The delicate task of book selection
Published: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 3:10 a.m.
One of our readers asked me, "How do you choose the books for this column?"
Here's the recipe: Post-it notes listing the titles that the New York Times chooses as the best books of the year, plus titles of the paperbacks found in airport waiting rooms, along with novels kids read under the covers by flashlight.
Put it all in an empty oil drum. Roll it down a hill. The first titles to fall out get read here.
But seriously, here are the criteria:
These also give us an opportunity to study the artistic craft of American writers.
Simply, we have to keep a conversation going with our next generation, or we'll be left in the dust.
Besides, I love listening to kids. And they need to be heard here talking about what they read.
The problem is, there are so many great novels to choose from, we could fill the oil drum.
And the books our readers recommend are always in the mix.
But the two novels with which we are starting off the year fit into all these criteria. Furthermore, they are bona fide railway tickets to places we have never been.
In fact, "The Known World" strikes me as so pertinent to understanding the history of America that it feels like holding a magnifying glass on the 18th century until the view blurs and has to be refocused.
Slaves owning slaves - what more can get to the absolute entrails of what slavery does to the human mind, and in particular to human relationships?
I am particularly fascinated by how Edward Jones creates an atmosphere in which we feel the environment of our nation 300 years ago.
Jones begins reverberating the title on the second page by describing the slave Moses reaching down to eat a handful of soil: "He ate it not only to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the field, but because the eating of it tied him to the only thing in his small world that meant almost as much as his own life."
The first character to lead us through the story is this slave, Moses, who is bought from a white man by a former slave, Henry Townsend, for $325.
Look how skillfully Jones builds his theme of studying the relationship of environment to behavior when he gives us Moses's viewpoint: "(He) had thought it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind.
Was God even up there attending to business anymore?"
Yet, Elias, another slave, owned by Henry Townsend, reacts this way: "(He) had never believed in a sane God and so had never questioned a world where colored people could be the owners of slaves."
Slowly, masterfully, Jones builds toward taking us to a full realization of the title, "The Known World," and what it represents.
I noted on page 174 that Jones creates a scene to reveal the source of the title.
Next week, we'll discuss this scene and also begin counting the way in which Jones plays with time.
Middle schoolers, start sending in your thoughts on "Fever 1793." Reading the opening pages, I've never felt so well.
The sniffles are nothing compared to what poor Matilda undergoes in her hometown of Philadelphia. I'll never think about that city in the same way again.
Don't put it off. Join our novel conversation.
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