Did you enjoy Part One of my Q & A with Rod Kelly Hines? Today, in Part Two of my Black Men Reading exchange with classically-trained singer Rod Kelly Hines, he shares his thoughts about how social media has impacted our reading lives, and how his goal to read 100 books this year came about. Read on to learn his favorite reads of the year, and the perception of black men that he would like to help change.
[LR]: Your observation about some of the best things to come out of the bookstagram sphere is a good one. I’m not sure readers had a comparable forum for unique ways to connect with more books and other book lovers before some of the social media platforms like goodreads and instagram came out.
What do you think?
[RKH]: I think social media does a lot of good, or at least has the potential to do a lot of good for the publishing industry in general. People share their favorite (and not so favorite) books, review books, discuss books, recommend books, and these things work to widen the scope of readership for books of all genres. You can find whatever it is you seek: there are whole swaths of pages devoted to literary fiction and literature by black writers and other writers of color, which is my bread and butter. Everyone has become a critic, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing either; most of the people I follow have so many insightful and intelligent thoughts about books, so ultimately I’m inspired to be a better reader every time I scroll through my timeline. One thing that I’ve noticed is that work by black authors seems to only be read as part of some challenge or hashtag, so I’m always left wondering if the users posting those books have a genuine interest in them beyond the “likes” they might receive on the post.
[LR]: How did your goal to read 100 books this year come about?
[RKH]: This challenge I’ve given myself to read 100 books this year was simply a way of pushing myself. I think every reader must, at some point, have the realization that there are more books in the world than can ever be read in one’s lifetime. I think that results in a reader either taking her sweet time and reading at whatever pace she feels, or hungrily seeking out and devouring every book she can get her hands on. In my case, it’s somewhere in between; I’m naturally a fast reader so I didn’t think the challenge was overly ambitious but I would normally average about 50 books a year. I’m notorious for starting a book and going right back to the beginning to read it again once I’ve finished, so I cut that out totally this year, and really made an effort to diversify my collection so that one book is always followed by something that is totally different in an effort to maintain a sharp focus on what I’m reading. Now that I’ve completed my challenge, I’ve slowed down the pace a bit. There were a few books this year that I breezed through and plan to revisit so that I absorb them the way they deserve.
[LR]: Did you have to make any lifestyle changes in order to be able to read so many books?
[RKH]: All I really consciously did was turn off all distractions while reading: no phone or social media, no tv, no sound at all. When I’m able to have peace and quiet, I read almost twice as fast!
[LR]: Using your criteria of “deeply developed characters and confident, energetic and polished prose,” can you share some titles from your 100 that you found deeply satisfying in this way?
[RKH]: I’ve read so many books this year that are brilliantly written and filled with excellent, memorable characters, so I’ll try to name only a few: First, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha, a slim novel that reads like poetry, and beautifully illustrates that even the most quiet, domestic lives are worthy of taking center stage in literature. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward introduced me to Esch, a character who reminds me of all the strong, courageous female cousins that I grew up with. Similarly, The Little Friend by Donna Tartt introduced me to Harriet Dufresnes, a sharp, quick witted, mischievous young girl who is definitely in my top 5 favorite literary characters. Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage was refreshingly simple, but also a zeitgeist which presents modern themes in a powerful way. It’s destined to become a classic, I think (I’m team Roy!). Akwaeke Emezi’s debut Freshwater is still vividly swimming around in my mind; it is super cerebral, spiritual, and deeply sexual. I’ve never read anything quite like it and I’m excited to see what she comes up with next. Other titles that come to mind: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, Speak No Evil by Iweala Uzodinma (heartbreaking!), Brother by David Chariandy (also heartbreaking!), and The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. Lastly (I promise) I want to shout out a poetry collection by Tyehimba Jess called Olio; One doesn’t usually think of poetry being heavy on plot and character development, but this one is so unique and brilliant and should be required reading. He digs into the lives of black artists in the period directly post-slavery, writing poems that literally defy gravity. (and he’s from Detroit!)
[LR]: I have a confession: I’ve been intimidated by the size of Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, even though it looks beautifully done. I’m going to read it in 2019 – thank you for talking it up.
I want to go back to something you said earlier, about the feeling of “entering the world of a book for the first time.” I wholeheartedly agree with you, but it’s been a while since I really contemplated that feeling. I think that all book lovers have it, but we haven’t taken that feeling apart, or “unpacked” it, as they say. Would you care to give it a try?
[RKH]: Whenever I open up a new book, I focus and block out everything around me; I read the first few sentences and immediately start to construct an atmosphere, a mood, an experience. As I go further, I hear the characters’ voices, see their faces, understand their motivations, their desires. I want to follow them along the arc of the story, which in my mind becomes another reality, one I’m invested in and fully apart of.
Great books invite me to use all of my senses, allow a space for me as the reader to bring my own humanity into the narrative as a sort of hidden character, living and breathing within the world of the story just like the characters on the page. Its a bit of a mystery why some authors are better at this than others, but I think it comes down to sentence structure, word by word by word. Books have rhythm, the right word in the right place at the right time. This is a quality I especially love when I’m reading fiction.
Writers can be lyrical and baroque, spare and concise, but the way the language is employed is the thing that makes a story, right? This word is placed next to that word and that word has to be switched out for this word so that this word can be next to a word that serves the story. That’s it, and some authors do this masterfully and those who don’t make you understand how difficult it is to write a good story. It takes time and skill.
When I read fiction, it always makes me think about life being lived in the real world. Fiction is something like a window into our lives. When I read If Beale Street Could Talk or The Color Purple or Song of Solomon, aren’t I reading a version of truth that is all the more true because it is born from the imaginations of people living here in the real world? Fiction is always going to contain something of real life because real people write it and real people read it!
[LR]: Rod, thank you for going into that a bit, and thinking about what writers do to draw us into the worlds of their books.
I’ve been enjoying reading Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, and one of the things that kind of tickled me was reading about the courtship between her and Barack Obama. At one point she writes: “Back in Chicago, separated again from Barack, I still sometimes went to my old happy-hour gatherings, though I rarely stayed out late. Barack’s dedication to reading had brought out a new bookishness in me. I was now content to spend a Saturday night reading a good novel on the couch.”
Barack Obama is one of few high-profile black men who has publicly shared his reading lists. A few months back I visited Source Booksellers (my favorite independent bookstore in Detroit) and they had a sign above a stack of books recommended by Roland Martin that read “No Kap, no NFL for me. Let’s read Instead.” Other than these examples, I haven’t seen much coverage of black men as readers. What about you?
[RKH]: I think you may be right, Leslie, Obama is really the only high-profile black man I’ve seen broadcast his interest in reading/reading recommendations. It’s changing little by little but I really wish it was happening faster.
[LR]: Is there an idea that you dislike, or a paradigm you would like to help change?
[RKH]: This has been said before but it bears repeating: the black man who avidly reads is still a unicorn. He’s out there in the world but rarely visible, rarely vocal. I’d like to change this perception.
I want to just shoutout Reggie Bailey who, in my opinion, is the leader of the retinue of black men who are using social media as a platform to promote literacy among other black men. I’m still starting out in my bookstagram journey, slowly embracing the amazing community of readers there, and to me Reggie is an amazing representative for black men who are unabashed in their love of books. To add to what he’s already said about the matter, I think if black men could pick up a book and see themselves reflected in literature, we would read more. We’re more than the angry menace, the rolling stone, the deadbeat. Writers like Jamel Brinkley, Marlon James, James Hannaham, Mat Johnson, James McBride, Victor LaValle, Paul Beatty, and Colson Whitehead offer a wider view of the reality and possibilities of the black male experience, different from their predecessors, whose writing, great and important though it may be, was a bit monolithic and narrowly focused, so concerned with the “plight” of the black male that the truth of the varied and manifold lives of black men was not accurately represented.
Connect with Rod Kelly Hines:
Some of the writers mentioned by Rod-Kelly Hines were included in the (Dec. 2, 2018) New York Times Style Magazine photo shoot and essay collaboration by Boots Riley and Ayana Mathis, “Black Male Writers For Our Time.”
Over the summer of 2018, Barack Obama recommended some titles inspired by his travels to Africa: “Barack Obama Recommends Six Books inspired by Africa to Read This Summer.”