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Jenny Liu Zhang's Reading List 1: Love, Learning and Play

“I talk about and revisit them often for knowledge, inspiration or their ability to articulate something in my inner world”
words – jenny liu zhang
location – doha, qatar

These are some written works about love, learning and play that have left a lasting impression on me. I talk about and revisit them often for knowledge, inspiration or their ability to articulate something in my inner world. Each one has shaped my imagination and creativity in building projects like Plot Twisters, and has also guided my life generally, in one way or another.

On love
01_All About Love by bell hooks

There’s no better way to open this list than with bell hooks’s classic treatise on love. A blend of personal storytelling and philosophical breakdowns about respect, trust, intimacy and care, this book gave me words to explore topics from romance and reciprocity to the distorted nature of punishment in parenting. The most transformative section for me was Chapter 8, “Community: Loving Communion,” but it’s an overall beautiful book that offered me a definition that I always return to in both my personal life and creative practice: love is spiritual and psychological nurture.

02_Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg

The practice of Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, asserts that negative emotions happen when a person’s needs for wellbeing are not being met, and that conflict resolution should revolve around mutually discovering strategies to fulfill wellbeing needs. I see NVC as a practicum of love, because it asks us to suspend judgments and assumptions fuelled by anger and fear, and instead see healthy relationships as things we all co-create and are accountable to.

03_Life is a Miracle by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry, a farmer and a writer, describes how every person is special just because of their time and place in the phenomenon of life, and how valuing humans by their labels alone doesn’t respect this. We exploit what we value, but we defend what we love, he says; he wants each of us to protect each other as creatures deserving of affection and capable of joy, grief and belonging. Berry sends us home with his takes on science, religion, mystery and reductionism, and how they all connect to his heritage as a farmer.

On learning
04_Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

 I could’ve easily put this in the love category because, to Paulo Freire, the work of educating others is a work of love. One of the most cited books in the social sciences, this book asserts that learning is a process of “naming the world,” and that teachers should recognise that the world is always in flux. They should trust students as co-creators of its names, rather than empty receptacles to dump old names into. I owe a lot to Freire; a concept I revisit often in this book is “conscientisation,” or the process of a learner coming into awareness of their ever-changing social realities and roles.


05_The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara

Told from the perspective of a young Black girl in an upmarket toy store, this is a wonderful short story about conscientisation: the jarring realisation that other people live very differently to you, and how awkward it can be to come to terms with that in the moment. This is one of my favourite short stories of all time.

06_Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School by Daniel Greenberg

Sudbury Schools are a type of democratic school where students self-organise their own classes, hire and fire their own teachers, and learn everything at their own pace. This is an idyllic book of vignettes about the flagship school founded in 1968 in Massachusetts. Greenberg paints what feels like a utopia to me: an educational society where learning is just synonymous with nourishing our connection to the world around us.

07_Education in a Time Between Worlds by Zachary Stein

Stein presents a collection of essays about the ethics of education, the crisis of measurement and the relationship between schooling, the economy and social justice today. I round out this category with this book because it grounded me in the present reality of our schools. We all know the education system is a bit messed up, but Stein critically examines why, how and what we need to consider moving forward.

On play
08_Play by Stuart Brown

This book opens in Alaska with Dr. Stuart Brown and animal biologist Bob Fagen watching two bears roll around and wrestle in a field. When Brown asks why the bears play, Fagen deliberates for a few moments, then finally replies: “In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares these bears for an evolving planet.” I loved this thought and I felt like it set up the rest of the book well: this is a fun and informative read exploring how play is a way we practise navigating life.

09_The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual by Matt Besser et al.

This cheeky guide lays out the basic games and patterns in improvisational theatre, which I think of as an official form of “playing pretend.” It starts with the number one rule of improv, “Yes, and.” To say “Yes” means to fully accept scene information given to you by your scene partners, and to say “and” means to build on and contribute to the scene. I see “yes, and” as a practice I’m honing in my life at large: it’s hard to get anywhere in conversation and creativity if you’re always saying “no” or “yes, but” and never playing a situation forward. This book demonstrates for me how play, love and co-creation are sibling concepts, in a practical and humorous way.

10_The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell

When I first started building Plot Twisters, a mentor gifted me this book. To this day I still travel with it everywhere because it does such a great job of codifying games as a meeting point of emotions, risks, incentives and storytelling. A sort of bible for game designers, this book is both instructive and philosophical, as good bibles are. It also breaks down concepts into “lenses” to look at your project through, so the reading experience is a playful activity in itself. Jesse Schell, the author, is also one of the creators of my favourite online game from childhood, Toontown Online.

11_Cybernetics and Ghosts by Italo Calvino

I end this list with my favourite writer, Italo Calvino, who I commonly see described as Italy’s most inventive literary figure. In this lecture, he explains the process of storytelling as “combinatorial play:” when you lay out a combination of words into a sentence, that combination can inspire “ghosts” of meaning, memory, intuition, and ideas “half buried or erased from our unconscious,” and they differ from person to person. He imagines a future of writing where all writers are actually just reader-authors who use a funky literature machine to generate sentence permutations to transpose their inner experience into verbal language. Though somewhat dense in its linguistic and literary references, this piece describes creative play in a way I connect with and think about every day, whether I’m illustrating a graphic or writing a story: a process of mixing and matching elements until a perfect combination strikes the phantasmal poetry hidden underneath our waking world, inspiring something meaningful for the creator and audience alike.

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