The Pacific Northwest likes to read, and what better way to get book suggestions than to ask around? In this monthly feature, we ask prominent Northwest residents what books they’re reading, rereading and recommending — and why.
What book are you reading now?
“The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin. Consisting of two letters, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and “Down At The Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin’s epistolary book is one I read over again. Baldwin passed a year before I was born. It would be 20 years before I would come to his books. They affected me, along with my peers, through their powerful instruction on writing, race and life. What poet or writer hasn’t been struck by Baldwin’s works? His notion of cosmic vengeance dwells in my mind. Baldwin describes “…a cosmic vengeance, based on the law that we recognize when we say, ‘Whatever goes up must come down.’ […] Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.” By this, he speaks to the consciousness of people — how we must dare to create and love and insist, or else. The book is titled after the prophecy of the Bible in song: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
What book have you reread the most?
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou. Every year, I find a new passage that lights me up. Here’s one I followed and recalled when writing my own memoir: “As I ate [Mrs. Flowers] began the first of what we later called ‘my lessons in living.’ She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations.” What I learned from Angelou is how to learn through wisdom and notice it in others. To understand the limits of my own education and the farther reach of mother wit.
What book do you recommend other people read and why?
“The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni” by Nikki Giovanni. My hard copy of “The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni,” with its thick paper and soft-frayed edges, was a gift to me before I moved to New York City to pursue a life of poetry. Ten years later, as I revisit the book in Seattle, Giovanni’s poetry is still a reminder of what poetry can do. Where history might have failed us, poetry succeeds. Poetry refuses erasure and gets to the truth — with teeth. The foreword by Virginia C. Fowler begins: “‘We cannot possibly leave it to history as a discipline,’ Nikki Giovanni writes in an essay, ‘nor to sociology nor science nor economics to tell the story of our people.’ Instead, she continues, that the story must be told by writers. To read through this volume of Giovanni’s poetry is indeed to read ‘the story’ of the last twenty-five years of American life […].” These pages urge us to reflect on how far we have come and where we must go.