Every month we share what our team is reading. We’re about four months overdue this time around (better late than never?), so without further ado, here’s what’s on our nightstands these days…
Sejal: This month, I read Malcolm Harris’s very good Kids These Days. It’s one of the first books about millennials that’s actually, well, by a millennial, and I found a lot in it that resonated. Harris argues that from elementary school on, our lives are a boot camp designed to make us maximally productive workers, on the theory that we’d get a fair shot in the world if we just invest in our own human capital — all while an increasingly precarious economy makes that promise seem more like a lie every day. If you need an antidote to the next laughably out-of-touch think-piece about smartphones or avocado toast, you should check this book out.
Sam: Last month I finally got around to Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil, published last year. Each chapter takes on an iconic mid-twentieth century woman intellectual or artist who stood aloof from feminism (as from most social movements). I find Nelson’s account of the idiosyncratic relationship between politics and style in each figure’s work enormously helpful, especially given how rarely writing about these women rises above simple admiration or resentment. It’s also an unusually clear and engaging read for a piece of academic criticism!
Juliana: I just finished reading this fantastic book about how the medical industry has been ignoring or misdiagnosing women for centuries… If you haven’t checked out Maya’s book run, don’t walk to your nearest independent feminist bookstore and get yourself a copy. While taking a much-needed vacation last month, I also got to dig into Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything. In it, two former Bernie Sanders staffers tell the story of how the campaign aimed higher and bolder than any candidate in the election, and defied expectations. As a digital organizer myself, I was inspired and fascinated to learn how they asked volunteers to take on enormous tasks and the ways in which people showed up. Reminds me of this little scrappy feminist blog…
Jess: I’m currently reading Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. I’m not sure if I can adequately describe this book, but I’ll try. Spill is a book of poems that Gumbs wrote in conversation with the writings of Black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers, interwoven vignettes of black women and girls escaping from sexual and racist violence and making worlds, a series of meditations on what can be contained in the word “spill.” As Gumbs describes it, “This is for black women who made and broke narrative. The quiet, the quarreling, the queer. This is where. This is what. This is how.”
Meg: I am reading the second of Elena Ferrante’s gorgeous four-part meditation on female friendship in working-class Italy, The Story of a New Name, and I am already ready to declare Ferrante one of the most important authors I’ve ever read, and one of my favorites. Ferrante really knows how to write women and their relationships to each other, in all its richness, with the intensity of love and emotion that women feel for each other, as well as all the ugly thoughts of jealousy and fear and anxiety and longing and pettiness. I also have no words to describe the experience of reading women written with such care and thought and complexity, and to see men fall in the background — as pretenders, as abusers, as distractions. Men aren’t caricatures for Ferrante, but she writes of them with this casual disdain even as her women fall in love with them — and it’s truly astonishing and refreshing to read. I need to start reading the third of this series, but this book did cause me enough emotional anguish that I need a break for a while!
Reina: So I know I’m about a hundred years late to the party on this one, but I just finished reading Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse. And whoa! I can see why everyone has been talking about it. I’ve long had a lot of anxiety about the binary way victim/perpetrator dynamics are portrayed in a lot of feminist analyses of violence and Schulman’s take really spoke to me. Schulman identifies a tendency to overstate harm, at both an interpersonal and societal level, in order to characterize normative conflict between people as abuse wherein one person is an innocent victim and the other, a monstrous perpetrator. Of course, in situations of abuse, which are fundamentally about power imbalance, there is a victim and a perpetrator. But Schulman’s core argument is that not every situation of conflict is abusive and, in such situations, rather than focusing on placing all the blame on one party and totally exonerating another, we should focus on mutual accountability. I really, really appreciated Schulman’s frank declaration that every person deserves compassion. Our tendency to portray people who commit violence as monsters actually makes it harder for all of us to claim responsibility when we do, inevitably, cause harm, and I think feminists are often guilty of this. In order to shift from less punitive to more restorative and transformative forms of justice, we need to focus on facilitating accountability processes that can integrate people who have caused harm back into the community, rather than shun and discard them. Schulman’s emphasis on shifting from a framework of blame and punishment to one of accountability and resolution has already helped me rethink conflicts in my own life (both personal and political).
One thing I did have a problem with, though, was Schulman’s writing in the first few chapters on what she perceives as a tendency for women especially to overstate harassment in situations she would rather understand as flirting. While I agree with Schulman that it’s vital to recognize that gender and power are complicated and that sometimes we ourselves don’t always know exactly what we want, I think she seriously underestimates the coercive pressures that make it so damn hard for women to navigate men’s sexual advances. Depending on the context, if a guy comes onto me, I may fear the social consequences of both accepting and rejecting his advances (the former because I may fear violence or slut shaming; the latter because I may fear, well, violence and slut shaming). So I really want to give women the benefit of the doubt on this one, as we navigate a lot of sexual situations ruled by a kind of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t logic.
Dana: I’m a week away from final exams (thoughts and prayers welcome), so reading for pleasure is off limits for now. Once I’m done, I’m looking forward to returning to The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Feministing favorite Leslie Jamison, and of course our very own Maya’s Doing Harm.
Header image via the best bookstore in DC.
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