On Zora and What it Means to Read

People seldom see themselves changing. It is like going out in the morning, or in the springtime to pick flowers. You pick and you wander till suddenly you find that the light is gone and the flowers are withered in your hand. Then, you say that you must turn back home. But you have wandered into a place and the gates are closed. There is not more sharp sunlight. Gray meadows are all about you where blooms only asphodel. You look back… to where the sun still shines on the flowered fields with nostalgic longing… one is surprised by the passage of time and the distance traveled, but one may not go back. – Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road

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I’ve been in the habit of carrying a book around with me for about a year. I started with just bringing one to work with me, which became increasingly important as my charge grew older and turned to me less and less for her entertainment and snack-making. But gradually I made sure I had a book on me at all times, because the more I read, the more reading feels essential. I had that same craving for books as a kid, when I revered them like sacred treasures. I regularly and happily spent entire Saturdays lost in a book, and longed for the rainy summer days when my mom, needing to get us out of the house, would take us to a bookstore or library. The advents first of the internet and then adulthood conspired to siphon my reading enthusiasm away over time, until it felt more like a chore than a pleasure, despite my nostalgia for the book-filled days of my childhood. To be honest, it still isn’t as easy for me to sink into a book as it used to be, despite seriously upping my reading game this year (and enjoying it a lot). I don’t often fall into books so seamlessly as soon as I crack them open. Each time I sit down to read, it takes time and several re-readings of the same couple of pages for me to remember how to focus on what I’m reading. The buzzing in my head (what else do I have to do today? What time is it? Let’s go over my work/workout/social schedule for the week for the millionth time. I kind of want to post something on Instagram. I’m hungry. I’m tired. Do I need groceries? What’s the date, have I paid my bills? And so forth) is incessant, and the more time I’ve been on my phone before reading, the harder it is to settle.

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But the internet has its value, and some of it is reading-specific. Goodreads has become an increasingly useful tool for me to keep track of books I’ve read and want to read, and its prompt to write a review when I’ve marked a book as ‘Finished’ helps me quickly synthesize initial thoughts and articulate something I got out of reading it. This, in turn, helps me not only with developing my approach to reading and my analytical mind, but with my writing and writing classes that require both giving and receiving workshop feedback. Booktube, even though (like all of YouTube) it has its rabbit-hole dangers and can easily suck my time away from actually reading into listening to other people talk about what they’re reading, is also a great place to get recommendations and connect with other book-lovers. (See the end of this post for links to some of my favorites!) Same goes for Bookstagram and Twitter. Not to mention, all of these places have educated me about the plethora of publishers – whether it’s the billion imprints of the Big 5 or small independent presses (again, see end of post for faves!) – that actually put books into the world. Connecting with the online book community, both readers and publishers, has been a boon for my reading motivation (and has gotten me several ARCs, which is endlessly exciting to me).

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I carried Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, through Copenhagen and Paris, and also through several airports and over international borders. I carried it with me to exactly six different bookstores, two in Copenhagen and the rest in Paris, where I went to compete in the Gay Games but used nearly all of my downtime to go on a literary pilgrimage. I won’t say how many books I bought across the six stores, but I will make the weak excuse that all of them are short paperbacks. (Ok, fine, here’s a picture, they all seemed vital to own for different reasons, don’t judge me please).

Shakespeare and Company  by Sylvia Beach,  The Terrible  by Yrsa Daley-Ward,  La Bastarda  by Trifonia Melibea Obono,  Man Alive  by  Thomas Page McBee ,  Mirror, Shoulder, Signal  by Dorthe Nors translated by Misha Hoekstra,  The Waves  by  Virginia Woolf ,  Disoriental  by Négar Djavadi, and of course  Giovanni's Room  by James Baldwin.

Shakespeare and Company by Sylvia Beach, The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward, La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors translated by Misha Hoekstra, The Waves by Virginia Woolf, Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, and of course Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin.

All this is to say, while I may not always read as smoothly and immersively as I did when I was a kid, I’m psyched about books in a way I never was. And that feels like a good thing. So despite having passed through some gates like Zora’s, and looking back with nostalgia on some parts of the past and the way I used to be, not all the flowers in my hands are wilted. There are new ones sprouting up around me. I don’t think that Zora’s metaphor excludes the possibility of the changed person’s hopeful future. In fact, she writes that “God pointed men’s toes in one direction” - that is, forward. Nostalgia for a more innocent or seemingly beautiful time can make the present feel gray, but there will be new gates and new discoveries.

Zora’s golden paperback was in my bag on my bookstore travels: as my heart sang with the wonderfully curated sparse shelves of ark books and Thiemers Magasin in Copenhagen; as I giddily browsed the mecca that is Shakespeare and Company and the English language shelf at Les Mots á la Bouche, the queer bookstore in Paris; ran my fingers along the mostly white spines of the French-only books at Collette’s Notebooks; ogled the giant chandelier-lit shelves of Merci Used Book Café. In between, she came into my hands over lattes and on park benches and under the gift that was the AC in my Airbnb, bringing me on a different trip – across the landscape of her mind. Which, by the way, is a truly fascinating place.

I was going to write a full review of this book, but I’m going to include some of my favorite quotes to speak for themselves. I’ll just say that Zora remains a writing hero of mine because of her endless curiosity and ceaseless questioning, which she deftly crafts into stories that often have an element of the surreal or magical. With Dust Tracks on a Road, I was never quite sure how true a lot of the stories were, but that’s not quite the point. One of the only real truths about creative nonfiction is that no matter how “true” it is, it will always be subjective. Memory is the most fallible thing on this planet. And sometimes (or often?), Truth in the factual sense isn’t really the goal, but rather a personal truth. Zora was an anthropologist and ethnographer, and it seems clear that she knew the tricky nuances of human “truth.” The way I see it, she was careful and methodical about her work, but she was there for the story. She says it herself when she writes, “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” I’m here for Zora’s story, - for her writing in all of its meandering and musing, its sharp points and careful sentences. Zora never went to Paris like so many of her literary compatriots (including her friend James Baldwin), but I was glad to have her with me there.

The other books I’ve read this month are rounded up at the bottom of this post.

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Quotes from Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography by Zora Neale Hurston

I did not know then, as I know now, that people are prone to build a statue of the kind of person that it pleases them to be. And few people want to be forced to ask themselves, ‘What if there is no me like my statue?’ The thing to do is to grab the broom of anger and drive off the beast of fear.
[After experiencing troubling visions of her future] True, I played, fought at studied with the other children, but always I stood apart within. Often I was in some lonesome wilderness, suffering strange things and agonies while other children in the same yard played without a care. I asked myself why me? Why? Why? A cosmic loneliness was my shadow. Nothing and nobody around me really touched me. It is one of the blessings of this world that few people see visions and dream dreams.
There is something about poverty that smells like death. Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air if underground caves. The soul lives in a sickly air. People can be slave-ships in shoes.
I maintain that I have been a Negro three times – a Negro baby, a Negro girl and a Negro woman… if you have received no clear-cut impression of what the Negro in America is like, then you are in the same place with me. There is no The Negro here… there is no possible classification so catholic that it will cover us all, except My People! My People!
The unreachable and therefore the unknowable always seem divine – hence, religion. People need religion because the great masses fear life and its consequences… feeling a weakness in the face of great forces, men seek an alliance with omnipotence to bolster up their feeling of weakness, even though the omnipotence they rely upon is a creature of their own minds.
I too yearn for universal justice, but how to bring it about is another thing. It is such a complicated thing, for justice, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. There is universal agreement on the principle, but the application brings on the fight… Being an idealist, I too wish that the world was better than I am. Like all the rest of my fellow men, I don’t want to live around people with no more principles than I have. My inner fineness is continually outraged at finding that the world is a whole family of Hurstons.
I want a busy mind, a just mind and a timely death.
When I get old, and my joints and bones tell me about it, I can sit around and write for myself, if for nobody else, and read slowly and carefully… All the while my days can be a succession of coffee cups. Then when the sleeplessness of old age attacks me, I can have a likker bottle snug in my pantry and sip away and sleep. Get mellow and think kindly of the world. I can be like that because I have known joy and pain and deep friendship… I have made some good enemies for which I am not a bit sorry. I have loved unselfishly, and I have fondled hatred with the red-hot tongs of Hell. That’s living.

Other August Books!

I reviewed Thomas Page McBee’s Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man over on the Bonus Book Reviews page and it’s one of the best things I’ve read this year so check out the review and get yourself a copy. Like, please buy this one if you can.

Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown: Listened to this one on audio and felt pretty meh about it! Review from my Goodreads:

Maybe I'm not in the right headspace to receive self-help advice, but I found this book to be kind of meh. I appreciate Brown's points on the importance of listening, being brave enough to be vulnerable, not letting anger and categorization rule one's life, but this is pretty standard self-help fare, and none of it felt new or revolutionary.

Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature by Isabel Waidner (ed.): Review forthcoming on Necessary Fiction, will link it here when it’s live! Suffice it to say I had mixed feelings.

Links to favorite small/independent presses:

Feminist Press

Counterpoint Press/Soft Skull Press

Europa Editions

Goose Lane Editions

Coach House Books

Finishing Line Press

Gertrude Press

Milkweed Editions

Links to favorite booktubers:

Russell from Ink and Paper Blog- just love him! 

Kendra Winchester of Reading Women- Kendra covers so much! She reads like a fiend and has so many rec's

Dominique from Storyscape - possibly the best booktube videos ever made? 

Nicole from WoolfsWhistle - awesome content focusing on queer/wlw lit, plus Nicole is super funny and has a very soothing voice

Olive from A Book Olive - also a reading fiend with great insight and a lot of good nonfictions rec's 

Ariel Bissett- her enthusiasm is contagious!

Big Al Books - also enthusiastic, with a lot of focus on the literature of First Nations peoples

Danika at The Lesbrary - basically the perfect content niche for me, plus Danika is a great reviewer with a lot of contextual insight too

Diana in Colour - shoutout to the recently completed POC-a-thon she co-created, with tons of amazing rec's

ONYX Pages - a queer Black woman reading mainly Afrofuturist books - aka fab content

Rachel Rae - more great content and super engaging host

Rincey from Rincey Reads - the first booktuber I watched regularly, her love of literature across genres and her insight is awesome

Meonicorn from The Bookish Land - more insightful reviews and a focus on Chinese women writers

That's it for this month, please enjoy this link-heavy post and let me know who/what your reading inspirations are! I am also a Book Depository affiliate; if you decide to purchase any of the books I review via the links provided, I will receive a (very small) commission.