Thursday, January 2, 2020

2019 Highlights: Reading to Be Discomfited

A few years ago, I read about some research on the "Theory of Mind"--understanding the mental states of others--particularly the positive benefits of reading literary fiction, in comparison to reading nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all. One doesn't have to deal in psychological research to realize how such reading can increase one's ability to empathize with others, as well as to make inferences.

I have often pointed out to my students that they may have the opportunity to travel to remote parts of the world, but they can never travel far into the past or the future--except in a book.

While my own reading choices vary widely, I sometimes identify patterns. This year in particular brought me some fiction that challenged me to empathize, even when doing so felt uncomfortable. One of the powerful books I read this year was The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.  I had heard him at a reading in Nashville when Underground Railroad was first published and added that to my reading list. His latest novel The Nickel Boys follows the story of a young black man whose life takes a turn for the worst because of horrific timing and coincidence. Elwood, a high school student with a hunger to learn, had the opportunity to take college classes, but the driver with whom he hitches a ride is stopped and found to have contraband in the car. Assumed guilty as well, Elwood is taken to Nickel Academy, a segregated school for boys, where the adults in charge cruelly overstep their bounds.

Whitehead opens his story in the present after the school's closing when unmarked graves are discovered--based on the actual case of the Florida School for Boys, where just such a discovery was made in 2011. He then moves back in time to explore Elwood's story and that of some of the other boys he encounters during his time at Nickel.

I also made time to read Angie Thomas' YA novel The Hate U Give, a heartbreaking story told through the eyes of Starr Carter, a young black girl living in a poor neighborhood but attending an exclusive private school. When shots are fired at a party she's attending with her friend Kenya (with whom she shares a half brother), she takes a ride home with Khalil, a friend from childhood. When he is pulled over by a policeman, the stop goes very wrong, leaving Starr struggling to make sense of the two worlds whose line she straddles.

Thomas doesn't tie up loose ends in a pretty bow. In fact, the verdict is reminiscent of the one following the court room scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, but it results in riots that nearly destroys the neighborhood of the angry rioters. Thomas depicts her characters as many-layered. Starr's father spent time behind bars but has put gang life behind him and runs a successful local business. Her Uncle Carlos, who raised her while her father was imprisoned, is a policeman who must deal with the repercussions of antagonism toward law enforcement in general.

Right on the heels of The Hate You Give, I read Zadie Smith's most recent publication, Grand Union, a collection of short fiction. Her settings shift between Europe and the United States, and many of her characters not only deal with preconceptions based on skin color but nationality as well.

While most of us need more than two or three works of fiction to see the world through the eyes of others unlike us, reading is a good way to start walking in others' shoes.
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2 comments:

Teddy Copeland said...

Without a doubt, The Nickel Boys was my most powerful read in 2019. I couldn't shake it. I almost stopped reading the Hate U Give the previous year because of the language but I felt it was too important to put down. I loved her relationship with her family and my surprise by it revealed some of my hidden prejudice.

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