Ta-Nehisi Coates: “Is there a spine to this book, is it a real thing?”

Ta-Nehisi Coates.

From an Inside the List column by Elizabeth Egan in the New York Times Book Review with author Ta-Nehisi Coates:

CENTURY CLUB A book that stays on the best-seller list for 100 weeks is as deserving of respect and admiration as a human being who makes it to triple digits. On the current hardcover fiction and nonfiction lists, only two titles have reached this impressive milestone — “Where the Crawdads Sing,” by Delia Owens (104 weeks), and “Educated,” by Tara Westover (132 weeks).

Now we welcome a new book to the crew: “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It came out in 2015, but the subject is as relevant today as it was then.

“‘Between the World and Me’ is a searing meditation on what it means to be Black in America today,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in The Times. “It takes the form of a letter from Mr. Coates to his 14-year-old son, Samori, and speaks of the perils of living in a country where unarmed Black men and boys — Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter L. Scott, Freddie Gray — are dying at the hands of police officers, an America where just last month nine Black worshipers were shot and killed in a Charleston, S.C., church by a young white man with apparent links to white supremacist groups online.”

Samori is now an adult, so of course father-son conversations have evolved over the years. Coates says, “His mind has matured and he’s reading more and seeing more.”

Has this now-veteran best-selling author grown accustomed to the success of “Between the World and Me”? “Hell no,” Coates says, laughing. “I think of my books the same way people think about their kids. When you have a 20-year-old, the kid goes out into the world and people tell you how nice — in my case — a young man you raised. How confident and strong and beautiful and kind and intelligent. All the great things they do. And it’s surreal to hear because when you see the kid, all you see is the work you put in, all the struggle and all the fight to get the kid where you wanted the kid to be. When I see ‘Between the World and Me,’ I see the four times I rewrote it. I see the memories of, ‘does this actually amount to a book?’ All these words you put on a page, is this actually a book? Is there a spine to it, is it a real thing? It is amazing to me that this has gone as far as it did. It feels surreal.”

He adds, “Maybe there are writers somewhere who feel like they have a formula for getting masses of people to want to hear what they have to say. I am not that writer.”

Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”

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