Reader’s Corner: Decolonize the Shelves

Junot Diaz (The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao) spoke to a packed crowd of booksellers and other literary business folk at this year’s Winter Institute in Memphis. The Dominican-born Diaz, whose latest book Islandborn will be out this March, talked about the importance of books to an immigrant like him:

… [arriving] in the United States completely illiterate, if it hadn’t been for the kindness of librarians,” he probably wouldn’t have found books. But he did. “Books became my shelter against the white world that sometimes felt like it was trying to destroy me.”

He stressed the need for book curators to help “decolonize the shelves”:

Bookstore owners and librarians are on the front line. It’s the smallest intervention that can sometimes create the most important, lasting change … I wrote my children’s book, Islandborn, because I believe there are things immigrants can teach that we all need to hear without which we will never understand this stolen land we inhabit.

Reader’s Corner: Vote Now

oscar-waoInstead of just announcing what the new all-city book club selection is going to be, New York took it to the people with OneBookNY. They chose five possible books and are asking people to vote on what they think everyone should read.

The five books are:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Couple interesting choices here. Coates’s book is nonfiction, departing from the usual novelistic mold, while Beatty’s (amazing) novel is set quite definitively in Los Angeles. Seems like either Diaz or Smith’s (also amazing) novels are the right choice here, but who’s to say?

Voting closes February 28.

Reader’s Corner: Obama’s Books

Something unlikely to be seen in the next four years: the President out buying books (Pete Souza)
Something unlikely to be seen in the next four years: the President out buying books (Pete Souza)

No matter what was going on in the world, President Obama always found time to read, preferably for at least an hour a night, according to Michiko Kakutani. This wasn’t just a habit that relaxed him, it also provided grist for the mill:

In today’s polarized environment, where the internet has let people increasingly retreat to their own silos (talking only to like-minded folks, who amplify their certainties and biases), the president sees novels and other art (like the musical Hamilton) as providing a kind of bridge that might span usual divides and ‘a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day.’

He points out, for instance, that the fiction of Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri speak ‘to a very particular contemporary immigration experience,’ but at the same time tell stories about ‘longing for this better place but also feeling displaced’ — a theme central to much of American literature, and not unlike books by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow that are ‘steeped with this sense of being an outsider, longing to get in, not sure what you’re giving up.’

You can get a sense of the breadth of his recent reading in his last couple of summer reading lists compiled by the White House:

  • “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan
  • “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead
  • “H Is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald
  • “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins
  • “Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson
  • “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr
  • “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow

It’s a superb mix of literary and popular fiction, along with of-the-comment commentary and even science fiction (who’d have thought the president, any president, would be reading Neal Stephenson?), the kind of list that a particularly good bookseller would have put in your hands if you told them: “What’s good now?”

So, if Obama’s looking for something to do, maybe there’s a bookstore hiring.

Reader’s Corner: National Book Awards

The finalists were announced last week for the 2012 National Book Awards. The list of fiction finalists overlooked some big-name releases this year from Michael Chabon (Telegraph Avenue) and Tom Wolfe (Back to Blood), not to mention some pulpier (but nevertheless deservedly critically beloved) books like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The list also drew attention to a couple of novels about the current wars (Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Yellow Birds), which seems appropriate as this is the first year books on that subject have finally started filtering into stores. Here are the five:

  • This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
  • A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers
  • The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
  • Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
  • The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers

It’s a strong list, overall, but the smart money has to be on Diaz to win. Not only has the wait for a new work been excruciating (his astounding novel Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao came out five years ago) but the man just won a MacArthur “genius” grant.

Winners will be announced on November 14, 2012.