The Politics of Reading
by Audrey Lin, Press & Written Media Team
The Western literary canon has long been exemplified by glorified nostalgia and intellectual elitism. Diverse contemporary writing is often relegated to extra-credit assignments and summer reading, while students analyze the same books that their teachers did as teenagers. Not to say that the canon has no merit and should be abolished, rather, it should be expanded to include the literary legacy of marginalized communities. There is only so much discourse that can take place surrounding an outdated — and many times overtly bigoted — source material, even if its ideas are applied as a lens to observe the present. A stagnant curriculum serves nobody, and classics should not be treated as an immutable monolith of artistic excellence. They should instead be viewed as an opportunity for critical reading and an invitation for debate.
Instead of studying the black experience in America through the eyes of Atticus Finch, our resident lawyer with a white-savior complex, it would perhaps be more useful to consume narratives from historically significant black authors. Zora Neal Hurston may consistently be recognized by online communities and even Oprah’s book club, but on state-required reading lists? She rarely makes an appearance.
“We believe that no curricular or instructional decision is a neutral one”, #DisruptTexts, a collective dedicated to diversifying classrooms, stated.
The fundamental issue is this: literature does not exist in a vacuum, and neither does high school. High schoolers impact popular culture, which in turn influences what society deems as being culturally relevant. In recent years, the popularization of novels such as The Secret History and films like The Dead Poets Society has introduced dark academia as a mainstream aesthetic, expanding past the niches of Tumblr into the public consciousness. It has become much more than just mood boards and social media feeds, dark academia is now a state of mind, a way of living.
As Disha Garg said in their 2021 article, “The Sins of Dark Academia”, “The fault lies not with the aesthetic itself, but rather with the message it inherently perpetuates — that western study and classical literature is the epitome of academia.” Therefore, it operates as yet another gear in the machinery of institutional oppression, placing cishet white, male works on aspirational pedestals. Until dark academia grows to encompass non-Western perspectives, it can only be regressive.
I am not trying to say that you should delete all your dark academia themed playlists and burn your dark academia inspired wardrobe. Aesthetic preferences are entirely valid, and I also find the idea of brooding over poetry while clad in professorial sweater vests compelling, romantic even. Not every book needs to be a learning experience, and you should definitely read whatever makes you happy. But beyond that, I am a firm believer in being a critical reader and approaching literature intentionally. Words hold power, and it is our responsibility as readers to wield that power as best we can.
Oftentimes, reality emulates media instead of the other way around, and literature should be a tool for us to forge a brighter future. Only when we realize the constructive function of written language will books become an active participant in change instead of remaining as simply context. Knowledge is power, and when our knowledge is entirely gleaned from a narrow, exclusive canon, whole literary reservoirs are obscured from sight, underground and untapped.
As author Dana Schwartz put it, “Without a conscious effort, we’ll be regurgitating the limited scope of art from [back] when the only perspectives that were considered important enough to care about were from white men.”
Decolonizing Dark Academia Book List:
!! Reminder to please check trigger warnings on platforms such as The Storygraph if it is something you think you will need. !!
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Nocturna by Maya Motayne
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Silko
Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin
The Broken Wings by Kahlil Gibran
The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis
In the Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish
The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches/The Narrow Road to the Interior by Matsuo Bashō
Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks
An Extensive List of Cultural Dark Academia Books:
Sources and Supplemental Reading: