“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them,” Ray Bradbury warned us. That’s hardly a concern in Bloomington.
A book is never far from reach for the best thinkers and creators in our city, so we asked some of them to share what they’re currently reading.
Several Bloomingtonians shared insights they have gleaned from literary works they’ve recently encountered. Their suggestions make a reading list that not only gives a window into their personalities but also forces us to reflect on how Bloomington can become even more embracing.
Mike Adams, musician (currently with Mike Adams at His Honest Weight) and production assistant at Community Access TV, is drawn to any works by Carson Mell, a writer for the HBO comedy Silicon Valley.
“He’s got a knack for turning normal situations on their heads and for creating characters that are truly weird with unique perspectives,” says Adams. “And by ‘weird’ I mean surprising and unusual in a delightful way.”
Most recently, Adams read Mell’s Saguaro: The Life & Adventures of Bobby Allen Bird, the fictional story of rock star Bobby Bird. While the theme doesn’t immediately relate to current events, it demonstrates “the ever-present need to see and relate to others as complex individuals.”
“As a black queer woman, issues of race and identity are always top of mind,” says Janae Cummings, chair of the board of directors of Bloomington PRIDE. “Over the last year, I’ve more actively sought out books and media that meditate on these themes.”
She’s currently reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, Audre Lorde’s A Burst of Light and Other Essays, Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther: World of Wakanda, and other works by Coates, “when the mood suits,” she says.
These have been “emotional and — in places — difficult,” she says, “but well worth it, on a personal and community level.” Bloomington, says Cummings, is often seen as somehow “too progressive” to be coupled with problems on a national level. But that is “a nice thought,” she explains. “It’s also a fantasy. There’s much work to be done, here and now, in our own backyard.”
Referring to Rankine’s and Lorde’s work in particular, Cummings says, “For anyone hoping to make a difference — or simply gain greater understanding, I’m finding both books to be necessary reads.”
For Richard Wehrenberg, book designer, poet, and member of Monster House Collective, it’s common to read several books at once. “They all resonate for different reasons,” says Wehrenberg.
They just finished Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. After, they started reading poems by Maggie Anderson, a mentor of theirs in college. Then came Hard Child by Natalie Shapero, a poet from Ohio, and Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar, whom Monster House hosted on November 3 for a reading at The Void. Switching themes, Wehrenberg also dedicates time to Helen Schucman’s A Course in Miracles, which speaks to their “soul self.”
Wehrenberg’s reading list typically covers things that are social, political, and environmental in nature, but it’s usually by accident. “I don’t necessarily look for those things,” they say, “but I always find them somehow.”
One book Cardboard House Press recently published, My Lai by Carmen Berenguer, has particular relevance to Bloomington. The book of poems is set 30 to 40 years ago, yet Medina sees frightening parallels between that time period and today’s world. Berenguer, originally from Chile, touches on themes of discrimination, abuse, xenophobia, racism, homophobia, and more.
“Much of its content describes a small town in Iowa and shows how diversity can enrich our daily life and opportunity that we also have in Bloomington, Indiana,” says Medina.
Jared Cheek’s literary inclination toward nonfiction about entertainers is logical, considering his career in music. The owner and manager of Flannelgraph Records admits, though, the best books are professional wrestler autobiographies. “They’re not always the best writers, but they have great stories!” he says.
Right now he’s reading John Birch’s Prefab Sprout: The Early Years, about the English rock band Prefab Sprout, who rose to fame in the 1980s. Cheek enjoys learning how the band stayed true to who they wanted to be, “even though they would initially be dismissed or even spat upon for playing their weird, complex chords.”
Efrat Feferman has strong roots in both Bloomington and in the field of community development and is the new executive director of United Way of Monroe County.
One recent book on her list was Cupcake Brown’s A Piece of Cake: A Memoir, which Feferman refers to as “an instructive tale.” The story heart-wrenchingly details Brown’s survival of prostitution, crime, addiction, and abuse, tragedies that had roots in her unstable childhood. This tale may be tough to read, but it ultimately gives Feferman hope, especially as it relates to her role in the community.
“It not only highlighted for me the need for a safety net that’s tightly woven to protect our most vulnerable,” says Feferman, “but also of the ability of individuals to positively impact and inspire others on a personal level, as it did for Ms. Brown in her life.”
Ron Bronson says he tends to read several books of different genres at the same time, “mostly reflecting my eclectic interests and partially to keep things interesting.” The webmaster of the City of Bloomington also dabbles in divergent interests, from being a WFHB news anchor to speaking around the world on digital transformation.
Recently, reading Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America exposed, Bronson says, “how complicit the federal government was in picking the ‘winner and losers’ of the economy across generations,” something he hadn’t known before reading. “It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the roots of many of the problems we deal with in communities today,” he says.
“It’s a really important perspective for people to have,” says Danielle McClelland, executive director of BCT Management Inc. (which runs the Buskirk-Chumley Theater), about Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. The book turns on its head the belief that hard work and liberty means social mobility and instead offers a compelling argument for confronting our often ignored relationship to class in this country.
For McClelland, Isenberg’s book offers startling truths about Bloomington’s trajectory and where we might end up, if not careful. The thing about Bloomington, ze says, is that its relative affordability has always attracted the brightest and most creative minds. Right now in Bloomington, ze says, we should be “very conscious of the potential for us to go in a direction that leaves lower income behind.”
As managing director of Secretly Group (the company that runs several independent record labels including Secretly Canadian), Nick Blandford’s latest item on his reading list hit close to home. Erin Osmon’s Jason Molina: Riding With the Ghost recounts the life and career of the late artist Jason Molina, as well as the Midwest music underground that he helped form. It also details the inception of Secretly Canadian, the Bloomington label that represented Molina.
For Blandford, the book is “uniquely interesting, as it connects to my job and the history of our record label and the music scene in Bloomington. The history of some of the stories in there predate me, which is cool.”
Also an avid Atlantic reader, he recommends Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The First White President.”
[Editor’s Message: These are all great gift ideas for people in your life this holiday season. We’ve linked many of these books to Amazon, but, whenever possible — shop local!]