Coates, Doctorow, and Bits of String

As a reader, there is little more satisfying than following the thread. I read James Fallows in The Atlantic for a while. One day he mentioned his colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates in a blog post. Coates had just put out his soon-to-be National Book Award laureate Between the World and Me, so I ordered it and started reading his Atlantic columns in the meantime. I fell in love with his writing.

He writes often about James Baldwin, the blurbs on the dust jacket of his memoir compared him to the great essayist, and my dad visited me in the city one day after having had a conversation about Coates’s book. I met him on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg by the L-train. He hopped off, hugged me, and rummaged about in a bright yellow Strand shopping bag for a thin copy of The Fire Next Time. I read it, bought an anthology of Baldwin’s collected essays, and proceeded to devour most of them in the next year. From Baldwin came the knowledge that Martin Luther King Jr wrote extensively about the radical politics of his time (the fact of which, if I were a cynic, I would think intentionally left out of history classrooms to preserve a certain palatable view of the man).

Coates later mentioned Joan Didion in a column about how his own work is often criticized for its melancholy:

“There’s a beautiful symmetry between her stripped-down aesthetic and her exacting view of politics. Didion has no time for piety. Perhaps people think of her as kind of a downer. But that strikes me as a little silly—like going to a steakhouse and complaining about the falafel.”

That someone as powerfully florid as Coates would marvel over Didion’s “sparse, clean sentences” drove me to order a used copy of Slouching Toward Bethlehem. I fell in love with her on the Manhattan Bridge one morning in the pages of “On Keeping a Notebook” (still probably my favorite essay of all time). Today I’ve read her nine-hundred-page collected essays, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, almost in its entirety. Coates dictated endless pages of Civil War and Reconstruction history too: Eric Foner, James McPherson, the blog of Kevin Levin. From Levin spilled still more: Egerton, Baptist, and others along with his own scholarship.

In a very real way, I can trace the writing and reading I do now – far more than I did in the years leading up to and immediately following my move to New York – directly back to Coates’s voracious appetite for ideas and his willingness to share his interests publicly. Even with such a grand estimation of his impact, finding new threads to follow never fails to thrill. Even today, several years later, there are new avenues to follow. E.L. Doctorow is the most recent.

Extraordinary literary minds draw comparisons between Coates and Baldwin and Coates writes about his predecessor at length. Doctorow is more of an interloper. Coates writes of his work with enormous admiration, but he pops up only occasionally. Still, I found a book of Doctorow’s essays for The Nation in the basement of the Strand a few weeks ago and it’s an absolute joy. Doctorow writes beautifully about both politics and the creative process; perhaps at his most poignant when discussing the effect of the former on the latter. Of the stifling paranoia of nuclear tension and Cold War politics, Doctorow writes:

“There is a loss of consequence, and the very assumption that makes fiction possible, the moral immensity of the single soul, is under derisive question because of the Bomb.”

Of the impact of that state paranoia on language and the power of writers to push back against it, he writes:

“The writers are the memory of the nations that once were, and therefore a threat to the states that pretend they still are.”

It’s true that Coates writes more than most about his own reading, but he’s also been churning out words for barely decade. Following the bits of his mind’s string has occupied me for years on its own terms, never mind that the task both remains woefully incomplete and is expanding ever further beyond my current mark. That I’ve barely scratched the surface of Orwell’s thousand pages of criticism – of poetry, pulp fiction, literature, and political fare – or Didion’s enormous five-decade reservoir better illustrates the self-replicating nature of the written word.

Reading produces knowledge only coupled with an ever-widening sense of that which I don’t yet know. It imparts simultaneously the joyous weightlessness of swimming and the anxiety of an impending wave and salt water in one’s nose. Stumbling into a Doctorow is like being lifted on the crest of the wave: arms extended and torso flexed like an arrow, shot forward in a rush of weight and force that would pound the beach smooth, momentarily unconcerned with the how far I am from shore. It’s the thrill of moving, divorced from concern with the destination.

Writing, LanguagePeter Amosreview