Meet the Person Behind the We the People Book Club

September 21, 2018 | by Julia Davis

We the People book club books on window shelf

As part of The Practicing Democracy Project (PDP) our partners at Spirituality & Practice just kicked off  the "We the People Book Club," a yearlong discussion to explore the themes of democracy. Julia (Julie) Davis, a fellow with PDP is our guide for this exploration. We caught up with her virtually, between launching the book club and pursuing her Master of Divinity at Claremont School of Theology (CST), to find out more about her interest in the PDP and her thinking behind the book club themes and selections. After reading her responses, we were even more excited about this yearlong endeavor! 

Tell us about yourself and what drew you to The Practicing Democracy Project.
I was just coming off of a first career as a teacher when I saw the notice for the Center for Spirituality & Practice (CSP) fellowship. Researching spiritual practices that help democracy flourish sounded like a task designed to connect my past to my future. I studied American literature at Brown Univeristy and created and taught American literature curricula as a secondary school educator, and here I was starting divinity school, taking a class on spiritual practices and really excited about how the folks around me were combining terms like action and contemplation, spiritual care and activism. 

I came to CST because I became weak with the low expectations and high rigor of education. I was expected to educate only the mind and sort of pretend the spirit or soul didn’t exist. Of course, I didn't meet these expectations, and the soul work I did with kids was rewarding, undervalued and "extra."

The fellowship was an opportunity—a referendum or a calling (really, I didn't feel I had much choice but to apply)—to finally embrace the work I had already been doing as an educator as spiritual work. Reading, writing, discussing literature—it’s all spiritual. Democracy is spiritual, too. I am connected to every other American because we all contribute to this democracy—or we all should. It works when we do. I think all of that is why the book club made so much sense to me. 

What was your thinking behind the We the People Book Club themes you selected? What of these themes speak to our times, our society?
I don’t pick up a book for pleasure. I pick it up to be changed. Call it leftover energy from my teaching career, but I just wanted to ask people to be willing to be changed by these books. To let a book make a claim on you—that’s huge. That takes vulnerability and faith. I love to be alongside when that opening expands. 

Having people read and discuss books I suggest? That's the briar patch for me. And I am stoked to do all of this with a "volunteer" community. That was one of my goals when I retired from teaching: to interact with people who chose to be there.

I didn’t think about all the other book clubs out there. Graduate school gave me a heaping helping of “influence anxiety,” so even when Mary Ann (Brussat, co-founder and co-director of Spirituality & Practice with her husband, Frederic) suggested I look at what Oprah does, I didn't. I don’t know a lot about what other book groups do. I was part of someone else’s book club once, and I quit because people weren’t serious enough about the selections. I have started a couple of focused book clubs that I enjoyed. I’m a hardcore nerd about small groups. There is so much you can accomplish—so much that spills out beyond the group itself—if you set an intention. Some people think that’s structure. I think it’s freedom. 

This book club, I imagine, is different in its purpose. Art for art's sake is necessary and wonderful. We should dwell in beauty. But this club is ultimately not about that. This club takes the reader through a process which some may recognize as being akin to the ancient Christian contemplative practice of lectio divina.

The discussions take the reader deeper into the text itself, then deep into the self, and finallyand cruciallyout to the world: Now that I know, now that I feel connected, what do I do?

This is why the meme I chose for the ad was the Emerson quote: "[Books] are for nothing but to inspire." That's Emerson in 1837 basically begging American intellectuals for some new ideas, ideas fit for the time and the place, not "the sere remains of foreign harvests" from Europe. He is asking us to create out of our own circumstances. I hope the guide and the weekly emails help people create a space that is both safe and challenging and that inspires them to think anew and create out of those thoughts. 

What criteria did you use for the book selections? How did you narrow it down to 12? And how do you see the books, the themes, and/or discussions helping participants find ways to navigate these challenging times?
I spent weeks on text selection. Quite a few of these selections are about race. There are many reasons for this. Most importantly, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Zora Neale Hurston, Leslie Marmon Silko, Viet Thahn Nguyen and Marilynn Robinson are straight up brilliant writers and they write quite a bit about race—so I pay attention. As a sheltered upper middle class white college student, I was blown away by Silko's novel. And I am so grateful. I felt the same way when Coates' book came out. Between the World and Me is so powerful. I immediately taught it, and it was so good for my students, growing up in a demographic similar to the one I inhabited growing up, to be confronted with this perspective on whiteness.

Conversations about race make a lot of Americans feel vulnerable, so we avoid them. But what we need to do is engage them in order to step fully into our history, our reality.

People of color cannot avoid talking about race. So solidarity means none of us avoid that conversation. America was founded on stolen land worked by stolen labor, and racism facilitated that theft. I can't see how to move on and together as a nation without a continual and candid and—yes—difficult conversation about that.

More generally, each of these texts address conflicts that arise over some kind of difference that makes people forget the core values of democracy: equality, freedom, civility, etc. Obviously, we as a nation could use a primer in these values, a reminder that they are at the core of us, and that navigating our differences ought to be a challenge we rise to not a rivalry we stoop to. This reminds me of Hamilton, the Broadway recording of which did not make it past the final cut. After the fateful duel, Burr sings, "Now I'm the villain in your history/I was too young and blind to see/I should've known/ I should've known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me." History—and the stories in these works—can teach us what we want to do and what we don't want to do. They can point us away from the deep regret of Aaron Burr.

I also wanted the selections to be representative of the diversity of the United States, and I did not succeed, and partly that's because I was educated in the traditional canon, and I am still reading myself out of that. But we did end up with different kinds of diversity: region, gender, sexuality, race. There's a mix of classic and contemporary, and that balance is owed to Mary Ann and Frederic Brussat. I like the conversations the pairing of old and new will set up, but if it had been entirely up to me, I would have championed the writers who are shaping the conversations now. But I think that's my age talking, not that I'm super young. I just feel like we are in this moment where we need to listen to the incredible creators who are responding to the now. But realistically, America has been through this moment before, and Twain, O'Connor, and Steinbeck have much to contribute. I should say that The Grapes of Wrath was always on the list as a sort or Ur-text even though it comes a century after Emerson called for American literature to break away from European traditions. It just does everything I need a novel to do stylistically, thematically—and what it has to say about labor and wealth could not be more timely. And O'Connor really challenges us to look at how we treat and represent those who are radically different according to our norms. 

I also wanted there to be a lot of pleasure in reading, even as we discuss the shadow side of democracy, the challenges that get in the way like fear of strangers, anger, etc. Twain, George Saunders and Sarah Vowell are all so funny, and that willingness to candidly make fun of American foibles comes from love. I think Mary Oliver said love is 98% attention, and these three pay close attention to the quirks and hyprocrisies they see around them. They make humor out of them, instead of some kind of "war," and in this humor they suggest that there are connections more important than our differences.

George Saunders and Marilynne Robinson are both masters of voice. You really get absorbed in the narrator's perspective. Robinson's John Ames (from Gilead) has a voice you could meditate to, and Saunders' narrators come at you with this uncanny combination of satire and kindness. They are complex voices, full of joy and pain, nobility and fault—really honest voices. This, too, is a lesson. Everyone is more than one thing. We experience that reading these voices and can maybe allow ourselves and others to be more than one thing--not Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, etc.

I hope the resilience of the characters and especially their compassion as they struggle will inspire participants to discover their own resilience in our troubling times—or perhaps just discover the source of their eagerness to keep going through hardship.

Each of the books is honest about where we are in relation to our ideals. They hold up tough love as a form of patriotism and, hopefully, inspire in their readers compassionate action as an alternative to a feeling of powerlessness. I saw a fourth of July meme the other day that showed a shopping list, and the items on the list were hot dogs, beer, ketchup, chips, and the feeling that the country is doomed and we are powerless to change that. I was struck by the fact that some form of revolution was not on the list, this list that celebrates the beginning of the American Revolution. Do we not have another revolution in us? Have we stopped evolving?

In terms of discussion and interaction with the guide, I really hope folks try the practices. Book groups are often collections of relatively like-minded, comfortable folks. The dynamic is supposed to end "on the street," where the real problems and opportunities are, not in the living room or on the discussion board. And I really hope people will let me know if they have created something new in the world as a result of the practice, the discussion, or the books themselves.

It’s nice to see poetry on the list. Can you preview any of the poets you’ll be highlighting?
Selections for poetry month have not been settled yet. Hamilton may appear during poetry month. Probably some Walt Whitman, Pattiann Rogers, Langston Hughes. I'm also thinking about some slam poetry, maybe Mayda del Valle...?

You are welcome to sign up for the book club any time before the last day, August 26, 2019. Find out more about the book club, sign up, and/or download the guide here

The full selection of books are listed below:
September - The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
October - The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
November - A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor
December - Poetry
January - Tenth of December by George Saunders
February - Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
March - Puddnhead Wilson by Mark Twain
April - The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
May - Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
June - The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
July - The Partly-Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
August - Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

What books would you add to this list?