I was lucky enough to meet Cole Brown on the day I finished his brilliant memoir, Greyboy. I was on my way to Gertrude & Alice to find a book to fill in the void Greyboy had left when I saw him at a cafe on Hall Street and stopped by to say hello. Since most writers are also voracious readers, I asked Cole what book he would recommend next, and he told me that Coleson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys was one of his great readings from last year. While Whitehead is one writer who has been on my radar for a while, he’s one of the many writers I haven’t read yet. So I bought a copy of The Nickel Boys and read it in two short sessions. Eager for more literary suggestions, I asked Cole if he would take part in my Desert Island Books series, which he kindly agreed to. And so, from the book that made him dizzy with excitement as a young boy to the book that changed his life, here are the eight books Cole would take to the sandy beach of a desert island.
Norton Juster’s Phantom toll booth
I read The Phantom Tollbooth as a young boy and often wished I could relive the dizzying excitement I felt the first time flipping through the pages. This book puts Norton Juster in a common literary canon with Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl – authors who created really original, often silly works and adulthood did not get in the way of their imaginations. Juster does somersaults with language, stretches metaphors the furthest and regularly uses triple intentions. Even today I still enjoy reading passages from this book. They urge me to think creatively about the world and my language usage, just as they did when I first read them as a child.
It’s worth noting that Norton Juster will be the Token White on this list. The rest of what follows is Blackity Black Black.
The known world of Edward P. Jones
In ninth grade, I was assigned this book to read in the summer, and as someone who wasn’t a fan of summer assignments at all, I was pleasantly surprised. I revisit The Known World every couple of years and as I’ve grown I’ve developed an increasing appreciation for the almost delusional ambition it takes to structure a story in this scattered, zigzagged way. Jones’ storytelling isn’t tied to character or chronology, and jumps around on both throughout the novel. There have been some high profile, critically acclaimed pieces of slavery in recent years (The Underground Railroad, The Water Dancer). They are great, but in my opinion the known world rules.
Native Son by Richard Wright
As I discuss in Greyboy, my parents were deeply concerned about the education my prep schools would give – not that it was inaccurate, but that it was incomplete. The blackness – its contributions, its value, and its beauty – has been largely omitted from our curriculum. In response, my parents developed their own curriculum. I spent many Saturday afternoons inside ticking off books and writing reports on what I found.
Native Son was an outstanding example of the lyrics they assigned. It’s brutal. It was released in 1940 to cause outrage and controversy. Then, as now, many wonder whether Wright’s portrayal of Bigger Thomas – a pathological, murderous, hopelessly fearful, black man – was an act of bravery or just the upholding of harmful stereotypes. It’s an emotional ride and difficult to read at times. The book raises important questions about agency, guilt, and fate in an America that fell victim to black bodies.
Langston Hughes’s Collected Poems by Langston Hughes
In fourth grade, I was given the assignment to recite a poem before my English class. I went to the bookstore with my father and bought all of the work of the only poet I had ever heard of. Hughes was productive and so the book is thick, but it’s the only affiliation I have to drag from town to town every time I move. More than any other poet, Hughes captured black life during the Harlem Renaissance in all its joy, agony, and contradictions.
I still know by heart the poem I chose back then, “Words like Freedom”. Coincidentally, it’s also one of the shortest in volume. I’ve also remembered a few others over the past few years. “Mother to Son” is an all time favorite.
Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This book changed my life.
During my sophomore year, I read for the first time in a single night between the world and myself. The next evening I read it for the second time. The night after, the third.
This book showed me what I could aim for in my writing. Early drafts of my book, Greyboy, read like bad imitations of Ta-Nehisi’s work. I’ve grown into my own voice these days, but when I get lost on a project I keep going back to Ta-Nehisi to realign myself with the North Star. Few living writers are able to delve as deeply into the black experience as he is. My only advice is to read it twice; You won’t catch everything right off the bat.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
I got into James Baldwin’s job embarrassingly late in life. It wasn’t included in my parents’ early black literature lessons (shocking) so I had to find it for myself. In the end, Ta-Nehisi led me to him. The title and structure of Between the World and Me (an expanded letter to a loved one) are both inspired by Baldwin’s seminal work. Reading Baldwin, it becomes immediately clear where Ta-Nehisi borrowed some of his tricks from.
Most writers write at the sentence, paragraph, chapter, or book level and focus their efforts on establishing perfection on a single scale. Often they trade beauty at the sentence level for a great scheme at the chapter level, or vice versa. Few can work out perfection across scales and paint a picture that, up close, is as searing and revealing as it is zoomed out. Baldwin does it. Just as you lose yourself in the dizzying elegance of his speech, he pulls you back with a haunting insight into the earth that underscores the need for his earlier eloquence. Read this twice too.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
I do not know that I have ever read a work that was broader in its ambition or more specific in its attention to detail than Wilkerson’s first attempt. In this 600-page masterpiece, she captures the 60-year history of the Great Migration, the largest mass migration of Americans in our nation’s history. For over 50 years, 6 million black Americans fled Jim Crow and the rural south to cities in the north, the Midwest, and the west. Their movement has fundamentally changed the course of American industry, culture, and history, but their stories have largely remained untold. Wilkerson’s book tells the story of this mass migration through the stories of three families who were typical of the movement.
It took ten years to complete the book, and when you open it it is immediately clear why it took that time. As I read it, I kept wondering, “How did she know?” It’s informative, sometimes emotional, beautifully rendered, and paints a vivid picture of black life in America for much of the 20th century.
The Nickel Boys by Coleson Whitehead
After The Underground Railroad, which earned Colson both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer, he released The Nickel Boys last year, which earned him Pulitzer # 2. That’s just greedy if you ask me. Colson shares a place in my pantheon with Ta-Nehisi, Baldwin, Hughes, and Wright, and his last book was the best I read last year. In it, he fictionalizes Dozier School, a real juvenile detention facility that operated in Florida in the 20th century and became infamous after archaeological students found the remains of children buried on campus. Colson creates a fictional student wrongly sent to school in the 1960s, and shows how the abusive environment tarnishes his once lively optimism. In doing so, he pulls out a literary feat that I found inspiring.
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