Reading for What is and What Might Be

By Therese Quinn


Social imagination is the capacity to invent visions of what should be and what might be… Social imagination not only suggests but also requires that one take action to repair or renew.

– Maxine Greene, From Releasing the Imagination: Essays on the Arts, Imagination, and Social Change, p. 5

After an initial panic we might not qualify for library cards—we lived in an unincorporated, still rural part of East Bay California—my grandfather began taking me to the library in downtown Hayward on Thursday nights. At home I read through everything on my grandparents’ shelves: Agatha Christie and Dickens, Margaret Mead and Greek mythology, and old Sunset, Arizona Highways, and Reader’s Digest magazines, and books left behind by my father and uncle—Zane Grey, Gulliver’s Travels and Hardy Boys. At the library I loved discovering new genres and authors, but was surprised that the library’s stacks were divided, with one room for children and all the others reserved for adults. This posed a challenge, an opportunity for expeditions into the forbidden areas, where I browsed promiscuously, reading quickly and furtively while on the move and crouching between shelves, before finding the books I’d take home. For years, it was The White Goddess (1) and Psychopathia Sexualis (2) in the stacks, and Black and Blue Magic (3) and The Swing in the Summerhouse (4) in my bedroom. It was an odd balancing I was aiming for: I wanted to understand everything about adults, and especially what was off-limits; and I wanted to be left alone to bury what I knew about that world under fantasies. I wasn’t a happy child (abandonment and dislocation were two early experiences) but I think my self-remedy—voracious reading of the forbidden and phantasmic—was genius.

I’m trying a version of this strategy now, during this year (or four) of political depression. First, I plan to read and re-read (and sleep with my head resting on) works by tough women who have carved out brave, generous, thinking, and yet still fully adult lives, by which I mean they have refused to be either selfish or diminished. Right now this list includes Bluets and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, that are about obsession, art, family and queer futures, and The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation and The Needle’s Eye: Passing Through Youth, by Fanny Howe, which explore how lives are made and broken, and Black Panther: World of Wakanda by Roxane Gay, a love story about the Panther’s female bodyguards. Then, I’ll re-read Octavia Butler’s two harrowing dystopic West Coast pilgrimage novels, The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents, that begin by telling the story of Lauren Olamina’s childhood in and journey out of a decaying, resource-starved, and tightly bordered—gated—Los Angeles community. Olamina and a small group of refugees make their way up the western coastline, nurturing each other, evading danger—vigilantes, eugenicists, land-grabbers—and surviving to make a new world. I think, I hope, these sharp presentations of defiance, alliance, love and crafty not-giving-in-ness will help me stave off the confusions, gloom, and alienation wreaked by the new president and his administration. Keep energy high; stay in the streets; look for the fissures, and light at the end of the tunnel.

  1. By Robert Graves.
  2. By Richard von Krafft-Ebing.
  3. By Zilpha Keatley Snyder.
  4. By Jane Langton.


Therese Quinn

Photo Courtesy of Therese Quinn. This image shows Therese in front of a Granville CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) Station sign, and tall apartment buildings in the far background. Therese’s face is framed close to the camera and she is wearing pink glasses.

Therese Quinn is the author of several books, including Art and Social Justice Education: Culture as Commons (with Lisa Hochtritt and John Ploof) and Sexualities in Education: A Reader (with Erica R. Meiners), and articles in QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, the Journal of Museum Education, the Abolitionist: A Publication of Critical Resistance, and Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor. Quinn is Director of Museum and Exhibition Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and an elected representative of her union, UIC United Faculty.


One comment

  1. I think this is the second of these reading columns, and I want to offer thanks. It’s great to see a museum blog encouraging us all to read broadly and deeply. Keep up the good work.
    J. Baldwin @

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