Thursday, March 28, 2013
March 28, 2013: National Big Read Recaps, Part 4
[This past Saturday, I chaired my NeMLA Roundtable on a National Big Read. Each of the six participants shared interesting and provocative perspectives on his or her chosen book or author, and so I wanted to follow up those presentations with some further thoughts. Not least so you can add your take on these and other books and authors that all Americans could read at the same time!]
The nominee that would bring greater visibility to profoundly American histories and identities.
The roundtable’s fourth presenter, Kelley Wagers of Penn State Worthington Scranton, nominated Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I don’t imagine I need to say much to introduce Ellison’s novel, which it’s fair to say is one of the most acclaimed and famous works of 20th century American literature. But of course acclaim and fame don’t necessarily equate to actual awareness and engagement, and Kelley made a compelling case for how a broad national reading of Ellison’s novel would bring greater visibility to some American stories that deserve and need it.
Kelley focused on two distinct but interconnected such stories: the histories with which the novel engages; and the identity to which its narrator connects. On the former, Invisible Man has often been described as its title character’s metaphorical journey through many of the complex and crucial stages of African American history, and Kelley argued not only for the broad relevance of such histories, but for how the novel thus engages with the balance between individual and national histories to which we all connect. And on the latter, she noted that the African American men represented at length in existing Big Read selections are almost all accused criminals, making Ellison’s protagonist’s far different experiences and identity that much more worth our attention.
I would agree with both of those emphases of Kelley’s, and would extend the latter point even further. In the panel’s discussion portion we talked a lot about the balance between accessibility and difficulty, between works that engage and works that challenge, and I can see good arguments on both ends of the spectrum for sure. But if we compare The Invisible Man to (for example) Mark Twain’s Jim or Harper Lee’s Tom Robinson, there’s one way in which I would definitely argue for Ellison’s character: his final line, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?,” challenges all Americans to consider what connects us, not just as members of a national fabric but as individuals with a great deal of (often invisible) common threads. Invisible Man might help us see the pattern.
Next nominee tomorrow,
BenPS. Thoughts on this nomination? Other nominees for an Even Bigger Read?