My MLK Day Reading List

Take even a cursory look at my profile picture and you can see I’m a white woman. What you might not know is that I’m a member of a transracial family. In the past few years, being a part of this family has profoundly enriched, challenged and transformed my previous, homogenous life. I’ve made it a point not to talk much about my family in my professional life; I respect and protect their privacy. But know that being a part of this family has made me the writer and the reader I am today.

One of the reasons I read is to learn about the world. To explore different perspectives, to understand how the past shapes the present, to see things through other eyes and other experiences. I write to make sense of the world as I continue to explore it. Reading (and writing) about race has been one of the bigger ways I’ve sought to understand how the past has informed my present family, as well as to chart the issues and opportunities that lie ahead.

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy, I’m sharing a few of the books that have influenced and informed me over the past few years.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander.

  • I was obsessing over talking with friends about Netflix’s Making a Murderer. “It will make you so angry,” one of my friends said, “so be prepared for that.” “I’m guessing it will make me at least as angry as reading The New Jim Crow,” I answered. So be prepared. And be prepared to talk about reforming the criminal justice system.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

  • Powerful, searing, complex and personal. I know it’s a book I will return to again and again over the coming years, as so many of the questions Coates raises are ones that affect my family.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration – Isabel Wilkerson

  • I read this book over a series of summer afternoons as I lounged on my front porch. It is riveting. I don’t usually read nonfiction, but I couldn’t put this down. I also learned how little Black history I learned in school. Books like these are even more important, considering those embarrassing gaps in our educational system, at least the ones of the mid 80s & 90s.

Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History

  • I do read a lot of fiction and have been intentionally reading a diverse set of authors in the past years. I also traditionally read a lot of speculative fiction – I’m a huge Octavia Butler fan and am currently devouring N. K. Jemisin‘s The Fifth Kingdom. This anthology offers a beautiful collection of stories from voices that have traditionally been ignored and forgotten.

These are just a few favorites. What are others to add to the list?


I'm just wild about Kindle (except for the guilt)

As you may remember from my Robertson Davies post, I get a little manic about keeping track of what I’ve read.  I’m also a little manic about the devices I use for reading.  I reluctantly got a Kindle a few years ago and liked the convenience of one-click ebook shopping so much I downloaded Kindle software to my computer, my phone and my iPAD.

Then I succumbed to a wave of professional guilt – publishers haven’t played nice with libraries in terms of ebook pricing.  (For more information, start with Michael Kelly’s recent column in Publishers Weekly.)  I also hit sabbatical year, which means reduced salary, so I challenged myself to get the vast majority of reading materials through my public library.

I discovered how much I like the heft of a good book in my hand, even the ginormous latter volumes of Harry Potter, which I’m rereading during the holidays.

But I also have a ton of ebooks on my devices (see: seductive one-click shopping above).  Which led me to a lengthy conversation about reading and books with my mom yesterday and a brief flirtation with getting a new Kindle.  (I talked myself out of it – my old Kindle is just fine and will be quite at home with my collection of VHS tapes.)

All of which is to say I spent the morning charging and synching my old Kindle.  (I also came down with my annual holiday cold yesterday, so the level of activity was just right.)  I’m still professionally conflicted but let’s talk after I get through all of my ebooks.

In which Robertson Davies ruins reading for me

I have a confession.  I am a bit of a hoarder when it comes to books.  I don’t keep too many in my house – the last move took care of that.  (I believe the conversation when something like this:  “Why the bleep are we carrying so many boxes of heavy books that we aren’t going to read again??”)  I use my public library religiously for reading materials and love the feeling of dropping books into the book return almost as much as I love the feeling of checking them out.

But I hoard books.  I have lists of every single book I’ve read in the past ten years.  It started when I applied to graduate schools and one wanted a list of all the books I’d read in the past two years.  I gave them several single spaced pages and a whole bunch of smug attitude.  I pretend that the lists help me remember what I’ve read, but I rarely read over previous years’ lists.  In truth, I use the lists mainly for bragging rights:  “Who me? Oh yeah, I’ve read a lot of books this year.  Let me show you my really long list.”

I tend to consume books, enjoying what I’m reading but always anxious to move onto the next one so I can grow my list of finished books.  Reading Middlemarch a few Januaries ago was a reading highlight, but for the rest of the year I felt “behind” because it took me so long to read it.

Then I read Robertson Davies’ Reading and Writing, which a friend gave to me.  (True confession – I started it in part because it was short and thus would earn a place quickly on my list.)  Davies called me out:

“[I]f you do like the book, if it engages you seriously, do not rush at it.  Read it at the pace at which you can pronounce and hear every word in your own head. Read eloquently.“*

Okay, Mr. Davies.  Deep down I think you’re right.  Some people can probably read fast AND savor, but I’m not one of them.  Lately my experience of reading has been marked by stress that I’m not reading enough.

I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, but here’s one: I’m not going to keep track of every book I read this coming year.  I will slow down and try to savor what’s in front of me.

How do you read?  Read as much as possible or savor slowly? Or a little of both?

*In my edition, published by the University of Utah Press in 1993, this quote appears on page 16.