the contextual life

thoughts without borders

On the Shelf: So Subversive

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Bookrageous is one of the best podcasts out there. Every other week its three hosts discuss books centering around one theme. The topics, as well as the hosts, are always interesting, informative, and loaded with great suggestions—I always have a list of new titles by the end. Their latest show on subversive books is one of my favorites so far.

In this episode Josh from Brews and Books, Rebecca of The Book Lady’s Blog, and Jenn, the event coordinator at WORD bookstore talk about the subversive books they read while growing up. Their reminiscing made me think back to my own experience with books, read amongst the backdrop of hormone rushes and a desperate search for identity

Starting in my preteen years, I’d had a sense that I didn’t fit in. School life was often uncomfortable. It was an alien world of fashionable clothes, makeup, and boyfriends; when I found the energy, my attempts never came out quite right. My efforts always manifested themselves into an unintended parody.

It was in books that I found kindred spirits, whether they were fictional characters or stories about other misfits who rose above the constraints of society. I found role models in those who couldn’t care less about the opinions of others and over time the notion took.

According to Merriam Webster, “to subvert” means:
1. to overturn or overthrow from the foundation
2. to pervert or corrupt by an undermining of morals, allegiance, or faith

And “subversive” is:
1. the act of subverting : the state of being subverted;especially : a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by persons working secretly from within.

Although it’s not a new idea and not at all surprising, I love that a book can prove so powerful that it has a profound effect on someone’s worldview—ideally in a way that makes them a better person and not causes them to do evil, although that’s been known to happen.

Josh, Rebecca, and Jenn’s conversation—and choices—reminded me that the right book put in the hands of teen can provide a burst of self-acceptance and inspire a quiet rebellion. As expected, many of our choices overlapped but there were a few I still haven’t gotten around to that are worth noting. Briefly, as they have an extensive list on their Tumblr page, they are: A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, The Giver by Lois Lowry, Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Here’s what’s been on my subversive shelf over the years (in no particular order):

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
I remember hiding this one from my parents in fear that they would think (or more accurately, know) that I was doing drugs. I was a big fan of the Grateful Dead and like any kid with a tendency towards OCD and manic-consumption I read anything by or about them or anyone within their circle. Tom was one of the founders of New Journalism in the 60s and 70s and in this book he goes on the road with Ken Kesey and his group of Merry Pranksters as they drive cross country in a bus doing drugs and going to Dead shows.

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
Stemming from, or maybe riding parallel to, my interest in the Grateful Dead was an interest in Buddhism. I remember the Eastern philosophy flipping my Western upbringing somewhat on its head. Like many teen outcasts, I had a feeling something was wrong. I couldn’t place it but something about the surrounding culture felt off. The Tao of Pooh opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world in a way my 15-year-old brain could grasp. This book paved the way for many years of on-again-off-again study of Buddhism and probably kept me sane.

Native Son by Richard Wright
As a white girl from the suburbs of Long Island, Richard Wright was my first glimpse into the black experience. Native Son, the story of a 20-year-old black kid living in 1930s Chicago, led me on a long varied journey through other black writers with books like Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, Soul on Ice by Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, the gritty, pulp memoir Pimp by Iceberg Slim, and feminist books by Bell Hooks.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Or any book by S.E. Hinton really. I have a vivid memory of my mom going to the library one afternoon and asking what book I wanted. I’d just finished The Outsiders and was craving more like it. “Anything by S.E. Hinton,” I said; but what I really meant was, “anything with screwed up teenagers”. Hinton’s books brought me inside the lives of tormented kids and I took comfort in their pain. The torment the characters experienced spoke to me and I could never go back to The Baby-sitter’s Club again.

Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
My friends and I passed this one around amongst ourselves. It’s the diary of a girl whose writing perfectly captures the “torture and hell of adolescence”. While I don’t remember the details, I do remember there being some sort of decent into drug-fueled self-destruction. Apparently it was written with the intention of being a deterrent. Oh well.

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
This book did more to change the way I saw the world than any book I’d read before or since. It was the first time I’d thought of the implications of our society’s structure. Told through the point of view of a telepathic gorilla, Ishmael, Quinn explains why the agrarian culture—keeping food under lock and key—was the beginning of the end of our freedom. Reading this powerful book was one of my first eye-opening experiences.

Generation X by Douglas Coupland
I credit Coupland with rekindling my interest in reading after the long, hard slog through assigned books. He made me realize that there were books out there that could speak to the modern world in a way I could relate. While the story itself is a bit hazy in my memory, I remember how the structure was something I’d never seen before. The layout was playful and creative. It wasn’t merely text on a page, there were sidebars with odd definitions and random pictures. The story itself was about dropping out of our growing materialist culture and the search for meaning along the way. Coupland showed up at the right time with just the right tone.

Radical Thinkers Series from Verso
If you’re currently looking for subversion in theory form, I highly recommend Verso’s Radical Thinkers series. There you’ll find mind-blowing thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek, Jean-Paul Sartre, Antonio Negri, Chantal Mouffe, and others. It just goes to show that just because you grow up, the subversion doesn’t need to end.

What subversive books influenced your worldview as a kid? Did you ever hide any books at the bottom of a clothing drawer?

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Written by Gabrielle

October 20, 2011 at 6:14 am

4 Responses

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  1. Glad we share the NATIVE SON love, and girl, you HAVE to read THE GIVER. It’s a two-hour commitment, tops, and so worth it.

    • i most certainly will. it’s to the point where i feel ashamed for not having read it.

      Gabrielle

      October 21, 2011 at 9:35 am

  2. I found the essay collection, CRAZY SALAD by Nora Ephron, to be the start of my cohort’s feminist/humorist-awakening. It was the first time I really imagined having a voice of my own ~ and it didn’t need to strident or kittenish or schoolmarm-ish.

    rosie49

    October 24, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    • that reminds me an anthology the magazine BUST put out years ago. really great stuff in there.

      Gabrielle

      October 26, 2011 at 12:18 pm


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