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Jenny Liu Zhang's Reading List 2: Form, Flourishing and Meaning

“I love these reads for educating me about our world, but also for encouraging me to touch it, respond to it and make it better”
words – jenny liu zhang
location – cleveland, united states

These are some written works I associate with form, flourishing and meaning. To me, the sequence of these topics tell a story: form is how things of this world appear to us, flourishing is the experience of resonant and harmonious forms, and meaning emerges in our struggle toward flourishing. I love these reads for educating me about our world, but also for encouraging me to touch it, respond to it and make it better.

01_The Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schön

This practical book reminds me that the form of myself – my personal intuitions and tacit knowledge –  is crucial to my creative and design practice. In vague and complex problem spaces, purely technical solutions can be impossible. Especially in fields such as education or social work, any map created rarely matches the territory, and if it does, it doesn’t for long. Schön presents the skill of “reflection-in-action” as the art of self-awareness in decision-making that can only happen impromptu and in context, and argues for it as a demonstration of expertise that can’t be taught through books. Through detailed case studies and some neatly sprinkled metaphors, Schön asks us to attend to our experiential wisdom and exercise it more often.

02_The Mastery of Movement by Rudolf Laban

Rudolf Laban was a dancer and choreographer passionate about how physical movement is a highly personal vocabulary. He describes movement through the categories of body, shape, space and effort, and characterises it in continuums between elements like “quick” and “sustained,” “heavy” and “light,” and “bound” and “free.” Tender, nuanced, and extremely unique, I really admire this treatise about movement as form, creation and the exploration of agency.

03_A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander

Christopher Alexander, a mathematician-turned-architect, wrote this glorious book of 253 “patterns” of towns and buildings that nourish “aliveness.” Patterns start broadly at the town level, with titles like “Promenade” and “Accessible Green.” Then they get more granular at the home level, like “Ceiling Height Variety” and “Light on Two Sides of Every Room,” until the very last pattern is “Things From Your Life,” to say that a place cannot nurture aliveness in you if you don’t have any keepsakes from your life and loved ones. He envisioned architects and designers to combine, remix, and interpret these patterns as the formal elements of physical spaces, artistically and infinitely rearrangeable in the way words in a poem are. The existence of this work continues to amaze me: Alexander not only codified a fascinating collection of urban and architectural forms, but presented them like building blocks to inspire people to create more “poetic” spaces, a feat of form in itself. This book inspired people to produce pattern languages of best practices in other fields, from pedagogy to software engineering, and guided real-life design projects, including the University of Oregon campus.


04_Fairy Tale by Andrew Teverson

In my recent fascination with fairy tales, this book was an excellent field guide. Opening with three different versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Teverson introduces the conundrum of analysing stories of unclear yet varied origins. It’s amazing to me how oral traditions and folklore both pragmatically and morally shape human society, but also feel like nebulous and even celestial forms because they’re authorless and metamorphic. “As a generic form, the fairy tale is a many-tongued genre, a cultural palimpsest; because even as it speaks of the time in which it is told, it carries the memory of the other times in which it has circulated and flourished.”

On flourishing
05_The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Speaking of stories and flourishing, this is an engaging and subversive telling of human history by the late Graeber – an anthropologist and mainstay of Occupy Wall Street – and Wengrow, an accomplished archaeologist. The world as we know it, they argue, emerged much more chaotically and capriciously than we realise. Instead of textbook tropes about nomads, pastoralism, then the inevitable agricultural revolution, the authors share stories about large Eurasian cities without any rulers and the gambling habits of women in indigenous societies. They assert how civilisations have always been born from some tension between control and freedom, and tell us where we fall in comparison today. I think you just have to read this one.


06_Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown

adrienne maree brown personally invites us to see our own lives, work and relationships as the first arena for social change. Recombining concepts from complexity science with her observations about collective changemaking as an activist, brown advocates for love as a conduit of possibility, the fractal-like correspondence between healthy projects and their healthy organisations, and nurturing critical relationships over critical mass. A passionate and uplifting resource about practising justice at scale, I use this book as a tonic for the daily drain of modern labour systems and performativity. My favourite principle is “there is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.”

07_Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings by Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo breaks and revitalises the concept of “conflict resolution” in these poems that take us through her Native American history. A member of the Muscogee [Creek] Nation, a jazz musician and a U.S. Poet Laureate, Harjo evokes both pain and resilience in lyrical odes about her family, community and journey of personal reckoning. It’s impossible to define a flourishing world without recognising the actualities of its deep grief, anger and numbness. To resolve conflict, Harjo expresses, we must allow our emotions to stomp, sing and be heard. I highly recommend the titular poem.

On meaning
08_“A Glossary of Haunting” by Eve Tuck & C. Ree

Glossaries usually come at the end of a written work, but Tuck and Ree give us a “hostless” glossary. This work of alphabetically organised creative writing is therefore a lost remnant itself, exemplifying the theme of how stories and histories can haunt us, sticking around with nowhere to go. Tuck and Ree splice quotes, installation art and autoethnographic reflection to specifically talk about the horrors of settler colonialism and the perpetual work of trying to make such violent narratives make sense. They explain how there are no reparations to stop the haunting of these narratives, because the haunting is the reparation itself. Like Harjo’s work, Tuck and Ree’s reminds us to make space for ghosts – even the worst of them. An intimate story about justice emerges from their work’s rigid and arbitrary alphabetical structure; like a phantom spotted between the cracks, the authors’ own meaning-making process seeps through.

09_The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Similarly imaginative but much more lighthearted and whimsical, The Phantom Tollbooth is a timeless illustrated children’s book about Milo, a little boy with a case of ennui. After accidentally transporting himself to a completely new world by way of a plain-looking tollbooth, Milo is joined by a “watchdog” named Tock, who is a dog with the body of a clock, as he travels the Kingdom of Wisdom to release the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason from the Castle of Air. I’ve read The Phantom Tollbooth time and time again as an adult, and it’s a clever and fantastical adventure each time. An aesthetically wonderful read about finding meaning in the unassuming things that surround us, this book is critical inspiration for my game-in-progress, Plot Twisters.

10_Games: Agency as Art by C. Thi Nguyen

This is a book about games, but in the abstract and reflective way that many things in life can be thought of as games. Nguyen argues that we play games for the aesthetic experience of the “struggle” they provide, delivering an interesting philosophical analysis about why we prefer some games to others: different games, from chess to football, enable us to struggle in different ways, arousing distinct physical, mental, executive and social agencies. The agencies we discover about ourselves through gameplay gives games their artistic meaning, allowing us to develop artistic tastes and preferences, like we would when comparing music or visual art. It made me think about the game of my own life: what struggles do I find attractive and fulfilling? What goals, constraints and environments inspire the most meaning for me?

11_“Dear Xavier High School” letter by Kurt Vonnegut, 2006

I end this list warmly with one of my favourite writers, Kurt Vonnegut. I recommend getting familiar with his comical and minimalist fiction in general, specifically Cat’s Cradle and his story collection Welcome to the Monkey House, but for now I will point you toward this very short and sweet letter of advice he wrote to high school students in New York about learning “what’s inside you.” It’s not an official written work, but you can give it a Google to find it. I love when artists get soulful, and I revisit this letter on occasion for motivation and joy.

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