Here’s a thread to acquaint us all with what we’re reading to pass the interminable hours of quarantine. Indeed, since I can’t go out, except for walks, my routine is to watch the evening news on NBC, make dinner (garnished with a decent glass or two of wine) and then become recumbent and read until I fall asleep.
Unfortunately, like several people I’ve heard from, it’s hard for me to concentrate, and I find my attention wandering, having to go back and reread what I’ve read before. It thus goes slowly. (Matthew just told me that this is very common in these parlous times, and he’s suffering from the same thing.)
But here are three books I’ve just read.
Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945; Amazon site here). This is one of his two most famous books, the other being Native Son (1940) which I recently finished. It was the latter, a book of fiction, that made me want to read the former, because Native Son was so eloquent and moving in expressing the oppression of blacks in the North (in this case, the South Side of Chicago), that I wanted to read about the author’s own life. Black Boy is an autobiography in two parts, the first (“Southern Night”) detailing Wright’s life in the South, mostly in Mississippi. His memory is remarkable: he remembers in detail things that happened starting at age four. (It’s possible he made all this up, but other biographers have verified many of the details.)
And it was a horrible life. Wright clearly stood out from his peers, both in thoughtfulness and desire to read, and it’s heartbreaking to hear how he and other blacks around World War I (Wright was born in 1908) had to constantly cower before and truckle to whites. If you want to see post-bellum American racism at its worst, read the first part of this book.
Realizing that he had no hope in the South, Wright fled to the North when he was nineteen. The book’s second part (“The Horror and the Glory”) takes him to Chicago, young adulthood, and his flirtation with Communism. Even in the North he found himself denigrated and unfulfilled, but began the writing that made him famous.
When Black Boy was issued by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1945, it made Wright famous, but they also omitted part 2 in the reissue. I can see why, for the second part is far less descriptive and far more cerebral, with long analyses, which now seem dated, of the relationship between black Americans and Communism.
Black Boy and Native Son make a good pair, for the attitudes expressed by Bigger Thomas in the novel clearly came from Wright’s experiences in both the South and North. And it explains why, in the novel, Thomas committed the crime he did. I’d recommend both of them highly, though you might want to skip the Chicago section of Black Boy (many editions omit it as well). I’d read the novel first, as it’s a real experience to read Wright’s fictionalization of the black experience, and then follow it up with his own autobiography.
The second book was recommended by my editor at Penguin Random House when I told her I was reading Francine Proses’s two books on how and what to read if you want to learn to write (I wasn’t reading it for that—I just wanted to see what books she liked). She hadn’t read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, but had heard it was the best of the “how to write” books.
In fact it wasn’t. I haven’t read anything by Stephen King, but you’d have to live under a rock to know that he writes horror/sci-fi/weird fiction about the numinous, and that genre simply doesn’t appeal to me. His book is a combination autobiography (written very informally and heavily larded with obscenities) and a discussion of how he creates a book. Because he’s not your usual writer, and has no pretentions to create great literature (he likes a good story, but one that is well crafted), his “advice” is of limited use to writers who aspire to more than creating something like Carrie. It’s not by any means useless, and his tips on editing (with an example at the end) are quite good. Further, there are plenty of anecdotes about his life, including his horrible accident when he was hit and smashed up by a distracted driver.
If you like Stephen King you might want to read this; otherwise I can’t really recommend it. If you want books about writing, I still like Strunk and White as well as Steve Pinker’s newer A Sense of Style.
Okay, now please enlighten us with what you’re reading, and how you like it.