A Nation Mobilized: 10 Books on Contemporary Activism in America

To watch or read the news in the United States in 2018 is to see the increasing influence of activists in contemporary society. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter’s calls to address societal injustices and inequalities, or the huge presence of the March For Our Lives to address gun violence earlier this year, numerous people around the country (and around the world) are taking steps to move society towards a better world.

What follows is a look at ten books exploring different facets of contemporary activism, with a particular focus on class and economic issues. That said, there isn’t really a dividing line between economic issues and issues related to race and gender in contemporary America: these questions are inherently related and interconnected. Whether you’re looking for a guide for your own activism or to simply learn more about the movements affecting contemporary politics, you’ll find plenty to ponder in these books.

 

The cover of the book What the Eyes Don't SeeWhat the Eyes Don’t See
Mona Hanna-Attisha
The pollution that’s been found in the water supply in Flint, Michigan, and the effects it’s had on those who have drunk it, serves as a devastating indictment of the policies that caused a city’s water to become this contaminated in the first place. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s book explores her involvement in dealing with the crisis this caused, and her efforts to make the world aware of these conditions.

 

The cover of the book They Can’t Kill Us AllThey Can’t Kill Us All
Wesley Lowery
Wesley Lowery’s reporting on protests in Ferguson and Baltimore has been invaluable reading for anyone looking to understand the ways in which questions of race, class, and power converge. In They Can’t Kill Us All, Lowery traces the evolution of a political movement, all the while giving readers a visceral sense of what’s at stake.

 

The cover of the book We Gon’ Be AlrightWe Gon’ Be Alright
Jeff Chang
Over the course of this short book, Jeff Chang explores a host of issues relating to protest movements, political unrest, and personal evolution. Chang excels at showing both the personal aspect of activism and revealing the broader sociopolitical conditions that contributed to years’ (if not decades’) worth of systemic abuses. The result is a concise, insightful look at activism in contemporary America.

 

The cover of the book Hope in the DarkHope in the Dark
Rebecca Solnit
For many people looking to change society, despair can be very real: the harrowing frustration that can come from certain obstacles can lead to depression and a sense of despondency. Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark is one of several of Solnit’s books to explore questions of activism and the search for a better world; here, she also makes a pragmatic case for optimism in activism, even when things look particularly bleak.

 

The cover of the book When They Call You a TerroristWhen They Call You a Terrorist
Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele
Patrisse Khan-Cullors is one of the founders of Black Lives Matter; in her memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist, she details the path that led her to a life in activism. Along the way, she also describes the conditions of racial inequality in the United States, and the consequences of several centuries’ worth of discrimination, violence, and bigotry.

 

The cover of the book Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?
Joe Macaré, Maya Schenwar, and Alana Yu-lan Price
One of the causes for which activists have been most vocal is the effort to reform police departments–from changing policies that have left people dead to increasing oversight of potential abuses. This collection of writings looks at the ways in which police have abused their power over the years, and examines efforts to eliminate those abuses and create a more equitable system.

 

The cover of the book From a Whisper to a ShoutFrom a Whisper to a Shout
Elizabeth Kissling
With several states presently looking to restrict or eliminate abortions within their borders, activists in favor of a woman’s right to choose have been as vocal as ever. In From a Whisper to a Shout, Kissling examines four organizations at the center of this issue, and explores the ways in which each has used social media to make an impact.

 

The cover of the book Together We RiseTogether We Rise
The Women’s March Organizers, Condé Nast
Following the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump in early 2017, the Women’s March made a powerful impact on public consciousness, and served as an early symbol of resistance to the current administration’s politics. Together We Rise collects a host of essays by notable writers, along with images of the protests, for a powerful sense of the events and their impact.

 

The cover of the book Capitalist RealismCapitalist Realism
Mark Fisher
When confronting issues of class and social change and dealing with the systemic inequalities of this particular manifestation of capitalism, it can be easy to become disillusioned. Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is a brief but substantial book in which Fisher explores the ways in which activists have the means to create an alternative (and more equitable) system to enact social change.

 

The cover of the book Radical HappinessRadical Happiness
Lynne Segal
There can be something exhilarating about taking part in a protest or other instance of activism. In her book Radical Happiness, Lynne Segal examines this side of activism, and also explores the ways in which avoiding politics entirely may be tied to a greater sense of disquiet and frustration. It’s an incisive look at another facet of politics and society.

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Excelsior! How Stan Lee Remade American Myth

Stan Lee poses with Spider-Man during the Spider-Man 40th Birthday celebration in 2002 in Universal City, California.

Stan Lee poses with Spider-Man during the Spider-Man 40th Birthday celebration in 2002 in Universal City, California. 

Born as Stanley Lieber to immigrants, he was an avid reader who dreamed of literary fame. He found his way into comics. First, he filled inkwells in the years when the medium was considered a public menace.

Soon, he was writing comics. He split his first name into two in the credits (he legally changed his name in the 1970s) of his earliest works, implying that his new comics imprint, Marvel, had more writers than it really did. And those credits appeared on stories about heroes who were a little more human than the caped crusaders that dominated the comic book shop shelves. Spider-Man might save the day, but he still has to do his homework. The Fantastic Four were a formidable fighting force that couldn’t stop bickering at times. And Wolverine … well, was Wolverine.

The characters also lived in the real world, and Marvel comics sometimes addressed social issues of the time.

From a 1968 column Lee wrote in Marvel comics:

Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater—one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately.

It wasn’t Lee’s political stances that earned him professional ire, though. From The New York Times:

Mr. Lee was often faulted for not adequately acknowledging the contributions of his illustrators, especially Mr. Kirby. Spider-Man became Marvel’s best-known property, but Mr. Ditko, its co-creator, quit Marvel in bitterness in 1966. Mr. Kirby, who visually designed countless characters, left in 1969. Though he reunited with Mr. Lee for a Silver Surfer graphic novel in 1978, their heyday had ended.

Many comic fans believe that Mr. Kirby was wrongly deprived of royalties and original artwork in his lifetime, and for years the Kirby estate sought to acquire rights to characters that Mr. Kirby and Mr. Lee had created together. Mr. Kirby’s heirs were long rebuffed in court on the grounds that he had done “work for hire” — in other words, that he had essentially sold his art without expecting royalties.

The Marvel characters didn’t stay in the comics forever. As we all know, the screen adaptations of Spider-Man and, later, the Avengers, found gigantic audiences on screen. Marvel now generates billions of dollars in ticket sales with each new blockbuster. The comic books that were once a menace are now a goldmine. And the characters that were once for kids are now for everyone.

Stan Lee may have lived an American story, but then he ended up creating them.

Show produced by Amanda Williams.

NPR, November 14, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR

 

The Dead and the Undead: James Joyce and the Origin of the Modern Vampire

Cover detail, Dubliners © Penguin Random House

Transylvania gets all the glory for being the homeland of the vampire, but the true capital of the Undead has always been dear, dirty Dublin. After all, it was two Protestant Dubliners who largely created the modern vampire that’s loomed large in pop culture ever since: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu with his novella Carmilla and Bram Stoker with Dracula. But to understand why those men conjured the dark shadows of Countess Karnstein and Count Dracula, we need to turn to Dublin’s most beloved literary son, James Joyce. It’s in his novella The Dead that Joyce lays bare the true specters that led to Victorian Dublin becoming the birthplace of the vampire we all know and love today–namely, sex and religion.

Carmilla and Dracula are both stories, at their dark hearts, about proper Protestant English ladies who are preyed upon by bloodsucking undead aristocrats from the decadent, Catholic East. In Carmilla, Laura and her father live in Styria (now part of Austria) and take in a sickly young woman called Carmilla, who is both an emotional and actual vampire. Carmilla throws herself on Laura with barely-sub lesbian subtext by day, and feeds on her blood by night.

In Dracula, the Count leaves his crumbling castle in Transylvania and comes to London, where he assaults Lucy Westenra and her friend Mina Harker in their beds. Lucy dies and is turned into a vampire, and Mina begins turning into the Undead, becoming so “unclean” that even a communion wafer burns her skin. In the end of both stories, it takes retributive male violence (led by Laura’s father and Mina’s husband) to destroy the vampires and save the women in body and soul.

Fevered obsession with women’s purity is as common in Victorian literature as secret relatives and elaborate descriptions of foreheads, of course, but what’s fascinating about Carmilla and Dracula is that in both stories, Catholic superstition about the Undead proves to be not only true, but the only means of saving the good Protestant women Laura and Mina. Carmilla is physically hurt by peasants singing a hymn, and in Dracula, Mina’s husband Jonathan is shocked to find that a “heathenish” crucifix given to him by a Transylvanian woman proves most effective in warding off the Count.Fevered obsession with women’s purity is as common in Victorian literature as secret relatives and elaborate descriptions of foreheads.

Le Fanu and Stoker were both Protestants themselves, members of a ruling minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and it’s impossible for me (a descendent of Protestant Irish myself) not to think that Countess Karnstein and Count Dracula reflected a very real religious anxiety in their creators.

It’s in Joyce’s The Dead where this combustible mix of sexual and religious anxiety manifests as an “impalpable and vindictive being … gathering forces … in its vague world” that haunts good middle-class Dubliner Gabriel Conroy. In the story, Gabriel and wife Gretta go to a party thrown by Gabriel’s aunts. During a dance, Gabriel is accosted by an Irish nationalist named Miss Ivors, who chides him for writing for a Unionist newspaper and not knowing his own country better, and pushes him to join her and Gretta on a trip to the Gaelic-speaking Aran Islands in the West.  His aunts also discuss visiting a Trappist monastery, where the monks are believed to sleep in coffins (Le Fanu and Stoker surely heard of this same monastery, too, and I wonder how much that image of Catholic monks sleeping and waking in coffins informed their visions of Carmilla and Dracula’s resting places).

After the party, Gabriel is stoked to get hot and heavy, but Gretta is too distracted and distraught after hearing an old song that a dead boyfriend, Michael Furey, once sang for her when she lived in Galway in the West. Gabriel’s own sexual and religious anxieties come together in the specter of Furey, this romantic Catholic boy from the Gaelic West, who loved his wife.

Le Fanu and Stoker turned their anxieties–about death, women’s sexuality, and their own religious heritage–into implacable blood-sucking creatures of the night who haunt our pop culture today. It’s fitting that the lapsed Catholic Joyce turned his own anxieties (Michael Furey was based on a real boy who’d courted Nora Joyce) into a haunting story of love, death, and sympathy.

In the end, Gabriel doesn’t vanquish Michael Furey–he accepts him. He can’t be destroyed like Carmilla or Dracula. Gretta’s sexuality isn’t a thing to be vindicated through violence, but simply accepted. Gabriel drifts off to sleep after having a vision of Michael Furey’s spirit and other members of the “vast hosts of the dead.” He decides, in his final moments of consciousness, to take a trip to the Gaelic West with Gretta and the nationalist Miss Ivors, as snow falls over Ireland: on Dubliner and Westerner, Catholic and Protestant, and upon all the living and the Undead.

Let’s all (pretend to) go to Paris!

Do you ever find yourself sitting around on a slow Saturday afternoon wondering what it would have been like to visit Paris a century ago? 

Of course you do. Who hasn’t? And normally it’s so hard to find a way to satisfy your curiosity, but not Saturday, October 13 at the Moline Public Library! 

Saturday Afternoon in Paris

How We Got Here: 9 Books on the Science of Culture

Photo by claire jones on Unsplash

If you’re trying to understand why our culture is the way it is, or how we got to be this way, look no further. The nine books below will allow you to take a deep dive into our past, our present, and our potential future to learn more about how our culture developed and evolved, and where we’re headed from here.

The cover of the book The Efficiency ParadoxThe Efficiency Paradox
Edward Tenner
Our culture today can’t get enough of efficiency – it’s everywhere we turn. From algorithms to multitasking, the sharing economy, and life hacks, we are always looking for ways to maximize our productivity in less time, in both our professional and personal lives. But is this the right path for our future? The Efficiency Paradox questions our ingrained assumptions about efficiency and offers us new ways to learn from the random and unexpected.

 

The cover of the book The Wizard and the ProphetThe Wizard and the Prophet
Charles C. Mann
From the bestselling, award-winning author of 1491 and 1493, The Wizard and the Prophet is a clever portrait of two lesser-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, whose opposing views shaped our understanding of the world. In forty years, Earth’s population will reach ten billion. Borlaug and Vogt had different solutions to this problem – Charles C. Mann describes them here, and provides an insightful analysis on how we can continue to thrive on an increasingly crowded Earth.

 

The cover of the book The Evolution of BeautyThe Evolution of Beauty
Richard O. Prum
Named a best book of the year by The New York Times Book Review, the Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal, The Evolution of Beauty is a stunning re-imagining of Darwin’s theory of Evolution. Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum makes the argument that adaptation by natural selection is not the only factor that plays a role in what we see in nature. Richard makes the case for the theory of sexual selection, stating that it is a driving force behind evolutionary change and the reason we are the way we are today.

 

The cover of the book The Strange Order of ThingsThe Strange Order of Things
Antonio Damasio
In The Strange Order of Things, Antonio Damasio takes a look at homeostasis – the condition of equilibrium that regulates human physiology – to prove that we descend biologically, psychologically, and even socially from a long lineage that begins with single living cells and other primitive life-forms. The Strange Order of Things gives us a new way of comprehending the world and our place in it.

 

The cover of the book Enlightenment NowEnlightenment Now
Steven Pinker
This instant New York Times bestseller is a fascinating read that assesses the human condition today. Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, takes a step back from the popular notion that the world is doomed to show that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are actually on the rise. Pinker argues that by using the Enlightenment ideals of reason and science, we can further enhance our culture, and humanity as a whole.

 

The cover of the book The Culture CodeThe Culture Code
Daniel Coyle
How do you build a great culture? What sustains it? In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle attempts to answer these questions by examining some of the world’s most successful organizations, including the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six, IDEO, and the San Antonio Spurs. Daniel curates a culture-building process by identifying the three key skills that are necessary for cohesion and cooperation. This book is essential for anyone looking to learn the principles of cultural chemistry to create teams of people that can accomplish amazing things together.

 

The cover of the book 12 Rules for Life12 Rules for Life
Jordan B. Peterson
In this book, renowned psychologist Jordan B. Peterson combines the tested truths of ancient tradition with cutting-edge scientific research to answer the question: What does everyone in the modern world need to know? Jordan discusses discipline, freedom, adventure and responsibility with humor and wit, breaking down the wisdom of the world into 12 practical and profound rules. Readers will experience a transformation of mind and spirit with each turn of the page.

 

The cover of the book Win BiglyWin Bigly
Scott Adams
Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, takes a look at the persuasion strategies Donald Trump used during the recent election, and reveals how to use these methods in your own life to win against all odds. Win Bigly isn’t about Trump being good or evil, or right or wrong- it’s about the power of persuasion in any setting, especially when the audience responds to emotion, not reason.

 

The cover of the book Searching for Stars on an Island in MaineSearching for Stars on an Island in Maine
Alan Lightman
Alan Lightman, acclaimed author of Einstein’s Dreams and theoretical physicist, has always seen the world scientifically. He found comfort in the logic and materiality of a universe governed by a small number of disembodied forces and laws. But one summer night, he felt connected to something larger than himself – something that couldn’t be explained. This sparked Alan’s desire to look further into the human desire for truth and meaning, and the role that religion and science play in that quest.

To Quit Or Not Quit a Book? Our Readers Weigh In…

Reading is a bit like dating. Sometimes a book ignites a spark, and other times it fizzles. So we asked our followers on Twitter and Facebook: Do you stick with it or do you move on? Check out some of the most popular comments below and let us know which camp you fall into.

1.“99% of the time I will finish the book. I feel I owe it to the author,” says Todd.

2. “I usually stick it out. There’s been many times that I’ve ended up loving something that wasn’t initially drawing me in,” says Andrew.

3.“Move on. Reading should be a pleasure. If it’s not the book for you, it’s not the book for you,” says Barbara.

4.“I give it the 100 page limit. If I am still not into the book by that page, I put it down and get another book to read. Life is too short to suffer through a book you are not enjoying,” says Luci.

5. “I used to stick with it, but I have decided that I only have so many years in my life and it is not worth it! There are so many good books out there to discover,” says Tamara.

6. “I always finish them off. I sometimes put them down and pick another book but always come back,” says Carola.

7. “It depends on the level of not pulling me in. If I’m not loving it, but still want to know how it ends, I’ll stick with it. But if reading it feels like a chore, I’ll stop reading it,” says Chelsey.

8. “If it’s a book I really want to read, I try the audio before giving up completely,” says Dana.

9. “Put it away and try much later on. Tastes and style change over the years,” says Brad.

10.“Depends on why I’m reading it. For review? For my private students? For research? For pleasure? For the first 3, I stick to it. For the last, I move on,” says Elizabeth.

11. “If it’s unrecommended I’ll give it 2-3 chapters. If it’s an author I like or has come with a respected recommendation I’ll give it more time,” says Danielle.

12. “I always try to stick with it. I feel like there is something to learn in the struggle of getting through a book. I’ve only put down a couple of books, but that was because I developed a strong dislike for the material,” says Kira.

13. “I usually move on. For every page I force myself to read that I’m not enjoying, that’s time I could be reading pages that I love,” says Nicole.

14. “Some books take more time than others to learn the flow of the prose, but more often than not it pays to keep reading until you get there,” says Carole.

15. “I leave it alone for a couple days and if the desire to read it doesn’t come back then I just don’t bother,” says Teresa.

16.“So much of my reading is for book clubs that I pretty much always stick with it—at least I’ll have people to complain to!” says Megan.

By Marie, February 23, 2018, first appearing on Goodreads Blog