Friday, November 10, 2017

Required Reading. Maybe.

How do you pick what book/s you’re going to read? Is it the cover? Awards it’s won. The author. Genre? Word of mouth? Reviews (pro and customer)? Someone you know? Anything else?

My confession on this Friday is I rarely hold books in reverence. Not that I don't love them, and they're not my lifeblood. It's just that I'm not the line-up-outside-my-Barnes & Noble type. I also don't read what everyone else tells me I should read. Case in point: after the umpteenth time Between The World And Me was aggressively suggested to me by someone who doesn't share the same (obvious) trait I do with Ta-Nehisi Coates', I finally pushed back with, "I think he wrote that for you to read. I already know all this shit."

Still, my life has been rooted in books since the day I arrived, and everyone from parents to authority figures to librarians to African American bookstore owners to my homie that operated the Occult Bookstore in Wicker Park, Chicago have pushed books on me. Most of my reading before writing became my bread and butter was suggested to me by friends and mentors. Often black folk educate ourselves intragenerationally, where our peers become our teachers. It's one of the ways we've been socialized to our betterment. If my homies tell me it's essential reading, it gets top priority in my TBR. They've been my professors as much as my roll-dawgs, and they're all brilliant men and women. I never had to look very far for heroes. Most of my boys went to college—I didn't, but I did party with them on campus during college tour comedy gigs—and the books they brought home with them were vital to me. You could say I'm educated because they shared their education with me. Thankfully, they were stingy with the tuition bills. And hangovers.

My ace and existential brother Rommel Shaw gave me his copy of Octavia E. Butler's seminal Parable of the Sower and when me and my folks from Chicago exchange books, the unspoken caveat is we'll be able to discuss them by the next time we're watching the Bulls game and playing dominoes or bid whist. He helped me at a difficult time with that mass-market paperback. We still discuss it twenty-years hence.

My writing compatriots, those who help me get my thoughts and ideas on the page, are responsible for a significant bulk of my TBR list. My dear friend and occasional colleague Michael Sasha King, from Harvard University, bird-dogs all my work. He'd say I do the same for him but as he's on his way to a Ph.D. and I'm an alumnus of Def Comedy Jam class of 1992, I'm not totally comfortable with that assessment.

Stacked atop the dining room table just within arm's reach are the last seven books he turned me onto, including the collected volumes of The Paris Review Interviews. I've written of them before. You want to end your annoyance of those clickbaity lists such as "Ten Tips for Great Writing"? Then read these. There's advice, and then there's wisdom, and so much is packed within. My favorites are James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, William Faulkner, and Dorothy Parker. Through Mike, I've also discovered the devilishly cynical Percival Everett, most particularly his gem Erasure, which I can't recommend enough. Don't get me started on research materials for my work on The Tales of Elliot Caprice. Books such as Negroes and the Gun and Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 is vital to my worldbuilding and both were inspired by my man. Also, he suggested I get up on Henry Chang, most specifically his excellent Chinatown Beat, to mind my technique going into centering my crime writing in black American culture.

Recently, I stepped out on a limb and accepted an invitation/request from Foreword Reviews to contribute book reviews in January. I'm currently reading two titles I'm very excited about: "Knucklehead, "by Adam Smyer, which is a page-turner, "Ambiguity Machines: And Other Stories," by Vandana Singh, a vibrant work of science fiction. Both are debuts from authors of color so I'm happy to lend myself to the effort. I'd have never dared to review books for a publication, especially as I've never studied cultural criticism and reviews can be works of art in and of themselves, but I stepped up and I'm glad I did. These are wonderful new books.

Finally, it's my Mystery/Crime tribe that informs all my current choices. Reviews are nice to cheer for/rave against. Award nominations are, like really cool, I'm happy for you, dawg, but when I meet folks and spend time with them, I find myself either in the book room or on my phone app purchasing their hardcover/paperback. There's something beautiful about getting to know someone and then reading their book, as opposed to reading their book then meeting them and regretting it. A few stellar novels I've read as a result of making new friends are Kellye Garrett's Hollywood Homicide, Marcus Sakey's Afterlife, and my man Shaun Harris' insanely wonderful The Hemingway Thief. Of course, my pals here at Criminal Minds have books stacked up across the bar (yes, I have a bar. Don't judge me.) I see some Susan Shea, Terry Shames, Catriona McPherson and the super-chill James W. Ziskin staring back at me as I write this.

So now that my writing life is my only life, how I come by books is beautifully organic and rather validating as a writer, because I wouldn't be in the mix to grow my collection if I wasn't right there with so many wonderful authors whose work and worldview I respect. It could mean I'm worthy to be in their company. It also means I better keep my game tight, because my peoples write some dope scribbles.


For those interested in the works to which I frequently refer, check out these titles at your local bookseller, your local library, or online where you enjoy purchasing your print and e-books. As always, thanks for your support and encouragement.

Works By Danny Gardner


1 comment:

Susan C Shea said...

You remind me I have those Paris Review Interviews somewhere around here, if not on the bar then under it. And I love seeing Octavia Butler mentioned. Always.