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Academic books that you don’t need to be an academic to enjoy

Book Cover A Sentimental Education

Hannah McGregor's new book is A Sentimental Education.


When I first started publishing academic work, I was sure that my only readers would be other academics (if I was lucky). I never shared my articles with my family or friends, because what was the point? They probably wouldn’t get it. All that changed when I started making Witch, Please, a very silly podcast about the Harry Potter world, with my friend and co-conspirator Marcelle Kosman. Sure, we were usually a little tipsy when we recorded, and sure we spent a lot of time giggling, but we were also talking about Michel Foucault and Judith Butler and Lee Edelman’s concept of reproductive futurism and, much to our surprise, people were excited to engage with these big ideas. So began my personal journey into publicly engaged scholarship—scholarly thinking and writing that does things a little differently, with an eye to engaging with communities outside the ivory tower.

Of course, once I started looking for genre-defying scholarship, I found it everywhere. There’s a long tradition of Black, Indigenous, queer, disabled, and feminist scholars writing with and for their communities rather than their narrowly defined disciplines. A lot of those books have become personal favourites, models and inspirations and go-to recommendations for readers who are excited to learn and want something more immersive than yet another Ted Talk.


Of course, once I started looking for genre-defying scholarship, I found it everywhere.


Book Cover In the Wake

In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, by Christina Sharpe, was the first academic book that made me go full *brain exploding emoji*. Sharpe uses the concept of the wake—as an act of awakening, a ritual of mourning, and the path left behind a ship—to consider how the history of slavery continues to shape Black life in the present. She brings together literature, film, politics, and history to challenge our conception of what it means for an event to be in the past, and in the process changed my whole understanding of what it means to be living in the present. 


Book Cover Notes from a Feminist Killjoy

Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life, by Erin Wunker, draws on Sara Ahmed’s concept of the feminist killjoy (who kills the joys of the patriarchy to make space for truly liberatory forms of joy), rooting that theoretical concept in the specifics of living a feminist life on a day-to-day basis. In essays on motherhood, rape culture, and friendship, Wunker shows how feminist theory can become a tool we wield to make sense of our own experiences.


Book Cover Policing Black Lives

Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, by Robyn Maynard, challenges the surprisingly pervasive belief that anti-Black violence is a uniquely American problem by tracing its history in Canada, from racist immigration laws to the deliberate dismantling of Black communities like Africville in Halifax and Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver to contemporary incidents of police brutality. Shout-out to Fernwood Publishing, which continues to produce gorgeous works of accessible non-fiction by Canadian scholars (I’m particularly excited for El Jones’ new book, Abolitionist Intimacies, coming out in November).


Book Cover WHy Indigenous Literatures Matter

Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, by Daniel Heath Justice, introduces readers to the rich range of Indigenous literatures and to the ways they can shift our understanding of fundamental questions like what it means to be human and how we can learn to live together. Rooted in anti-colonial thought and a deep appreciation for the literatures it discusses, this book will have you coming away with an enormous new TBR pile, so prepare yourself and your library card.


Book Cover The Care We Dream of

The Care We Dream Of: Liberatory and Transformative Approaches to LGBTQ+ Health, by Zena Sharman, is a book unlike anything I have read before. Part personal memoir and part edited anthology, it intersperses Sharman’s own reflections on how we can queer our understanding of health, kinship, aging, and death, with contributions by a wide range of writers speaking with both passion and deep expertise on topics from medical fatphobia to community care to reproductive justice. When I say this book changed my life, I mean it unreservedly, and if you’ve ever wanted to imagine a world in which care for everyone is possible (and honestly, why wouldn’t you?), then it will probably change your life, too.


Book Cover What the Oceans Remember

What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home, by Sonja Boon, is a memoir rooted in deep and careful archival research. Readers join Boon as she enters the colonial archive to learn about her own family’s past and its entanglements with colonialism, traveling from the Netherlands to Suriname to Newfoundland. Boon beautifully combines the personal project of understanding where we come from with a consideration of how we attempt to learn about the past, and of what remains unknowable.


Book Cover Dear Science

Dear Science and Other Stories, by Katherine McKittrick, is what happens when you put academic writing in a blender with every other possible genre: playlists, love letters, citations, poetry, and more. McKittrick’s concept of “where we know from” is one that has become central to my own thinking; it reminds us that the systems of knowledge that shape our world always come from somewhere, and that there is radical potential in the ways that Black intellectuals in particular resist and subvert these systems.


Book Cover Engage in Public Scholarship

Engage in Public Scholarship!: A Guidebook on Feminist and Accessible Communication, by Alex D. Ketchum, might have the word “scholarship” in the title, but it’s in fact an incredibly useful and accessibly-written guide for anyone interested in making things in public and sharing them with an audience. Whether you’re organizing an event series, writing a blog, or just engaging with your community on social media, Ketchum takes you through the ways you can make that work more accessible for a wide range of potential publics. This book will truly never leave my desk.


Book Cover With/Holding

Chantal Gibson’s newest poetry collection, with/holding, is the much-anticipated followup to her award winning How She Read. In it, Gibson continues to play fast and loose with genre (Gibson is a visual artist as well as a poet, and you can really tell) as she explores how Blackness is represented, and so often commodified, across media. By turns hilarious and heart-breaking, with/holding is also deeply rooted in Gibson’s engagement with the history and present of how Black bodies are consumed, and how Black artists are constantly subverting that consumption.


Book Cover A Sentimental Education

Learn more about A Sentimental Education:

How do you tell the story of a feminist education, when the work of feminism can never be perfected or completed? In A Sentimental Education, Hannah McGregor, the podcaster behind Witch, Please and Secret Feminist Agenda, explores what podcasting has taught her about doing feminist scholarship not as a methodology but as a way of life.

Moving between memoir and theory, these essays consider the collective practices of feminist meaning-making in activities as varied as reading, critique, podcasting, and even mourning. In part this book is a memoir of one person’s education as a reader and a thinker, and in part it is an analysis of some of the genres and aesthetic modes that have been sites of feminist meaning-making: the sentimental, the personal, the banal, and the relatable. Above all, it is a meditation on what it means to care deeply and to know that caring is both necessary and utterly insufficient.

In the tradition of feminist autotheory, this collection works outward from the specificity of McGregor’s embodied experience – as a white settler, a fat femme, and a motherless daughter. In so doing, it invites readers to reconsider the culture, media, political structures, and lived experiences that inform how we move through the world separately and together.

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