Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns

As a reader, we crave those moments when, after losing ourselves in the first frantic pages of a book or novel, we know, just know, that the book we are reading was made just for us, that there is no other purpose in our lives but to read this book, and everything, family, jobs, responsibilities, eating, will have to wait. To be so completely engulfed in a book, to lose oneself, as they say, in a work so meaningful and profound and magical is the ultimate goal of any reader. Once you experience that high, find that grace, become so completely dependent on a book that you have the need to carry it with you everywhere you go just to feel its presence with you in case there is the off chance you can slip back into its pages, even for a few minutes, you cannot go back to casual reading. And every book you read after that perfect work is compared to that one time, no matter its subject matter or style. Great books can seem callow and weak when followed by ones you loved. You almost go into mourning when a book so dear to you comes to a close, but you don’t stop reading just because you think you might have reached a pinnacle. You keep reading, hoping to feel that high again, all the while telling everyone you know exactly what they MUST BE READING, and hoping, hoping, hoping something as great will come along soon.

I can be honest in saying that this happens to me once every two or three years. It happened with White Teeth, The Corrections, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; I experienced it several years ago with Let the Great World Spin, and on a glorious full-day devouring of The Road. Last year I got there twice with Egan and Franzen, a super double triumph that left me thinking it would be several more years before I could feel it again. And while there have been some brief affairs recently, such as Lark and Termite, The Submission, and Super Sad True Love Story, nothing has given me that true passion you can only experience with a great book.

I started this blog because of that passion, the desire to share with everyone I know (and those I don’t know) what books sweep me away, what books make me crazy with excitement as a reader. I am slightly hesitant to say this because I am only 100 pages into this one, but I want to do nothing more with my day but read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. This lyrical piece of narrative non-fiction is as fine as anything I have ever read. Wilkerson’s work is about what she calls “The Great Migration,” the exodus of millions of African Americans from the South following the Civil War, and corresponding with the start of Jim Crow. Wilkerson follows three former southerners as they leave all they know to find a better life. It is gorgeous, heartbreaking, and one that I don’t want to leave, even for a minute. Calling it extraordinary is not hyperbole. Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, writes with such precision and lyrical beauty that one could mistake The Warmth of Other Suns for a work of fiction. Topics such as Jim Crow and share-cropping, which have been thoroughly explored in other texts and history classes, seem revelatory in Wilkerson’s hands. Wilkerson is especially skilled at painting the true horror of what she calls “the Southern caste system,” which keeps whites in charge and African Americans constantly scrambling to understand the rules they are not only forced to live by, but could cost them their lives for single misunderstanding. She illuminates so much of our shared history to such a degree that one could easily begin to question their education and knowledge of the world. The work is painful to read, but never maudlin. Reading The Warmth of Other Suns is like experiencing a strange new country, one with a people and history that is desperate to reveal itself for all to see, and one we need to know. I can think of no greater exhortation of this work other than to plead, “Read this now!”

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