“The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”
Between the World and Me, p. 48
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
I encountered Ta-Nehisi Coates on two separate occasions before picking up his book. The first encounter was in San Francisco; I was in my friend’s bedroom with nothing to do but run my eyes over her bookshelf, up and down, left and right, and I noticed a copy of The Atlantic with its infamous cover story, “The Case for Reparations.” The second encounter was in the August issue of Rolling Stone (what do our magazine subscriptions say about us?) that features a Q&A with Coates, and this recollection stuck with me:
“I remember sitting in a library at Howard University and reading The Fire Next Time in one session. It was such a pleasurable experience, to be lost in a work of art. And in this age, where the Internet is ubiquitous, it’s very hard to have that experience. I had this vision of some 19-year-old kid in a library somewhere, picking this book up and disappearing for a while. That was all I wanted.”
Coates’ Between the World and Me is divided into three parts, each styled as a letter to his son. The book is a historical and personal study of race in America: “Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world,” and the outgrowth of this belief is racism (p. 7). He continuously contrasts his upbringing to “the Dream,” which involves “perfect houses with nice lawns,” “treehouses and Cub Scouts,” and in general a profound detachment from racial injustice. When describing a friend he meets at Howard University, Coates seems to also describe the mission of his book:
“He was, like me, from one of those cities where everyday life was so different than the Dream that it demanded an explanation. He came, like me, to [Howard University] in search of the nature and origin of the breach” (p. 49).
I read to expand my experiences, to learn and to feel. Between the World and Me offers all of those things and also reads beautifully, each word carefully chosen, each sentence carefully woven. I’ve just finished the first part, and I have a feeling there is far to go.
“On that visit to my ancestors’ graves, it occurred to me that tradition is not well suited for globalization. Traditions are about holding onto the past, whereas I belong in a new world, and in my new world of America, one reinvents oneself constantly, which is a certain kind of privilege.”
Without You, There Is No Us, p. 51
By Suki Kim
“Why didn’t Don consort with writers? Successful writers, published writers, or even simply ambitious, interesting writers, published or no? Why hadn’t he argued and bantered with the New Yorker editors? Why hadn’t he made them his friends? Forged alliances? Told them about his novel? Why hadn’t he talked about Gramsci or Proust with them? The answer sent a shiver through me: Don didn’t want friends who worked at The New Yorker. He didn’t want friends who dressed in creamy Brooks Brothers oxfords and college ties, friends who had health insurance and degrees from Harvard, friends who’d just published their first Talk of the Town pieces. He surrounded himself with fools — the broken, the failed or failing, the sad and confused — so that he might be their king. Which, obviously, made him nothing but the king of fools.”
My Salinger Year, p. 151
By Joanna Rakoff