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A few weeks ago, my mom and I went to the Art Institute of Chicago for a little field trip. We dropped into Cauleen Smith’s exhibit Human_3.0 Reading List while we were there and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. In the exhibit, Smith offers a proposed canon of literature for the modern human. Some of my favorites included Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, Cruising Utopia by José Esteban Muñoz, and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Weighty, important, academic books.
The whole thing got me thinking: what would be on my human reading list? There’s a part of me that’s very hesitant to answer that question since I’m like the least qualified person to encompass human experience (no pressure). But it’s also interesting to think about which texts have been paramount to my experience as a person and what I believe is profound enough to share with others.
What I like most about the exhibit is it’s sense of other worldliness – what kind of world would be in if the books she proposed were truly the canon of our time? If more people of color, more women, more queer people, more trans people, more non-binary people were regularly represented in main stream culture? Frankly, I’d like to find out.
Smith’s selections feel both widely prominent and deeply personal. Although I’m not sure I can speak to a larger audience, a few texts that come to mind as being part of my own personal reading list are…
- How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
- Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
- Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville
- Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh
- Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
To be honest, I’m sort of surprised by some of my choices (and flinched a little every time I wrote down a book written by a white guy), but it was an interesting exercise to see what struck me as both personally important and significant on a human level. I’m also curious how different this list will be in ten years, too.
It also got me thinking about what needed to be added to my own list – more authors of color, more academic books, more books from other countries. I’ve been in sort of a reading rut lately, so maybe this is the inspiration I need to dive back in!
So, I’m asking – what would be on your list? I think I’m going to start asking people in my life what their books would be – I’ll update this post as I get some answers and feel free to add yours in the comments. 🙂 It’s kind of fun to browse your bookshelf and see what jumps out at you, even if you haven’t picked it up in years.
If you’re in Chicago, I highly recommend checking out Cauleen Smith’s exhibit at the Art Institute for yourself. It closes October 29th, so it’s your last chance! Let me know what you think.
Summary: Beach read about rich hipsters in Brooklyn. Not a lot happens. But like in a good way?
Pair with: A sun hat and a cold corona.
I’ve been seeing Emma Straub everywhere! Her book, The Vacationers, was the book of the summer in 2014 and Modern Lovers seemed to follow suit last year. I’m a little behind the times just getting to it now, but I’ve had my eye out for it at the library for ages. I finally had some downtime on a quick trip to Florida a little while back and brought it along. Here are my thoughts, if you’re thinking of picking it up…
Modern Lovers follows two couples and their children in Brooklyn during one pivotal, modern-day summer. The season brings up former flames for the parents, a burgeoning romance for their teenage kids, and havoc wreaked by a now deceased bandmate. The whole novel has a nostalgic vibe – a ‘back when Brooklyn was affordable’ feel to it – and all of the characters hit some sort of hipster aesthetic: a culinary lesbian couple, unhappy Oberlin college sweethearts, nerdy white kid smoking weed for the first time, etc. It’s an ode to marital droughts, city kids with rich parents, and college glory days dripping with references to Brooklyn architecture, homemade kombucha, and woodworking as a legitimate hobby. I can totally see why it caught the attention of the NYC lifestyle blogosphere.
This may sound weird, but what I liked the most about the novel was that nothing really happened. I mean, obviously things happened, but the plot felt very low stakes. I had to do a double take at the twists and turns of the plot to realize they were even the twists and turns. The constant rotation of characters kept their emotions at arm’s length. I never felt particularly invested in their struggles and it was as if the characters themselves didn’t take their first world problems too seriously, either.
Unfortunately, the end seemed rushed and the conflict resolution was pretty half-hearted. It felt like there was a lot more to the story that got edited out. But’s not like I was really invested in a particular outcome anyway…
It may sound like I didn’t like the book, but I did! To me, Modern Lovers is the perfect beach read: light and engaging enough that you want to pick it up, but not too intense where you never put it back down again. Enough drama to keep my brain occupied, but I was never stressed out. A lovely, summer slice of upper-class life and a very relaxing read.
Have you read Modern Lovers? Agree or do you think I’m totally off-base? Would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations!