Book review: The Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing edited by Marita Golden

Posted April 15, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 0 Comments

Book review:  The Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing edited by Marita GoldenThe Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing by Marita Golden
Published by Broadway on January 2011
Genres: Nonfiction, Essays
Format: Paperback
Pages: 224
Source: my shelves

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This is a book about stories.  An extended meditation in a choir of voices, all remembering and recounting how stories defined and made possible creativity, community, and a meaningful life.  Reading and writing are the twin pillars of modern civilization, endeavors that exist as a kind of oxygen necessary for the transformation of both individuals and societies.  Global in their potential impact, reading and writing are, however, among the most intimate, even secretive, acts we can perform.

So begins The Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing, edited by Marita Golden.  Golden is an award-winning author of numerous fiction and nonfiction works, and is the cofounder and president emeritus of the Hurston/Wright Foundation.  This book is a collection of interviews she did with thirteen Black writers who hail from all walks of life:  they are poets, authors, journalists, playwrights and historians; American, Haitian and African.  But they all have one thing in common:  reading and writing transformed their lives and helped them grow to be the people they are today.  Included in The Word are interviews with Ellis Cose, Faith Adiele, Edward P. Jones, Edwidge Danticat, Pearl Cleage, David Levering Lewis, Nathan McCall, Mat Johnson, John Hope Franklin, J. California Cooper, Chimamanda N. Adichie, Wil Haygood and Nikki Giovanni.

Golden had a purpose for speaking with these fine writers.  She explains:

We are in the midst of a national conversation that is often wrenching, full of indictment and hand wringing about the diminishing role of both reading and writing in our lives.  Government studies, a whole new genre of books dedicated to the topic, articles in the mainstream press, and scholarly journals, blogs, and chat rooms all bemoan the decline in the reading and writing skills of young people and the assault on the habit of reading by new media, as well as the growing indifference to serious literature, and the decline of the bookstore as a cultural space of singular significance.

As this conversation has grown louder and more insistent, I have yearned to hear the voices of African-American writers as part of this dialogue.  That is one reason I wanted to compile these interviews.  This book is also inspired by my desire as the author of more than a dozen books to talk to other writers about the texts that made them lifelong readers, changed their ideas about the world, and made them want to be writers.

…In the face of a national dropout rate of 60 percent among African-American high school students, African-American youth need to know, now more than ever, that just as their ancestors died for the right to vote, they sometimes died for the right to read.

Golden goes on to tell her story about the importance of reading and writing in her life from the time of her childhood, then goes on to have each of the writers she interviews tell theirs.

This is a fantastic book.  Marita Golden asked great questions, not only about reading and writing, but also about the state of education in our country and the recent decline in reading for pleasure.  All of the writers she interviewed have inspirational stories to tell; inspirational not only for young people, but for adults, too.  They all describe how picking up that first book changed their lives and how, by writing, they are giving back and hope that others can share that same experience.  I really enjoyed reading about their histories, what inspired them to start reading, what their favorite books are, which books they would recommend to others, and how each of them approaches their own writing.  To be honest, I had never heard of many of these writers—or some of the books they recommend—so I also discovered many new books that I’d like to read.  Even though each of their stories is unique, they all had a common message:  reading is very important.  Reading is fundamental.  You cannot really learn without reading.  Reading helps us understand the world and the people around us.  It helps us learn empathy.  Reading promotes independent and critical thinking.  It empowers us.  I could go on and on.  I love what J. California Cooper says about reading:

“…a book is a mind, it’s somebody’s brain you’re meeting.  The author of the book is preparing you for life.  A book is a world, a book is a friend, that’s why people love books.  A book is a marvelous thing.  It’s a person between covers.”

I would definitely recommend this book to readers and writers alike, both young and adult.  My ten-year-old daughter is already looking forward to reading it and has been begging me to finish this review so she can get started.  This would also be a good book for educators to read and share with their classes.  And if I could convince non-readers out there to read only one book, I think it would be this one.  I think that it could be a good step to convincing those people who don’t read for enjoyment what they’re missing out on.