Books That Were Important To Me

A little while ago there was a Facebook challenge circulating among my friends: quickly list 10 books that were important to you without thinking about it too much. Not being one to be constrained by the rules I wanted to do it but with some thought rather than quickly and not necessarily with 10 books. My list is considerably different from those of my friends and colleagues but I always was an odd duck. The first book is one few will have read but many will have heard of: Moby Dick. I read it for the first time when I checked out a copy from the adult section of my public library (it may have been the first “adult” book I read.) I was 11-12 at the time. I read it as an adventure story just skimming over the long boring parts to get on with the exciting ones. In other words I read it as a young boy would. It is important to me not for that first reading but because of my second.  Later in high school it was on a summer reading list and I re-read it presumably because it would take less time to read something I had read before. I was amazed at how different it was.  Those parts that had seemed so boring to me before suddenly became the more interesting.  The discourse on whiteness, the subtle racism toward Queequeg, the historical context, and above all the vengeance obsession became parts that strangely interested me.  I then had the sudden insight that it was me who had changed not the book. This was a new idea to me. A reader brought his “baggage”, into the reading of a book.  It was his situation, his spot within the life cycle, his experiences, other books he had read, his knowledge of the world at that moment, into each reading of a book. I resolved to re-read Moby Dick every ten years or so believing new parts of the book would reveal themselves to me each time.  Sadly I have not followed through on this pledge though I have re-read many books since.

The second reading experience I want to talk about is really not a book at all. In  high school we were assigned to research an historical event. I chose the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.  Why? I had heard that it was an important case in a history that involved African Americans like me.  In addition it had happened within my lifetime but I knew little about it because I was only four years old at the time. I don’t remember my elders talking about it in 1954 but that may have just been me. The high school had an excellent library and I was able to research much of the media reaction at the time of the decision. I didn’t end up digging too deeply into the case’s roots nor the long drawn out attempts to circumvent it that followed.  Looking back it was a pretty rudimentary project, but it was my first history project with primary materials.  At the time I enjoyed doing it though I did not realize how central to me history would become. More to the point it was the first time I realized how out of touch with the world I truly was.  It was 1966 and momentous things had been happening around me my entire life and I was only peripherally aware of them.  Of course the civil rights movement had been an exciting television show in my house, but I had neither the historical knowledge nor the life experiences to appreciate it. Little did I know that all hell was about to break loose when I arrived in college in 1967.

I did not read the next two books until long afterwards. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela and Country of My Skull by a female Afrikaner named Antje Krug.  I group these two together because they provide the yin and the yang of South Africa. Together they embody the hope that in South Africa’s future they can meet in the middle and be better people for it. Mandela’s book is about how to make integrity pragmatic.  He knew that he was opposed by people who feared the future he represented.  He knew that the way to win them over was to show them through his own magnanimity, show him through his respect for them and demand for their respect of him, show him through his rationality and steadfastness, that their fears were groundless. Krug’s book is about her coverage as a journalist of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings.  She has to learn of the injustices committed in the name of ordinary Afrikaners by the racist regime. She also had to learn what Mandela was teaching: that the only true future lay in respect not fear of blacks. Given recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere those are lessons folks in our country need to learn too.

(To be Continued)

1 Comment

  • Good blog post. A lot of food for thought. With the issue of racism right now, it feels as if there are two things happening at once. In my own life, at my children’s school, I see a really exciting, diverse and multi-ethnic collaborative educational experience happening. It’s very exciting. But if I look at the national news, it looks like we are fraying. There was a period in the 90s when it seemed like things were getting better — after the soul searching of the LA riots, when community policing became the norm. But with budget cuts, all those great neighborhood-centric models seems to have evaporated and have been replaced by polarization and fear.

    As for books, my most recent favorite is The Sixth Extinction, though I find that it is really influencing me on a deep level in ways I do not really like. I’m finding, for example, that I’m not as fond of the human race as I have always been. My daughter is in Godspell, and when I hear the song, “God Save the People,” I find myself thinking, “Why? Maybe it’s better not to.” Hopefully this bout of humani-flu will wear off and I will feel optimistic again.

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