I said once that if I could just read one author, I’d choose Baldwin because he wrote plays, non-fiction and fiction. Boy, did I underestimate him. There are letters, reviews, forwords and afterwords, letters, etc. in here, and so I am grateful for and grateful that I found this collection.
I think in this era when so many people are being introduced to Baldwin because of his ideas, it can be easy to forget what an amazing writer he is. His sentences are so packed full and syntactically interesting that I read some more than once just to enjoy the sound of them. At one point, he even mocks himself by calling one of his sentences “undisciplined.” I think it’s the only one.
So read this, both for the urgency of the ideas it contains and to read a master essayist at work.
Oh, and keep a notepad by your side. When Baldwin recommends that you read something, you’re going to want to read it.
Teju Cole is, I think, as close to a Renaissance man as I know. The range of allusions in this large collection of short essays is staggering. Naturally, the range of topics is equally wide, focusing (pun intended) on photography. If you know his novel Open City, it will not surprise you to learn that the essays are lyrical, non-linear, observational and insightful. They are, in far too many cases, too short. I know that at least some were lifted from elsewhere. I wish that he’d chosen fewer to include and expanded those that made the cut. The pieces on photography were challenging for me since I don’t really speak that language, and he is only able to include a few of the images in the book itself. I enjoyed the sense of humor that sneaks into a few of these pieces, and I liked traveling with Cole to the places he visits. He is a master at using words to make pictures.
I am kind of a sucker for those newspaper accounts that mark the XX(x)th anniversary of some local event. I’m not sure why – perhaps because there seemed to be so many unanswered questions – I followed up on a story about The Ashtabula Railway-Bridge Accident of 1876 by ordering this collection of articles. And the event, though not charming as the last writer claims, continues to raise questions, not only about why the train crashed, but about decisions made and not made as well as the impact of the tragedy on the community today. The risk, I suppose (I’m not too experienced with local histories), is that not all of the writing will be good. The only essay that is really a bust here is the last one, full of platitudes, an inappropriate tone, and, because of its placement in the collection, little new information. I look forward to a road trip to Ashtabula in order to see things for myself.
image from train crash
Solnit combines current events and the work of writers like Woolf, Faludi and Freidan to position herself in what she calls the gender wars. She’s both pragmatic and passionate. And you know what? She’s absolutely right. Even though I think that she (like others) makes too much of the significance of social media traffic (that a certain hashtag is trending means something; it just doesn’t mean everything), her point that we are saying things we wouldn’t say 50 years ago and that we have words for things (rape culture, date rape) that we didn’t and couldn’t name 50 years ago is well-taken. Solnit’s precise and straightforward essays (several of them begin with wonderfully metaphorical passages), particularly “Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite,” made me see connections among colonialism, capitalism and our rape culture. I cannot recall, at this point, what I thought of Anita Hill’s testimony when I first heard it, but I am quite sure that I wish I’d read this first. Better yet, I wish I’d kept quiet.
I spotted a handful of examples of this new (to me) series at Mac’s Books and was intrigued. Of course, Salinger, with his reputation for privacy, was a difficult choice. The man wanted his privacy. I was upset when someone tried to ‘out’ Elena Ferrante; why would I buy this book? I didn’t buy the Salinger biography or see the film. I was hooked by the prospect of hearing him in his own words. I kept a copy of the news clipping announcing the forthcoming publication of Hapworth 16, 1924 until it was yellow and brittle. Now I understand why the book never appeared. The book provides accounts of people who had more or less contact with him as well as a partial transcript of a deposition. So is making this book and reading it as bad as those who made the pilgrimage to his home on the off chance of having a few minutes of conversation? I’m still not sure.
But I think they got it right in the movie Field of Dreams: “The man’s done enough. Leave him alone.” So maybe that means I wish I hadn’t read it. I was one of those teens. For some reason, I can remember exactly where I was when I first started reading The Catcher in the Rye; it has stayed with me ever since.
They say that every generation gets the artist it needs. Currently, we seem to be realizing that we already have the artist we need and we should have paid more attention to him the first time – James Baldwin. Like Ra Washington, Jesmyn Ward and her new generation pay tribute to Baldwin’s stunning collection, The Fire Next Time.
Pretty much all of these essays take their own angle into the prompt they received from Ward. I admired Wendy S. Walters’ “Lonely in America,” for its thought-provoking research into the way we treat our dead. Honoree Fanonne Jeffers’ piece on Phillis Wheatley’s husband reminds us to be wary of who tells whose stories. The form and content of Kevin Young’s “Blacker Than Thou” is amazing. Kiese Laymon’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (a Prequel)” sent me to listen to OutKast. “Black and Blue” by Garnette Cadogan and “Know Your Rights!” by Emily Raboteau work well together since their focus is on walking. Claudia Rankine’s “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” is the star of the show, with its careful consideration of the treatment of black bodies.
I will definitely use a few of these in class. An important, timely and well-written book. And a good reminder to (re)read Baldwin.
Washington calls this an extended essay. I’m not so sure. I think it defies genre. It’s an essay, a poem, a novel, a play. There are even some autobiographical elements. And philosophy. I was energized its hybrid nature. It’s challenging.
The only thing I can say about all of it – even the parts I am not sure I understood – is that it burns. The intensity is relentless. Inspired, I think, by the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Washington is not angry. “I AM,” the prologue opens, “Rage.” And this book (I think it’s safe to call it that) which was written over two days takes us on the jagged rivers of this rage. It’s a book that deserves to be held close, re-visited. It’s a reminder, a reckoning. Open it at any point. The words will fly off the page. Pay attention.