I was pleased to have finished the Read Harder Challenge in the middle of September this year, which left me plenty of time to catch up on some classic science fiction and some new buzzy reads of the year. As always, I kind of wane toward the end of the year, wanting to get it finished, but I’m glad that I pushed through and forced myself to read some of the books that have been on my To-Be-Read list for ages. And, as always, this year was a bit of a mixed bag, but with some surprising wins right along with the unfortunate flops. Here’s the breakdown for each task:
by Ibram X. Kendi, 2019
Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read a nonfiction book about anti-racism.
I’ve wanted to read Ibram X. Kendi’s followup to his phenomenal Stamped from the Beginning since it was published. His first work really changed the way I thought about racism in America (I argue that the book’s subtitle should be “Everything is Racist and So Are You”), particularly the theory that racism doesn’t spring from hate, but from economic greed that needed an oppressed class to thrive. We usually think of racism as an individual failing, but it’s much more of a top-down process, whereby the culture in which we live is steeped in racism and individuals have little choice but to have racist ideas implanted in their brains. Kendi’s sophomore effort tackles the work needed to liberate ourselves from these racist bonds. According to Kendi, there is no “not racist.” Either a person is a racist or an antiracist; no space exists in between.
by Edward Lee, 2018
Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read a food memoir by an author of color.
I’ll admit that I knew nothing of Edward Lee before hearing about Buttermilk Graffiti on All the Books. The idea of a chef tracing American culture through immigrant food was an intriguing one. As anti-immigrant as the country can be, most of our beloved foods came from different countries and we’ve made them our own. You can’t get much more American than hot dogs, hamburgers, and pizza, yet we wouldn’t have any of those if it weren’t for immigration. I was interested to learn more about how cultures evolve and how immigration necessitates deviation from tradition. No longer having access to certain ingredients means new ones will be incorporated, and an entirely new dish will be born, no less part of a tradition than the original concoction. Had Lee actually pursued that line of investigation, I think this book would have been quite interesting. Alas, he doesn’t, and it kind of isn’t.
by Audre Lorde, 1984
Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read an LGBTQ+ history book.
I’m not certain that this book truly qualifies as a history of LGBTQ people or the movement, but as Audre Lorde was certainly one of the most outspoken voices on sexuality, race, and gender and, therefore, highly important to the movement, I feel this book fulfills the spirit of the task, if not the specifics of it. I was first introduced to Audre Lorde when I was in grad school, but I sadly remember nothing of what I read, and she has remained a blind spot in my knowledge of feminist writers. When I saw this book as a suggestion for the task on the Goodreads thread, I jumped at the chance to get to know more about this pivotal writer and what her teachings could offer us today. The book is a collection of essays and speeches, spanning from 1976 through 1984, and covering a wide range of topics that deal with blackness, womanhood, lesbianism, motherhood, classism, and the need for allyship among all who are oppressed. Much of what she says is surprisingly still relevant, as we continue to deal with the same problems of inequality that have plagued us for centuries.
by Harriet A. Washington, 2015
Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read a book that demystifies a common mental illness.
I found this book on a whim and was drawn to it by its premise. What if all the diseases we considered to be faults of the mind are actually the result of infectious pathogens? How would that change our understanding of mental illness? Would that finally give some legitimacy to those who are maligned for being mentally unwell? How would this change the healthcare industry as well as our own individual perceptions? The idea is fascinating, especially since science has already proven some previously thought mental ailments to be symptoms of viral or bacterial infections—Washington notes right away that the disease of paresis, which is characterized by dementia and paralysis, is absent in the developed world, as it is not a psychological illness in and of itself but a symptom of late-stage syphilis, for which we now have an easy and readily available cure. Washington attempts to investigate what else might be cloaked under the stigma of mental illness and whose origins might be located in a treatable infection. While the idea is a bold and necessary one, the manner in which she reports her findings in this book is, well, less than convincing.
by James Baldwin, edited by Raoul Peck, 2017
I Am Not Your Negro is Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary based on the writings of James Baldwin. In 1979, Baldwin began working on a book about America as told through the deaths of three of his friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. The book was to be called Remember This House, but Baldwin never got past thirty pages of notes before his death in 1987. Twenty years later, Peck wrote to the Baldwin estate to ask for the rights to produce a film on the writer’s life and work. He wasn’t yet sure what form that film would take until Baldwin’s sister Gloria Karefa-Smart gave him the notes to her brother’s unfinished project, saying, “You’ll know what to do with these.” From this, Peck developed the idea to finish this book through the medium of film, with the three men and Baldwin serving as a means by which to tell the story of America.
by James Baldwin, edited by Randall Kenan, 2010
As I’m nearing the end of the Baldwin catalog, I’ve reached the posthumously published works. The Cross of Redemption is a collection of Baldwin’s published writings that were previously uncollected in any one book. These include various essays, speeches, letters, forewords and afterwords to other books, book reviews, and even a piece of short fiction. While there are some real gems to be found here, the problem with a collection like this is that it treats Baldwin’s work as a cohesive whole. His previous collections of essays were curated, and they were meant to tell a story together. That’s not the case here. There’s no thread that ties all of these together, other than the fact that Baldwin wrote them and the editor has decided that each piece of his writing is of equal importance and must be read. It’s not for the casual Baldwin reader or someone looking for an introduction to his works. I’d only recommend it for those who are trying to read everything he’s written or who are embarking on some sort of research project. That said, I did enjoy encountering some of Baldwin’s typical knock-out writing in this volume.
by James Baldwin, 1972
It wasn’t until I did some research for my podcast episode about The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Spike Lee’s film that I learned that, while several writers attempted to write a script based on the book, Lee ultimately chose Baldwin’s effort on which to base his epic masterpiece. One Day When I Was Lost is the screenplay that was never realized on film. Baldwin chronicled some of the difficulties of writing for Hollywood in The Devil Finds Work, in which he relates that he was encouraged to increase the action sequences and learned that the script would be cut to emphasize entertainment. Baldwin abandoned the project, and his writing was produced only in book form until Lee decided to work from it in the early 90s. As such, the book bears strong resemblances to the resulting film. It doesn’t necessarily feel complete, but it is a clear stepping stone to what I consider to be the best movie I’ve ever seen.
edited by Alice Wong, 2020
Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read an own voices book about disability.
Alice Wong has a long history of activism for the disabled. In addition to being the founder of the Disability Visibility Project and host and co-producer of the Disability Visibility podcast, she was also appointed to the National Council on Disability by President Barack Obama. This collection of essays is a natural extension of her work, and it serves to shed light on living with a variety of disabilities in a world that largely disregards the fact that disabled people exist. I first became familiar with Wong when I saw her on a episode of United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell, and the thing that has stuck with me from that hour of TV is Bell’s assertion that disability is the one demographic to which all of us have the potential to belong, yet it is the one demographic that we routinely ignore. Disability Visibility builds on that premise, promoting the idea, which is distressing in that it can be considered revolutionary, that people with disabilities are people too.
edited by adrienne marie brown and Walidah Imarisha, 2015
Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read an SFF anthology edited by a person of color.
When I saw this book suggested in the Goodreads thread for this task, I knew immediately that it would be the one I would choose. With Octavia Butler being my 2018 Year Of author, I couldn’t pass up the chance to read a collection of stories that had been inspired by her own fiction. Add to the fact that these science-fiction stories all deal with social justice in some way, and you have something that’s 100% up my alley. In fact, editor Imarisha posits in her introduction that all social justice work is science fiction. When we imagine a world without war, violence, prisons, or capitalism, that is speculative fiction (the broader category which includes science fiction, fantasy, and horror). Imarisha further invokes the term “visionary fiction” to refer to science fiction that has “relevance toward building new, freer worlds from the mainstream of science fiction, which most often reinforces dominant narratives of power.” That’s what all of these works aim to do: offer criticism for our world’s shortcomings in order to build worlds in which all might be free.