With online book club, Ohio State's Seth Towns hopes to create dialogue, affect change

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State basketball player Seth Towns has started a book club on Zoom to educate his Instagram followers on matters of race. His first meeting is scheduled for May 15.

Seth Towns has a few books he’d like to discuss with you.

On May 15 at 2 p.m., the Northland product, Harvard graduate and Ohio State grad student and basketball player will conduct the first meeting of his online book club. Open to all, the “Better Booklist” will focus on books that, in the words of Towns, analyze current conditions, reject the status quo and force readers to be critical of the structures that perpetuate oppression.

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That might sound like a lot, but the goal is actually pretty straightforward: read, and discuss, issues related to racial injustice.

“So often the most ignorant people are the loudest in the room,” Towns said. “It’s so funny how people have these strong and passionate opinions about something that they haven’t really analyzed very much or thought critically about. If you have something to say, then read a book I’m suggesting and then come back and talk to me.”

The idea came to Towns on a whim, with the words popping out of his mouth while he was speaking on an Instagram Live session a little more than a month ago. He posed a query to his nearly 16,000 Instagram followers: Should I start a book club?

The response was affirmative, Towns said, and thus “Better Booklist” (@betterbooklist on Instagram) was born. But while the thought of starting a club was a recent development, Towns’ deeper dive into literature has been ongoing and especially fruitful during the past year.

Ohio State's Seth Towns, right, said using his platform as an athlete to push for societal change isn't always easy but he feels it's necessary.

As Towns joined the marches in Downtown Columbus to protest the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer last summer, even being briefly detained by police, he began to see books circulating in popular culture addressing issues of harm reduction and identity politics. Those were important but yet missing the mark, he said, by not critiquing the political and economic structures under which oppressive conditions and relations exist.

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Case in point: the first book, “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Y. Davis. Directions on how to download a free .pdf file of the book can be found on the club’s Instagram page.

“The thing I love the most about this book is that it introduces a question,” Towns said. “It’s critical of the prison system. It’s getting people to reckon with the idea of prisons instead of just accepting their indoctrination with the status quo.”

Ohio State basketball player Seth Towns gives an impassioned speech to protesters during a demonstratione in downtown Columbus on Sunday, May 31, 2020. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

Challenging societal norms is nothing new for Towns, who has a lengthy history of social activism. It dates to his days at Northland, where he returned for a photo for this story and occupied the same spot on the court where he would read after pregame meals during his prep days. More recently, it includes his decision to kneel for the national anthem during Buckeyes games this season to protest “a long history of oppression in America for Black people as a whole,” he told The Dispatch prior to the NCAA Tournament.

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Raising a voice of dissent isn’t easy, Towns said, but it’s necessary.

“There’s such a hyper-critical environment for any athlete stepping outside of playing,” Towns said. “They get hit with so much because of their platform, but you’ve got to be who you are and the person who you are should prevail at all times.”

This isn’t his first book club, either. While at Harvard, Towns and three of his teammates were part of one led by Jonathan L. Walton, who at the time was a professor and minister at the university and now is dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest. The five would read books by Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin and other prominent Black authors.

Three of Northland High School graduate Seth Towns' favorite books sit on a bench in the school gym.

So although Towns said he’s ready to lead discussions, he’s more interested in letting the conversation happen.

“I definitely want it to be an easy space for Black people to come and reckon with these ideas,” he said. “It’s open to anyone, and I’ve made that clear in the caption that I look forward to reading with you all. I definitely want people who are oppressed by these systems to be the main ones reckoning with them.”

After being part of last summer’s protests in Columbus, Towns was again on the streets for the protests in the aftermath of the killing of Ma’Khia Bryant, a Black teenager, by Nicholas Reardon, a white Columbus police officer. It sparked an uneasy feeling of déjà vu for Towns, leading to the Instagram Live decision to start “Better Booklist," which will be held via Zoom.

More conversation, more dialogue and more knowledge could be a path toward finally ending the cycle. If Towns can use his platform as a prominent student-athlete to have readers think critically about the world around them and start asking questions, all the better.

“It’s like, we’re either going to actually reckon with the systems that perpetuate this violence and this oppression, or it’s gonna keep happening and we’re going to be outraged all the time and we’re going to just live in despair,” he said. “That’s obviously not what we want to do, so taking a step forward and having a dialogue that actually reckons with these systems, that’s kind of my goal.”

You can get started and join him on May 15. All you have to do is read.