185 When Breath Becomes Air

whenbreathby Paul Kalanithi, 2016

There has been an enormous amount of press surrounding neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi’s memoir of his terminal cancer diagnosis at the age of thirty-six. Making the press even more poignant is the knowledge that the book was published after Kalanithi’s death. This wasn’t a memoir from someone writing years later, who looked death in the face and vowed to beat it. This was from a person who looked death in the face and did the only thing they could: accepted it. It’s not by any means an easy topic to grapple with, but Kalanithi’s clear, direct writing renders this difficult journey one that should not be missed.

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175 Playing in the Dark

playinginthedarkby Toni Morrison, 1992

To round out my Year of Toni Morrison, I thought I would dip into one of her nonfiction books. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is a compilation of three lectures on, you guessed it, whiteness in literature. This is a topic I’ve often pondered myself, as you can walk into any bookstore and find an “African-American” or “Hispanic” or “Asian” section, but there is no “White” section. While finding a “White” books section would be, no doubt, horrifying, the truth is that it does not exist because white is considered to be the default and every other race or ethnicity is positioned as the other. “African-American” is a demographic, not a genre, and yet we treat these authors  – and readers – as if it were. “Until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all of American fiction have been positioned as white,” she writes. “I am interested to know what that assumption has meant to the literary imagination.” Me too, Ms. Morrison. Me too.

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154 We Were Eight Years in Power

eightyearsinpowerby Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2017

“Required reading” is a phrase I’ve been using a lot these days, but it’s still the phrase I would use to describe the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was with bated breath that I placed a hold on his new book a month prior to its publication and I gleefully picked it up from the library on the day it was released. I had thoroughly enjoyed Between the World and Me and was excited to get my hands on this collection of essays. Now, perhaps because I had just read Michael Eric Dyson, whose dynamism cannot be matched, or perhaps because I had such pent up anticipation, which never leads to anything but disappointment, I found I was less enamored of this book than I expected I would be. I hadn’t realized this wouldn’t be new material and, accordingly, it did not attack the subject manner in the way I had assumed it would. I don’t read The Atlantic, so while the material was new to me and I was glad to be able to access it in a collected volume, I felt that they didn’t quite come together to paint a cohesive picture. But, there is still so much to be gained from Coates’s words and I will argue with anyone that his voice is a necessary one in our world today.

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152 Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America

tearswecannotstopby Michael Eric Dyson, 2017
narrated by the author

It may seem difficult to determine to whom, exactly, Michael Eric Dyson is addressing his sermon in Tears We Cannot Stop. The subtitle may be, “A Sermon to White America,” but I have to doubt that many white Americans will be interested in his words. This is not because I believe that the majority of white Americans are uncaring or lack compassion, but the truth is that we tend to gravitate toward things with which we directly relate. In fact, that’s the whole spirit of the Read Harder Challenge – to get us to read material that is vastly different from what usually occupies our minds. (I’d add to this that part of the problem is that most people don’t read, but that’s another argument for another day.) So, in addressing his book to an audience that it likely won’t reach, is Dyson simply preaching to the choir?

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150 I Am Malala

malalaby Malala Yousafzai, 2013
narrated by Archie Panjabi

I recently moved from an area replete with public transportation to an area that, well, has absolutely no public transportation at all. This means that I’ve had to start to driving. While that’s brought its own challenges (the last time I drove was probably around 2005), it’s also taken away those precious minutes when I used to read on my commute. The obvious solution here is to start listening to audiobooks, but that isn’t as easy for me as it may be for some. One of the things I particularly love about reading is absorbing an author’s beautiful language and imagining the scene unfurl in my mind. That is taken away when someone else narrates and adds their own inflection to the words. I am also very much a visual learner and I often feel that I don’t hold onto information that I hear with nearly the strength that I do with information I see. Yet, spending the 30 minutes I drive to work each day listening to the radio seems a bit of a waste, so I am doing my best to convert myself into an audiobook lover. I Am Malala was my first choice for this, with the reason being that I believed I wouldn’t miss the experience of reading as much with a nonfiction book. I was also able to borrow the ebook from the library, so after my drive I could skim over the sections I heard and highlight what stood out to me. My audiobook conversion is still a process, but it’s one I’m hoping I master. Now, onto the book.

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146 Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

evictedby Matthew Desmond, 2016

Imagine not being able to call 911 for your son’s asthma attack because, if ambulances show up at your home, which has been labeled a “nuisance,” you might get evicted. This is the dilemma that has stayed with me after reading Evicted, this realization that many of the rights we take for granted are stripped away from those who need them most. Having hot water, a door that locks, a functioning toilet, the knowledge that I can call law enforcement to protect me without fear of losing my home – these are just some of the privileges withheld from the folks Matthew Desmond writes about.

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141 The Souls of Black Folk

soulsofblackfolkby W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903

There is a certain sense of wonder – or is it chagrin? – when reading a hundred-year-old book that exemplifies the adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Such is the case with W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays published at the turn of the 20th century that are, sadly, as poignant today as they were a mere 40 years post-Emancipation. Race relations have no doubt improved greatly since then, yet not so much as to prevent the reader from sitting slack-jawed and wondering if Du Bois were writing these words today. He and his ideas are far from obsolete.

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