Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Year in Reading

I started this year’s reading by alternating between a big Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov, and a big collection of stories, the Library of America’s edition of Raymond Carver’s stories. The Carver volume I found intensely enjoyable and thought-provoking; Dostoevsky, on the other hand, though intermittently gripping, left me agreeing with Nabokov’s judgment that Tolstoy is a much greater writer. For that reason, I’m planning on reading War and Peace this coming year with a group of my colleagues.

After that, I dedicated most of my reading to preparation for a class on African American literature that I taught this fall. I read Arnold Rampersad’s recent biography of Ralph Ellison, which I found quite enjoyable and informative for teaching Ellison’s novel Invisible Man in the spring in my Alienated Hero class.

I read three coming-of-age memoirs by African American males, Jerald Walker’s Street Shadows, James McBride’s The Color of Water, and Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. I taught Obama’s book in my fall class and was astounded again by its intelligence and the complex understanding of the world that it communicates—astounded and grateful once again that Obama is our president. David Remnick’s The Bridge was a compelling and useful companion to Obama’s story.

I did take a couple detours into Faulkner during the year, re-reading As I Lay Dying early in the year and reading The Unvanquished in the summer. As I Lay Dying came alive for me this time in a way that it did not the first time I read it. The Unvanquished was a quick, enjoyable read, though also troubling in what it seemed to reveal of Faulkner’s understanding of the South’s past, especially in comparison with the vision presented by the stories and novels of Charles W. Chesnutt, which I also immersed myself in over the summer.

I re-read a couple African American classics by women, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (which I taught) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; along with a couple more recent mysteries by African American men: Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.

One of the great pleasures of the year for me was my participation in an NEH Summer Institute at Washington University on the New Negro Renaissance in America, 1919-1941. The voluminous reading for those three weeks was great preparation for my class as well.

I read some great books analyzing race in America—Cornel West’s Race Matters, Derrick Bell’s fascinating And We Are Not Saved, and the delightful Best African American Essays collections of 2009 and 2010—along with some works of African American history—David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue (rather tedious), Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters (fantastic) and Pillar of Fire (unexpectedly not fantastic), and Isabel Wilkerson’s highly and justifiably praised The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration.

In addition to works of African American history, I also read some works that one might label primary sources: the anthology Ain’t But a Place, an illuminating compendium of African American writings about St. Louis, from slavery times to the recent past; Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices, a remarkable first-person plural account of the African American experience; essays by James Baldwin; and the most famous works by two towering African American figures: Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, both of which I’ll probably teach excerpts from in next year’s incarnation of the class.

Today’s the first day of Christmas break, and having finished The Warmth of Other Suns yesterday, I’m looking ahead to my vacation reading. For one, I’m planning on catching up on some New Yorker fiction. In addition, I’m looking forward to reading a book called Stepping Over the Color Line: African American Students in White Suburban Schools, which I read about in this article, and which seems like it will provide something I’ve been searching for for some time: a close analysis of school desegregation in St. Louis.

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