A history of subversive book recommendations
Get your reading list from friends, not algorithms
On a plane ride home from Baltimore last year, a nosy ex-pastor took a peek at what I was reading and warned me I was entering dangerous territory. I wanted to tell him he should write book blurbs for a living, but I bit my tongue.
The book was Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. I explained that I was an education reporter and wanted to explore how Foucault might conceive of standardized testing as a panoptic tool for surveillance and control. He chuckled a little and told me he had read the book years ago.
“You’re in the yellow zone,” he said. “Careful. Keep going down that road and you’ll end up in the red zone.”
He didn’t elaborate on that remark, and I didn’t ask him to. I knew what he was driving at: Some ideas are dangerous. They can dissolve social orders, upend spiritual beliefs, and permanently alter your perception of power.
He left me in peace, and I paused to remember the series of rock-solid book recommendations that had led me to this one.
I’d originally read a Foucault essay after interviewing a Clemson University philosophy professor, Todd May, who mentioned the French theorist a few times while we talked about his advisory role on the NBC sitcom The Good Place.
I was reminded of Foucault again while reading Scott Samuelson’s Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering (University of Chicago Press, 2018). Like May, Samuelson spent some time teaching classes at a prison near his university. He wrote that he was reminded of Foucault during a conversation with one of the inmates.
“I was treating myself like a criminal!” said the inmate, Jack. “It’s that label ‘criminal’ that’s the worst punishment. It makes you feel like you’re not free even when you’re out of prison.”
I’d bought Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering to read during a family trip to Disney World based on a recommendation from my good college buddy Jayson. I trusted Jayson because he’s one of my best and oldest friends, but also because of the strength of his previous recommendation, Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (Other Press, 2017), a juicy biography of mid-20th-century existentialist writers.
When I finally wrote something about Discipline and Punish, my friend Sarah showed up at church the next week and pressed another Foucault paperback into my hand. (Sarah, if you’re reading this, I still have your copy of Power/Knowledge and I promise to read at least half of it before giving it back to you.)
So, a diagram of all those book recommendations might look something like this:
I have been down a few great rabbit holes in my life and loved every one. One good recommendation begets another. A professor or librarian or trusted friend peeks at what I’m reading and tells me what I should read next, and I take their word on it.
That, to me, is the most pleasurable way to discover new books. I don’t read many reviews, I’m not active on Goodreads, and I’ve given up entirely on Amazon’s book recommendation algorithm. My reading list is like a syllabus assigned by people I trust and admire.
The first rabbit hole started with a literal assignment. My 10th grade English teacher, the quick-witted Ms. Abrahamson, had a tradition of picking a book to assign each student in her class near the end of the school year.
Knowing that I was a prickly young conservative at the time, she told me to read Kurt Vonnegut’s classic anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five and write her an essay about it. I had never heard of the book. I had also never heard of the firebombing of Dresden, a military atrocity that Vonnegut witnessed firsthand and wrote about as a central event in the novel.
Vonnegut disarmed me. I came to appreciate his humanist lens, his half-cocked sci-fi sensibility, and even his critiques of the religion I held (and hold) near to my heart. I wrote my essay on the themes of Slaughterhouse-Five, thanked Ms. Abrahamson, and spent the next summer reading every Vonnegut novel in the Dorchester County Public Library.
Teachers, booksellers, and librarians have rarely led me astray with their recommendations. My high school history teacher Mr. Shumpert turned me on to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which proved to be an antidote to the nationalist propaganda in our official textbook that year.
I could go on. The bookseller in my hometown convinced me to read Dave Eggers for the first time. A coworker in the news business got me to read James Baldwin. More recently, the owners of my neighborhood bookstore Itinerant Literate sold me on Elvia Wilk’s Oval (Soft Skull Press, 2019), a clever and subversive novel of the New Weird genre that I enjoyed immensely and would not have found on my own.
I’ve never been part of a proper book club, but I’ve treasured every friendship that blossomed with a perfect book recommendation. Keep ‘em coming, I say.
I realize I just hit you with a bunch of book recommendations, but I wanted to link to a few other pieces of writing I’ve appreciated in the past week.
My college friend Malia wrote a piece for Self magazine about quitting a job that was making her sick. I had a lot of respect for Malia to begin with, but writing this article was especially brave on her part.
In Bookforum, Emily Gould wrote a trenchant review of Meghan Daum’s The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars. I don’t think I’ll be reading Daum’s book, but the review is a good read.
Finally, David Bell had a compelling op-ed piece in The State about raising a transgender child amid the anti-LGBT legislative climate of South Carolina. It is worth your time.