Favorite Writers: James Baldwin

28 02 2010

This is the first in a series of posts that I will write occasionally—when I can’t think of writing anything else—about some of my favorite writers, my literary influences I guess you could say. The first on this list—though by no means my ultimate favorite writer, as it seems impossible to me to have only one favorite writer—is James Baldwin, since I will be leading an online discussion of his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, as part of a Goodreads group I started called Literary Fiction by People of Color.

Strangely enough, considering how many Ethnic Studies classes I took in college, I have just recently discovered James Baldwin as a writer. The first time I read his work was when I bought a copy of Notes from a Native Son many years ago. It’s Baldwin’s first collection of non-fiction essays, titled in response to Richard Wright’s novel, ‘Native Son’, one of the seminal texts of the Harlem Renaissance and of African-American literature overall. I have to say, I didn’t take to Baldwin’s non-fiction very readily. Perhaps it seemed too dated to me at the time, although now when I go back and read it I can see how we can still draw lessons from it even today.

So I left Baldwin alone for a long time after that, convinced that he was one of those ‘great writers’ that I just didn’t like. It wasn’t until Chris Abani recommended I read ‘Giovanni’s Room’, Baldwin’s second novel, while I was in workshop with him at VONA a few years ago that I gave Baldwin another try. I loved Giovanni’s Room, and learned a lot from it about writing. It’s a perfect gem of a book, and Baldwin was only 32 when it was published, and already a literary sensation.

I’ve always identified with writers who pushed the envelope of what was socially acceptable to write about at the time, and Baldwin is a shining example of a writer who challenged conventional values by writing gay or sexually ambivalent characters long before this was seen as socially acceptable, even in literary circles. (Some might say it’s still not very socially acceptable to do so, but all things are relative).

He also wrote about race and gender relations, with a stylistic subtlety and precision that I’d venture is yet to be matched. And not only did he write about controversial topics, but he did so with such elegance and technical control, with such compelling emotional weight that the controversial aspects of his work would, over time, seem to me almost background notes to his literary mastery. To narrowly categorize any writer as merely ‘Black’ or ‘Gay’ or ‘Female’ is often an act of ignorance, but to do so to a writer like Baldwin is almost a literary crime.

Feel free to join the Goodreads discussion if you’ve read the book before, or if you’re interested in reading more literary fiction by people of color. The group is 300+ members strong now, and reads a different book every month. Hope to see you there.


Well-Loved and Falling Apart

15 02 2010

books i've loved

Every once in a while, maybe a couple times a year, I get obsessed with organizing my books. Being a writer and a fairly avid reader, I of course have a lot of books, although I do a fair amount of purging when I organize them and, as I get older, find myself giving away or selling more books that I just know I’ll never read. Intellectual vanity becomes less and less important the older one gets, and there comes a point when one just has to admit to oneself that the fact that a book has sat on the shelf for a good five years without once being cracked open probably means it will never be read in that particular home, and should be passed on to someone else who might actually enjoy it. During today’s book-organizing round, the books I’ve decided to pass on include Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, two books on anarchism, and redundant copies of books by Audre Lorde and James Baldwin.

On the other hand, there are books that I’ve read so much, that are so well-loved that I kept them despite the fact that they were probably not in great shape when I first got them (or ‘liberated’ them from my school library, as it were), and that then deteriorated even more in the years since. I thought it would be interesting to pull these books out off of my shelves to see what they were, and also to remind me to replace them someday with more handle-able, less torn and thumbed-through versions. As I wrote about in an earlier, also provocatively-titled post, the condition of the books I read has been only a recent consideration for me. It’s partially because I’m getting older and having the means to consider buying newer, perhaps hardcover versions of books I love, and also that I have realized that I may actually want to leave these books for my future children or other loved ones (or just Posterity), but I’ve actually been wondering if I should replace these very well-loved, well-read and falling-apart books.

Now, there’s something to be said in my mind about keeping these books—torn and tattered and often coverless though they are—the way some people keep old teddy bears or other childhood toys even though they’re not so pretty anymore. The love shows on these shabby but sentimentally important objects, I guess you could say, and in a world where new seems to be better, this means something to me. So I haven’t decided whether to chuck / recycle these old books, or to keep them in some storage unit in my apartment, like a literary time capsule, so that I can pull them out someday and see just what were some of the books that had such a huge influence on me.

It’s interesting to see what these titles are, as well, for they do say something about my literary interests. The oldest raggedy book is a paperback copy of the first volume of the classic compendium The Greek Myths, by British poet, scholar and novelist Robert Graves. It was also likely the first book I ever stole from a library—specifically, when I was in fourth or fifth grade. Greek mythology, as anyone knows, is a veritable soap opera-like collection of stories filled with enough kinky sex, barbaric violence and political intrigue to make our modern-day television shows and so-called avant garde books look mild in comparison. I mean, the Greek goddess Athena was supposedly birthed, fully-armed, from her father Zeus’ head after he ATE her mother Metis because he wanted to literally swallow her intelligence! The little girl Rona thought this was all fascinating, and was thrilled to find that such scandalous literature was not only freely available but also encouraged. My grammar school teachers were equally thrilled that I was so interested in classical Greek mythology.

The second of my tattered texts is by another British writer, George Orwell, the dystopic classic 1984. This book blew my mind too, and I’m pretty sure I also stole this one from my school library, now that I look at it and see the ‘Good Shepherd School’ stamp on the inside cover. Orwell has influenced my writing in that I am often drawn to writing futuristic work that may not be dystopic all the time, but that definitely has dystopic elements.

Two of my other well-loved, well-worn books are by women, and will likely get replaced, although my current copy of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which is a revisioning of the King Arthur legend, has a lot of sentimental value to me as it was a gift. And The Heart is the Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, was another library liberation. What a bad girl I was—geeky, but bad.

Do you have any books that you’ve loved and read so much that they are falling apart? What are they, and where / when did you get them?

Hard or Soft?

4 02 2010

I was tempted to give this post the title ‘Book Porn: Hard or Soft?’ but realized it might invite some search engine hits I didn’t want. But that’s what this post is about—book porn. Not pornographic, XXX adult material in book form, but the obsession, at turns vulgar or ecstatic, with books. In my case, used fiction and non-fiction books written by some of my favorite writers. I buy used because it’s cheaper, it’s eco-friendly, and because it allows me to get cool old versions of classic books that may no longer be in print or only available new in janky paperback format.

Which brings me to the hard and soft dilemma—until recently, I was not someone that could justify the cost of a new (or even used, for that matter) hardcover book. I think when I bought Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy, last year that that was the first time I’d bought a new hardcover novel in years. My logic was that the words were the same, and I wasn’t starting a fancy temperature-controlled private library of rare first editions or anything, so what did it matter? Having access to as much literature as I could in and of itself was the reward.

So I find it ironic that lately as I’ve been combing used bookstore shelves for old (preferably early edition) printings of James Baldwin’s books, that I find myself only considering hardbacks. This is probably due to the fact that I had been reaading a very old, worn, handed-down-from-a-friend early printing of Baldwin’s Another Country, a paperback. And the thing was literally falling apart in my bag. It’s yellowed pages were breaking into tiny crumb-like pieces in my purse, littering the bottom of it like an ancient disintegrating document. So I decided to buy another copy. The only copies I could find at several bookstores, new or used, were paperbacks, with covers that weren’t that interesting (my husband being a graphic designer has definitely affected me), and I kept flashing back to the falling-apart old paperback. So I decided I’d only buy a copy if it was a hardcover. Unfortunately, the only hardcovers I can find are online, so have to wait awhile to get my copy.

But now I find that when I’m looking for other used books, I’ve been putting paperbacks back on the shelf, telling myself that I should wait for a hardcover version. What do you think? Does quality trump quantity when it comes to books? Is it worth it to shell out more for a used (and preferably early edition) hard cover? Or does it really matter? Hard or soft—what’s your call?

Upcoming publication in “Are We Born Racist?”

18 01 2010

It seems appropriate to announce today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, that one of my essays will appear in the book, Are We Born Racist?, forthcoming in August 2010 from Beacon Press. My fellow writer and friend Jeremy Adam Smith was the lead editor (working with co-editors Jason Marsh and Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton) who approached me to write the piece. The book is a project of Greater Good Magazine, a cool publication that looks at the science behind positive human attitudes like compassion and altruism.

My essay (not sure what the final title that will appear in the book is) is about the complexities of being a person of color in a multi-racial world. Sign up for email updates (see the button to the right) and I’ll let you know about any book release parties or readings that may be happening later this year.