I got a lot of pushback on twitter and some here (a lot less) for not knowing who Augustine of Hippo was. (I hope I have the right Augustine.) One of the problems with a title like "senior editor" or with working at a place like The Atlantic or with assuming mantles like "writer" or "public intellectual" is people expect those kinds of credentials to mean that the bearer is in possession of a super-abundance of information about great thinkers and great writers. I think I've been pretty straight with you guys about the pitfalls of my eduction. And that isn't because I think my pitfalls are any greater or any worse than any other writer. In fact, I reject the entire business.
Larry Neal was deeply influential in my writing. Very few of my peers have read the poetry of Larry Neal, and of those who have, every one of them is black. The poetry of Carolyn Forché and Lucille Clifton helped shape my style. (Cop that collected
, son.) More people have read Lucille Clifton, but not a lot. My entree into this current project dealing with the Civil War and slavery, was the work of Paula Giddings and her awesome biography of Ida B Wells, A Sword Among Lions
. I know one other person whose read the book. My Dad. This is to say nothing of all the obscure rappers and MCs who caused me to fall in love with words.
I believe in a great canon, but as a writer, I don't much care. The artist's canon must be personal. My canon happens to include Clifton, Neal, Rakim, Raekwon etc. and Fitzgerald, McPherson, Hurston, Melville, Wharton, Doctorow, Hurston and so on. Perhaps one day it will include Augustine. But there's a lot of great stuff I haven't read. I've never made it through a Hemingway novel. I have not read a single story of Mark Twain's. I read Plato in college, which is to say I didn't read it all. I loved Foucault but didn't finish. I have not read Nietzsche. I have not read Henry James, Cervantes, Willa Cather, John Edgar Wideman, Wallace Stegner, Joseph Heller or J.D. Salinger.
If you name an important book there is a very good chance I haven't read it. I'm not against important books. I hope to write one someday. But I read what I like, before I read what's important. That's who I am. It's my version of the "senior editor" or "public intellectual." I don't believe my job is stand in front of you and pretend to know things, which I do not. I also don't believe it's my job to be right. It's my job to be honest with you and employ really awful French.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.
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