Ever since learning to read I have thirsted to know the possible universes that could be dreamed. I have pined through the page to know all the incandescent facets and faces of the universe that exists.
My mom had a collection of National Geographic magazines in her classroom. I think I read every one of those by the time I was out of elementary school. I read every book on her shelf for fifth and sixth grade by the time I was out of first grade. One of my most cherished gifts was a giant encyclopedia on science. I memorized the Mohs scale of mineral hardness from talcum to diamond. I began to search for geodes and agates in the sandhills. I learned about cosmology, from the brown dwarfs to the red giants, quasars, planet x, and the irregular, elliptical and spiral shape of galaxies. Put information in front of me, I would absorb it. There was never enough. There was never a point I would say “I’ve seen enough” when it came to history, science, politics, stories.
The library was a haven growing up in the heart of nowhere, a little dead railroad town in Nebraska. If I was not at the babysitters, I was allowed to be either at the library or the swimming pool. So I spent whole summers in the library basement reading all afternoon. My babysitter did not like me. Inevitably I would have her screaming before the morning ended. I would get kicked out of the house for turning on the TV. I would get yelled at in the backyard for playing with sticks by the clothesline.
Yet at noon the library would open, and we would not have to put up with each other. I would ride my bike to the library, settle into a tucked away bean bag where I would not be disturbed, and spend the rest of the day reading.
I was never a good student. I have some intelligence, but codifying that intelligence into something resembling success in the US educational system has been difficult. Part of it is I was bored and never once challenged in school. I cannot recall a single class ever pushing me to grow in any capacity throughout my K-12 education. I cannot recall ever being motivated. I would learn any concept quickly. What killed me was not being able to move forward when I was ready. Weeks of busy work on something long after I had mastered it was torture.
Yet even while I was failing English class, I would be reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the collected works of Fredrich Nietzsche, every manual on writing, grammar, and style I could acquire. Even while failing Creative Writing, I was writing every day (I just didn’t feel like showing it to a teacher I hated). While failing music, I was practicing guitar and vocals sometimes eight hours a day. I infuriated my teachers. I would do well on tests, often obtaining the best grade in the class. Yet my grades were never good, because I had no tolerance for busy work. I had no tolerance for regurgitating something I already knew over and over. I was labelled as a problem in elementary school, and this label stuck all through high school. I think I was simply bored.
The solution would have been to give me some track to advance, some intellectual stimulation. But it was easier to make me a scapegoat than admit anything needed changing. There was a racial component too I believe. I was a Native kid in a community where a good percentage of the people believe in predestination when it came to Natives. If you’re Native, you’re predestined to be a drunken failure. If you’re Native, you’re predestined to be mentally deficient and delinquent.
In a town that borders a reservation, you find a measure of racism that is like something of the pre civil rights movement south. It is hard to explain to outsiders how much these people love the stereotype of the failed Indian. Often at the bottom of society, living off farm subsidy welfare themselves, clinging to life in towns that have been coughing a death rattle since the railroad went away, a lot of people in these flyover towns need someone to look down on. Their egos are fragile. They know they are next to nothing in the grand scheme of the country. Yet pretending to be better than Native Americans gives them some inflated sense of superiority. This is why they seem so sad when any Native succeeds. They need Natives beneath them so they do not have to be the bottom.
Perhaps if I lived somewhere else there would have been more opportunity. Perhaps if I was somewhere higher on the social class ladder, I would have met the system as something more malleable toward my needs. Yet I was just a poor Native kid in the heart of nowhere Nebraska. This place was built for competent mediocrity. I found the school to be a celebration of the median of the bell curve. A little bit of intelligence, and a lot of obedience, seemed to be the success formula. Intelligent enough to be told how to do something, but not intelligent enough to ask why, seemed to be the exact degree of aptitude desired. Anyone too far from center was punished. Fall through the cracks if you could not climb up the plateau of competent mediocrity. Fall the cracks if you wanted to go higher, past the median, and the whole sterile structure of education.
Reading for me at this time was a fortified base. I had few friends. Yet I met such a wonderful array of humanity, in words, all throughout the world, over lapses of hundreds of years. I clashed so much with the educational system. Yet I never once quarreled with knowledge. I never once held learning in anything but the highest esteem. I never stopped learning, from science to writing, even while trapped in a discouraging, oppressive system.
Eventually I did find myself in college. It took three tries, but I eventually did learn to be patronized to some small extent, and jump through hoops like a trained dog. I finally came out the other side with a degree.
In ways, college is better. The assignments are more challenging, there is somewhat more freedom, and the teachers are more specialized in their knowledge. In a lot of ways college is just a continuation of the K-12 education system. Academia is a game. The better you know the rules and the more acquainted you are with the referees of that game, the better you will do. Being wealthy, living in a wealthy community, a person will likely have access to good schools, with decent teachers, who can lay out all the stratagems for success in that game. Being poor, living in a poor community, the schools will likely be a pipeline to the prison system, the teachers will be lacking, and just surviving will take precedent over learning a game no one may even be qualified to teach. Much of success in academia simply comes down to connections of social class.
One thing I noticed about college is I stopped reading. I stopped learning. Oh, I was reading technical manuals, and learning what would be helpful to a career in a narrowly defined field. But everything I was interested in had to be put aside out of necessity. There was just no time. I could not split myself in two, and have one cover 26 credits a semester of material, and the other read about everything I truly cared about.
Now that I’m finally out of college for the time being, I have made a dedication to pick up reading again. I miss it. Without reading, I feel like a dimension has dropped off existence. Everything feels 2d. So here’s the list I’ve put together, of fiction and non-fiction, I aim to read in the next year, as a detox and getting back to what I truly care about:
1.) Derrick Jensen – Resistance Against Empire
2.) Paul Gelles – Chumash Renaissance: Indian Casinos, Education and Cultural Politics In Rural California
3.) J.W. Smith – Economic Democracy
4.) Helen Shulman – Toward Psychologies Of Liberation
5.) Ignatcio Martin-Baro – Writings For A Liberation Psychology
6.)Derrick Jensen – Conversations On Building A New Culture
7.) Lewis Mumford – The Lewis Mumford Reader
8.) Thomas King – The Truth About Stories
9.) Stewart Brand – Whole Earth Discipline
10.) Subcomandante Marcos – Our Word Is Our Weapon
11.) Alexander Berkman – Prison Memoirs Of An Anarchist
12.) George Draffan – Welcome To The Machine: Science, Surveillance and The Culture Of Control
13.) William Apess – On Our Own Ground
14.) Philip Deloria — Playing Indian
15.) Alexander Berkman – What Is Anarchism?
16.) Michelle Alexander – The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness
17.) Noam Chomsky – Profit Over People
18.) Paulo Friere – Pedagogy of The Oppressed
19.) Waziyatawin – What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle For Liberation In The Dakota Homeland
20.) Gabor Mate – In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction
21.) Andy Greenberg – This Machine Kills Secrets: How Wikileaks, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim To Free The Worlds Information
22.) Harvard Project On Native American Economic Development – The State Of The Native Nations: Conditions Under U.S. Policies Of Self-Determination
23.) Voltarine De Cleyre – Reader
24.) Carl Sagan – Billions and Billions
1.) Knut Hamsun – Hunger
2.) Georges Perec – Life: A User’s Manual
3.) Franz Kafka – Amerika: The Missing Person
4.) Grace L. Dillion: An Anthology Of Indigenous Science Fiction
5.) Jose Saramago – The Cave
6.) Sherman Alexie – Flight
7.) Viktor Shklovsky – Zoo, or Letters Not About Love
8.) Graham Greene – The Power and The Glory
9.) N Scott Mamaday – House Made Of Dawn
10.) Franz Kafka – The Trial
11.) Lu Xun – The Complete Fiction Of Lu Xun
12.) N Scott Mamaday – The Way To Rainy Mountain
13.) Vladimir Nabokov – Invitation To A Beheading
14.) Evelyn Waugh – A Handful Of Dust
15.) John Steinbeck – The Grapes Of Wrath
16.) Alexander Solzhenitsyn – Cancer Ward
17.) Sherman Alexie – The Toughest Indian In The Whole World
18.) Jorge Luis Borges – A Reader
19.) Franz Kafka – The Castle
20.) Leslie Marmon Silko – Ceremony
21.) Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov
22.) Robert Walser – Reader
23.) Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities
24.) Mia McKenzie – The Summer We Got Free