“Back to School Reading Lists: featuring Cauleen Smith’s “Human _3.0 Reading List”

It’s September, the month when teachers everywhere are passing out reading lists of all kinds. What would you imagine to be on a “Human_3.0 Reading List”? Last Thursday, I visited the Art Institute of Chicago to find out.

In 2015-2016, Interdisciplinary Artist and Filmmaker Cauleen Smith made a series of 57 graphite and watercolor drawings of book covers from books that she’s read. With these drawings, she has proposed a humanistic reading list of “intellectual touchstones essential to her worldview” which she calls “Human _3.0 Reading List.”

Some books and authors from Cauleen Smith’s list were familiar. Some titles are books I own but have yet to read; and others were completely new and intriguing to me, such as The Intimacies of Four Continents by Lisa Lowe.

Books like Starfish, Sea Urchin and Their Kin by Nelson Herwig, Weather: The Golden Guide, and Leslie L. Hunt’s 25 Kites That Fly broke up a lot of the theoretical volumes regarding colonialism, gender, race, and class, and reminded me that there is more to life than human beings and our political and social systems and power struggles.

I had fun photographing my neighbors-shout out to A’Aisha, Danielle, and Kevin-holding editions from my personal library to show alongside photos I took of some of Cauleen Smith’s drawings.


The statement at the entrance to the exhibit asks the following questions: “Have you read these books? What do they mean to us now? What would you add to this list?”

These are front and back covers of Cauleen Smith’s “Human _3.0 Reading List 2015-2016.”

I came up with three different questions:

*When you think of a book that has impacted your worldview, what comes to mind, first: the image of its cover, or a favorite quote or portion of its contents?
*For those who do a lot of their reading on tablets, what would make you decide to purchase a physical copy of a book you’ve read on an e-reader?
*Do you think that the Bible and/or other wisdom-tradition and spiritual texts contribute anything of value to developing a humanistic worldview?

I enjoyed this quote from Cauleen Smith from Christopher Borelli’s August 18, 2017 piece on her for the Chicago Tribune:

“I sometimes get tagged as activist because I pay attention to the world, but I’m not an activist. You need a certitude for that which I don’t have anymore. That’s for the young. Their agenda is social change and that requires power, but art is about destabilizing power. I’m all for change, but my work, it doesn’t serve it. I want to undermine power.”


  1. I wish I could visit those museums and galleries that you’ve explored. It would be such an adventure. This one would’ve been my favourite. I love pretty and striking and interesting book covers. Miss Smith’s artwork is stunning. Things Fall Apart was one of my favourite books in high school and seeing these covers brings back great memories.

    In answer to your questions:
    i) It would be the cover first. That has to have curb appeal to make me want to enter the house. After that, it’s the content.
    ii) I’m not against reading an e-book if the situation calls for it. But there’s nothing like the feel and smell of books.
    iii) Sadly or not, I haven’t read any wisdom texts apart from the Bible. I think it’s possible to find some verses that could be helpful, such as the Golden Rule. But I’m wary when it comes to the Bible and how it has been used to enforce certain laws and agendas in the past, for instance, slavery. If it can be used to contribute, without indoctrination, to a humanistic society, great, go ahead. Otherwise, forget it.

    1. Nadine: I agree with you about “that curb appeal” – the attention-grabber; and, I find that if I am really enjoying the book, I tend to take repeat looks at the book’s cover, the dust flaps and whatnot, as if to capture everything about the book both inside and out. Don’t ask me why, I just do it!

  2. I’m loving Cauleen’s drawings juxtaposed against the photographs! Her reading list is super rich and a good number of the books are still chillin’ on my TBR list, LOL. So many books, so little time!
    Answers to the questions posed:
    – When I think of a book that impacted my worldview, I think of the book cover and certain portions of the text. But more so the latter!
    – I really dislike reading e-books, but if I’m a reading a book via Kindle and I realize its a keeper, I purchase the physical copy as well. It also depends on if I’m up for re-purchasing the book (aka – if I’m broke at the moment, nah).
    – Besides the Bible, I think a book that has reinforced a spiritual perspective for me has been ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ by Mitch Albom. Lots of books from Maya Angelou’s autobiography collection (‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ ; ‘Mom & Me & Mom’ ; ‘All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes’ ; ‘Letter to My Daughter’ etc) definitely contribute many quotes, stories, testimonies to developing a humanistic worldview.

    1. Hey Darkowaa! Yeah…now I am beginning to think that if portions of a book impact my worldview then my memory also likes to have that visual snapshot to go with it – especially if the book’s cover art is good.
      Maya Angelou’s autobiographical books really are a testament to how we can evolve into becoming more – rather than less – humane despite what people do to us, say to us, and say about us that’s meant to diminish us. It’s been a while since I’ve read those, so thank you for stopping to make me reflect.
      ….and one of these days I am going to get around to reading Tuesday’s With Morrie….I don’t know what’s taking me so long!

  3. I love the cover art. I am so bad at remembering books…they stay with me and shift my world view for sure, but I think it is reading and the transportation to other worlds through books that has had the biggest impact on me. I think of worn pages of many library books and their thin pages making that delicious sound as I turned the page, engrossed in the lives of others that made me feel a little less alone.

    I have never read an e book.

    Your last question- I think by their very nature and intent to make sense of why we are here, the Bible and other spiritual texts contribute hugely to a humanistic viewpoint. It is also, sadly, quite human to abuse the faith of people who believe in these teachings for personal gain, power etc…

    1. Hi Mek – The cover art IS good, right? I’m tempted to return to the exhibition, take some more photos (of the other 50-odd from Cauleen Smith’s list), and post all over again!
      I’m with you on being transported to other worlds through books, and I like to think that – in itself – can be a humanizing experience.
      From your comments I gather that the total experience of touching, holding, and reading a book – slipping from your present world into another – is what captivates you; more than titles, more than authors. And, yes, reading a book that has been read by others is something, isn’t it? An especially well-worn library copy always makes me pause with a little bit of awe?.

  4. Leslie, thanks for another fascinating post! I want to nominate “1984” by George Orwell for any serious reader’s list. I will not soon forget reading it last year — not least for the large screens everywhere (written in 1940s!) and the changes in history. Hero Winston Smith decides to keep his own diary at one point, and many I never forget the freedom and joy I felt on the two nights I sat down with my own diary during the time I was reading the book. (In other words, both nights on which I’d read it.)

    1. Hi Margaret – Thanks for stopping by the blog and nominating a book you would add to the humanistic reading list.
      You know, I read 1984 so long ago, it’s almost as if I never read it, so I’m definitely due for a re-read. I’m fascinated that you brought out your own diary when you read it last year, and I’d like to do the same at some point.

  5. Love this post! You know me I’m a physical book reader but that doesn’t mean every now and then I won’t read on my Kindle. On 3.0 list I’ve sadly only read The Fire Next Time and Things Fall Apart. Powerhouses in impacting my world view. For me, the image of the cover is the first impact because it draws me to it but essentially quotes from the book are long lasting. I’m not so sure about the Bible contributing anything of value to developing a humanistic worldview because it seems to often be used in such a divisive manner.

    1. Hey Didi – I know what you mean about the Bible being used divisively. I think what made me ask the question is wondering how religious texts figure in to developing a humanistic worldview. It’s interesting to me that sometimes people who are heavily “into” the Bible won’t read much else, and people who are devouring fiction and nonfiction books, alike, don’t read religious texts!

      I’m glad you liked this post, and thank you for contributing to the discussion!

  6. This sounds very interesting Leslie! Here are a few answers to your questions:
    1) Books that impact my worldview include the actual contents. Things Fall Apart is an excellent example of that. I like Black Boy for the very same reason.

    2) I tend to alternate between tablet and physical book. There’s no rhyme or reason between how. If I’ve been reading on my tablet too much, then I switch to a physical book. Also, sometimes I want to read it now! In that case, I download to the tablet 🙂

    3) I think the Bible CAN offer a worldview perspective IF it is read specifically with that intent. So, I’d add other books, like Life of Pi and The Alchemist, which tend to offer a different (spiritual) perspective.

    1. Hey Kathy! I’m enjoying thinking about your responses. Since you brought up Black Boy that reminds me of how long its been since I read Richard Wright‘s work, and he was definitely one of the first black male writers I was ever exposed to. Thanks for writing about how some fictional works give us a window into our spiritual lives.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: