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Monday, February 18, 2013

Fill Your Ideal Bookshelf with African-American Literature

February is African-American Heritage month, a time to reflect on the historical and cultural impact that African-Americans have had in this country. Explore the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History online to learn more about this history. Find out about famous African-Americans with our biography resources here and here. Be sure to check out our lists of great works of literature, anthologies, and music to celebrate African-American achievements.

For this post, Readers' Services Assistant, Laura Adler, builds an “ideal bookshelf” of African-American literature, including works by Ellison, Baldwin, and a few surprises too.

If you're a book lover, there are few sights as satisfying as your favorite books lined up on their shelves. Editor Thessaly La Force and artist Jane Mount understand this. Together they created a beautiful book called My Ideal Bookshelf. The premise? They asked over one hundred people, authors and non-authors alike, to “select a small shelf of books that represent you--the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favorite favorites.” Each person's ideal bookshelf is accompanied by his or her thoughts on the books and reading, as well as a beautiful painting of each contributor's ideal bookshelf.

Thumbing through the book, you inevitably wonder what titles belong on your own ideal bookshelf. To celebrate African-American Heritage Month I took a stroll through the virtual shelves of my mind and created an ideal bookshelf of books by African-American writers that mean the most to me.

I'm tempted to include four books by James Baldwin, but for the sake of brevity I'll limit myself to The Fire Next Time, Baldwin's searching exploration of racism that begins with a letter to his nephew. Baldwin was one of the great stylists of the 20th century, as well as a fearless challenger of the status quo, and I continue to be inspired by his writing and bravery.

Ralph Ellison only completed one novel, Invisible Man, but oh, what a book! While I don't believe there is such a thing as The Great American Novel, if I did, Invisible Man just might be it. The narrator, who characterizes himself as an “invisible man,” begins his journey in the South, where he receives a scholarship to attend college, an experience that proves disillusioning. Life in New York City is equally disheartening: his search for identity and a place in the world is repeatedly thwarted by whites and blacks alike, by people who say they want to help him but who use him to achieve their own ends. It's the sort of novel so packed with ideas and insights that you're tempted to underline every other line.

Percival Everett is the sort of author who leads you to question your perceptions of the world, including your perceptions of literature and the anointment of certain authors. This is perhaps most true of his novel Erasure, published in 2001. The hero, Thelonious Ellison, is an African-American professor, intellectual and the author of serious and challenging fiction increasingly overlooked and deemed less “authentic” and “black” than the urban fiction currently in vogue. Appalled and enraged by the success of an exploitative bestseller called “We’s Lives in da Ghetto,” Ellison writes an absurdist satire of urban lit called “My Pafology” under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. To his horror, the book is misunderstood, deemed a masterpiece and an “authentic” depiction of black life, and Hollywood and the literary establishment come calling.

Other books on my ideal bookshelf include Manchild in The Promised Land by Claude Brown, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer, and James Baldwin: The Legacy, edited by Quincy Troupe.

What books by African-American authors would you place on your “ideal bookshelf”?

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