“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.