Black Men Reading: Raymond Williams, PART ONE

Greetings! I’m pleased to bring you another installment of the Black Men Reading Series. Doing this series is allowing me to exchange and collaborate thoughtfully with black men who have an array of reading tastes and compelling things to say. In case you missed the previous two conversations with Reginald Bailey and Andrew Fontenelle, visit the Black Men Reading Series page where the concierge is waiting to guide you!

So, without further ado – let me introduce you to Raymond Williams, who resides in the Washington D.C. metro area. Raymond says that his mother instilled in him a love of reading at a young age, and that he found his favorite genres while in high school. In addition to reading, Raymond also enjoys writing, listening to podcasts, and watching dramatic and comedic television and films. In today’s Black Men Reading Conversation, Raymond shares some of his favorite nonfiction titles and favorite podcasts, talks about keeping a commonplace book, and tells me the idea that he would like to help change.

[LR]: Welcome, Raymond!  Thank you for agreeing to participate in the Black Men Reading Series. Let’s talk a bit about how and what we read these days. Has it been a while since you’ve read just one book at a time?
[RW]: Yes it has. I think I have changed with the culture in some way. We tend to do alot of multitasking in society: working on the internet with multiple tabs open, watching several tv shows at once and still being able to remember where we left off. The multiple tv shows example is probably the best equivalent to reading multiple books at a time. I tend to read at least one fiction and one nonfiction book simultaneously.

[LR]: I agree with your observations about how multitasking and accessing the internet and television has changed the way we read. That’s something I am constantly challenged by. I have to tell myself that it’s going to be alright if I’m not reading something most of the hours in a day! Do you read ebooks, physical books, or both?
[RW]: I mostly read physical books. I used to have a Nook a few years ago but my only issue is that I like to write, underline, and take notes in some of my books. I know you can do that with e-readers but I think the notes stick in your brain better when you actually write them by hand.

[LR]: What are your favorite genres and what do you enjoy most about those genres?
[RW]: My favorite genre is nonfiction, specifically history and politics. I enjoy these genres because they allow me to keep learning. These genres allow me to learn about how far we have come as a nation/society, and, also allow me to get a glimpse of the lives of people who have shaped the world we currently live in.

[LR]: Are there some nonfiction titles you would like to recommend?
[RW]: That’s always a hard question. I’m going to recommend three fairly new books that have fewer than 100 ratings on Goodreads: The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age by Patrick Parr, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray by Rosalind Rosenberg, and The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict by Austin Reed.

Two books that I absolutely loved from the last 10 years that are also not that well known: The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress by William Jelani Cobb and Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist by Thomas Peele.

I picked these five books because sometimes we have a tendency to read only what is on the bestseller lists. That’s not a bad thing because there are some really good books on those lists. However, reading the most popular books deprives us of other voices and other stories. Haruki Murakami said it best when he said, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking”.

[LR]: I’m really glad that you’ve recommended some lesser-hyped book titles. These look like some good ones, too! I read about Pauli Murray a number of years ago in another book, and what impressed me then was learning that the legal research Thurgood Marshall pulled-from to argue Brown vs. Board of Education was done by students like Pauli Murray in the 1940s. I’ve read and admired some of Jelani Cobb’s essays.
[RW]: Yes, I found Pauli Murray’s life utterly fascinating, mostly because I had never heard of her before reading that book. I was so shocked that she is not that well known, considering her contributions to these landmark legal cases, her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt (which is chronicled in a good book The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott), her coining of the term “Jane Crow,” and her lifelong struggle with her gender identity. I hope someone makes a film about her life at some point.

I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts on Cobb’s book. I read it three years ago and was just amazed with his writing. I hope he writes a follow-up, especially with what has followed Obama’s tenure. But I’ll settle for his New Yorker pieces if he doesn’t.

[LR]: Do you have people with whom you get to talk and debate about historical and political topics?
[RW]: Yes, mostly my parents and friends who are also historically and politically conscious.

[LR]: With all that is going on in society these days, and hearing about decisions and legislation that threatens civil rights and liberties, I am feeling the need to upgrade my civic literacy and involvement. Do you have any book recommendations in this area? I recently got a copy of David J. Bodenhamer’s The U.S. Constitution A Very Short Introduction, but I have yet to crack it open.
[RW]: As for civic literacy, I think the US Constitution book is a good start. I would definitely read/reread the Constitution after you finish it. The only book that I could recommend is a textbook I assigned to my American Government class; its called American Government: Political Development and Institutional Change by Cal Jillson. It looks at American Government from a historical perspective. Another one in the same vein is called American Government: Enduring Principles, Critical Choices by Marc Landy and Sidney Milkis. It’s somewhat shorter but more dense than the Jillson book.

[LR]: Do you have a favorite podcast?
[RW]:I have a few: The Daily, Ask Me Another, The Nod, The Read, and What’s Ray Saying? I listen to every episode of these podcasts regardless of the topic.

[LR]: I’m curious about how you came to writing. Does it have anything to do with being a reader?
[RW]: Surprisingly no, I actually came to writing because of graduate school.

[LR]: What kind of writing do you do?
[RW]: I recently finished getting a PhD in political science. Most of my writing has been academic research: conference papers, an academic journal article, and my dissertation. I also write book reviews on Goodreads, which I really enjoy doing. I share those reviews on my Tiny Letter. I also started back writing in a journal a few months ago. And in the last year, I have started to keep a commonplace book.

[LR]: Congratulations on completing your PhD in political science. Do you plan to do more academic writing?
[RW]: Yes, I’m actually writing a paper that is based off of my dissertation with the hopes of having it published in an academic journal.

[LR]: I have to say that I am so intrigued that you keep a commonplace book. I wasn’t sure what that was, and had to look it up! Turns out that I have been keeping “commonplace books” – of sorts – without realizing they had a name! I like to write, underline, and highlight in some of my books, as well. It feels like the book is more my own when I can go back and reference things that particularly caught my attention during my reading.
[RW]: My Mom keeps a commonplace book and was not aware it was called that, as well. I started keeping one after I read an article by Ryan Holiday, who wrote on the importance of having one.

[LR]: Thank you for sharing the link to Ryan Holiday’s post about commonplace books. Do you find that keeping a commonplace book changes the way you engage with what you read?
[RW]: I think it does. Once I finish a book I usually go back through it to see if I underlined or made notes in it. I use some of that to write my book reviews for Goodreads and then if I come across some pearls of wisdom I add those in the commonplace book.

Raymond’s commonplace book
(photo courtesy of Raymond Williams)

[LR]: What made you want to share book reviews via your Tiny Letter?
[RW]: I wanted to share them on my Tiny Letter because most of my real life friends were not on Goodreads. I tended to share articles and podcasts with them on Facebook, or recommend things in person, and thought it would be a good idea to consolidate my monthly recommendations into a newsletter. Thus, my Tiny Letter was born.

[LR]: Do you have a favorite bookstore and/or library?
[RW]: When I was younger it was the Barnes and Noble back at home in NC. I used to have the local B &N phone number memorized. Nowadays, it’s an independent bookstore in DC called Politics and Prose.

[LR]: Is there an idea that you dislike or a paradigm that you would like to help change?
[RW]: I would like to help change this idea that it’s not cool for a black boy/man to read a book.

[LR]: As you probably know, there is quite a complicated history behind black American people’s relationship with reading and writing…. it was once illegal in many places for blacks to learn to read and write. Then, when it became legal there weren’t always teachers, or schools, or adequate textbooks and supplies. With institutions of higher learning – including law schools and medical schools, and the like – refusing to admit black students, and discriminating against them when they were able to enroll, HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) provided the only safe, nurturing educational environments for most black students for a long time. It takes some families many generations before graduating from high school and possibly going on to earn advanced degrees even becomes possible.

Raymond, What would you say to a black male who thinks that it is uncool to read a book?

Yes, I’m leaving you with this CLIFFHANGER!
Please return tomorrow for Part Two of my Black Men Reading Conversation with Raymond Williams! He’s going to answer my question and we’ll probe some entry points for engaging black males in reading. We’ll touch on escapism in reading, and Raymond’s going to share what attracts him in fiction, and mine his commonplace book for some great quotes!

You can connect with Raymond’s Tiny Letter here;
on Goodreads here; and
on Twitter here.

“Although they were originally founded to educate black students who were shut out of white schools, they have always enrolled non-black students.”– Shirley Carswell, from “Five Myths About Historically Black Colleges and Universities”


  1. Leslie. This is my favorite interview so far, mainly because I’ve learned so much reading it. The books he mentioned sound really intriguing and this is the second time this week I’ve heard about the Pauli book. Also, that Murakami quote will be used very soon. Thanks for sharing such a great interview.

  2. Oh I love the idea of a commonplace book. That’s what I try to do with my blog, but I’d also like to keep a physical notebook where I do the same: record what I’ve read, what the material made me think and what about the material stuck with me.

    As always, I love this series. 🙂

    1. Zezee, you’re such a faithful blogger, it seems like keeping a physical notebook in addition to that could be time-consuming. Then again, keeping track of quotes and thoughts that occur while reading can be worthwhile….
      I’m glad you’re enjoying the series – thanks for reading!

  3. Wow. Now my books to read list has just expanded again. My interests and his overlap, and I appreciate his suggestions.

  4. Thank you, Raymond, for sharing your thoughts on reading and writing. I do like the idea of keeping a Commonplace book. Great series, Leslie.

    1. Hi Andrew! I’m glad the series meets with your approval – thank you for being one of the reasons it’s being so well-received! Did you ever read Raymond’s comments on your interview?

  5. Thank you, Leslie — except for the cliffhanger part! Arrrrrgh! But let my irritation show you just how well you gripped my attention. I will enjoy comparing these notes on commonplace books with what I have tried off and on for a while. (I even had one I called a “Not-exactly-commonplace” book for quotations and scraps that weren’t common!) I’m going to save the links about commonplace books to calm my nerves until you get part two done! (I know, I should get right back to my own series, too!)

    1. Hi Margaret – I couldn’t resist the cliffhanger! I hope you enjoy Part 2. It is remarkable to me that – courtesy of the internet and social media – I now find myself aware of being”in the company of” other people who keep commonplace books! I love it!

  6. Both my oldest son and I have been keeping commonplace books and not even knowing that had a name!

    Leslie, you know you are NOT right for leaving us hanging like this! I sent this article to my oldest son because he is heavy into politics. He’s also awaiting part two now. Truly enjoy this series and I’m definitely adding a couple of the books he mentioned to my reading list!

    1. Hi Audra- I know that cliffhanger was a bit abrupt, but I couldn’t resist! I hope that you’ll forgive me after you read Part 2. Thank you for sharing this piece with your son! He and Raymond already have three things in common: (1) commonplace books; (2) mothers who keep commonplace books; and (3) an interest in politics!

  7. I LOVE the concept of a commonplace book! I’d never heard of it before. I really enjoyed reading your back-and-forth with Raymond, too. Though I don’t normally enjoy a lot of non-fiction or political books (mainly because we seem to live in such an insane world of politics right now), it’s always interesting to see what other folks are reading, particularly when they don’t read what’s on the best seller lists. I like when people go off the beaten path for their reading, whether fiction or non-fiction. I rarely read best sellers for that reason. I’ll be looking forward to Part 2 and his answer about black men thinking it’s uncool to read a book. LOL! Thanks for this series, Leslie. I’m really enjoying it!

    1. Hi Vanessa – You know, as I am doing this series, I find that learning from someone whose favorite genres are different from my own is quite refreshing. Like you and Raymond, I am always on the lookout for great reads that are “under the radar;” – off the beaten path, as you say. I can imagine you keeping a commonplace book in which you make notes about your experiences trying out different recipes and cooking techniques: what works and what doesn’t work; or the points in your reading of a book you decide on the recipe you’ll prepare to accompany your reviews.

  8. A wonderful conversation, and having just written (briefly) about the commonplace book on my own blog, I am very excited to learn about Raymond’s commonplace book. Looking forward to Part 2.

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