Just What Should You be Reading?
July 20, 2004
The subject of books abounds! Do you have a homogenized bookshelf? My mind got thinking again this weekend when I caught some more dialogue on reading necessities. In a recent article, care of college student (and kindred spirit) Rachel Durado at the Banana Republican, writer Kelly Jane Torrance compares the readings lists of British and American celebrities,
"How do American celebrities compare? Oprah magazine gives us some of their picks. All too often, they lack the idiosyncratic touch and therefore resemble course requirements for Diversity 101. Hillary Clinton's list includes The Joy Luck Club, The Poisonwood Bible, The Color Purple, The Clan of the Cave Bear, Wild Swans, and West With the Night by pioneer female aviator Beryl Markham. What a virtuous reader our former First Lady is!
The selection made by America's other First Lady, Katie Couric, is just as solemn, but strangely dated: Black Like Me, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Huckleberry Finn, The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Of Mice and Men, A Patch of Blue. It turns out Couric gave Oprah the names of her childhood favorites. What an earnest young woman she must have been!
On the other hand, Nigella Lawson, the English celebrity chef, is not ashamed to admit her love of the now savagely derided children's author Enid Blyton. Lawson says of Blyton's The Naughtiest Girl in the School, 'This book taught me how deeply enjoyable reading is, and that's what counts.' Reading--it's not just a grim duty!"
Oprah's picks resemble a booklist from a Diversity 101 course? I couldn't agree more. Just this past weekend, the National Center for Public Policy Research
, a conservative organization recently received a letter
written on behalf of a young black man. The subject? Recommended reading by black authors.
I mentor a young black man who is going to go to college next year. I was wondering if you had a list of literature or suggestions for some reading material. He is interested in economics and business. I was hoping for some ethics, philosophy, and history titles as well. I would prefer if the authors were black. He attends a majority white private Catholic school where he is one of the brightest students; I want him to have some black intellectual experience too.
Thank you for your time.
In a response, fellow Conservative Brotherhood member Michael Cobb Bowen has given his own recommendations
in true "to be continued" format. Interestingly enough, he's divided the authors into the categories of "Philosophicals" and of course my ultimate favorite, "Existentialists". Among the authors, he mentioned the works of Cornel West, Malcolm X, and Skip Gates. I used to be in love with Cornel West, almost to the point of obsession. I read all of his books including his lengthy "reader". In retrospect, I can't figure out if it was his ideas I was in love with or just the fact that I was so thirsty to read something half-way intelligent by a black author that I was hanging on every word he wrote.
I'm fairly certain that the question at hand in this letter is not one I could answer very quickly. Although I've read the works of a significant among of black authors, narrowing down the must-reads takes a bit of examination. Much of my education afforded me a somewhat lop-sided presentation of intellectual thought. The writer of the letter remarked that the boy about which she was writing was a student of a private, predominately, white Catholic school. It is obvious she felt he was lacking something in his own education or else she wouldn't have written.
When I was in school, a good portion of the books we read and analyzed were written by the same types of people. Those people were usually dead, white, or male. While some were classics, others were just all around good pieces of writing. If someone asked me to list off recommended reading based on white authors alone, I could produce a big fat list. It would be rather ignorant of me to think that the reason for this is some sort of lack in ability amongst authors of color. Nevertheless, teachers never failed to throw in that one (and sometimes two) token book(s) of the semester written by an author of color. This was a strategy that proved itself to be a set-up. The lopsided percentage of "old, white, male" authors compared to most others was dreadfully apparent. This being the case, that one "colorful" book we read each semester had to be pretty gosh darn good or else we'd all start forming our negative opinions about authors of color and their inability to write coherent thoughts. At the time I read it, Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior pretty much decimated my desire to read future works of Asian-American authors.
Posted by Ambra at July 20, 2004 12:04 AM in Culture
The question of what a person should (or should have) read is really quite complex. I don't believe it is the same answer for every person. As a black, woman, intellectual living in America, it would behoove me to have certain pieces of writing under my belt. This knowledge doesn't necessarily serve as bragging rights or give me some exclusive edge in conversation at the dinner table. No. This knowledge serves a purpose beyond shallow table references. It gives me the foundation and knowledge to understand the history of thought as it relates to my own race of people. If I intend to be at all relevant in my daily affairs as it relates to my own cultural heritage (both claimed and unclaimed), there are certain things I can't afford not to know. The same is true of anyone based on their sphere of influence and activity on the Earth. While no actor should go without studying Shakespeare, the average person could care less about Macbeth.
I'm odd in that I don't really have any favorite books. Instead, I have a list of books that drastically impacted my life and my way of thinking. Life-changing books are not always those I agree with, as they are often either insightful or inciteful. At times, I can grasp more insight from Hitler's Mein Kampf or Sanger's Motherhood in Bondage than I can reading the exalted works of many of our glorified thinkers. I am an avid used-bookstore shopper. This could be the nerd in me fighting to get out, but I think it's more the fact that I'm more likely to stumble across a rare jewel in small-time bookstores than I am less-likely to find in the commercialized Barnes & Noble. Although, I'll admit Barnes & Noble gets a fair amount of my money.
That letter got me thinking. How many of us have ever even bothered to ask the question, "what should I be reading"? It's something that beckons more discussion and I fear that all too often, we let the New York Times or Oprah make the decision on our behalf.