When I heard that Harlem’s Hue-Man Bookstore would be closing its shop and selling books only online and at selected events, I sank into a low-grade depression. Yes, I’m guilty these days of buying most of my books online, but there is nothing like a bookshop, nothing like that excitement of encountering knowledge on tables and shelves, on paper newly bound and touchable. Soon after I heard that Word Up Books in Washington Heights had lost its lease. Though both businesses are fighting valiantly for their lives, I felt punched. This 1-2 did not bode well for the reading life Uptown.
Then, I heard about this weekend’s “Literacy Across Harlem March, Book Donation and Celebration" Co-sponsored by Total Equity Now! and the Harlem Book Fair, Harlemites and anyone else who wants to participate can come out this Saturday and assert the importance of real, live books. To join the march, you’re asked to bring one of your favorite reads—current or classic—and a few gently-used books to be donated. The favorite can be held high, or snuggled in a pocket—however you choose to show-off your selection and give credit to a writer whose words opened your eyes.
The event starts at 10:30am at three separate locations: St. Nicholas Park (135th St. & St. Nicholas); Countee Cullen Library (136th St. & Lenox Ave.); and Lincoln Playground (135th St. & 5th Ave.)). The participants will then march and join together at the main stage at 135th.
I love this. While reading is often a solitary pleasure, sharing our favorite books is not. Neither is showing those who haven’t read in while what they’re missing. To me, this is a beautiful shoe leather way to show our neighbors that there is so much to be gained by taking the time to read—especially the books that have opened our hearts and minds. And the reality is that we have wonderful New York Public Library options up here, so money need not be a barrier.
That being said, I want to encourage all of you here Uptown to visit Hue-Man and Word Up. They need our support. Right now, Hue-Man is selling books at a deep discount. Liquidating will help them transition successfully to their new online life. And if anyone has a good rental lead for Word Up, let them know.
Now I’m looking at my bookshelf, thinking about which book to bring. The choices feel infinite. Without over-thinking it, here are my first three picks:
1. AMERICAN PASTORAL by Philip Roth. Picture Washington, DC, Spring 1998, Kramerbooks bookshop. I worked in the White House then, and we were in the deep mess that was that Monica year. I’ll never forget picking up a copy of the paperback, reading the story description, buying it, taking it home. After reading that powerhouse tale of perfection falling apart, I knew I wanted to use fiction to tell the truth. I’ll always remember those days and nights going to Kramerbooks and feeling that sparkling sense of possibility—of the ambition of the young and old around me who felt like what we did in DC, and in life, mattered. That reading and writing books mattered. That the terrible tactics of political opponents could make our actions seem useless, but they weren’t. We had to keep going. Keep creating. Keep trying to tell the truth. This is a feeling I never want to lose.
2. COMING OF AGE IN MISSISSIPPI by Anne Moody. I was born in Detroit, raised in her suburbs. Never traveled extensively south of the Mason-Dixon line until late in high school. I have family in the Carolinas, but that life, and that history, can feel very removed, like it happened to strangers. Reading this book, I had an expanded understanding of Jim Crow’s enforced subjugation and economic exploitation. I felt fear in my bones, contemplating the life and death stakes for all Blacks during the height of the civil rights struggles (and before then, too). That water fountains and buses were just the tip of the iceberg. Before I read this book, I had only a superficial appreciation for the terror that many Blacks felt—that real fear of violence if they spoke out, or simply voted, and how the activists put their lives on the line day in and day out fighting for our rights. And by activists, I don’t just mean people who came from up North. I mean women like Anne Moody who grew up in Mississippi, and risked all for change. I would recommend this book to anybody. But I’d be very happy to press it into the palms of some of the young people around me, to show them a model of love and courage and deeply meaningful action.
3. THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS: THE EPIC STORY OF AMERICA’S GREAT MIGRATION by Isabel Wilkerson. Every Harlemite should read this book—for some, this will be a retelling of history intimately lived. For others, this is vital new information, a chance for us to understand our place in the river of history. Wilkerson’s narratives of Black Southerners emigrating to the North and to the West are utterly engaging—and educating. All of us here came from somewhere else. Maybe we ourselves don’t—but our parents or great-grandparents do. Just different arrival dates. And while you’d only have to read COMING OF AGE IN MISSISSIPPI to understand why someone might want to flee the only world they’ve ever known for “the warmth of other suns”, Wilkerson’s men and women help you understand why someone could be driven to make such a traumatic choice.
Now, which book from your bookshelves would you carry?