Imperial Vollmann, Populist Beach Reading, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

A few odds and ends (and perhaps a bit of ranting):

vollmann_imperial_cover1

Read this fascinating profile of William Vollmann from this week’s New York Times. It makes me wish I had nothing to do but read everything this maniac writes. Vollmann’s new book Imperial comes out today from Viking. You can read an excerpt here.

Not really surprisingly, Vollmann did not make NPR‘s reader poll for the 100 Best Beach Books Ever. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series topped a list that pretty much consists of a bunch of drivel (Twilight, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood), drivel posing as non-drivel (The Kite Runner, The Time Traveler’s Wife), overrated “classics,” (To Kill A Mockingbird), and a few surprises (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a fantastic book, but is it really best enjoyed on a sunny beach?)

TheClassicSlaveNarratives7517_f

This one didn’t make the beach reading list either. For a few years now, selections from The Classic Slave Narratives have been required reading in my high school classroom. I usually emphasize sections from Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass, two masterful writers whose complex syntax and diction can be stunning, if not overwhelming, to the average AP student. I think that these narratives speak to why writing matters, and, importantly in today’s idiocracy, why reading matters as well. These first-person accounts of the horrors of slavery need to be read, and editor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. does a great job of setting the stage in his remarkable introduction to the collection. It’s sad, intellectually tragic, really, that Gates’s recent arrest should be given so much credit for sparking a “debate” or “teachable moment” about race, when Gates’s own scholarship makes the rootedness of racial tension in this country so plain. When a demagogue like Glenn Beck calls President Obama a “racist,” or a big fat idiot like Rush Limbaugh suggests that Obama simply has a “chip on his shoulder” because he’s black, we can see precisely why the first-person narratives of Equiano, Douglass, Mary Prince, and Harriet Jacobs are so important. These dangerous lunatics repeatedly suggest on their shows that America needs to keep its “traditions,” that our “history” is a strength, and that somehow the past was a place of better values. Perhaps if they read something outside of the dominant narrative they’d understand why someone might want to reappraise historically traditional values (and also, why someone might have a chip on his shoulder). But I’ve digressed from my main point: The Classic Slave Narratives is a valuable and important collection, and the stories collected here are a real entry point for any genuine discussion on race.

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