On Tuesday, I listed my top five posts from 2015. Today, I want to take the opportunity to share with you the to five books I read/reread this previous year. Again, this list is in no particular order. As with most lists, this one was hard to compile, especially considering all of the books I read this year from Frank Yerby’s Speak Now to John A. Williams’s The Angry Ones to Ira Aldridge’s The Black Doctor. While some of the books on this lists are ones that I have read before, I approached them, this time, with new knowledge and eyes, causing me to view each of them from a new perspective. In the comments below, let me know your list of favorite books (new or old) that you read in 2015. 

1. Adam Bradley Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop (2009)

Book of Rhymes, at times, comes across as a love letter to Hip Hop and specific artists: Notrious B.I.G., Jay Z, Eminem.  At other times, it comes across as a study that heavy handedly argues for the artistic merits of Hip Hop. These things aside, Bradley’s study provides a useful book for those who want to explore the intricacies of Hip Hop poetics and for those who want to bring those poetics into the classroom to get students interested in poetry. The latter aspect is where Bradley’s examination succeeds. He meticulously describes poetic terms and how they relate to specific lines from MCs. He also shows how Hip Hop artists correspond to Western poets such as Wordsworth, Shelly, T.S. Eliot, and others. For me, this book provided me a new way to examine Hip Hop and an in depth treasure trove of songs to research. Within the coming weeks, I plan to do at least one post based off of some of the items in Bradley’s book. Stay tuned. 

2. William Faulkner Absalom, Absalom! (1936)

When Shreve asks him why he hates the South, Quentin Compson concludes Faulkner’s epic novel by stating, “I don’t hate it,” and he struggles to convince himself of this fact as the novel recedes into the distance. Faulkner’s text explores the intricacies and mythologies of the South, and it alters the temporality of that past by having Shreve and Quentin construct parts of Thomas Sutpen’s narrative, making us as readers question what actually happened and what has been fabricated as myth. Reading the novel this time, I thought about how it related to historical constructions of race in Louisiana (New Orleans plays a role in the novel), the decline of the romanticized South, and how authors such as Ernest J. Gaines, William Melvin Kelley, and others work to revise Faulkner’s representations of African Americans in his work. All of these topics, and more, caught my attention. For more on the novel, look at my post about the ESPN 30 for 30 Ghosts of Ole Miss and Absalom, Absalom!.

3. Justin Gifford Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim (2015) 

A couple of years ago, a professor introduced me to the work of Robert Beck (aka Iceberg Slim). Since then, I have seen Beck, and those like Donald Goines and Roland S. Jefferson, as more than just pulp novelists without “literary” merit. These authors, especially, Beck, serve as progenitors of Hip Hop, I would argue, and as chroniclers of urban African American life and the Great Migration during the 1960s and 1970s. Gifford’s biography shows this. What I admire about Street Poision is that Gifford does much more than just show Beck’s life; instead, he uses Beck’s biography as a vehicle to highlight the Great Migration, African American communities in the North, the nation’s correctional institutions, and other cultural and historical aspects that Beck endured and wrote about. For those interested not only in Beck’s life and work but also in African American history, I would strongly suggest this book. Make sure you check out my post on literacy in Iceberg Slim’s Pimp as well.  

4. Ernest J. Gaines Of Love and Dust (1967)

I’ve read and written about Gaines’s Of Love and Dust numerous times, but upon each reading, it gets even better and better. While many may argue that The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) or A Lesson before Dying (1993) stand atop Gaines’s oeuvre as his best works, I say that Of Love and Dust far surpasses them. Thematically and stylistically, the novel sees Gaines at his finest, telling Marcus’s story through the eyes of Jim Kelly in much the same way that Fitzgerald tells Gatsby’s story through the voice of Nick Carraway. At its core, the book presents two couples in love; however, the couples cannot publicly express their affections for one another because of the racial divide that separates them. Fittingly, the novel appeared the same year of Loving vs. Virginia, the case that struck down miscegenation laws across the country. Read in this light, the novel takes on an historical perspective that is worth studying. 

5. Paul Laurence Dunbar The Fanatics (1901)

Last summer, I attended an NEH Summer Institute on Paul Laurence Dunbar and his works. Before the institute, I did not know how prolific Dunbar had been in such a short period of time. While The Fanatics may not be Dunbar’s most well know prose text, it is an interesting text to study in relation to the aftermath of the Civil War at the turn of the twentieth century. It follows out of reconciliation narratives of the period, and unlike African American uplift narratives, the novel focuses on white characters rather than African American characters. The novel revolves around two families, one Southern and one Northern, who experience a falling out when the war begins, and the narrative traces both families throughout the war. Along with these characters, there are African American participants, but they appear more in the background, and at the mid-point of the novel where former slaves make their way to Ohio only to be confronted with free African Americans who do not want them there and whites who feel the same way. What interests me about this book, apart from the plot, is how it uses white characters to comment on the state of the nation during the war and when the novel appeared. This aspect is not unique to Dunbar, France’s E. Watkins Harper and A.E. Johnson both wrote narratives with white characters at the center, and more contemporary authors like Frank Yerby did as well. For more information on this topic, see Gene Andrew Jarrett’s Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature (2007)

As stated at the beginning of this post, this, by far, is not an exhaustive list of the best books I read this past year. Instead, these are some of the books that have made me think about different topics in regards to both literature and history. In the comments below, let me know what books you enjoyed this past year. 

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