On My Bookshelf

The Shelves of Good Intentions

By Urvashi Vaid


My bookshelf is about best intentions and laziness. I develop a passion about something and I collect books on that subject, like a reference librarian run amuck. Sometimes I read all the books I buy, but just as often, the newly bought hardcovers glare back at me from the shelf, resentful and accusing, like long-term lovers who aren’t being touched.

In the living room you can trace my consummated book affair with Hannah Arendt—every text, key biographies, critical studies, even a dissertation manuscript I tracked down. She never repudiated Heidegger, it’s true, but what makes me even sadder is that she never got to write an addendum to The Origins of Totalitarianism about the religious-fundamentalist nightmare that is destroying the world. I read Arendt as I was recovering from thyroid cancer surgery—grappling with her exciting leaps made bearable the fact that my throat had been slit and part of my body removed. Hannah was both a release and a hopeful balm.

In another section of my bookshelf is a collection of books about social movements and civil society. Some of it is theory by political scientists such as Barry Adam and sociologists such as Nina Eliasoph. Other books are the far too few histories of social movements from the inside, such as Taylor Branch’s three volume chronicle of the civil rights movement and Alice Echols’s fabulous Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75. Today the art of writing social movement history has devolved into memoir—few books look at social movements deeply, accessibly and critically. As a result, today’s movements are often both shallow and grandiose – inevitable when personal stories do the job of theory.

Still, books on organizing practice and the rare, brilliant work that analyzes aspects of particular movements can be found: Rinku Sen’s Stir It Up, and Cathy Cohen’s amazing The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Failure of Black Politics. In this section, my favorite book of recent years has been Francesca Polletta’s Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements, a complex examination of the ways participants in social movements express, experience, and create democracy. Polletta covers a range of movements: labor, feminist, civil rights, economic justice – and her feel for the dynamics of organizations and meetings takes you into the core question she considers: does democratic practice matter, and how does it rearrange the world?

On my bookshelf you won’t see much fiction. I don’t have the patience for it. Perhaps I don’t have the imagination for it. The novel is about obsession, my father, who is a novelist, once told me. My obsession is politics, and that is far more interesting to me than the ritual acting out of some stranger’s neurosis. Harsh words for novelists, like my father.

In place of fiction, you will see poetry and books about artists and writers. The mother lodes for my imaginative life are Auden, Yeats, June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser. Also Wislawa Symborska, whose gorgeous connections in, for example, View With a Grain of Sand, explore the interplay of the personal and political. Mark Doty is another contemporary poet whose narrative style I find simply thrilling.

In the end, the bookshelf archives my longing -- for new values, new ideas, a way forward. The more confused I feel, the more books I buy. Do you suppose if I read them all, I might find the answers I am looking for?


Urvashi Vaid is executive director of the Arcus Foundation, a philanthropy focused on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender human rights and conservation of the great apes. She is the author of Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation (1995).


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