“The person who won’t read has no advantage over the person who cannot read.”
–Possibly written by Mark Twain, possibly not. The internet is a breeding ground for misattributed quotes. John Oliver covered this one week on his show Last Week Tonight and even created a website for “Definitely Real Quotes” which are just the opposite.
Whoever said this first, and let’s be honest, it was probably written as “man” and not “person,” I could not agree more. The other night at the Y, I was on the elliptical machine losing track of time while reading. I use the elliptical machines without the moving arms so I can hold my book and move my legs and I can just plow through literature, and plow, I do.
Just yesterday, I finished The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America by D. Watkins. It’s an essay collection by a drug-dealer-turned-teacher-and-writer. He’s from Baltimore, still lives in Baltimore, and he’s the truth. Watkins has made it his mission to help lift up impoverished communities in Baltimore and his method is equal parts simple and complex, crazy and the most sane: literacy.
In the chapter titled “My Neighborhood Revolution,” Watkins tells of NFL star, Dexter Manley, who made it through high school and college before he played for Washington, never having learned to read. Side note: I crawled down the Dexter Manley rabbit hole and it’s basically the Little Mermaid’s cave. This article from 1987 is such a stark contrast from this one written in 2015. But wow, is he an interesting guy! Watkins shares the story of a friend who asks him to read a letter his daughter wrote to him because although this man was a full-grown, fully employed adult, he couldn’t read his daughter’s words. Watkins returns several times to the sad statistic that only 7% of 8th grade boys in Baltimore City Public Schools are proficient in reading. Go back and read that sentence again. Watkins talks of his college students telling him that same old, tired old thing I hear so often, “Reading is boring.”
Battling the chorus of “Reading is boring” is demoralizing. What I want to say is, “You sound like an idiot.” But usually I am talking to children when I hear it and we’re not allowed to say idiot, so my go-to defenses include, “Then you’re doing it wrong,” or, “Well you just haven’t found the right book yet.” Sometimes I throw in, “Reading is all things, so if you don’t like reading, you don’t like anything.”
Obviously I am preaching to the choir here because you are reading this so as you know, reading is gaining perspectives. It’s travel, self improvement, communication, learning, brain-expansion, creativity. Reading is meditation, it is peace, it’s a brain-and-heart-quieter.
Sometimes after reading, I just need some quiet time. After a few of the D. Watkins chapters, I just needed to sit in silence as my brain turned and flipped and readjusted what I had just read with what already exists in there. I can feel myself learning and sharpening and my mind opening. It’s just so damn satisfying.
With that, I give you a very incomplete list of reading recommendations. This is not a list of my favorite books necessary, just a list of some I’ve loved that span different genres. I owe this list to the existence of Goodreads because without it, I wouldn’t remember 10% of this. (Stars* indicate book club books from the past. My book club is in two words: the best.)
- The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg. A memoir about growing up in rural Alabama by the most painterly wordsmith I’ve ever encountered. Bragg is my writing role model.
- Wonder* by R.J. Palacio. A young adult book about a boy with facial deformity, this book makes you want to be a better person and you can read it in about 2 hours.
- The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. A dystopian novel about a change in the tilt of the earth and all of the effects of it.
- Americanah* by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I love this author! I saw her speak at Baltimore Book Festival and she has as much presence, poise, and splendor in person as she does on paper. This was such an enthralling tale that proves that the story of Africans in America is anything but singular. Also, this book has a few scenes set in Baltimore–bonus.
- The Gay Talese Reader by Gay Talese. Widely regarded as one of the best creative nonfiction writers ever, this collection begins with his most famous work, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” From that first piece which earns its clout, this set of articles never stops being entertaining.
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. The (now famous) story of Henrietta Lacks’ ancestors and Henrietta’s cells which have been used to cure, heal, research, and more since her death from cancer in 1951. Her family continues to live in poverty and no one had ever given consent for the use of Henrietta’s cells. If you aren’t obsessed with Deborah by the end of this book, then you have no heart.
- Every Day by David Levithan. The main character in this book wakes up in a different body every single day. This was one of the most unique fictional situations I’ve ever read about.
- The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. Somewhat autobiographical story of growing up in the south. Among my favorites I’ve ever read.
- A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Hands down one of the funniest books I have ever read. Bryson and a pal make their way through parts of the Appalachian Trail in this true story. Somehow it manages to be laugh out loud funny.
- The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan. A collection of essays and short stories by a Yale grad who died before this was published when her boyfriend fell asleep at the wheel three days after their college graduation. An incredible tragedy for obvious reasons but also because she’s a really great writer. I loved both the fiction and the nonfiction.
- House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. This book is tragic, know that going in. But what an onion-peeling it is! Tears and all. The intertwined stories challenge you to see two completely conflicting perspectives as almost equally valid.
- Bossypants by Tina Fey. I’ve actually read this twice. She’s hilarious and just the realist.
- The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. Did you have to read this in school? I did. But I didn’t appreciate it until I taught it myself. This book rotates perspectives among the Civil War generals in both armies throughout the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. While Shaara has to rely on what exists historically about these men, he does an incredible job filling in the blanks.
- The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir* by D. Watkins. Watkins’ story of transforming from a drug dealer into a university professor.
- She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. This is a hunker but it moves quickly. The story of a girl perpetually angry at her own body. A really incredibly told coming of age.
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is a young adult book told from the perspective of a 9th grader deep in depression. And I know that doesn’t sound like a positive but the empathetic power of this book is so real.
- Brain on Fire* by Susannah Cahalan. A nonfiction book about a New York Post writer whose life completely unfurls due to a rare and absolutely sudden condition. Her unraveling is scary, shocking, and really entertaining.
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A letter from father to son. Truly gorgeous but also extremely though-provoking and emotional. Baltimore-born and raised!
- The Husband’s Secret* by Lianne Moriarty. I will read her books until she stops writing them. She has this crazy way of tackling really heavy subjects with just a touch of humor. Always a twist, always page turners. This is my second favorite of hers, after Big Little Lies which you should read, before watching…too late?
- The Nightingale* by Kristin Hannah. We went through a few months during which my book club did a lot of World War II. This was in that spike. A Holocaust novel that will remain with you forever. (I have lots of other Holocaust recommendations too.)
- The Hours by Michael Cunningham. This became a movie starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and more luminaries of cinema. While the move is excellent, the book is better. The stories woven into this inter-connected tale include that of a writer dying of AIDS, writer Virginia Wolf, and a few others. A fast read that spans generations.
- Educated* by Tara Westover. My favorite recent read. Tara is the last of seven children raised by Mormon parents who are conspiracy theorists and extremists. Tara does not know her birthday, does not enter a classroom until she’s 17, and spends most of her childhood working in her dad’s scrap yard. She ends up at Harvard. The book tells that journey.
Is reading the answer to all social ills? Certainly not directly. But indirectly, I would argue that yea, it could be. And for people who’ve got life generally figured out: job, life, family, friends, maybe reading doesn’t seem like it’s largely essential, like it won’t solve the smaller problems we have. I’d argue though, that it might. And that from reading, we can all grow. We can all learn to see other perspectives, to open our brains up, to just sit and think, to paint pictures in our heads, to exercise our most important muscle. Because you can. Read.