Build A Better World

This month we asked our librarians:

If you had to pick ONE book or series that everyone had to read as a prerequisite for being a human in the world, which book would it be?

I’m going to suggest a pair of books that are similar in their messages: I Don’t Know: in praise of admitting ignorance and doubt (except when you shouldn’t) by Leah Hager Cohen (2013) and Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz (2010). Both of these books examine the human discomfort with uncertainty and why it is that we will even hold on to an idea that we know is wrong unless we have something with which to replace it, and why perceived attacks on our beliefs feel like attacks on our identities; they look at how beliefs are formed, the difference between belief and knowledge, and how being wrong can actually move us closer to the truth. Cohen’s book is shorter, almost a meditative essay, while Schulz’s book is more comprehensive, including research and anecdote.

“Real civil discourse necessarily leaves room for doubt. That doesn’t make us wishy-washy…We can still hold fervent beliefs. The difference is, we don’t let those beliefs calcify into unconsidered doctrine….Fundamentalism of any kind is the refusal to allow doubt. The opposite of fundamentalism is the willingness to say ‘I don’t know.'” -Leah Hager Cohen

If we’re assuming a baseline understanding of the language the book is written / translated in, critical thinking skills at about GED standards, and a relative understanding of modernity versus history and our placement therein, then I think I’d recommend The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell.

There are probably better titles and more engaging fiction ones at that. However, they say that all fiction can be boiled down to just a handful of plot points: Overcoming the “Monster”, Rags to Riches and vice versa, the Quest, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. I think that The Power of Myth provides a good foundation to critically engage with these story lines as they continue to grow and intersect. Hopefully, it would provide for a better understanding of the human condition and provide for empathy. Mirrors and windows, right?

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon. It’s very long, so I wasn’t planning to read it until I saw a blog post from someone who said that a) the world would be a better place if everyone read this book, and b) you really only need to read the first 48 pages to get the idea. It’s true, but I dare you to try and stop after that 48 pages. Each chapter is about a different identity and can stand alone, so you definitely don’t have to read the whole thing. Solomon explores horizontal identities – identities that make a person different from their family. For instance, people who are transgender or have disabilities. Although it’s primarily about families, it’s really just about understanding and having empathy for those who are different from us, which is one of the most important aspects of sharing the world with other humans.

I absorb information, lessons, and ideas best through fiction, so of course I have to recommend a fiction book for this.  I’m going to cheat a little bit and recommend a trilogy, but really it’s one long story so that’s why I can’t recommend just one piece of it.
The series I’d pick for everyone to read is the Broken Earth trilogy by N K Jemisin. It tackles so many different themes & topics, but the one that stands out to me the most is oppression of marginalized groups.  In the world Jemisin creates the marginalized group is orogenes – people born with the ability to sense and manipulate the earth & seismic activity.  Most of the main characters are orogenes and through their lens we get to see what a lifetime of oppression does to a group of people.  It’s one of the few pieces of fiction I’ve come across that really breaks down society’s role in the marginalization of a group of people in a realistic way, allowing the reader to easily draw parallels to our world.  This book is important for that reason & so many more.  I feel like reading it would go a long way to helping making people more empathetic and understanding.  I’m not going to be able to do the book justice in just describing it, so I’m going to let Jemisin’s resonant words speak for themselves.

“There are stages to the process of being betrayed by your society.  One is jolted from a place of complacency by the discovery of difference, by hypocrisy, be inexplicable or incongruous ill treatment. What follows is a time of confusion–unlearning what one thought to be truth. Immersing oneself in a new truth. And then a decision must be made. Some accept their fate. Swallow their pride, forget the real truth, embrace the falsehood for all they’re worth—because, they decide, they cannot be worth much. If a whole society has dedicated itself to their subjugation, after all, then surely they deserve it? Even if they don’t, fighting back is too painful, too impossible. At least this way there is a peace, of a sort. Fleetingly. The alternative is to demand the impossible.  It isn’t right, they whisper, weep, shout; what has been done to them is not right. They are not inferior. They do not deserve it. And so it is the society that must change. There can be peace this way, too, but not before conflict. No one reaches this place without a false start or two.”

“Some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place.”

“But there are none so frightened, or so strange in their fear, as conquerors. They conjure phantoms endlessly, terrified that their victims will someday do back what was done to them—even if, in truth, their victims couldn’t care less about such pettiness and have moved on. Conquerors live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, not superior, but simply lucky.” 

“They’re afraid because we exist, she says. There’s nothing we did to provoke their fear, other than exist. There’s nothing we can do to earn their approval, except stop existing – so we can either die like they want, or laugh at their cowardice and go on with our lives.”

“But for a society build on exploitation, there is no greater threat than having no one left to oppress.”
“No voting on who gets to be people.”

I think I would choose A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood since I see it as a cautionary tale on what could happen when we lose our voices.
Even though it takes place in a dystopian future, many parts ring true, especially when you take a closer look at a not-so-distant future that enforces rape culture, control of reproductive rights, and inequality.
Is it all too unrealistic?
Hopefully, we’ll never have to worry about living in a totalitarian state. Perhaps it’s just fiction, but what if?

Wow, this was a tough one. I couldn’t quite decide between a quick picture book or a long series, so I chose both.

The little bit scary people– This picture book talks about how differences can be scary, but everyone has something familiar as well, so you have to look beyond the surface.

The Night Watch set in the Discworld series, most particularly Thud. This series within the greater series follows the overnight police force in the city of Ankh Morpork. At the start, they are fairly standard cliches of white guy policemen, but they become such rich characters, dealing with many social and political issues, as the books go on. The Watch opens up to women and other races, and deals with many greater issues in the world at large.

What book would you recommend?  Leave us your suggestion in the comments below!

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