Knock your socks off by visiting an exhibition of 100 Mind-Altering Books

Posted on September 13, 2019

Have you ever read a book that was so profound, that it knocked your socks off? Have you ever read a book that was so mind-altering, that you experienced an existentialist crisis? And have you ever read a book that turned your worldview upside down and inside out?

Members of the public and staff and students of the University of Pretoria (UP) are invited to the Merensky 2 Library for a month-long exhibition of 100 Mind-Altering Books. In celebration of the Faculty of Humanities’ 100th anniversary and in recognition of National Book Week last week, the library and the faculty launched a month-long focus on books and reading.

The launch took the form of a 100 Mind-Altering Books event in a packed library auditorium, with speakers talking about a title they found particularly fascinating. Professor Molly Brown, Head of the Department of English proposed collecting and exhibiting 100 mind-altering books. Therefore, in preparation for the September books and reading focus, academics in the Humanities participated in an online survey asking for titles of what they would term “mind-altering” books. The idea was to come up with a list of 100 mind-altering books, to fit in with the centenary theme. The resulting list is interesting, and almost impossible to whittle down to 100 titles. It will be made available in its entirety on the library social media channels shortly.

At the launch of the exhibition last week, six speakers spoke for 10 minutes each on their books of choice.  Professor Sandy Africa, a Deputy Dean of Humanities, chose Half of a Yellow Sun, and pointed out that fiction can be incredibly valuable in illustrating the complex reality, which is Africa, for instance.

A surprising perspective on engaging with mind-altering books was given by Professor Leonhard Praeg, Head of the Department of Philosophy, who read excerpts from Virginia Woolf trying to measure up to the standard set, in her mind, by Proust in his Remembrance trilogy. Prof Praeg suggested that one should also know when to put down a mind-altering book.

Professor Mpume Zondi

“Our poets are familiar with our world,” said Professor Mpume Zondi, Head of the Department of African Languages, “and as such they are able to express in beautiful, evocative words, what we all experience and feel”. She read a poem by well-known poet BW Vilakazi, and pointed out that it is also available in translation and reminded readers that various unexplored worlds lie awaiting in translation.

Dr Nisa Paleker from Historical and Heritage Studies, Dr Chris Broodryk from Drama and Prof Brown surprisingly chose more popular titles, and the audience was intrigued to hear their perspectives. Dr Paleker explained that even fiction is based on certain universal truths, and pointed out similarities between the science fictional world of Dune and our experience of society. Dr Broodryk commended Larson’s ability in telling the true story of a serial killer in The Devil in the White City while reporting objectively and avoiding sensationalism. Why we love Harry Potter was the topic of Prof Brown’s talk.

She said we need stories about adventure, in which we encounter danger, have to grapple with and overcome it, although we almost die in the process, and then we emerge – are reborn – wiser and stronger.

Many members of the audience who had listened to the programme left their seats inspired, once again motivated to keep reading and having their minds altered.

Outside of the auditorium, attendees had even more to contemplate when they visited the exhibition that comprises of:

  • 100 (or more) mind-altering books
  • a list of 100 (or more) mind-altering book titles
  • a visual display (a PowerPoint slideshow) of the relevant plot summaries  and

a whiteboard for collecting students’ suggestions of mind-altering book titles.

Students’ input is photographed daily, and noted down, hopefully for future library purchases. You are invited to visit the exhibition, browse the titles on display, experience the students’ enthusiasm as they share titles special to them, complete the online survey ( and to take up the challenge of reading some of those mind-altering books.

- Author Adrienne Warricker

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