A meme that’s making the rounds…
One book that changed your life: I’ve read and argued with Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture at least three times in full. It’s got something to piss off everyone. Just when you think you can pigeonhole Murray’s aesthetics and politics, he’ll infuriate you by going against the grain. Unlike today’s blowhards, he doesn’t seem to be a contrarian for the sake of contrariness. Rather, the 227-page book shows—through Murray’s iconoclasm, dry wit, informed readings, and gnarled prose—how being human means that you’ll have inherently contradictory impulses and desires. The book showed me the possibilities of being black without having to adhere wholeheartedly to any single ideology. Even more than this, it gave a quote that’s more truthful and bracing than anything else I’ve read on race: American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto. Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody so much as they resemble each other. And what is more, even their most extreme and violent polarities represent nothing so much as the natural history of pluralism in an open society. White supremacists, Nation of Islam members, and anti-immigration advocates all have a tough time with that quote, which means that Murray’s on to something.
One book that you’ve read more than once: Well, okay, it’s six books, but Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City sequence is something I plow through every year or so. It’s amazing how fresh, invigorating, and modern his San Francisco looks even now. It’s even more amazing when you realize that the novels were published serially, and that Maupin was working on a weekly deadline for 13 years to produce this.
One book you’d want on a desert island: Alice Munro’s Collected Stories or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man? Flip a coin, heads for Munro, tails for Ellison. Flippity flip flip. The coin says Munro. I’ll change my mind tomorrow.
One book that made you laugh: I’ve never laughed so hard as I did reading Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle for the first time. Or the second. Or the third.
One book that made you cry: The only book I’ll admit to crying at while reading is Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which is incidentally a good third choice for my “desert island” book. Damn it.
One book that you wish had been written: Ralph Ellison’s second novel—and, no, Juneteenth doesn’t count.
One book that you wish had never been written: I don’t see how Ayn Rand’s oeuvre has done much good for literary aesthetics, moral discussion, or political comprehension. And it’s spawned the evil trifecta—sneering know-it-alls who are a) contemptuous of religion in all forms, and b) obsessed with the free market’s inherent greatness to the point of making it a (bad) religion, and c) people who are painfully unaware of the irony involved with ascribing to both points A and B. But since we’re being picky, let’s go with The Fountainhead, since it spawned a movie almost as lousy as its source.
One book you’ve been meaning to read: William Gaddis’s JR.