Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Books (Page 1 of 18)

Between the World and Me

An Education

How should a white Christian like me read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a book written by a black atheist? With ears open and a heart willing to learn. That is, we should come first as students.

When first exposed to a subject, whether chemistry or theology or, in this case, the experience of being black in America, initial forays into that subject feel foreign to the student. It feels as if she has landed among an exotic people speaking a foreign tongue. The words are all new, and the questions being asked and explored are ones she has never before considered. A good student’s response will be to listen, to be quiet, to learn the language, and to hear how the questions are being answered.

In Between the World and Me Coates speaks to his son but aims his words to we who listen in. As he traces his own awakening self-awareness as a black man from the streets of Baltimore, to a student at Howard University, to a writer in New York City, he provides an engagingly written assessment of life as he has seen it and the world as he has struggled to understand it. His assessment seems at times harsh, at times unfair, at times insightful, and at all times challenging.

Those new to this literature and to this world need to listen. His observations seem foreign, but such is the nature of learning. Some will be tempted to condemn, to judge, or to say he’s overstated his case. Maybe he has. Or maybe he has to. But we must labor to understand before we condemn. And sometimes, too often, if something threatens us, we don’t take the time to understand. He wants to unsettle the comfort and challenge the assumptions of “those who see themselves as white.”

And this does unsettle me. Is the world in fact arrayed in a way of violence toward the black body as he contends? It seems a plausible position, as cursory familiarity with history and the news suggests. As he writes to his son,

“The price of error is higher for you than it is for your countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined.” (96)

It was Trayvon Martin’s ‘error’ of walking through a white neighborhood in a hoodie, for example, that got him shot. The price of error is higher for the black man. That sounds right.

I have read and thought too little about the subjects he raises to be able to offer an informed critique of the book. I leave that to others. But we who live lives in an aura of safety and comfort are in need of this education, foreign though it may seem and feel. Our job may be in this case to be quiet and to listen. We need to allow new questions to form in our minds and be considered. This could be the beginning of our education.

[Note: I would not draw attention to Coates’ religious convictions except for the fact that he himself makes a point of his atheism. He laments that he cannot find the sort of perspective that faith has brought to many like him. This explains to some degree his emphasis upon the black ‘body’ and not ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’. I respect his honesty.]

Hillbilly Elegy

At one point I had had three people ask me about whether I’d read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. One thought it was great, one thought it awful, and the other was noncommittal. They’re all right.

Published in 2016, Hillbilly Elegy shot to the top of many bestseller lists propelled by the thought during the last election cycle that reading it could help the mystified understand the American subculture that was Donald Trump’s base. Director Ron Howard thinks so highly of it that he plans to make a movie of it and it is among the top five books (three of which, intriguingly, are memoir) that Bill Gates recommends in his Time Magazine interview we referenced earlier.

Vance tells the story of his life growing up in Middletown in southwestern Ohio, in a transplanted rural Appalachian (read: eastern Kentucky) culture. I myself grew up in southwestern Ohio well aware and somewhat disdainful of the Kentucky migrants of whom Vance writes. Many grow up in broken homes and many struggle to prosper against adversity, and so many stories like this can be told. The value of Vance’s book is the window it cracks on the fierce family loyalty and regional pride and sense of justice that belongs to his ‘hillbilly’ culture. That he uses the word ‘elegy’ (a lament for the dead) in the title suggests that the culture he inhabited, and which inhabits him, is in some sense dying or dead.

As a memoir, the book is good. Vance’s cast of characters, if truly drawn, are truly fascinating. They can be vicious, and viciously loving. They are complicated, loyal, broken, and real. If only he had been content to write a memoir. But he can’t contain it. It moves from memoir to fairy tale and then to political essay, In so doing Vance prostitutes his story for the sake of a didactic goal. Perhaps it is a good essay, perhaps it is an inspiring fairy tale, but after his grandmother dies, the only characters left on stage are Vance himself and the America about which he wishes to make social commentary. What began as memoir morphs into an essay on the American white middle class, and his stories and characters become merely the platform for his commentary.

And that is sad. Stereotyping and ridicule, of the type I too often embraced as a child toward those we derided as ‘hillbillies’, dehumanizes. As memoir Vance honors his characters, his family, and his culture by humanizing them. He then turns the newly humanized into objects, making them merely the representatives of societal trends, illustrations of his own social commentary.

Bill Gates recommends the book, yes, but he does so with this telling sentence:

“While the book offers insights into some of the complex cultural and family issues behind poverty, the real magic lies in the story itself and Vance’s bravery in telling it.”

That’s it. The real magic is the story. The shame is that Vance and his editors could not let the story be.

Bookish Habits #7: Bill Gates

[For an explanation of this series, see the post The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous. I will be asking the same questions of all I interview, with a few followup questions as needed.]

This series has sought to encourage wide reading by pulling the curtain back on the reading habits of a few readers of varying ‘celebrity.’ I’ve wanted to interview the genuinely famous and have approached a couple, but, to date, none have found sufficient time or whimsy to respond.

Image from Time Magazine

Until now.

Well, not really.

No doubt Bill Gates would have jumped at the opportunity to be profiled in this space had I asked him. Instead, Time Magazine, with questions oddly similar to my own, published an interview with him in the May 22, 2017 issue. It’s a fun interview to which I cannot resist adding my annotations. The quotes are all Gates’.

Warren Buffett loaned me his copy of Business Adventures by John Brooks many years ago.

A man who could probably buy Amazon borrows, instead of buys, a book. Maybe that’s why he’s rich and I’m not.

Melinda and I both love the book [The Great Gatsby], and it’s the novel that I reread the most.

Reading is best as a communal activity. To share what one reads, to discuss it, to savor it with another, is part of its joy. If one can do that with his partner, so much the better. Good for Bill and Melinda!

And some books are so rich that they bear re-reading. The experience of reading them does something to us. Returning renews and deepens that experience.

I read the whole set of World Book encyclopedias when I was a kid.

What was I doing when I was a kid? Not that.

My elementary school librarian, Mrs. Blanche Caffiere at Seattle’s View Ridge Elementary School, introduced me to biographies of famous figures throughout history.

Each of our lives is littered with people who simply in doing what they love and being who God made them to be touch us in profound ways, ways they never could imagine in the moment. This librarian no doubt knew she had a bright kid. She never could have imagined that he’d be talking about her in Time Magazine 60 years later.

The biggest problem I have is that I refuse to stop reading a book in the middle, even if I don’t like it.

I get that, and it is a problem. Right now I’m 490 pages into George Elliot’s Middlemarch still waiting to meet a character I care about.

I love the way good fiction can take you out of your own thoughts and into someone else’s.

This is the primary reason I urge those who preach or teach to read widely and wildly. Otherwise, we get stuck with singular perspectives.

I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read.

So did I. I wish I could thank them for it.

Great Scott! Gadzooks! Television and Reading Books!

Life has been busy for me recently, with little reading, less writing, and no posting. As I make the necessary in flight adjustments to my life’s trajectory I am lifting a post from 9 years ago and pasting it here. It seems appropriate to reprint this post, given we have spoken much about reading recently in these pages (and given that I’ve just finished binge watching my favorite detective show, Amazon’s Bosch.)

So, enjoy the wisdom of Roald Dahl, appearing here first on August 29, 2008. And then go pick up a book.

The simplest explanation for the lost passion for reading is to blame the television. My favorite presentation of this charge comes from Willie Wonka’s Oompa Loompas as they sing regarding the demise of poor Mike Teevee. This is especially fun to read to children. But there are plenty of us adults who might need to pay attention to it as well.

Enjoy!

The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set —
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotised by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don’t climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink —
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
IT ROTS THE SENSE IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK — HE ONLY SEES!
‘All right!’ you’ll cry. ‘All right!’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
‘How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?’
Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
THEY… USED… TO… READ! They’d READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching ’round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it’s Penelope.)
The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and-
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There’s Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole-
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks-
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.
And once they start — oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.

(With gratitude to Roald Dahl.)

Time to Read