Lately I’ve been hearing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ name everywhere. It started when his book, Between the World and Me, blew up after it was published in 2015. Everybody had an opinion about it, and most of them were good. Every bookish person I know, bloggers, podcasters, and…what do you call those things again? The ones who you eat burritos with sometimes, and every now and again when you’re quietly reading a book somewhere, they’re also reading a book quietly nearby? Also the name of a sitcom from the nineties that was funny when you were a kid, but now when you go back and watch it it’s reaaaaaally homophobic and of its time…nope, can’t think of it. I’m sure it’ll come to me eventually. Anywho! Every bookish person I know was gushing (what a gross word) about this guy and how important his book is, and more importantly, how good it is. And I see it everywhere. New copies of it are still on the front display shelf of my favourite book store, two years later. That’s gotta mean something.
But because I’m the type of person that I am, and because I buy books as often as most people buy food, I’ve been waiting to find it used and marked down a little in price. The math isn’t hard. I buy cheaper, used books, I get more books. The more books I get, the happier I am. Simple. But try as I might (and trust me, I’ve been looking) Between the World and Me is nowhere to be found. It’s been two years now and I haven’t come across it once. For a book that’s sold as much as this one has, that’s bananas. That means that almost everybody that bought it (at least where I live) got enough out of it, connected with it enough, to want to keep it. That’s incredible. (Either that or they all hated it enough to want to watch it burn themselves. I can’t say for sure which one, but I think the former is a pretty safe bet).
So when I came across this memoir in the used section, I snatched it up. I couldn’t wait. Finally, something of his that I could buy with a clean conscience. After two years of waiting I’d get to see what the hype was about.
And honestly? It didn’t disappoint. I had crazy high expectations for this (see above overly long intro) and I still finished off liking it more than I thought I would. This dude has a hypnotic rhythm to his writing, a lyrical, melodic style that carries you through so quickly that every time I ran up against the end of the chapter I was surprised. He’s a beautiful writer, with a voice all his own. The subject matter was fascinating (coming of age stories always get me, especially when they give insight to a lifestyle and culture that differs this much from the one that I was raised in), but even if it had been about different species of potatoes I still would have stuck with it for the writing alone.
If there was one thing that caught me up while reading this, popped me out of the story every now and again, it was that this book is so specifically set, so deep into the culture and the time that he’s writing about, that I missed a lot of the references. We grew up in different decades, different cultures, across a whole continent from one another. That’s a lot of space, a lot of distance. I’m not complaining, a window into a different life is the whole reason I read memoirs, I just thought I’d give you a wee heads up so you’d expect it. Unless you’re really attuned to the language and pop-culture of the eighties in Baltimore, you’re probably gonna have a time or two where you’re left scratching your head. Which is fine, it’s part of what reading is about. And hey, maybe you’ll learn a thing or two. Reading! Hurray!
So I think I get it now, why all those people kept their books. I’ve read a decent amount of memoirs in my time, but this one left a deeper impression than most. It’s pretty fresh on the mind, but I’m willing to bet that in the next few weeks and months it’ll still be rattling around in there, calling my attention. Or maybe not, it’s hard to know which books will still have an impact on you months or years from now. Either way, I bought a full-price copy of Between the World and Me yesterday, and I don’t feel bad about it at all.
For people who like coming of age stories, people who are interested in Baltimore in the eighties, a window into the lives of people living among the crack boom and uncertainty and violence of that decade, or people that just like to read interesting stories, written beautifully. If you haven’t read anything by this guy, you should really get out there and pick something up.
PS. His run on Black Panther is really dope. People have been having mixed reactions to it, calling it boring or whatever, but I think most of them just need to relax a little. It’s only two trade paperbacks in at the moment and it’s a bit of a slow burn. I have faith in this guy, and so should you. Just give it a little more time to bloom before you abandon it.