What we fed our minds this March

What we fed our minds this March

In Community, Reading Challenges by The Editors

What we fed our minds this March

At Scribd, we’re always trying to learn more — that’s why we started the Feed Your Mind Challenge. Each month, we provide a handful of prompts designed to motivate you to read more, explore new content types, and help you find works that are outside of your usual go-to genres. March’s prompts were:

  1. Learn about prominent figures and moments in women’s history for Women’s History Month

  2. Read a novel about womanhood written by a female author for Women’s History Month

  3. Read a book / listen to a podcast by a transgender creator for Transgender Day of Visibility

  4. A look back at what was most popular over the past year of Covid-19 lockdown

  5. Indulge in a Scribd-produced work

Here’s what Scribd employees read for the challenge, and how much they enjoyed diversifying their (digital) bookshelves:

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED: Learn about prominent figures and moments in women’s history for Women’s History Month

It is easy to get lost in the lives of the women depicted in The Girls of Atomic City and forget that, at its core, this book is about the atomic bomb. (See what I did there?)

Denise Kiernan uses a narrative style that is really engaging. The first part of each chapter contains vignettes of the lives of the women working and living in the secretive pop-up city that was Oak Ridge, Tennessee. These sections reminded me of A League of Their Own — stories of plucky women revealing amazing talents when called upon during a period of war. And like A League of Their Own, there is a reminder that only white women were given the opportunity to shine publicly. Black women, in contrast, were separated from their families and relegated to subpar jobs and housing.

The second part of each chapter focuses on the Manhattan Project at large during the period.  These sections read more like a spy thriller, as the US government races against the clock and the rest of the world to create the most destructive weapon known to man. The juxtaposition of the two parts of the story is often jarring, and I think that's one of most effective parts of the book. It should be jarring to go from hearing about the social club dances to reading about Ebb Cade: a Black victim of a car accident who was then injected with plutonium as an “experiment.”  The author also uses the historical code names and abbreviations throughout the book, which serve to demonstrate what it might have been like to work and live in Oak Ridge at the end of World War II. Everyone only has a part of the picture.

I learned a lot from this book. Kiernan says in the Epilogue that the documents she has been able to access represent likely a small fraction of what exists. “There are, no doubt, many more secrets trapped in those boxes of onionskin paper and typewritten memos.” I'll be fascinated to see what we learn about this topic in the coming decades.

Meghan F. (Content Operations)

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED: Learn about prominent figures and moments in women’s history for Women’s History Month

In honor of Women's History Month, I decided to read The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit, a contemporary feminist at a time when the concept of feminism encompasses so many different themes and perspectives. In this collection of essays, she approaches the complexities of gender and feminism head-on, but always with warmth, wit, and candor.

As a writer and an activist, Solnit is a champion of words and language, and she knows the painful void their absence leaves. The Mother of All Questions reveals the power of gendered trauma and violence to destroy narrative, silencing women and denying their very humanity. How did this devastating phenomenon become inextricably linked to the experience of far too many women? Solnit challenges her audience to read between the lines and consider: What is acknowledged and what is ignored? Whose voice is heard? Who has the power and agency? Whose feelings are being protected? Who shoulders the blame?

Feminism is not women's work. It requires the engagement of society as a whole, and Solnit asks the (mother of all) questions to spark the awareness and discourse that is essential for continued change.

Julie M. (Content Acquisition)

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED: Read a book or listen to a podcast by a transgender creator for Transgender Day of Visibility (March 31)

The meteoric rise of author Aiden Thomas has been one of the more heartwarming stories of the past pandemic-riddled year. He’s the first “trans author with a trans book” to appear on the fiction New York Times Bestsellers list with Cemetery Boys, and his sophomore novel, Lost in the Never Woods, was released recently. It’s an all-around heartwarming #OwnVoices story perfect for International Transgender Day of Visibility (March 31).

At every turn, it seems Yadriel doesn’t fit in: He has to keep it secret that he and his extended Latinx family have the ability to see and interact with spirits. (People at school definitely find it odd that Yadriel lives in a cemetery and sometimes jumps at things that aren’t there.) The powers each family member has are delineated along gender lines: Men help lost souls find their way to the afterlife, while women are healers (of course!). Which leads to Yadriel’s next dilemma: Some family members don’t consider Yadriel a man, because he’s transgender. So now, his main motivation for interacting with the dead stems from his desire to prove he’s a brujo rather than a bruja. But when he goes to summon the ghost of his recently murdered cousin, he instead ends up with the spirit of his school’s bad boy, Julian.

At its core, Cemetery Boys is a story of families, of both the blood and found variety. It’s a story about going from ignorance to acceptance to true understanding. It’s a romance between two queer boys, who won’t let the lines between the genders or the worlds of the living and the dead keep them apart. It’s an educational and a pleasurable read.

Ashley M. (Editorial)

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED: Read a book or listen to a podcast by a transgender creator for Transgender Day of Visibility (March 31)

I have been enjoying the challenges around the identity of the creators this year. I find it easy to choose a book by topic or genre that fits my mood, but sometimes making sure these diverse voices spend some time in my head can be difficult to match with my complex decision of “what do I want to spend some time with this month?” When I looked at the list of choices for transgender creators, I immediately gravitated toward King and the Dragonflies because it was set where I grew up, in southern Louisiana.

Themes around family imprinting and finding friendship while being bullied really impressed me in this story. The book is masterful in layering individual, familial, community, and society struggles that are easy to identify for anyone who has gone through adolescence in the United States. I remember how hard it was to go through “middle school” — even the name lets you know you aren’t on one side or the other, just passing through the torturous in-between.

The story really struck a chord with me as it explored how children deal with secrets. Even adults struggle with how to handle secrets, and children lack the wisdom that comes with age and experience. Children also struggle with being believable in the eyes of adults. The safety King seeks while wrangling with his important adolescent secrets is a good lesson for anyone to ask themselves how we can make it easier for the children we know in our life to deal with sharing their secrets in a safe and thoughtful environment. I doubt this will be the last Kacen Callender book I spend time with this year.

Cameron M. (User Research)

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED: Read a book or listen to a podcast by a transgender creator for Transgender Day of Visibility (March 31)

Last year, I created a collection titled LGBTQ+ Science Fiction and Fantasy for Pride Month, and that was the first time I heard about Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts. The blurb stuck with me, so when this month’s prompt suggested reading a book written by a trans author, I leapt on this book.

An Unkindness of Ghosts works on a variety of levels; on its most English Lit 101 level, it’s a metaphor for slavery. There has been some sort of traumatic event on Earth, so all humanity is living on a ship, divided into decks. People with darker skin are on lower decks, and work the fields under Baby Sun. Aster, the protagonist, is a scientist apprenticed to the Surgeon General, a kind soul named Theo. The leader of the ship dies, and a new, stricter leader comes to power, setting off a sequence of events that result in a new world order, though what that looks like is unclear.

More than the metaphor, however, An Unkindness of Ghosts is about identity and place in the world. Aster is a sharp, clever character, one who literally cannot understand some nuances of language. It’s ironic, then, that her mother — who committed suicide the day Aster was born — left behind coded writings that Aster and her friend have to decipher. Aster is dark-skinned, so cannot pass in the upper decks, but Theo manages a disguise so she can pass as a male, which feels comfortable to her. Theo is also conflicted about identity, feeling neither male nor female. There are unexpected twists (really, Aint Melusine?), action, intrigue, romance, and a world that — unfortunately — doesn’t seem too different from ours.

Megan F. (Publishing Operations)

Severance by Ling Ma

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED: A look back at what was most popular over the past year of Covid-19 lockdown

I have to say, I’ve been surprised by the surge in popularity of novels about pandemics during this past year in lockdown, mostly because I found myself turning to books to escape the constant news about rapidly spreading disease. But this month, with spring and vaccine-fueled hope in the air, I was curious to experience what it feels like to read a fictionalized tale of what we’ve all been going through since last March, so I picked up Ling Ma’s much-lauded Severance. It’s about a young woman in New York who’s one of the few survivors of a deadly global fever, and believe it or not, it’s actually a really fun read! Equal parts tense, post-apocalyptic adventure, zingy satire of the drive to climb the corporate ladder, and heart-felt longing for separated loved ones, this story’s worth chucking aside any resistance you might have to pandemic fiction and diving in.

Katie W. (Editorial)

Can’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED: A look back at what was most popular over the past year of Covid-19 lockdown

As a user researcher at Scribd, I am always looking for good social science reads to help me understand our subscribers. With the Millennial generation firmly “adulting” and just recently overtaking Baby Boomers as the largest generation in US population size, I was excited to spend time with a deeper dive into the motivations and foundational aspects of the generation rather than all the topline pop-research out there that comes across my screen. Anne Helen Petersen and this book took me far beyond my expectations.

I am Gen X (we’ll never get to be the largest generation; we won’t even take over second place for another several years), and our biggest challenge was our ennui. Petersen makes a stirring case that the biggest challenge for Millennials is stultifying precarity. Those are big, jarring words I had to sit with for a bit, but the author backs up her claim with firsthand experience, stories from extensive primary research, and a bevy of secondary sources. The book was written before the COVID-19 pandemic but published in the midst of it. Remarkably (and unfortunately), the destructive challenges she brings up in the book grew exponentially during the lockdown.

Petersen mentions how many Millenials would rather read a book than the mindless scrolling they do on social media, but they are just too tired from a life driven by being raised as resumes rather than kids. I know I hear this often from our subscribers, about how much they try to use the ebooks and audiobooks they find on Scribd to help drive them away from the more mindless, mundane apps and services. Ultimately, the book gave me hope that this interested and interesting generation will prevail over the stultifying precarity surrounding them.

Ashley M.

Voyager by Nona Fernández

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED: Indulge in a Scribd-produced work

Scribd Audio’s latest Spanish acquisition, Nona Fernandez’s 2019 essay Voyager, is so good. “Hi, we are here. Don’t forget about us,” a disarming voice repeats periodically throughout her meditation, each time with more gravity. No wonder Fernandez is one of the big names in Latin American contemporary literature, her voice is so potent, so breathtakingly beautiful and lucid, she could make any subject matter feel important. But she chooses truly urgent themes and translates them to the human heart, rendering a yin and yang-like image to the micro and macro.

Is it an autobiographical essay? A lyrical memorial to the victims of Pinochet and the Caravan of Death? A long metaphor about stars and the psyche’s universe? All of the above, with memory as the overarching theme. How and why we remember — individually and collectively — is the question at stake. But more importantly, this is a book about the things we think we forget and how they keep living in us after all, in time, through generations, and after literally light-years.

— Andrea B. (Editorial)

Writing into the Wound by Roxane Gay

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED: Indulge in a Scribd-produced work

One thing I love about great writers is how they take our shared understanding of a topic and turn it around so we can all see the back side, the part that’s been hidden in shadow. In Roxanne Gay’s Writing into the Wound, that topic is trauma. I was a little apprehensive to read this title; with the state of the world I wasn't sure I could read any more about the disasters of man. But what Gay is exploring here is not neccessarily the salicious details of a personal or shared trauma. Instead she is exploring how we share those experiences with others through writing, and in turn what makes that writing effective or not.

What I found the most striking was her take on the difference between a therapeutic unburdening of your own trauma versus sharing that same story for an external audience. What is it that we want from the audience? Empathy? Action? To participate in the dismantling of systemic white supremacy? While writing about personal trauma, how can we simultaneously protect ourselves from the outside world and elicit our desired response in readers? Gay provides insight on this and many other topics in this short read that I'll be thinking about for a long time.

— Meghan F. (Content Operations)

Look out for next month’s challenge. To participate, tweet us @Scribd or tag us on Instagram @Scribd to show what you’ve been reading or listening to using the hashtag #FeedYourMind.
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