AJC Bookshelf: 2 hefty books for a cold winter’s night

Courtesy of Penguin Random House / Westminster John Knox Press
Courtesy of Penguin Random House / Westminster John Knox Press

Credit: Suzanne Van Atten

Credit: Suzanne Van Atten

Just as the bright sunny days of summer prompt readers to clamor for lighthearted beach reads, the chilly months of winter encourage the consumption of books on weightier topics, and the publishing industry is happy to oblige with several provocative new titles.

There’s no better time than a cold winter’s night to curl up with “The Glorious American Essay” (Penguin Random House, $40), a 900-page collection of essays spanning from the Colonial days to the present. Edited by Phillip Lopate, a celebrated essayist and professor of writing at Columbia University, he also wrote the introduction.

Many of the essays address American values or what it means to be an American, and they’re penned by writers from various disciplines, ranging from science and theology to food and art. Among the featured writers are Thomas Paine, Edgar Allan Poe, W.E.B. DuBois, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, M.F.K. Fisher, David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith.

The beauty of this collection is that you can easily dip in and out, picking and choosing your topics and authors on a whim. Because of the offensiveness of its title, my first glance was drawn to Benjamin Franklin’s “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America,” written in 1784. Franklin uses the offending word ironically, of course, because the essay respectfully parses the cultural differences between Native Americans and those of European descent. After illustrating his point with several memorable anecdotes, he implores his readers to not simply tolerate indigenous peoples but to recognize that, in many cases, their ways are superior.

“Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs,” he writes.

That our earliest fellow countrymen and women didn’t heed the wisdom of this essay ― penned 46 years before the Trail of Tears ― is one of our country’s greatest tragedies.

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston

Another highlight is Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 piece, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” In her singular, signature style, she combines blunt wisdom with wit to create a piece that is as insightful as it is entertaining.

“I remember the very day I became colored,” she writes. It happened when she moved from her “little Negro town” of Eatonville, Florida, to Jacksonville at age 13. Hurston recounts moments in her life when she was most keenly aware of her race. In a particularly rhapsodic passage, she recalls a visit to a jazz club with a white male friend. The music transports Hurston: “It constricts the thorax and splits the heart with its tempo and narcotic harmonies.” When the piece is over, she is stunned to see her companion is unmoved.

“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry,” Hurston observes. “It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company! It’s beyond me.”

In a more contemporary essay, Nancy Mairs defends her choice of words in “On Being a Cripple,” penned in 1986. Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in her late 20s, Mairs forged new territory writing about disability with unblinking honesty and without sentiment. “People ― crippled or not ― wince at the word ‘cripple’ … Perhaps I want them to wince. I want them to see me as a tough customer … As a cripple, I swagger.”

“The Glorious American Essay” contains 100 entries, but anyone familiar with the form can easily identify scores of important essays missing from the volume. No worries; this is just the first of three volumes. In the works is a volume of post-war essays and one of 21st-century essays.

Far slimmer at 235 pages, but just as deep a read, is “Always a Guest” by Barbara Brown Taylor (Westminster John Knox Press, $25). A prolific writer, theologian and Episcopal priest, the North Georgia resident defines herself as a “spiritual contrarian.” Her new book is mostly a collection of sermons and speeches delivered as a guest speaker ― hence the title ― to churches and seminaries.

While everything she writes is firmly grounded in Christianity, Taylor often transcends any one religion with her lessons on navigating the modern world.

In “How to Live with High Anxiety,” she compares living through tumultuous times to a bumpy flight on an airplane.

“There’s nothing like some big-time turbulence to teach you how to pray,” she writes. “You can learn about what really matters to you in a moment like that, which has nothing to do with losing your luggage or making it to your next meeting on time.”

Whether it’s induced by the weather, politics or a medical crisis, times of extreme distress and upheaval are part of the natural order of things. The only constant is God, she says, and “God means to redeem the world, which is going to require some major teardowns before the global renewal project can go forward.”

Barbara Brown Taylor
Barbara Brown Taylor

Taylor floats a similar idea in “Paralyzed by Polarization,” in which she admits engaging in a fiery argument with a relative over political differences that left her regretting her actions. It wasn’t their disagreement that confounded her; it was her inability to engage about it respectfully.

It dawned on her that as long as there are people in the world, there will be conflict. She stresses the importance of building “more productive conflicted communities that hold people together with higher ethical standards for engagement.”

Says Taylor, “Unity is about more than agreeing with each other, and reconciliation has more to do with staying in the room than winning.”

Written in 2018, her observations couldn’t be more relevant today.

* * *

Did a Georgia author write one of your favorite books in 2020? The 2021 Georgia Author of the Year Awards is taking nominations through Jan. 31. Books must be published during 2020 to qualify. Self-published books do not qualify, but electronically published books are acceptable. Go to www.georgiawriters.org for details. Presented by the Georgia Writers Association, award winners will be announced in June.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to the AJC. svanatten@ajc.com

In Other News