Eddie Glaude Jr. on Favorite Books—and He Wants President Biden to Read “No Name in the Street”

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “Eddie Glaude Jr., an Expert on James Baldwin, Reveals His Favorite Baldwin Book”:

Glaude, the author of “Begin Again,” says that “No Name in the Street” (1972) “tries to offer an account of what happened between Little Rock, Dr. King’s assassination and the emergence of Black Power. Trauma and wound saturate his sentences, and his memory fails him in places. It is a masterpiece at the level of form and substance.”

What books are on your night stand?

I tend to read several books at once (returning to one or the other depending on my mood). So right now I have Octavia Butler’s “Patternmaster,” W. Ralph Eubanks, “A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape,” Sarah Bakewell, “How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer” and Edwidge Danticat, “The Farming of Bones.”

What’s the last great book you read?

Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” I keep returning to this book. It is a novel that feels completely of our time and, without strain or pretense, carries forward the power of our literary tradition. I am attracted to the economy of her prose — words never get in the way of the intensity of the emotion. When she writes about home (we are both from the Mississippi Gulf Coast) I feel it in my gut….

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

Last summer, I found myself reading Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure.” Right before the country shut down, I joined this amazing reading group with some of my closest friends, and we started with this novel. I can’t seem to let go of the character, Arabella Donn. I also read Jan Carew’s “Black Midas.” I love the rhythm of his sentences. And I love seeing these two books as part of one answer….

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

I am sure people have heard of the book, but I would have to say Jose Saramago’s “Seeing.” It is this jaw-dropping allegory about how quickly democracies can turn into something much more sinister — especially when ordinary people dare to make their positions known. Margaret Jull Costa’s translation is exquisite.

In “Begin Again,” you revisit James Baldwin’s work through the lens of today’s racial injustice. What Baldwin books would you recommend to a beginner?

If you are interested in his nonfiction writings, I would urge you to pick up his “Collected Essays,” edited by Toni Morrison, or “The Price of the Ticket.”…

Do you have a personal favorite among Baldwin’s books?

“No Name in the Street” is my favorite. Baldwin referred to the book as “mighty.” Published in 1972, he tries to offer an account of what happened between Little Rock, Dr. King’s assassination and the emergence of Black Power. Trauma and wound saturate his sentences, and his memory fails him in places. It is a masterpiece at the level of form and substance….

Your academic specialty is the intersection of race and religion. Who writes especially well on that subject today, and what’s your favorite book to assign to and discuss with your students at Princeton?

There are some brilliant scholars of race and religion in the country. Many of them were on full display in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS special on the Black church. My colleagues, Judith Weisenfeld and Wallace Best, come to mind. Lerone Martin, Josef Sorett, Anthea Butler, William Hart, Mayra Rivera, Monica Coleman and Keri Day also stand out. I am really excited that the dissertation of the legendary scholar, Hortense Spillers, will be published by Duke University Press. “Fabrics of History: Essays on the Black Sermon” will have an immediate impact on the field.

To be honest, my favorite book to assign, besides “The Fire Next Time,” is Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved.” I have been teaching both books for over 20 years….

What book would you add to the canon, and which would you remove?

Given my love of “No Name in the Street,” I would add it to the canon. The book I would remove would probably be “The Ambassadors,” by Henry James. I know how important the book is to Baldwin, but James defeats me every time I crack open his work. I prefer his brother, William. His sentences dance. Henry’s, not so much.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

I should have known this, but I didn’t. In W. Ralph Eubanks’s wonderful book “A Place Like Mississippi,” he mentions Gilbert Mason, a local physician in Biloxi who led a series of “wade-ins” at Biloxi beaches. On April 24, 1960, “hundreds of peaceful Black protesters were beaten by a mob of whites carrying pool cues, clubs, chains, blackjacks, lead pipes and baseball bats.”…

What moves you most in a work of literature?

I am moved whenever a writer taps the root and reveals something fundamental about what it means to be human, and she does so with beautiful sentences. I love sentences that cast you into deep waters. I remember reading a long, meandering Faulkner sentence in “As I Lay Dying” on a flight to South Africa. I paced up and down an airplane. Or, I read an Edwidge Danticat sentence in “Breath, Eyes, Memory” that carried so much emotion, with so few words, that I screamed an obscenity….

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

Probably Samuel Beckett or T. S. Eliot. People might be shocked to see Borges too.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

A first-edition signed copy of James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Now I am obsessed with finding signed first editions of all of his work.

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?

I have never thought about her as a heroine, but Baby Suggs in “Beloved” stands out among my favorites. She offers the wisdom that empowers Denver to step into the world: “Know it, but go on out the yard.” I live by those words.

My favorite antihero is Bazarov in Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons.” Quintessentially modern character with an abiding faith in science, but love tore him up in the end.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I grew up in a working-class household on the coast of Mississippi. Outside of school, books were not a part of my daily life. My dad read the newspaper every day. But, for the most part, my parents were busy trying to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. Playing Dungeons & Dragons introduced me to fantasy and science fiction literature. I was more interested in the world of elves and dragons. I loved J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” And I loved Terry Brooks’s “The Sword of Shannara.” I could have burned down the house reading the book by candlelight underneath my bed….

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

A one-book syllabus?! Well, given the racial reckoning we face now, I would hand him “No Name in the Street” and beg him to learn the lesson of that betrayal.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

James Baldwin, W. E. B. Du Bois and Toni Morrison. And I would pray that they all behaved.

What do you plan to read next?

Well, I have to finish Anna Burns’s “Milkman.” Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” is the next book for my reading group. I also have to dive into Ella Baker’s papers at the Schomburg and return to John Dewey’s “Individualism Old and New.” I love that all of these books/papers are part of the same answer too.

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