Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What are you reading?

Over the past two years, I've really increased my reading. At first it was more of a religious thing - reading the Bible and different philosophical books ("If God is Love" and "Critique of Pure Reason" come to mind). Then it turned to historical reading - reading biographies and autobiographies of the of people I respect ("Born to Rebel", "The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.", "Dreams From My Father", etc). And while these first two sets of books were enjoyable to read, they were not nearly as much fun as what I read (for the most part) now - just general stuff generally off the NYT bestsellers list or stuff that my friends are reading. I've really grown to appreciate fiction. I grew up watching movies, which are mostly fiction so this is not surprising to me. But movies are so limiting on our imagination. We can't see the picture in our way because the director/producer gives us a picture and says "this is how you're supposed to see it". The beauty of a book is that there is so much left unsaid in the book that its left to the reader to wonder about (different facial expressions, if the speaker uses hand gestures, how deep the speaker's voice is, etc.).

My reading has really increased over the past few years. Now I can probably get through a good book in a weekend, and another good book if I read during weekdays over lunch or dinner or on a walk. That said, I now get into a lot of conversations about books. A lot of these are of the type, "well if you liked this one, you'd love ...", or "in this book, I could really relate to...".

I recently had a talk with some friends about reading interests. And it kinda surprised me that these friends were more interested in different types of nonfiction than fiction. I don't want to sound like I'm an anti-nonfiction guy, but I do see certain limitations in nonfiction. My main hindrance (and this is kinda why I diverged into fiction in the first place) is that it seems that most of the nonfiction books that I've read have a format of "here's whats wrong with the world and here's how to solve it", or more particularly "here's whats wrong with you and here's how to make yourself better".

This certainly doesn't classify all nonfiction books. I remember when I first moved from philosophical books, I read a lot of memoirs and autobiographies because they seemed more practical. Still, these books are sometimes hard to read as well.

I remember when I was a kid (maybe third grade, maybe younger) and my principal decided to show the movie "Roots" to the entire school in the auditorium. That movie was so hard to watch, yet so hard to turn away. And due to my age, it was hard to discern that these people in the movie are not the people I see in my everyday life. I remember that at the same time, my father had a guy he worked with who would come over and help with his computer. I was young, but I could understand a lot of what he was talking about. He would always compliment me on how smart I was and say things to encourage me. Oh, and this guy was White. Well, I remember when I came home from seeing "Roots", the guy was at my house. I saw him leaving as I walked in the door. I greeted him as he left, then turned, went inside and told my mother, "mom, I hate him".

I realize today how naive that statement was, but watching "Roots" brought up so much pain and anger that it made it hard to channel it correctly. And when I'm reading some of these memoirs of my heroes, I find myself often having to pause, and calm myself down. Normally I see it as a situation where they are faced with racism and have to deal with it accordingly. In my mind, I'll ask, "how would I have handled this situation"? But when I can't come to a conclusion that yields a different outcome, it gets pretty stressful and all I can do is hope that times have really changed as much as people say they have. I even had this problem with "Kindred" by Octavia Butler, a work of fiction which many of my friends love. I thought Dana handled many of the situations similar to how I would, but the outcomes (particularly when she was whipped) just made me pause. That was one of the hardest books for me to read. I feel somewhat bad, because I know I shouldn't discount a good writer in Octavia Butler because I found the book painful, but I have hesitated to read another of her works.

To date, my favorite book is "A Lesson Before Dying" by Earnest J Gaines. This is what I look for in most of my books. I like it so much that I use it as a basis for future books. So far I haven't found anything that touches on all the topics that this one does. In particular, I love the debate about Atheism vs Christianity and saving the guy's soul. Thats such a relevant debate, and instead of telling us how to think the book does a good job of describing both sides of the debate and the conflict that the main character is in. I really wish there were more books on this level. Maybe there are, and thats why I continue my search. 

But I'm curious to know what others are reading. 


Barbara Boswell said...

I like this post - I am just the opposite: always loved fiction but now am starting to move away from it to read non-fiction which is not academic, ie. autobiography or stories of struggle for social justice which are written in accessible ways. There is one author I really like - Marcus Borg, especially his writings on Christianity. I love his book The Heart of Christianity, and recently saw that his first work of fiction is coming out this summer. I can't wait to read it! I am also waiting for some summer time to read the new autobiography on Malcolm X.

Empress Ashaki said...

Please be aware that the new Malcolm X book is NOT an autobiography. I give this warning as there are some controversial claims in the book.

I've turned to fiction as well. I just finished "Getting to Happy" and I'm finishing up "The Red Hats" by Damon Wayans just to see how he writes, (not bad). I'm going to read "Fourth Sundays" written by a book club about a book club next. I am on a mission to find black fiction that is not about the hood or sex.

Blake said...

hmmm. There was a comment on here about the autobiography of Malcolm X.

Anyway, I like autobiographies more then other nonfiction, because at least there's still a story there. What I love about fiction is the process of falling in love with the characters and following them through their journeys. Biographical nonfiction can do that same thing for me.

What gets me though is the stuff that reads like a text book. Sometimes those can be good books (and at a bar last week I had a friend suggesting I read "Blink", convinced that its a good book). I may put that one on my to read list because my current fiction ("The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo") is not doing it for me.

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