Reading between the stacks | Credit: Generative AI / Addictive Stock Core / stock.adobe

It’s that time of year when your favorite media outlets, influencers, and even President Barack Obama begin compiling summer reading lists. Conventional tropes about summer reading conjure libidinal associations with leisure time, seaside vacations, or, in a word, escapism. “Summer reading” is what happens in the break – the break from formal education, routine work, and everyday drudgeries. Especially now, in the contexts of book bans and political repression and accumulating grief and exhaustion, we all need a break not as escapism, but an escape from the looming present.

This summer’s reading is more pressing than ever. Student protests across the country call for the end of genocide, divestment from military industries, and the right to protest injustice without police reprisal. These protests invite us all to challenge what stands in the way of pursuing peace and valuing life. Campus activism is not separate from global uprisings against state violence, warfare, and imperialism as well as the economic and political structures they have produced. We need a summer of reading that enables us to interpret the signs of our times and to generate consciousness about how we live right now.

As a university professor currently teaching about literature during the 1960s era of liberation struggles, I’ve spent decades researching the relationship between reading and revolution. The association between a “good read” and progressive politics cannot be exclusively reduced to cliché. There is a vibrant historical relationship between liberation struggles and cultural expression.

In the Black radical tradition, reading is a way to intervene in the world in order to change it. Every Black writer has written with an understanding of the racist division of the world and the social value of creative expression. The outpour of cultural expressions associated with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s accompanied the political philosophies and agitation emerging from the New Negro Movement.

The poetry, plays, and performances shaping the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s developed in tandem with the Black Power Movement and its radical insurgency. Like the Black Lives Matter movement of the 2000s, these previous eras of artistic expression and political activism gained momentum through the long hot summers of 1919, 1967, and 2016 as the police killing of Black people, economic exploitation, and imperial wars ravaged lives in the U.S. and around the world. They understood that for their art to be universal, it could not disavow the realities of racism, sexism, imperialism, and colonization. Their writings created sites for people to confront the diverse meanings of and obstacles to freedom and liberation.

Student encampments across the country and internationally expose the contradictions about education and its relationship to “civic engagement” in the context of what the International Court of Justice has deemed a plausible genocide in Gaza. But despite mountains of evidence about the violence of occupation and colonization or about the value of reading for personal and collective wellbeing, we also know that evidence can fail to matter.

“It is only in his music” James Baldwin famously wrote, “which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story.” 

Such protective sentimentality depended upon reading and listening in ways that upheld the commonsense presumption of white superiority and Black inferiority. Baldwin exposes sentimental reading as stopping short of challenging the status quo and normalizing the existing social hierarchies. We fail to read how denying oppressed people’s humanity makes American dreams possible.

It is also the case that our sometimes escape into a paperback can buffer us from taking direct action. Consumer-cultural appreciation for literary expression means that we permit ourselves “to feel good for feeling bad” about the suffering of others. We wonder what it would be like if we were subject to the suffering we read about. We engage a bestseller voyeuristically to look away from the material conditions of our lives in order to pity an imagined self now standing in as a substitute for the experiences of others. We relate to books as dead objects held at a safe distance and thus under our control.

Books are not “dead objects,” but stagings of encounters with another that can break us open, divide us against ourselves by exposing the limitations of our seemingly settled conception of being.

What we understand as reading is not passive consumption. The conscious act of reading contains more vitality and this makes it dangerous, threatening as a possibility, something to think about and something to do. Reading makes something happen, awakens our consciousness to time and thus the times, to the constructed nature of being and what we choose to do or be or think in it.

Summer approaches as inevitably as will the fall, the return to school, the end of the break, and presidential elections. But right now, summer readers are building other worlds.

Felice Blake is an associate professor of English at University of California, Santa Barbara and a public voices fellow at The OpEd Project.

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