Yesterday, I talked about how important it was to be intentional in our development, to continue learning about ourselves and growing. It may have come off as work, but the final three books I share demonstrate the passion, excitement, and joy that comes from being yourself.
Being different, unfortunately, comes with penalties. We live in a world that prefers one kind of person, and to grow up with a different skin color, or set of desires, or sex is to face constant setbacks. We can end up learning that what we bring to the table isn't valuable or shouldn't be made visible. That's why works that explore our great diversity are so important: we can show that normal looks far more diverse than often presented and that we exist.
We also then challenge those that can fall under the normative paradigm to risk that privilege to explore who they are, to look beyond the surface that they've been congratulated for. They must reflect on how they acquired their worldviews and to think about the pain that they carry with them as well. My hope is that when people see books about underrepresented groups, they don't shy away but embrace them because they form a richer view of the world than we all are normally presented with.
Margot Lee Shetterly's "Hidden Figures" led to a crowd-pleasing film with fun performance by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae. The film is wonderful and the book is even better. The real-life women—not just Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden—are inspirations to this day, and that their stories took so long to be told is a reminder of how far we have to go.
Still, the power of hearing about their lives is immense. They were an important function at NASA at a time when diners preferred to serve white war criminals than black Americans. The lessons in "Hidden Figures" remain relevant, with a tech industry hostile to underrepresented groups: the book shows that black people, especially women, existed in STEM and deflates the racist idea that black excellence is innately lesser than white excellence. It should make us all question just how much more we could have done and how far we could be if bigoted cultural beliefs didn't keep holding underrepresented groups back.
While the West Area Computers toiled at NASA, James Baldwin was writing about black life, looking at America in a clear-eyed way that has lost none of its clarity nor truth in the half-century since. His nonfiction work is unclockable, and his fiction was no slouch either: "Giovanni's Room" was one of the most stirring, thrilling books of my year. In it, a young white American in Paris confronts his homosexual desire when he falls for a handsome Italian bartender.
Sensual and sexy, wise and sad, "Giovanni's Room" evoked so many of the feelings I felt when I was discovering my own non-normative wants. With the protagonist David's first encounter, Baldwin captures the dreamy, shape-shifting emotions during and the too often confusing and scary and panic-inducing afterwards, as outsiders wrestle with what they want versus what they've been told to want. But it is not just young love Baldwin understands: his observant eye deciphers a dying relationship in a concise 13 words. "We no longer seemed to see things to point to each other."
I was similarly enthralled by Maggie Nelson's "The Argonauts," which primarily focuses on her relationship with gender-fluid artist Harry Dodge and the birth of their first child. The interactions between Nelson and Dodge crackle in showing how two artists can support and challenge one another. Nelson inspects her personal life to draw insights on love, motherhood, and performance, while weaving in the works of philosophers and other artists in a collage-like manner.
I reflected along with her about what it meant now to be queer, when the fetishes have been coopted and the relationships more normalized: I came away knowing it isn't about fitting in, but pushing for more differences and oddities to be celebrated. Nelson can at once share deeply intimate details from her life while creating a distance that reminds you that you don't really know her. I admired that. I was reminded of William Zinsser's "On Writing Well," and the advice that since every story under the sun has been written what matters is telling it in your own unique way. "The Argonauts" is a powerhouse in understanding what it means to be queer, to be in love, and to be loved.
These books all involve pioneers in one way or another, who forged a path for others to be true to themselves. We also must be pioneers in our lives, to find ways to create space for ourselves and others. Life can be full of wonderful distractions, but the fulfilling part is when we learn about one another and accept each other as we are.
While I highlighted nine books (if you missed the first set, on technology changing our lives, and if you missed the second set, on how to be grown) there have been so many more wonderful books than that. Reading really is a blessing and, once again, fundamental.
Tomorrow: what I'm currently reading.