Saw it on Twitter—or, rather, what’s left of Twitter—and kept thinking about this prompt: Introduce yourself in seven books.
What I liked about the prompt was that it asked players to “introduce themselves”—and after reading a few dozen entries, you could sort the self-introduction tweets into categories: Braggers. Folks from non-American cultures. YA readers. Chick lit lovers. Educators. Dishonest academics. Economists (shudder). Political advocates. And so on.
The prompt didn’t say “What are your seven favorite books?” or “What seven books have been most influential in your life?” (although there were numerous tweets that began or ended with The Bible). It said—introduce yourself. Tell us who you are, through the lens of seven books.
I set out to write a quick tweet, listing the first seven books that came to mind. Then I crossed out two of those, because a half-dozen better titles bubbled up. I spent a pleasant hour or so, rummaging through my mental Books Read rolodex, asking surprisingly deep questions, like Who am I, Really? At one time, I had about 45 titles on the list.
Clearly, I had no idea who I was, beyond “wide-ranging reader.”
I started paring back titles, limiting authors, rejecting books I loved, years ago, but haven’t re-read, discarding show-offy titles for books that I didn’t merely complete, but books that steered my thinking in another direction.
Eventually, I ended up with seven non-fiction titles and seven fictional books. And a recommendation for those of you who like to read to try this exercise. It’s revelatory, for one thing. And because I’m sure if you posted yours, there might be something on it that I totally forgot, or would be excited to read.
The Non-Fiction Titles are one path to introducing oneself—teacher, gardener, social class observer, education reformer, etc. Your mileage should vary.
Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Postman and Weingartner) All of Neil Postman’s work is worth reading, but this book made me re-think my entire career, forty years ago.
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (Matthew Crawford) Did you like Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig) back in the day? Then read Crawford’s book about the reality of academic hoops contrasted with the practical value of working by hand and craftsmanship.
Nickeled and Dimed (Barbara Ehrenreich) Together with Crawford’s book, and my own working-class upbringing, this book is how I learned to understand class and power in the American economy.
Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates) The first, and most personally moving, books on race. I read this book a sentence, a paragraph at a time, needing pauses. He broke the path for all subsequent reading on race in America.
Here Comes Everybody (Clay Shirky) Made me understand online organizing. Wildly outdated, but also prescient. You’re reading this because I read Shirky’s book.
Mrs. Greenthumbs (Cassandra Danz) I have probably 35 gardening books, but I read Mrs. G every spring. May she rest in her fabulous heavenly garden. I have her to thank for mine.
A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door (Schneider and Berkshire) On my first list, I had one of Diane Ravitch’s (excellent) books on education reform, which, sequentially, tell us what’s happened to public education in the past two decades. “Wolf,” however, is the newest and best-aligned with the abyss we find ourselves standing next to, at the moment. If someone asked me what I believe is true (another way of asking who I am) about my life’s work—I would suggest this book.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that there are no music books in the non-fiction titles. If I were asked to introduce myself verbally, the two nouns I would choose are teacher, and musician. Most of the best books I’ve read about music are fiction (sorry, Grout). So let’s start Fictional Titles with one of those:
Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) A lovely book about how music changes people. Even terrorists.
The Whistling Season (Ivan Doig) What teaching really could and should be, set in Montana, a hundred years ago.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) First read it when it was a new book. Have re-read multiple times. Scary as hell every single time, woven with truths and warnings about sexual oppression.
The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell) The author’s own description: Jesuits in space. And so much more.
The Ministry for the Future (Kim Stanley Robinson) Strangely hopeful, while centering on climate change and just how existential this crisis is.
A Separate Peace (John Knowles) This book introduced me to an entirely different model of education, and beautifully illustrated the role of relationships in learning and personal growth.
Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks) What would happen if there were a plague, and folks had to isolate, to save their own lives, and their neighbors? What would be the terrible cost—and the unexpected benefits?
Your turn. Introduce yourself in seven books. Cheating encouraged.