Phoebe Liebling



On One in Particular

Freshman year, I was in this class called "Conceptual Astronomy: Science Fact vs. Science Fiction", and I’m a big science fiction fan. The teacher really recommended Dune, and I said, "Okay, this seems pretty cool." I literally could not stop reading. It was so long but I just finished it really, really fast and it became like my number one priority. It’s this huge, epic, sci-fi adventure, kind of like if you took all the compelling aspects of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones, and they were all combined into the same universe.

....And Its Meaning at Wesleyan

I feel like Dune is integral, and super symbolic, of my education of Wesleyan; how it’s kind of this huge, epic conglomeration of these different things. And, like how it was something that was intellectually stimulating for me and triggered a more thorough interest in science fiction and literature as a whole. And so I think it’s more emblematic of the kind of education that I’ve received at Wesleyan, than of my identity at Wesleyan.

On Place

Some of them I brought from home, some were gifts, some I just got on my own, and the rest are books that I wanted to keep from classes. I like having them around. Sometimes when I’m bored I’ll pick up a book that I like and just read part of it. I don’t hold myself to finishing the whole thing, although sometimes I’ll try to read through books that I like again. But mainly, they’re good inspiration because sometimes I like to write in my free time. It can just be good to have a lot of my favorite writing with me. 

On Recommendations

Teachers, and parents also. Actually, no. My coworker — who actually is a teacher, but never was mine — he recommended The Once and Future King by T.H. White, which is a King Arthur story. It’s King Arthur’s life from his time as a young steward boy, up until his death and beyond. This is also a very remarkable book. I really recommend it. 

On One Line in Particular

There’s one from Dune, and it’s very intense. I’m going to say it, and you’re going to be like, "Damn, okay." But it’s good because it’s something to think about, especially being a college student where you’re faced with a lot of change and you have a lot of uncertainty. You don’t know what’s going to happen, or if you’re making the right decision, or if everything is going to be okay. This is kind of a very extreme response, but one that I think has a lot of merit. 

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

This is a mantra that Bene Gesserit use, which is this ancient race of witch people in the book whose sole purpose is to influence world events so that everything turns out right for humanity and nothing horrible happens, so that life continues on.

Books (and Bookstores) Mentioned
Dune by Frank Herbert
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
The Strand Bookstore in New York, NY
Mercer Street Books and Records in New York, NY



On Collection

Some of the books I have are ones that I had bought the summer before my freshman year. I was in Barnes and Noble, and I was like, "I should probably start reading things before I go to college." So I bought The Future of the Mind, which is a book on neuroscience and psychology, which is what I thought I wanted to do, but not anymore. 

Other books are from courses I’ve taken in the past. So, for example I have all the books from a class I took last semester called "The Economy of Nature and Nations". Others are ones that I bought in Seattle this summer. My favorite book is this one over here, which is called Punk and Revolution: Seven More Interpretations of Peruvian Reality. It’s about how to understand Peru’s political history through the lens of the punk scene in Lima, Peru. I just had to bring this book with me.

For most of my books, it’s a collection that I’ve gotten in my past three years of Wesleyan. I also have a few different books that tribal members I met from the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington gave to me about the tribes in the Olympic Peninsula. So just either books that people have given me, or that I’ve bought for classes, or that I’ve collected somehow. 

On Travel

It’s interesting because I bring some of these books back to Florida expecting to finish them, but I never do. I’m in this constant transition between bringing these books home, not being able to completely finish them or just reading a few pages, then coming back again. But I still keep them, even though I haven’t finished reading them. 

On Influence

Hearing about all the punk and subculture in Peru, I was able to make a lot of parallels to Cuba’s history. I felt like, even though Peru and Cuba have gone through completely different things, there were just some things that I found, underlined, and starred. I don’t know if it’s like, formative to my identity but I felt like it gave me a new way or language of looking at things. I had never thought about interpreting political history through the lens of music, but it makes sense to do so. I’ve always really liked history, that’s one of the concentrations for my major, and I really like punk music. So I’m just like ‘well, all of these things correlate.’ It’s also interesting because I sent an email to the author over the summer about how much I like his book, and we exchanged some emails. This is the first time I’ve been able to get into a book. It was more accessible, and it kind of represented all of my ideals in life, like punk music and revolutionary shit. I was just like, ‘Yeah. I’m down for this.’

On Barnes and Noble

In Florida there’s only really Barnes and Noble. I like the really small, personable bookstores that aren’t corporate. But I did spend a lot of time in Barnes and Nobles back at home. It was a nice place, and I think I can like all bookstores. The space of a bookstore is really comforting to me, and it’s a de-stresser in a way.

On Recommendations

My dad first introduced me to the José Martí poem book when I was really young, probably ten or so. He was like, "Belén, I know the first five pages of this book by heart." He gave me the book when I was about ten years-old, and he would open it up and say, "Okay, tell me if I’m right." He just recited the first five pages, and as a ten year old I was like, "What the fuck, Dad?" He gave it to me, and he said, "Don’t ever lose it, because this book is really important to me." He had it growing up in Cuba, and it was very formative in his life so he passed it down to me. Every time I go back home he says, "Do you still have the book? Is it in good condition?"

Books (And Bookstores) Mentioned
Poems by José Martí
The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku
Punk and Revolution: Seven More Interpretations of Peruvian Reality by Shane Greene
Barnes and Noble
Left Bank Books in Seattle, WA



On Choice

The one that I open the most is Self Reliance by Emerson. I sort of treat it like a Bible, in the ways that many people read the Bible. That is to pick particular phrases and think about them. I don’t have time to go through and read it all the time, but over the years I’ve underlined certain things and I take them in for the time I have to read. That’s why I chose it, because some of the values in here have kept me going. Probably the most important one is:

‘It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.’ 

This is How Music Works by David Byrne. It’s brilliant, because I’m a little fed up with academia right now and the way academics write, in particular. And the way academics write about music, as a third level. I’m a music major, and David Byrne is brilliant, but he’s also a musician. Often times you find musicians who have a hard time articulating themselves, or academics who over articulate. He’s a perfect mix, because he goes from things that are as universal as why people play music and how music connects with people, down to how to self release an album. It’s that question of, "Why bring books when you can read one hundred pages [for class] a day here?" This is part of it. Because I’m reading so much dense, academic writing that I’m sick of. This is very down to earth. 

Letters to a Young Poet. My English teacher gave me this when I graduated, and I didn’t read it until I was on my way here, maybe. The relationship between teacher and student is a huge thing that I got out of this. It’s funny, this is such a small school and so the teacher-student ratio is also so small. But somehow, I still miss the kind of one-on-one relationship with a teacher that is described in this book, and that I occasionally got while in high school with one particular teacher. 

This is my least serious one: 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. There is a lot of music in here. It’s one of those books that I think I’ll keep around forever, and just jump into something that I haven’t heard before. I’ve had so many different approaches to this book; I wanted to go page by page, so I could really be thorough. But I realized that’s just not reasonable. It would take forever, like your whole life, to get really through all of this. He [the author, Tom Moon] gives a great preface at the beginning about how tricky it is to really write about music at all, and to give some sort of authoritative stance on music. Even to compile one thousand recordings is reductive, because there’s so much music in the world. But he talks about that, and I appreciate that perspective.

This [Surfer’s Journal] is an interesting one, because it’s not this particular set of one hundred pages that I bring, rather it’s the subscription to this magazine that I had while I was younger. So I’ll bring a different copy of Surfer’s Journal. I grew up in L.A., surfing a lot. That was a huge hole when I got here. There’s something about the lifestyle, the imagery, the water, of California. Everything about this has a trigger in it for me — a positive trigger. The photography is beautiful and the writing is really good, which is not always a combination that you can find in magazines. It’s as much a visual representation of what it feels like to be surfing and on the beach, in the surf culture of Santa Barbara and San Diego, as it is an actual, written representation of what it is. Each time, I bring a different one. And I read it when I’m bummed about the stuffy east coast. I’ve never been able to put my finger on it, exactly. Like precisely, what is so amazing about surfing. I spend so much of my day playing music, and I would make the argument that it is one of the greatest things you can possibly do. But I still struggle whether I would put it above surfing. It seems sort of trite to say that it’s the feeling of being in the water. But there’s something about it, being out there. I’m trying not to think cliche, but it’s like this energy that’s pushing you and making you feel alive; you’re living. You’re on the beach, you get out there, and things are okay. I talk to so many surfers, and every single one says that so much could be happening in your life, and it doesn’t really go away, but it’s way less important when you’re out there. I went surfing in one of the greatest places to go surfing over the summer. I was out there in this group of adult men, and they were all talking about these horrible things. Some of their lives, and their friends’ lives, were in really bad shape. Things that you would not wish on anybody. They talked about how important surfing was for them. So I’m just floating, paddling around, trying to catch waves and stuff. But I’m overhearing this conversation about how important surfing has been during these moments in their lives that are terrible. When we’re out there, it’s 6:30 in the morning, before they’re all working, and they have this time to do this. They said that it puts a bandaid on the situation. It’s this total escape. You have to be fully present; it’s really difficult, but at the same time, very freeing. So, the point is, this series of books are as much about the memories that they recall, and the visual representation of all of the things we just talked about, as they are a hard copy of this thing. 

On Representation

I think that if I was sitting in here with someone very close to me, they would be either rolling their eyes or laughing because these books are so representative of who I am. But if it’s about representation, the only way to really get it is to read them. That’s how you might understand me if you were trying in a way that I couldn’t say. You would have to read them, and understand what these people are talking about in representing these different things, and that would help a person if they were trying to understand where I’m coming from. I had a really amazing conversation with somebody the other day about curation, and how that creates a different context for the things that are in it. Also, how it affects the meanings of the things that are in it; those items are brought together in a particular way by the person who is curating it. Letters to a Young Poet, on a bookshelf, is one thing. But as a part of these six books, having read them all, they inform it in an entirely different way. 

On Meaning

I would say these two, Self Reliance and Surfer’s Journal, are the only two where I’ve really felt a need to pick them, specifically, up. More explicitly, if I’m missing home, it’s usually Surfer’s Journal. Or if I want to escape the moment in which I’m in, if that’s a thing you can even do, then I’ll pick it up. Because it’s visual, emotional. This [Self Reliance] is if I need advice for a situation. And the funny part is, I know exactly the advice I’m going to get because I’ve read it so many times. But I still need to hear it, in those words, figuratively by Emerson, speaking to me. And then I remember, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve opened up to this page so many times.’ Sometimes this is a darker one, when I’m in a time where I feel like I’ve lost confidence, or strength, or something. My groove, who I am. And why, why I am. That is when this comes up. The book of poetry is really pretty, so if ever ‘really pretty’ is the answer to the problem… 

On One Line in Particular

The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.’

The funny thing about that is I think I read it in high school, subconsciously made it a personal philosophy, and found it again, having reimagined it in a different analogy over the course of senior year and college. Then I came back to it, and was like ‘Oh, that’s the same thing but written in a different way.’ It came up in the context of relationships, having to realize that there are ups and downs, difficult moments and amazing ones. In the short term, those difficult moments sometimes feel detrimental, and like they could end it. A strong relationship is one in which, if you treat them as though they are on a graph, with up and downs meaning good or badness, they go up and down, and up and down. If you zoom out, that looks just like a straight up line. It’s if you zoom in on the month, or day, or hour, that things fluctuate so much. Because things fluctuate; it’s how they are. Nothing is stagnant like that. So, it’s basically perspective. But it requires getting through those difficult moments sometimes — all the time — understanding that you have to zoom out. See the line of the best ship as being one of a hundred tacks, but really it’s a direct line. I kept using this as advice, and it became very much a mantra for me, or if I could help other people. Then I was a freshman or something, and read the line again and I was like “Goddammit, I think that I picked that up a long time ago.” And I even underlined it. 

Books (And Bookstores) Mentioned
Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
How Music Works by David Byrne
1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die by Tom Moon
Surfer’s Journal
The Iliad Bookshop in Los Angeles, CA
The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles, CA



On Choice

I only have one bookcase in my room, and I’d seen what other rooms look like in my dorm, so I thought to myself, "I can fit my entire bookcase in here! But I shouldn’t." So I brought one random shelf out of my three shelf set, and that’s what I ended up with. One of the books here though, I found while I was actually sneaking around the basement of Hall Atwater. There were just some books lying there, so I assumed they were free although they might not be. But that’s what the Mathematics of Physics and Chemistry one is. 

I recently lent this out to a friend, but Brave New World by Aldous Huxley was one of my favorite books back in high school. It’s still one I can leaf through to any nonspecific chapter and just read that chapter, and I don’t have to commit to a book. That’s been super helpful for being here. I’ve been leafing through a couple of these, but there’s a few I bought specifically for reading at college. Not for my classes, but just things that I wanted to read that I knew I would have some free time for. Which I ended up not having. Herzog by Saul Bellow, who is an author I actually heard about through a Sufjan Stevens song, which is one of the more basic things I’ve done. I googled him and I was like ‘This sounds cool, he’s like a Chicago Dostoevsky.’ 

On Book Discovery

My mom really facilitated a lot of my reading. I’d be like, "Mom, can I get this video game that looks really cool?? and she’d be like, "No. But I bought you…" I don’t really know what I read as a kid, but it was probably like, Eric Carl or something. The Hungry Caterpillar. I was an intellectual child.

In my hometown, there’s a bookstore called Raven Used Books. It’s this little seller, that’s filled wall to wall with old maps and books. The people that work there are really nice, and I buy ice cream for them sometimes; we’re all friends. 

On One in Particular

There’s this author I’m really into, named Italo Calvino. He’s an Italian author from the mid-twentieth century. This is a collection of short stories [Marcovaldo] about an underpaid factory worker living in a vague industrial city in northern Italy, which basically means Milan. In the story, he sees a mushroom growing in the ground in between these little concrete blocks. How the city is described is that it’s all very gray, and devoid of vegetation. So he freaks out when he sees this mushroom, and he keeps checking back to see if it has grown. He guards it to make sure no one else finds his mushroom; it’s this patch of nature in a sea of desolate industrialism. Eventually they start sprouting because he’s spreading them around, and eventually everyone starts picking them and the spores are flying out. They’re like, ‘We’re going to eat fantastic tonight, these mushrooms are going to be so great!’ But they end up being poisonous, and everyone gets sick. 

Books (And Bookstores) Mentioned
Mathematics of Physics and Chemistry by Henry Margenau
Marcovaldo by Italo Calvino
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Herzog by Saul Bellow
Raven Used Books in Northampton, MA



On Selection

I’m from Berkeley, California. So, I have to be very selective about the books that I bring here. I think that the books I have brought, for the most part, come from the used bookstores around Berkeley. Cal [UC, Berkeley] has a lot of different, small places where the students get their books. As a student of the social sciences, it is a great place to grow up and get books from. You can get really obscure sociology stuff, and random economics things that are borderline textbooks. This year, because I’m in the CSS, it’s been really easy for me to get books that I need for classes. Rousseau, Kant… I basically chose based on books that I have read, or started reading, and really liked. There are a couple that I have back at home that are more traditional, more social science-y.

The non CSS books that I bring are, for the most part, books that I have read. [It’s helpful] if I need to reference something out of the course catalogue that I could use, and also books that I’ve read and really liked and want my friends to check out. So I do a lot of sharing books, I probably have like four or five out that I’ve given to friends. You can be having a conversation about a political event, and be like, "Hey, I have a book about this one specific thing that I can let you borrow."

On Buying Secondhand

A lot of the weird, obscure ones, people will write all over them. There were two Rousseau books that we needed for CSS that I almost couldn’t read parts of because people would underline so much. Every once in a while, you get a book where the writing inside actually kind of helps. You can just be like, "Oh, alright, that was a good point that someone made, like twenty years ago." For the most part, I underline what I read because for the CSS there is so much volume. The only way that I am able to go back and pick out big ideas is by underlining and writing in the margins. 

On One in Particular

Marx’s Capital, Volume 1 is one of the books that you read in the CSS Economics tutorial, because he’s one of those foundational thinkers. Before getting here, I actually went and bought it to try and read over the summer. But the thing about Marx is that, without guidance and a base level understanding of what he’s talking about, it’s very dense and hard to read. It was my mission to try and get through it over the summer. There’s a really good lecture series by a guy named David Harvey, and he’s a foundational thinker on Marx. It’s all on Youtube, so I was watching that and trying to take notes. I have random notes that I tried to take, but I didn’t get very far. I’d say that has been very foundational for me, because I do a lot of organizing on campus too. When talking about a theory that really informs your practice of organizing, Marx has been super, super important. 

The cool thing about this book [Marx’s Capital] is that so much of it is really dense, talking about the intricacies of political economy and the working day and all of that. But every once in a while, because Marx is such a radical thinker and someone who wants to see the world change fundamentally, he comes out with these gems. After a long chapter on the general law of capitalist accumulation, where he’s just hammering forward basically what would happen if we just continue the way we’re going in a capitalist economy that’s being industrialized, there’s this line that I think is really good. He’s talking about the transition in history where a laborer who has been working in a feudal society, tied to the land, then transitions to the capitalist society where there’s still a level of exploitation. This is the quote: 

Hence, the historical movement which changes the producers into wage-workers, appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds, and this side alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But, on the other hand, these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.’

So you’ve been through hundreds of pages of this book, where he hasn’t really given you anything to take away as a bigger picture. But then he hits you with a line where the prose gets really intense and meaningful. That’s super cool to me. 

Books (And Bookstores) Mentioned
Those Angry Days by Lynne Olson
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Capital, Volume 1 by Karl Marx
Pegasus Books in Berkeley and Oakland, CA
Moe’s Bookshop in Berkeley, CA

Bookends is a series for The Artifex in which students discuss their favorite books and the books they brought to school.  

Phoebe Liebling can be contacted at