march books

Last month's books, even as we are nearing the end of this month:

1. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

I bought this after seeing the recent documentary about James Baldwin, and I wish I would have read it sooner. It is sharp and convicting and beautiful. Baldwin's central point is that "whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves." Baldwin's call is to unmask ourselves and to face the reality of the racial nightmare in America: "We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is." Baldwin's words have given me ways of thinking about what it means for me to be white in America today—which says something for the truth of his diagnosis, seeing that it is some fifty years since the original publication.

2. Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival by Christopher Benfey

I read this during a quick weekend trip to visit friends in Asheville: a memoir and travelogue by the great-nephew of Josef and Anni Albers. It was exciting to read about Black Mountain College while in those particular mountains, and to learn more about the history of a place that has long-fascinated me. While at times the narrative gets lost in Benfey's rather uninteresting family history, Benfey's writing is at its best when he talks about the nature of ceramics, and the way clay, like no other medium, must be surrendered to the laws of nature. The handle on a ceramic pot, Benfey writes, "marks the journey from one world to the other; it is the suspension bridge from the world of art to the world of use.”

3. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

What a delightfully strange book! I am still not sure what to make of it, though I think I could spend a full day thinking about nearly every line of this epic poem. I am speaking of phrases like this: "Reality is a sound, you have to tune in to it not just keep yelling," or this: "the skin of the soul is a miracle of mutual pressures." I suppose this is what I was supposed to feel after reading it, since the poem begins with the suggestion that "Words bounce. Words, if you let them, will do what they want to do and what they have to do." Anne Carson certainly lets words do what they have to do in such a way that they stick with you, even while the plot lost me at times (likely due to my needing a refresher on Homer so I could understand all the references).