Since I drive around for work all day, I occasionally find myself somewhere around the city with an awkward amount of time to pass before my next appointment. I often spend this by finding the nearest park or coffee shop to take a quick walk or have half a cup of coffee. Recently, I was downtown with under an hour to spend and decided to stop in the library. Shamefully, I haven’t been to the library in years. Mostly due to a bad habit of buying more books than I can read, I have never been without a book ready at hand to pick up whenever I need something new. Libraries are so much more than just a place to read books for free, though. When I walked into the atrium, there was a temporary art collection on display. Children’s story time was going on among brightly colored cushions. People were doing research on the computers and in the reference section, using the available editing software, or working with the drop-in tutoring that is offered for adults. I even discovered that my library lends out “book club bags” with multiple copies of the same book and a few optional materials for discussion. The last time I went to a library was three and a half years ago to get help writing a resume when moving back to the city from a tiny town up north. However, one of my best friends is a library clerk and, for a while now, I felt that in order to be able to face her guilt-free I needed to patronize my library again.
Inside, I walked around the shelves, feeling a little rush of happiness every time I saw a familiar title that I loved: Paladin of Souls, Middlesex, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice, they were all there, but I often fall into the trap of spending time thinking about books wistfully at the expense of actually reading them. I decided to pick up a non-fiction book. I pulled up a LitHub article of “Best Works of Nonfiction of the Decade,” rapidly picked a book from the list, looked up the dewy decimal number in the library catalogue, found it on the shelf, and went to check it out. This is when I had the embarrassing experience of being told my library card had been expired for many years and I still had fines from 2012.
“I’m curious,” I said, “what were the fines for?”
“Lolita and The Diary of Anaïs Nin,” said the young man behind the counter.
I never did read that diary, but I remember the beautiful language of Lolita and how it took a very long time for me to finish reading because it made me so sad I had to repeatedly put it down for a pause. They waived the fines, updated my card, and I walked out of the library with a copy of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (I was happy to find that the book was very short – hopefully I would not end up with more late fees.)
I had heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates before, but knew very little about him. Between the World and Me is Coates’s letter to his son about growing up black in America and what that meant for him when navigating family, self-image, education, romance, and – underlying everything – the safety of his physical self at home, on the streets, and in the wider community. We are all permitted to read this, but in writing a letter to his son, Coates is dealing with the perennial issue of parenthood – how do I make sure my kid grows up okay? How can I teach them to stay safe? To respect themselves and others? Which of my values do I try to instill in them? There is an awareness that it is impossible for our children to learn the same lessons in the same ways that we did. Some of the lessons we learned were hard and we want them to be better than that, but how do they learn these important lessons without going through the same trials? Eventually, they will grow to have different views and values, but we hope that they still understand some of the things that are so deeply important to us.
As he tracks his personal growth through childhood, college, early adulthood, and parenthood, the language of his story is poetic. It is this poetic voice that lays Coates’s world open for his son and the rest of us reading to understand his life on a more fundamental level than facts and figures could ever convey. “Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts,” Coates says, and he displays this to great effect throughout the book. He is precise, yet emotive and this is what makes Between the World and Me a brilliant read as well as an important one. Continue reading “The Black Body in America: Reflections on “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates”