As an effort to prove that I'm not against "diversity" and to acknowledge the many oft-overlooked contributions that White people have made to this country, I figured I should make a list of White literature that has influenced me. How else to counteract the efforts to suppress White Culture and White History? Perhaps we should give you your own month? No. Here's something better. Your own section of the book-store.
1.) Dragonlance, Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman--This book was one of my earliest introductions to fantasy and thus to the limits (or lack of limits) of the imagination. I read Dragonlance before I read Tolkien, and was just amazed by the bigness of the world. All I wanted for my tenth birthday was to swing my sword like Caramon, and get a Tika on my side. Talk about the original ride-or-die chick. She is single-handedly responsible for the early onset of puberty amongst untold legions of geeks.
2.) The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald--My Lord, I read this book in a day during my sophomore year of college. I still think it is the quintessential American novel, and personally, the greatest novel I've ever read. I'm a sucker for brevity, but not brevity for the sake of it, but brevity paired with potency. And there is just so much packed into Gatsby, so much emotion and so much color. I remember reading that scene in the second chapter when Gatsby has this huge party and just marvelling at how beautifully it was painted. Great, great book.
3.) Moby Dick, Herman Melville--Another Great American Novel. To be honest, I think there's a lot of dead-space in Moby Dick, but oh my, what ambition. There are whole chapters that are just meditations on the nature of whales, and Moby Dick in particular. My favorite chapter is a confrontation between Ahab and "The Prophet" who tries to warn the crew away from Moby Dick. "Thou art going that way soon," is what the Prophet tells Ahab, after he offers mail for a crew-man killed by Moby Dick. Awesome book.
4.) A History Of Zionism, Walter Laqueur--I think like a lot of people of color born into left-wing politics, I had a very reflexive, and unreflective, sympathy for the Palestinians. But I really had no sense of the philosophical, and historical roots of Zionism. In trying to get at that, I kept running into these books in which it was clear to me that the author had a serious ax to grind. Laqueur's book was the first one I read that felt trustworthy to me and it also played an essential role in me seeing the Israelis as more than just colonizers.
5.) One Palestine Complete, Tom Segev--This was like Part Two of Laqueur's book. It's weird because I came up with some degree of exposure to nationalism and the emigration impulses of black people. Reading about Israel was like reading about us in a parallel universe where Liberia actually worked, yet still and all seeing the limits of "worked" and ultimately the limits of nationalism.
By the time I was done with both of these books, I had a great sense of the epic oppression of the Jews, the almost randomness of the pogroms, the unmatched nightmare of a state marshaling all its great Western and modern ideas for something so primitive as genocide. I understood, to a large degree, the impulse toward nationalism and self-determination, and my own early attraction to those impulses--but these two books ended those impulses for me. I'm not Jewish, and in being respectful of folks' experience, and in acknowledging the fact that I'm not a foreign policy buff, I'll speak for myself and my own reflections. These books removed the last remaining vestiges of nationalism I had coursing through me. They probably taught me more about myself than they did about the Israelis. I think this was the final stage of me moving from neo-black power to spiritual, and intellectual cosmopolitanism.
6.) Letters To A Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens--A short but effective tribute to the notion of always being the asshole at the party. I spent most of my young life arguing with people, and really being an army of one. It started in first grade with not celebrating Christmas, and then through 9th grad with the Gulf War, and into college with Farrakhan and the NOI, and so on. I read this book in my 20s, and it was like I'd found a home. Someone was telling me "It's OK, Ta-Nehisi. You were right along. Or at least you were right to fight."
7.) Billy Bathgate, E.L. Doctorow--Yep, Doctorow again. What can I say, except that I feel sorry for anyone who saw the movie and never read the book. Beyond being just beautifully written in typical Doctorow fashion, this book sticks in my mind for two reasons. It has the most romantic scene I've ever scene written in a man's voice between the title character, and Dutch Schultz girlfriend. I don't want to give it away, but as a dude, when i read the scene I felt like I was reading a really high quality romance novel. Second, it has one of the most lovingly crafted ancillary characters I've ever seen--the great Arnold Garbage. I mean even the name is great.
8.) Kraven's Last Hunt, J.M. DeMatteis--I couldn't believe that right after Marvel married Spider-Man off, they killed him. Or rather they had him comatose and buried alive. This sounds incredibly corny. But I read this when I was like ten or eleven, and what was amazing to me was how little action there was. It was the first time that I'd encountered a comic book as a kind of psychological thriller. Again, great for stoking the imagination. I followed this through the books, and was just on pins and needles wondering what would happen next.
As a sidenote, I loved how the old MU felt connected. When I went back to reading comics that was something I missed. I don't mean the crossovers, but just the random stuff like the fact that Masters of Evil had the Avengers on lock being randomly mentioned in another book. For me, that really fed the notion of the Marvel Universe as this coherent thing that I just wanted to dive into.
One final thing--Israel and abortion are the two biggest thread-killers in all the internetz. No other two topics generate more comments, in which people repeat the same thing to each other over and over. Please don't do that here. I'm not saying don't take issue or debate. But if you find yourself responding for seventh or eighth time, gracefully bow out please. Or just take it to e-mail. You can always send me an angry note.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power