This year has not been a very productive one for me as a writer (as witnessed by the relative paucity of posts to this blog), but it has been productive as far as reading goes. And I suppose the two trends go hand-in-hand: the more you read, the less time you have to write, and also, at some level, the less drive you feel to write. There's so much that's already been written—does the world really need one more voice clamoring for attention?
Last Christmas break, I got embroiled in William Faulkner’s Collected Stories, which I ended up reading about three-quarters of over the course of the year, along with a number of Faulkner novels: The Hamlet, If I Forget Thee Jerusalam (aka The Wild Palms), Light in August (which I re-read with a couple colleagues while one of them taught it to his juniors), and Absalom, Absalom!, which I read and discussed with a group of my colleagues over the summer. My reading of Faulkner inspired a couple blog posts about Faulkner and race, which you can read here and here.
I read Mary Doria Russell’s fantastic pair of science-fiction classics, The Sparrow and Children of God, recommended to me by a colleague and friend. I also read two books by the great cartoonist Alison Bechdel, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For and Are You My Mother?
I read a couple books about literary heroes of mine—Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America and D. T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Ghost Story is a Love Story—along with a number of memoirs by writers and musicians: Dylan’s own Chronicles, Volume One; Gil Scott-Heron’s The Last Holiday; Haki Madhubuti’s YellowBlack (recommended to me by a reader of this blog in response to one of my Faulkner posts); Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s gripping When Skateboards Will Be Free; and Jay-Z’s Decoded, which came in handy when I taught hip-hop in the final week of my senior African American Voices class.
I’ve long been interested in residential segregation and the fate of the American city, and this year I read a number of books that added to my understand of those issues: Kenneth Jackson’s classic Crabgrass Frontier; Stephen Grant Meyer’s As Long as They Don’t Move Next Door; Beryl Satter’s amazingly good Family Properties; two plays, both overrated, in my opinion: Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and its more recent companion piece, Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park; Jeffrey Copeland’s Olivia’s Story, a novel about St. Louis and the Shelley v. Kraemer case; and, lastly, a series of very interesting guidebooks by local historian John A. Wright: Discovering African-American St. Louis; Kinloch; The Ville; St. Louis: Disappearing African American Communities; and African Americans in Downtown St. Louis.
In addition to segregation in housing, I also read about mass incarceration, in Michelle Alexander’s troubling and informative The New Jim Crow. I read Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? I read Nigger and Sellout, both by Randall Kennedy, whose prose's clarity I greatly admire; and a fascinating work of history and political theory, Robert C. Smith’s Conservatism and Racism, and Why in America They are the Same.
As for other African Americana, I read Eddy Harris’s travelogue South of Haunted Dreams and Arnold Rampersad’s Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry. In search of some material to use in class, I dipped into The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. I also read a gripping account of King’s assassination and its aftermath, Hampton Sides’s Hellhound on His Trail.
I read a number of collections of short stories: Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock’s updating of Sherwood Anderson, brutal but not heartless; Tobias Wolff’s early, Chekhovian collection Back in the World; Alice Munro’s early collection Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You; Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, which I’m planning on teaching from this coming semester in my Reading and Writing Fiction class; James Alan McPherson’s groundbreaking Hue and Cry; along with some of the stories, including the brilliant title piece, in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories.
Most recently, I read Peter Heller’s novel The Dog Stars, a post-apocalyptic tale, and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a devastating work of journalism by Christopher Hedges and Joe Sacco which at times put me in a rather apocalyptic mood.
Before this Christmas break is over, I’d like to read a couple more books, at least: Danielle Evans’s short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir The Beautiful Struggle. And in the next couple of days I should be getting to the end of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I’ve been reading to my middle daughter, intending to finish up in time to watch the movie with the whole family over vacation.