Jun 13 2017

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (I of III)

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (I of III)

I. CONTEXT

Some newer books I’ve recently read and reread include Ta-Nehisi Coates,’ Between the World and Me (2015), Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015), Michael Morton’s Getting Life: an Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace (2014), and Mayra Hornbacher’s Madness: a Bipolar Life (2008).

In a certain sense they’re all coming-of-age books whose stories are not told in the traditional sequence that begins with childhood, follows into adolescence, then adulthood. Rather these authors narrate their struggles to adapt to new modes of behavior as they find themselves evolving from young adults into middle-aged ones. How so?

Coates, finding himself in the adult role of parenting a teenager, struggles to impart wisdom to his son; Dreher strives to reconcile with his father and the world view of his home town after a lifelong rift from both; Morton fights to survive after finding himself in prison wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife, while Hornbacher attempts to understand her battles with mental illness and all the instability it brings with it.

But of the four writers, I come back to Coates because, even though I’ve been a long time reader of his work, his book, after an initial reading, left me the most perplexed. Part of my confusion was unexpectedly encountering a text of such brevity and (seeming) simplicity. In my blurry memory, his “The Case for Reparations” article for the Atlantic (June 2014), which gained him national and international attention, seemed a bit longer than the 150 page chapbook published by Spiegel & Grau in 2015.

(go to Part II of III)


May 26 2017

Michael Morton: a Falsely-Accused Prisoner, Turned-Reader, Turned-Writer

Michael Morton: a Falsely-Accused Prisoner, Turned-Reader, Turned-Writer

I’ve been wanting to read Michael Morton’s memoir of being falsely-accused of the murder of his wife, how the legal system works in Williamson County, Texas, and how he found the ability to forgive his accusers.

There will be plenty to ponder, compare, and write about concerning this terrific book. But for now I will only note that a great surprise was discovering that Micheal Morton is a great writer; and even more surprisingly, an enthusiastic reader:

We devoured everything from the classics to Stephen King, and we passed each ripped and dog-eared copy from cellblock to cellblock, bunk to bunk. As quickly as I read one, I would be handed another. We would wave each other on to or off of a planned selection. We critiqued each author’s work with the clarity and strength of opinion that could come only from never having written a book ourselves.

Reading was the only means of escape available to us. With a book, we could climb over the walls, walk on the beach, meet new friends, and mourn the loss of someone we felt we had gotten to know. We got books from the library, ordered them through friends or family, and eagerly anticipated mail deliveries with book-shaped boxes. We were intellectually starving, and each new read was a feast….[1]

Stacked in my cell, there were always books and authors, characters and adventures—real or imagined—waiting to sustain me intellectually and emotionally, to give me a place to play out my anger, nurture my hope, and indulge my ache for escape. As soon as one book ended, another began. Sometimes, I read two at a time, jumping back and forth from one universe to another. It was the only freedom I had….[2]

Books like The Odyssey and authors like Cormac McCarthy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminded me that even the longest journey has a finish line, that someday I would close the book on this chapter of my life. Reading reminded me that finding justice in the end was possible…. [3]

Inside, I’d been reading so much I felt like I was doing time with Mark Twain, sharing a cell with John Steinbeck, and sitting in the dayroom with Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving. Occasionally Tom Robbins would pop in. Stephen King was always lurking around a dark corner, motioning for me to join him someplace terrifying. They had all become my friends—men I could count on to keep me distracted at night and entertained in the lonely hours when I couldn’t find anyone to talk with who knew how to read. [4]

NOTES

[1] Morton, Michael. Getting Life: an Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace. NY: Simon & Schuster. 2014.  pp. 127–28.

[2] Morton, Getting Life 171.

[3] Morton, Getting Life 172.

[4] Morton, Getting Life 131.