Last week I started on a new endeavor – really an experiment – in reviewing books on YouTube. My first video was predictably pretty terrible, with a lot of “umm”s and some very poor eye contact, but you never know if you don’t try. I had fun making it, which is enough for me for now. I like writing brief reviews on my GoodReads account, but I tend to express myself better verbally, so I’m hoping this will be another fun way for me to participate in book culture.

This first video focuses on books that have made me a better person. There were really only three titles, which is maybe not a great sign? It’s hard to know if that mean I have a loooong ways to go, or had a good start. [If you’re not a YouTube aficionado, I’m posting some brief reviews below for you to peruse.] One of the things that appealed to me about this tag was the amount of self-reflection it provoked. I’m used to evaluating books on their merits or weaknesses and trying to tease out the elements that make me like or dislike a book (or, since I’m a librarian, might make another person like or dislike a book). I don’t tend to think about how books impact me beyond making me happy/sad, or having more knowledge at the end than the beginning. Finding books that might have made me a better person was an interesting and challenging experience.

My first selection was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I barely remember my first experience with this book, which would have been in 5th grade. I wasn’t assigned it for school, but I think I recall reading it with my mom, or at least discussing it – I was cast as Scout in a local theater production of the play, and trying to “prepare” for that was what prompted reading the book. This is not a happy book, for the most part, as Scout struggles with growing up, with realizing racial inequities, learning to be kind and to think about other people, and to struggle to understand injustices out of your control. Atticus is a much-admired character for his attempts to do the right thing even when it’s hard, and my eventual takeaway from his character was that sometimes action is the most you can do. That’s awkwardly phrased, but as somebody who has often put a lot of emphasis on being “right” and “successful”, the idea of doing something because it’s a good thing to do, even if it’s a struggle or a disappointment, was a big revelation.

My second selection was ‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’: and Other Conversations on Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum. I read this book the summer before my freshman year of college – the author was the dean of students at my college at this time, and incoming students got copies of the book to read. There are elements of this book I still think about almost every day – it was probably my first exposure to the idea of racism as a system rather than a personal failing, one of the first discussions of white privilege I experienced, and I think it laid a groundwork that’s been extremely valuable as I’ve gone on to read more about race, culture, and so on. It gave me language and a telescope for examining those issues in my daily life.

My final selection was Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. I grew up in a pretty stereotypical suburban household: my family was educated and affluent, and most people around us lived fairly conventional lives of two-kid families and white-collar or professional jobs. For me, it was a great way to grow up, but I didn’t see a ton of other “lifestyles”, in the sense I very much considered my family and upbringing normal and didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about other options. My parents had the first three Tales of the City books, and I took an interest in them at some point, and eventually finagled my way into reading them (did I talk my mom into it? just take them? hard to say). And she was right – there was a lot in there I wasn’t really ready for … but I was so not ready that it more piqued my curiosity than alarming me. I don’t recall when I read these books, but I knew very little about the world of San Francisco in the 70s – clubs! drugs and drinking! sex! gay people! people who would not live in the suburbs! people who moved across the country to start over! I don’t think at the time the book made a huge impact on me, but it’s hung around in the back of my consciousness enough that I think it helped open my mind to the myriad ways there are to be a person.

… But it has introduced a lot of alarming possibilities about my parents’ lives in late 60s/early 70s San Francisco that I’d prefer remain un-examined. Part of being young is never having to explain it to your children, right?