This Week in Diversity: Words thrown and words written

Starting off with some despiriting news: in the wake of the Health Care Reform debate, several black congressmen, including John Lewis, have been called racial slurs and one was even spat on by protesters.

At Love Isn’t Enough, there’s a great piece on DNA and identity. It adds another layer to the discussions on being biracial and multiracial we’ve been having, because it looks at how little we know about our own personal genetic and racial makeup, but how much we know about our own personal cultural makeup.

The New York Times takes a look at black authors coming together for a conference and thinking about their place in the literary world—as a niche or as part of the mainstream, writing for each other or writing for everyone.

Speaking of books by black authors, a lot of political bloggers have recently been posting lists of the books that most influenced them. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s list is itself a history of the African American experience—so much so that he later added a second list of White literature that has influenced him. I’ll put my own list of influential books in the comments and I’d love to see yours.

And remember, when writing your own list, not to worry too hard about book guilt, and when looking at other peoples’, remember that “looking at anyone’s book-list, or book shelf, and exclaiming “I can’t believe you don’t have xxxx!!!” will always—always—miss the point. There’s too much out there to know. You can’t possibly experience it all. . . . I have to leave space for my own stories, and guard against getting lost in someone else’s.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates

10 thoughts on “This Week in Diversity: Words thrown and words written”

  1. It was relatively easy to get to a thirteen-book list and really, really difficult to get it down to ten. Also, my list is quite white. Cue the book guilt.

    The Giver was the first of many dystopias I read. It wasn’t just the idea that a seemingly perfect world could be terrible that fascinated me, but also the importance of memory, both personal and cultural.

    The Handmaid’s Tale is another dystopia, and helped me explore issues of gender and power—and the difference between freedom to and freedom from, an idea to which I find myself returning often.

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being taught me how much reading a person’s favorite book can explain that person.

    Much Ado About Nothing is not my favorite Shakespeare play, or anywhere near the most interesting, but if “starting a lifelong love of Shakespeare” isn’t an influencing me, I don’t know what is.

    Grendel overwhelmed me with its sheer emotionality—especially its despair.

    The Sparrow pushed me to think about how religion influences our reactions to the world, and to unreservedly love characters while simultaneously mourning them.

    Lilith’s Brood is technically a trilogy, but I read all three books at once in one volume, and since I experienced it as one work, I’m counting it as one work for list purposes. It’s all about identity—how we define our own, how we are defined by other people, what makes us us.

    Trinity had me trapped in its story as surely as its characters were trapped in the patterns of their families, their cultures, and their history—and the economic oppression that perpetuates itself in generation after generation.

    Lolita was a lesson in desperation and the power of sex and sexuality.

    Ender’s Game really hit me with its exploration of manipulation, atonement and forgiveness, truth, knowledge, and how we look at childhood and children.

  2. Ack! Hard but fun, as book lists always are:

    1. JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, because it made me love books.

    2. THE COMPLETE POEMS OF ELIZABETH BISHOP, because it made me love poetry. I read “One Art” for the first time and I thought, Wow. I didn’t know words could do that.

    3. THE LITTLE PRINCE, because it taught me the most important life lesson of all: be a kind and gentle person.

    4. GREAT EXPECTATIONS, because it was the first book that really broke my heart.

    5. JANE EYRE, because: “I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; — it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, — as we are!”

    6. 1984, because it changed the way I looked at government, and it really changed the way I looked at language. After that I never could stop wondering, What doesn’t exist for us because we don’t have words for it?

    7. GYPSY BALLADS by Federico García Lorca. I bought this book almost by accident, because I was lurking around the poetry section and I happened to pull it out and liked the color and feel of it. But Lorca just has such an epic way of looking at the world that reading his poetry changes you. He makes you aware of the mystery in things.

    8. TEACHING THE MEDIA by Len Masterman. He wrote this in England, in 1985, but I think it’s still the best explanation of media literacy I’ve ever seen, and as relevant now as ever. It’s a fantastic lesson in how to teach students to actively engage with media, to recognize bias, and to develop a critical eye for what they see and hear. I wish it were required reading for every English teacher in America.

    9. WAITING FOR GODOT, not because it’s existential but because it is hilarious. Also, I first read it while I was taking the SATs, and it really put the whole thing in perspective.

    10. GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson. After I read it I just wanted to carry the voice around with me for the rest of my life.

  3. I can’t put them in any particular order except how they come to my memory:
    1. Total Forgiveness by R. T. Kendall
    2. Breaking Intimidation by John Bevere
    3. Gifted Hands by Dr. Ben Carson
    4. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
    5. Editors on Editing by Gerald Gross
    6. Designed for Success by Dondi Scumaci
    7. The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois
    8. 10 Lies the Church Tells Women by J. Lee Grady
    9. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
    10. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley

  4. Yeah… I’m all over the place. :) They were all life-changers for various reasons. I think I’m a better person because of all of them. You have an great list as well. I need to check some of those out. I love Shakespeare too. Whenever I’d go to see his plays, I’d take my Shakespeare anthology with me to follow along with the actors. I know, I am nerd. :)

  5. 1. Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the book that deconstructs why creative folks are the way they are. The state of flow is as addictive as any drug, and the place where you want to spend all of your waking hours.
    2. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand caused me to miss many a subway stop while reading this one. One of the most powerful moments (for me) was when Roarke tells Peter Keating what he thinks of his painting.
    3. A Winter’s Tale, Mark Helperin was a book I read more than two decades ago and it has stayed with me ever since.
    4. Thinking in Pictures, Temple Grandin forced me to see the world in a whole different way and appreciate it more.
    5. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby makes me laugh and gave me the urge to generate my own top 10 lists.
    6. Empire Falls, Richard Russo depicts small town life and wayward fathers in a way that is endearing, sad, and funny.
    7. Native Speaker, Chang-Rae Lee is all about the writing—so great. I tried to read this a little at a time to make it last as long as possible.
    8. Banker to the Poor, Muhammad Yunus, vision blew me away. He made a difference in people’s lives not through charity, but through giving the poor the means to make it on their own.
    9. Gandhi a Life, Yogesh Chadha along with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., all show the rarity of leadership and the kind of person you need to be in order to change the world for the better.
    10. Bird by Bird, Anne Lamont is like reading a book written by my closest friends if they could write.
    Bonus #11. The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch is not so much about one’s legacy, but about how you’ll be remembered by your kids when you’re gone.

  6. OK, I’ll play.

    1. A SEPARATE PEACE by John Knowles – in my mind the perfect study of friendship and all its trials and tribulations. I’ve read it 40 times (really!) and wrote my college thesis paper on it, and always find new revelations with each reading.
    2. STAND BEFORE YOUR GOD by Paul Watkins – A memoir of an American writer attending boarding school in England. Surprisingly universal in its descriptions of the epiphanies of youth, it has some of the best writing I’ve ever encountered.
    3. LOOKING FOR ALASKA by John Green – Deft characterizations, a strong plot, over-the-top intellectual dialog, and masterful insights into the human condition. A most deserving Printz medalist.
    4. THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt – Another hyper-intellectual ensemble in an academic setting, with a dark mystery thrown in as well.
    5 & 6. IF YOU COME SOFTLY and BEHIND YOU by Jacqueline Woodson – A two-novel story cycle about an interracial couple at a private high school in New York City. Tragedy closes the first story and opens up the even deeper examination of love, loss and hope in the second.
    7. THE DAUGHTER OF TIME by Josephine Tey – The masterpiece by one of the true luminaries of the Golden Age of British detective fiction.
    8. WHISTLE FOR WILLIE by Ezra Jack Keats – One of my favorite picture books as a child, this sweet tale shows the value of determination.
    9. BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA by Katherine Paterson – Just enough fantasy, just enough adventure, and a whole lot of being true to oneself. One of my favorite Newbery medalists.
    10. MANIAC MAGEE by Jerry Spinelli – Another Newbery-winning favorite. This one has the right degree of Horatio Alger-like too-good-to-be-true. You ache because you know he’s so completely authentic.

  7. Gosh, there are so many to pick from but I came up with these.

    1.The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. One of the best pop psychology books that is not dry, full of anecdotes and made you think about “life.”

    2. The Power of Now By Eckert Tolle. I like his philosophy of living in the here and now and not let the past get in the way of being able to do this.

    3. East of Eden –by John Steinbeck. A classic novel full of melodrama.

    4. A Suitable Boy –by Vikram Seth. This 1422 page novel is an epic!! Ultimately, it is about a Hindu family who is trying to find a suitable husband for their daughter, Lata. In between this are dramas occurring between four other families. Also, drama is provided by the simmering conflict between Hindu and Muslim.

    5. A Big Life –Susan Johnson. A coming of age story about a boy, Billy Hayes who was destined to be a tumbler in a circus. This story is also about human resilience –overcoming a tough childhood to live a life he dreamed about.

    6. Cloudstreet –by Tim Winton. The novel is about two families (The Lambs and The Pickles) that by chance come together to live in the same large home. Lots of characters and subplots –it’s comical, sad, bittersweet, full of surprises. You don’t have to be Australian to appreciate this story.

    7. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. She is an excellent storyteller of the immigrant experience. She turns ordinary everyday occurrences to convey bittersweet moments that will change a characters’ life.

    8. My Place –by Sally Morgan. A memoir about a girl who discovers that she is not white but Aboriginal. Her quest to record oral histories and discover her past are incredibly emotional yet uplifting and makes you angry too.

    9. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. I was never a comic book reader but you don’t need to be one to appreciate this book about friendships and adventure.

    10. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. A beautiful coming of age story. The characters are well fleshed out. I didn’t want the book to end.

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