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Polli Kenn

Required Reading: Between the World and Me

I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me, or should I say, it just finished me. One of those books, you see.

Written as a letter to his son about his experiences in a black body in America, it is both a memoir and a lesson. I suspect when one reads a memoir, one looks to see: where did we act similarly, how are we different? What human experiences do we share in common? What life lessons can I learn from this person? Coates asked me to go bigger, and higher and beyond.

This I now know – my own life experience is very much shaped by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ experience, even though I don’t have to know this. At times, I felt out of my depth and over my head. I felt like I was on the edge of grasping some central point and it slipped away again and again. I felt those things in the best of ways, like when you’re picking your way through philosophy or music or math. There are dark edges, and at the same time, light bulbs keep coming on and on and on and you know if you keep turning it over, you’ll be rewarded. Or cursed.

If you’re a student of history, or a watcher of current events, none of what Coates reveals in his book is surprising. Being black in America is fraught with tension. Being white in America CAN be to strive to understand that tension, and how we address it. Or it can be to turn the channel. To close the book. To fill our minds with thoughts that skip over the violence with which our nation was born, violence born on the backs of black people. Being white can mean to pretend not to grasp the connection between yesterday and today and tomorrow. To avoid thinking too deeply about who created our systems. And how. And why.

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Something about how Coates writes to his son, both intimately and intellectually, pushed me and kept pushing me. Certain things I could understand if I tried to insert my own nouns into the story, certain things I will never have to understand if I don’t keep pushing my mind go there, to stay there, to sit with it. Sit uneasy. I found it was still in me to seek distance, until he writes about the murder of a friend by the police, a man not much older than my son:

“Think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons… Think of the surprise birthday parties, the day care, and the reference check on babysitters. Think of the World Book and Childcraft. Think of checks written for family photos…Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, manes, dreams all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone. And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had gone into him, sent flowing back to the earth.”

Through reflection and writing, Coates searches for the answer to this question: how to be free in his black body? I now search for the answer to the question: how have I come to understand my whiteness through the lens of how I understand his blackness? Coates doesn’t offer his son any answers, but he gives him proscription. Struggle. Keep struggling. That’s where the understanding lies.

Coates admits he was not a natural student, but is a prodigious learner.  He says,

“The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly I was discovering myself.”

Between the World and Me isn’t about offering hope. It’s about keeping his boy safe, and perhaps through his words, he might offer you something, too.

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Genre Book Club: All Gushing, No Shushing!

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: we library folk want to talk about books with you. We absolutely do. Research shows that when people are looking for something new to read, librarians are your go to only 19% of the time. Que pasa, y’all? Perhaps you see us out shelving books in the stacks and you, considerate souls that you are, don’t want to bother us. Or maybe (I’ve been told) you’re concerned that we’ll judge what you’re reading (or not reading) and would rather poke around on your own, rather than risk getting librarian side-eye.

Let me assure you – we don’t judge. Truly. We are “imperfect” readers, too, who just want to have a bookish conversation with other readers. We like to laugh about truly awful romance covers that hide quite good content. We love hearing about that unusual book that changed your life. We are curious about why you don’t like the award winning book everyone else seems to love. If you’re interested, we want to give you reading suggestions, too – in person and online.

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At LPL, our mission in the Readers’ Services department, home of The Book Squad, is to connect people with the stories that enrich their lives. In order to do that, we review books and create reading lists in the LPL catalog. We chat with you in the stacks, offer you a few books, and hope you’ll come back and let us know what you thought. We create personalized reading suggestions for you. We can even help your book club find their next read and supply the books in one handy bag.

One program we’ve started to encourage community conversations about reading is the Genre Book Club, hosted once a month. Our staff puts together a list of highly rated and representative books in a genre, and you call or email to request one or two of those books to try out. Then, on the second Sunday of the month, we sit around snacking and talking about what we read, what we thought, and learn more about the genre in general.  Easy-peasy lemon squeezy.

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Genre Book Club is a way to discover something new, without making a huge time commitment. It can also be a great way to meet people who share your reading loves and swap suggestions for fresh reads.  (Next month’s talk is on Urban Fantasy, an up and coming genre, on September 13th at 2pm.)

Genres can be a tidy way of understanding what you might expect overall from a story, a shorthand that there will be elements in this tale that speak to you as a reader. Genres, however, can sometimes draw artificial lines that people don’t cross.  I will admit there are genres I thought I didn’t read… until I did. Reading The Martian and Ready Player One taught me that I can find a compelling story in Sci-Fi, even though it wasn’t a place I spent much time. I’ve converted people who thought they didn’t like Romance with authors Courtney Milan, Julia Quinn and Eloisa James.

If you haven’t read all the classics, we don’t care. (We probably haven’t, either.) If you haven’t read anything but cereal boxes or FB statuses for a while, that’s cool. We’ve been there. We’d love to help you. Genre Book Club is a great way to meet authors and stories, and a nice way to meet your neighbor. Let your friendly LPL Book Squad member get you connected to a story that might enrich your life, a story that just might come from a section of the library you haven’t yet met.

Read, Reflect, Respect, Repeat

#Charlestonsyllabus is more than a list.
It is a community of people committed to critical thinking, truth telling and social transformation.”

– Chad Williams,
Assoc. Professor at Brandeis University.

 

At this week’s library event with author Jon Ronson, he spoke sincerely about the frustrating experience of trying to create meaningful discourse via social media, especially in spaces like Twitter. A platform that initially gave voice to the voiceless has become a tidal wave of shaming and derision that tries to dress itself up as social justice. Read More..

Like, Try, Why: Books for Your Inner Child

Remember that book that hooked you as a kid? Those stories that turned you on to reading? Here are some suggested adult reads matched to those books you loved as a kid.  Read More..

5 Books for the Ladies You Love

I’m not much for labeling books for Ladies or Dudes. In fact, my husband loved two of these five books quite a lot, and after 23 years of marriage, I can attest to his Dude-ish literary tastes.  But the fact of the matter is that some books seem to appeal to women and I’m willing to bet you’ll score a hit with ladies with one or more of these books.

 

how-to-be-a-womanHow to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran - For that sassy sister or sister–in-law who shares advice on all things womanly. The one you who knows all your embarrassing secrets.  They’ll fall in love with Caitlin Moran’s honest and hilarious recounting of her journey to womanhood and the constant upkeep required in mind and spirit.  This is a salty feminist manifesto for your friends who are too tired to read Shulamith Firestone and who love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.  Protip:  Have Kleenex handy – you’ll laugh until you cry.

 
 
 
 
outlander-bookThe Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon - Does your best friend need a little romance in her life?  An escape from dirty diapers or that horrid boss?  Give her the gift of James Alexander Malcom Mackenzie Fraser.  She will thank you for it.  Epic historical fiction with a twist of fantasy and generous dollop of true love, as an English nurse from 1945 falls through standing stones to 1743 to confront the Jacobite uprising and the person of Jamie, the Highlander of your dreams.  These books (seven in the series, soon to be eight) inspire a rabid fandom and will give your friend re-read material for the ages.

 
 
eleanor and parkEleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell -  Do you remember that feeling of falling in love, where every aching second of holding someone’s hand is an eternity?  Every glance, song lyric, accidently shoulder rub could sustain or torture you for days?  No?  I didn’t either, but it all came back to me when I read Eleanor and Park, and beautiful (and heartbreaking) tale of first love. Great dialogue and emotional pacing.
 
 
 
 
 

longbournLongbourn by Jo Baker - Does your wife make you watch Pride and Prejudice at least once a year?  Not the wimpy two hour version, but the entire BBC version with a dripping wet Colin Firth?  Call off the hounds – the search for her gift is over.  Many Pride and Prejudice sequels, updates and parodies have been written, but Loungourn stands out as an actual winner.   Jo Baker’s novel follows the life of the “downstairs” inhabitants of the Bennett estate, Mrs. Hill the Housekeeper and especial Sarah, one of the maids.  Austen fans should love this book, but it could also stand alone. 

 

color_purpleThe Color Purple by Alice Walker - Not a new book, but a gorgeous book about the strength of women, the limits of the human spirit and the pain and pleasure of the individual lives of women.  Watching Celie and awaken to herself and claim her voice changed my life, so it always makes it onto my “what to read” list.