever there was an actual strong woman to tell me to knock it off and recognize how counterproductive (and ironic) it is to victimize oneself for being supposedly too strong for male love, it was Dr. hooks: “We need to highlight the role women play in perpetuating and sustaining patriarchal culture so that we will recognize patriarchy as a system women and men support equally, even if men receive more rewards from that system. Dismantling and changing patriarchal culture is work that men and women must do together.” Uy. No joke. (Happy ending to this story: I met a man who—on our fifth date, while browsing in a bookstore—saw the book, pulled it down, and bought it. No prompting from me. And he read it. No joke.)
Sometime in deep winter I stumbled upon the Hulu series Normal People. It was such a shitty time; we’d been isolated and afraid and enraged for months. The actors on the show were so young and lovely, even/especially in their heartsick awkwardness, and Ireland so moody and idyllic on screen…I didn’t just marathon watch, I gave in to it. And couldn’t stop talking about it with my pandemic weekly-phonechat friend. We agreed then to read the book together—something I never do, i.e. read a book after I’ve seen a screen adaptation—but this turned out to be a fascinating exception to that rule. Sally Rooney both wrote the novel and co-wrote the series, and you can see her own evolution in relation to the material and the characters. Was this or that little detail in the book? Was the underlying implication of this or that emotionally devastating moment between Connell and Marianne as clear (or ambiguous) in the writing as it was visually? What is she saying about intimacy and trust at the end—is it different in the book from the series? (Yes, we agreed, it is.) I wouldn’t say it was one of “the best” books of my year, but the experience of seeing an artist grow with her work—the novel was in fact based on a short story, so the TV series was a third iteration—was rewarding. Rooney does have something to say about vulnerability and intimacy and loneliness; and, she’s figuring it out in real time. (This story ends with that weekly phone chat turning into a three-way Zoom with another friend—two-and-a-half hours, if I recall, devoted to the multi-media phenomenon that is Normal People.)
Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness does the thing that the best “crossover” academic books do: it allows the lay reader—the non-sociologist/non-historian—to indulge in breadth and general knowledge without sacrificing the wonky depth that an actual scholar may require. Like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, Muhammad’s book traces the history of racism in America—specifically in criminality scholarship and urban law enforcement. Muhammad coherently tracks and synthesizes a story many of us know (vaguely and out of sequence), of a deep-seated anti-Blackness that began with the good intentions of white progressive sociologists and social workers at the onset of the 20th century and continues with white liberals today. It’s a spooky book in a way, reminding us that in any given era, there is a group of people who are convinced they are progressive—and relatively speaking, they are—but who are perpetuating and perpetrating destructive acts and attitudes. (Let’s hope this story—this history, that is—ends better than it began.)
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