Wednesday, August 28, 2019
August 28, 2019: Talking We the People: Needham Public Library
[I’ve long been a fan of book talks, but since my most recent book, We the People: The 500-Year Battle over Who is American, is intended to be my most public yet, I’ve redoubled my dedication to talking about it anywhere and everywhere. Since I’m on sabbatical this fall and even more flexible, I wanted to take this week to highlight some of my prior and upcoming talks, as examples that I hope can lead to more such opportunities! I’ll travel and talk anywhere and am happy to pay my own way for the chance to share these stories and histories!]
On two ways in which a particularly special setting helped reframe my book.
Libraries have been (after academic spaces) the second most common setting for books talks of mine (and I’m up for journeying to any library, in New England or beyond, to give book talks this fall), from the Him Mark Lai Branch of the San Francisco Public Library to my longtime hometown Waltham’s Public Library and many others in between, but there was still something unique about giving a talk at the Needham Free Public Library. Starting with my second book, and carrying right on through We the People, significant portions of all my book projects (and this blog, and my grading, and most other aspects of my professional life over the last decade-plus) have been completed in that library; and since I’ve just moved back to Needham this summer, to an apartment literally steps away from the library, I’m pretty sure my ongoing work will happen in that space quite frequently as well. Change has been a constant over my last decade, as I suppose it is for all of us in various ways, but the Needham library has provided a consistent home base throughout that period, and it was wonderful to have the chance to give a book talk there.
That’s not just about good feelings, either—giving a talk there produced some compelling effects when it comes to my ongoing thinking about We the People. More exactly, talking about this book in the space where I also wrote each of my prior three books pushed me to consider the interconnections between these projects more than I had previously been able to do. That’s straightforward enough when it comes to the Chinese Exclusion Act book, since I have a chapter in We the People on that era and on inclusive Chinese American responses to it. But I likewise thought about connections to fourth and second books: with the most recent, History and Hope in American Literature, I thought about how that project’s lens of “critical patriotism” applies not only to most of my inclusive figures and stories, but also to what I’m trying to accomplish with this book itself; and with Redefining American Identity, I realized that I’ve been thinking about competing definitions of America for about the last decade, and that We the People is thus not just the culmination (I hope and believe) of my moves toward public scholarly writing, but also of that long period of engagement with questions of national definition.
None of that, of course, has been the most defining personal experience of mine over the last decade-plus: that would be my sons, now 13 and 12 years old. And thanks to their Mom being kind enough not only to attend this talk but to bring the boys as well, I had the chance to share a book talk with them for the first time in this special space. I can’t lie, their repeated “Dad, you’re god-tier!” after the talk was definitely the best feedback I’ve ever gotten. But they were a genuinely attentive audience, and that was the really significant thing about this very neat aspect of the talk—that it forced me to think about how I wanted to present my focal histories and stories to a teen/pre-teen audience, how the talk and its topics might connect with them without losing its possible connections to the other (all adult) audience members. I’ve talked with their elementary school classes before, but this was quite distinct, an opportunity to think about differentiating my talk across multiple audiences ages, about how to make clear the stakes and significance of these topics for all those different cohorts. One more very exciting side to a unique and special book talk.
Next book talk tomorrow,
PS. Ideas or suggestions for future talks, in-person or online? I’d love to hear them!