Books, and the Search for Perspective
Marisa Guerin Ph.D. - August 28, 2018
This post is an update on some of the books I have been reading since the last time I made such a list, back in January.
There is no major overall plan to my reading. I follow my interests, I read books that friends or colleagues recommend, or I pick up books that have received a good review somewhere. It’s mostly nonfiction, some theology, some history, a novel here and there. (That’s in-between obsessive tracking of national news and lots of journal and magazine articles.)
As you will notice, some of these books are related to American history, many are on race relations, others are both. I’m pretty sure this is part of my attempt to gain perspective on the dynamics in my own country as they are unfolding, especially the visibility of intolerance, nativism, racism, and hyper-partisanship. I’m nowhere near having a conclusion; just trying to deepen perspective. It actually does help to remind myself that we (U.S. folks) have been through situations as bad, or worse, more than a few times before.
As I read, I am especially struck by the fact that what is now in print as the American history of civil rights includes many events that happened in my own personal lifetime … although as a young white person I had variable levels of awareness of them. I find myself wishing that my parents and other elders were still alive so that I could ask them what they made of the civil rights movement during the 50’s and 60’s – Montgomery, Selma, MLK Jr., riots, legal fights and victories -- how they talked about these things in their adult circles, what they did or didn’t do to respond. I know some of the answers from my own family experience, but my deeper curiosity about that now has no remedy. I suspect the more relevant issue would be why these questions are important to me today. And about that, I do have some ideas -- for another post someday.
Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been reading, and what’s on deck next:
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. An incisive perspective on life in the US from the experience of a Nigerian woman, making space for the distinctions of national culture and origin that are so often obscured by the US black-white binary.
The Power, by Naomi Alderman. (Whoa, dystopia warning here.) Fascinating novel about what happens -- it isn’t pretty -- when an unexpected evolutionary change provides women with a power embedded in their bodies that can be used to maim and kill men. I don’t think I want to believe the implied inevitability of corrupted power, but then again, I have little reason not to. A strange story, interesting read.
Creation and The Cross, by Elizabeth Johnson. My favorite theologian. She carefully explains Anselms’ “satisfaction theory” -- the death of Jesus in atonement to God for human sinfulness -- with respectful clarity about why it made sense in the world of the eleventh century; and then she proceeds to mount an equally thorough argument against it as no longer compatible with modern biblical understanding, contemporary theology, the experience of our world, and the question of salvation for all creation, not just humans. Many people intuitively recoil against the notion of a God who requires blood sacrifice; Johnson takes the reader on a path that reconnects us to the story of the merciful Creator, and makes the case for a theology of accompaniment, as a developmental successor to the classical view of substitutionary atonement. I so appreciate her clarity, sensitivity and faith-filled intellect. It’s a good read for the Catholic interested in updating her/his theology.
Dangerous Mystic: Meister Ekhart’s Path to the God Within, by Joel Harrington. I learned a good deal, not only about this important figure in Christian theology but also about the world and Church in which he lived in the fourteenth century. Amazing to me how very modern and relevant his insights are, not only for Christians but for spiritual seekers of many traditions. And it’s an interesting reminder of how institutional power reacts when threatened by those who spread “dangerous” ideas. 700 years turns out to be not so long ago if you are observing human behavior and religious politics.
The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham. (Thanks for recommending this, T.F.) What a clear-eyed review of the constant tension in American society, especially in the years since the end of the Civil War. The recurrent waves of racism, misogyny, nativism, anti-Communist mania, and more racism are placed in a context that makes clear how Presidents of these various eras exercised their role -- usually for the common good, but not always -- and how the movements led by citizens prevailed, over time, in making hard-fought progress, bit by bit. It’s quite relevant, and tries hard to be encouraging in its own way.
The President is Missing: A Novel, by James Patterson and Bill Clinton. I do occasionally read detective or spy thrillers for the entertainment of it. (My version of TV.) I guess this one has a tad more realism in the description of presidential protection processes, and maybe a little less violence. The Who-Done-It elements of the story keep you on your toes, but otherwise not much to comment on.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. Masterwork, indeed! Such a comprehensive history of the migration of 6 million Black Americans from the Jim Crow South to the Northeast, Northern Midwest, and West Coast in the first half of the twentieth century. What makes the book so readable is the device of interweaving the broader picture with the true stories of three persons, George Starling, Ida Mae Gladney, and Robert Foster. I learned a ton, not just about this enormous intra-US migration, but also about how the ensuing dynamics in urban centers outside the South paved the way for today’s complexities. (Really glad you recommended this, A.L.R.) It has started me on a bunch of new questions to explore with friends who may be willing to share the stories of this journey as they knew of it from their own families.
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. Compelling narrative that makes good use of the author’s invention of a ‘real’ railroad to move the action from one to another place as the main character seeks to escape from the brutality of slavery. It’s a powerful story, without a proper ending. Of course. It’s still our journey.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by Robin DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson. Hard-hitting, efficient, extremely clear and thorough book that takes no pains to cushion the message for the intended audience of white people. (Presumably, one would have to be interested in understanding the topic to start with.) Besides providing detailed, concrete descriptions of the many subtle dynamics of white fragility and solidarity and why they matter, it’s a great reference text for those who are learning or teaching anti-racism. This is one I'll go back to.
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, by Taylor Branch. Really good writing, vivid storytelling of the life and experiences of Martin Luther King, Jr., including his intellectual journey towards the interconnections of love, justice, and nonviolent resistance. I’m halfway through this one, and I know I will go on to reading the next two books of this trilogy on MLK Jr. (Pillar of Fire, 1963-1965, and At Canaan’s Edge, 1965-1968) This will take me a while, but it is totally engrossing. Especially as I read it in 2018, the year that marks 50 years since the tragedy of his assassination.
The Making of a Slave; Willie Lynch This compact little book was recommended to me, and it is quite different from the others. Why? Because, on the one hand, the book seems to me to tell raw and important truth -- AND -- at the same time I concluded that the book is not in fact historically authentic. The truth part is that I believe it effectively describes the method used by slavers for psychologically breaking and controlling the spirits and bodies of African persons, lasting for generations after. It's a terrible picture, and it is painted clearly for anyone who has eyes to see in our world today.
The inauthentic part is that the actual author of the document is most likely not a slaveholder from 1712, as is purported. While I was reading it, I noticed that the text uses terms that are more modern than what was in use then, which got my curiosity going, and the lack of any notes in the printed book about origins. Something seemed not quite right about it. So I did some research; turns out the letter itself has been critiqued multiple times by historians and linguists, etc; it most likely dates from the 1970s. The textual analysis addressed my questions and added other points I didn't know.
But it doesn't really matter that the letter isn't authentic, because no matter who wrote it, years of history validate that the bodies, spirits, and families of black slaves from Africa were brutally broken, and that the damage to the soul and the community has persisted for generations. The damage of racism is astonishingly deep and persistent, a real destruction. The spirit, strength, and resilience of the black community that continues to survive this assault is extraordinary to me. I don't really have words, nor should I. Like myths, some books are True (big T) even if they aren't true (literally).
Waiting their turn on the Kindle in between lighter reads:
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker.
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.
The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, and Religious Diversity in America, by Fletcher Hill.
Building a Bridge (How the Catholic Church and the LGBTQ Community can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity), by James Martin S.J.
Black Voters Mattered: A Philadelphia Story, by W. Wilson Goode, Sr.
And, lest you think I am irredeemably serious:
Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste, by Bianca Bosker
Thank you to all those who have recommended books; I'm obviously open for any new suggestions.
I’ll periodically update this “Kindle report.” Who knows? I imagine my reading-river will flow on into a new direction at some point!