Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving Reading: Time Enough At Last

It seems that there is never enough time to do all the reading I want to do.  That's why, whenever I am faced with any meaningful amount of time away from teaching, I grab a handful of books and get at it.  Below is the second installment in my "Time Enough At Last" series, in which I go over the books I read during my time off from work.


Last week, I dropped by Xanadu Music and Books, which has become my favorite place in town for used paperbacks.  (We don't have many choices here in Memphis.)  I also swung by the library and also borrowed a book or two from school.  I had multiple choices in front of me, but I ended up completing these three books over the break.

1.  Thomas Jefferson by R.B. Bernstein


I have become a bit of a Jefferson fanatic in the past two years that I have taught American literature.  He's such a versatile, complicated, and interesting character, and he's a lot of fun to teach to the students. They love hearing about his alleged affair with Sally Heming, his accomplishments in architecture and science, and the fact that he probably invented macaroni and cheese.  Just a quick study of his tombstone is enough to start a conversation about what made this man important.

Bernstein's book focuses on his political life more than anything else (there is not a word, for instance, on the gardens at Monticello), but it is quick and readable.  I realized, to my dismay, that I had been teaching my students incorrectly on a few finer points of his life.  Let this be a reminder to you, dear teachers--always do your research.


2. Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell


You've probably heard of Winter's Bone.  It was a popular novel that has since been made into a film that won awards at Sundance.  

The problem with Winter's Bone is that it asks too much of its supposedly realistic setting in the Ozarks.  See, I don't believe that impoverished meth addicts really talk, reason, or behave the way they do in the novel.  All the characters in Winter's Bone have a snappy wisecrack or two before snorting up a line of crank, and too many of them suddenly reveal that, despite their poverty, illiteracy, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, and ignorance, they've all got a heart of gold deep down.  

Aren't trailer parks fun and romantic?  Well, not in real life.

Also, I had the feeling I had already read Winter's Bone as I was turning its pages, and it wasn't Faulkner I was thinking of.  This book seemed to rehash elements of Morvern Callar, Faye, and White Oleander, with some others thrown in.  But I'll probably watch the movie anyway.


3. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As told to Alex Haley


I picked up The Autobiography of Malcolm X hoping to be inspired.  I was not.

The main reason I wanted to read this book was because I felt I had only a shallow understanding of Malcolm X's life.  He is another figure that I enjoy teaching about to my students, and I wanted to do my research and make sure I knew what I was talking about.  My concept of Malcolm X that I lectured to my students ran approximately thus:

Malcolm X began as Malcolm Little, the criminal who stole and hustled his way through life until being arrested and sent to prison.  While there, he discovered Islam and educated himself and emerged as a militant and uncompromising black leader who championed resistance to injustice "By any means necessary," including, possibly, violence.  Later in his life, after he returning from Mecca, he changed his ways to allow that people of different races might be able to live together, but he was assassinated shortly thereafter and never reached his greatest potential.

After reading the "autobiography," I realize that this summary--simplified as it may be--was more or less correct.  What I didn't account for, though, was reading three hundred rambling pages of repulsive racist ideology.  I can only imagine how this stuff sounded in 1964, but in 2010 it sounds like hateful, puritanical, prejudiced propaganda.

Malcolm X's philosophy is most frustrating because it doesn't leave any room for the individual.  There is no real person in his book, only the "Negro" and the "white devil," or the "northern Negro" and "northern white devil," or "Uncle-Tom negro" and "southern white man."

I was especially disconcerted by how misogynistic he was.  Take this account of his relationship with one of his girlfriends in his days before going to prison:

"Always, every now and then, I had given her a hard time, just to keep her in line.  Every once in a while a woman seems to need, in fact wants this, too.  But now, I would feel evil and slap her around worse than ever, some of the nights when [my friend] was away."

Malcolm X makes unsubstantiated claims, quotes supporters and enemies without providing names, and commits many, many logical fallacies.  He criticizes his enemies (including Martin Luther King?), but does not properly identify who it is he is rebuking.  He claims to be a Muslim, but tells his congregation that the notion of an afterlife is nonsense.  He claims that pigs are rodents!  I was surprised that Alex Haley did not help smooth out the balder problems in Malcolm X's narrative, but there they are today.

I nearly gave up on the book, but I am glad that I did not.  In the last ten percent of the narrative, after Malcolm X has had his epiphany at Mecca, he allows for individuals to emerge from his tirades of prejudice.  And there, for just a little while, is the glimpse of understanding what I would hope all of my students realize--that skin color and cultural history have no bearing on who a person is.  But it's not satisfying enough for me, and it probably won't be enough for you, either.

4. Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro


I only just started this book, and will have more to say about it at a later date.

And there you have it--my Thanksgiving edition of Time Enough at Last.  Look for another one after the holidays!








5 comments:

  1. Kazuo Ishiguro is in my top 20 favorite novelists. (I wish he would publish something new.) Remains is good, but When We Were Orphans is, in my opinion, his best work.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I like LITTLE BEE because it is so shocking. Also The Lovers by Vendela Vida.
    I want to read the new Steve Martin novel next. Your choices look good!

    A

    ReplyDelete
  3. I WANT TO READ THEM ALL! Really. All I want to do these days is not go to work, hang out with the family, and read.

    If Little Bee is shocking, then I will read it. I've been trying to read Jane Austen lately. Jane Austen is not shocking.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "And there, for just a little while, is the glimpse of understanding what I would hope all of my students realize--that skin color and cultural history have no bearing on who a person is"

    realize as in "strive to make reality" or "notice is the case"? if it is the latter, then, according to (at least american) society, it simply isn't the case.

    i'd argue even, however that "strive to make reality" would be inaccurate, as cultural history has quite a bearing on who a person is. what would make you think it doesn't?

    j(redirected from your review on goodreads, on which you've deleted comments).

    ReplyDelete
  5. Jon:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    I would say that the verb realize in that sentence means "notice is the case." To amplify, I don't think skin color and history DETERMINE who you are or who you can become. Of course, culture bearing has a indelible influence on who an individual is--this is what I teach my students. We are constantly discussing matters of our heritage and what makes us who we are; that was the lesson of today's English class, in fact.

    Furthermore, if you read a little more of my blog, you will see how important my own cultural background is to me. However, it doesn't define or restrict who I can be.

    What I objected to was Malcolm X's habit of labeling people based on skin color, religion, and gender. In his book, everybody fits tidily into a category and he makes broad generalizations that are as false as they are insulting. I said that he doesn't allow for individuals, and I stand by that.

    I hope this has answered your question.

    -Aaron

    ReplyDelete