Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What Inspires Me? (Literature)

As I said in my last post, I'm devoting this week to sharing with you what inspires me. When I talked with my buddy Jesus about his album collage that inspired me, I realized that I have a chance to show what makes me tick. Here goes nothing.

I graduated with an English degree so it's no surprise that classic literature and books have been a big part of my life. As long as I can remember, I've always read books. I read the 1992 Encyclopedia Brittanica for fun and when I switched schools in 94, I always checked out like 10 books from the library at a time whenever we went.

Here's the authors and books that inspired me as a writer and had an effect on me.

Almost a given for anyone who reads this. Malcolm X is the most misunderstood figure of the 20th century and this book lets you know exactly what he was thinking. It made me realize that true leadership is relating to as many people as you can behind the common good. It awakened my consciousness.

There's a reason why Malcolm is still a compelling figure 45 years after his death. He was a self-made leader who didn't run from his flaws but rose above his situation to be an advocate for his people. This book made me appreciate him and inspired me to see the struggle differently.

That summer before 5th grade, my summer camp read the book and performed the music from "Oliver!" - I love every minute of it and today, it's one of the few musicals I will admit to liking. But I loved reading about Oliver's adventures and as I got older, his honesty, love and desire to find a home is something anyone can enjoy.

It's also Charles Dickens' first masterpiece. A novel that exposed the dark London underworld, child labor and the class disparity that reigned during Victorian England. At the time, it was unlike few novels in that it sympathized criminals along with the nobility and had a child as its main character. It set the stage for Dickens' gift of storytelling, empathy (esp. for kids) and expanded his knack for complex characters and social critique. My favorite book by one of my favorite authors.

Along with Oliver Twist, this is my favorite book. I read it in high school after I wrote a paper on Nathaniel Hawthorne and I fell in love with it right away. The imagery, the symbolism, the secrets and the dark nature mixed with hope drew me in and I haven't let it go nearly 10 years later.

I foolishly said that Hawthorne was the greatest writer ever back then. He wrote about his times and their past so well with such powerful imagery that I didn't believe anyone could master him. Of course now, I stick to the idea that Hawthorne is one of the greatest American writers ever.

The message of guilt and redemption have stuck with me as well. It reminds me that no matter what someone does, they can redeem their identity. The first American Gothic novel, it is Hawthorne's masterpiece and makes me ponder my faith and philosophy in so many ways.

Hawthorne believed very much in the Gothic ideal of the past being alive with us. It's also in his other book "House of 7 Gables" and as someone who believes history is always teaching us, it reminds me never to forget the past.

The past three shaped me in my elementary and high school years. Perhaps no author shaped me in my college years than James Baldwin and even though I had a teacher quote him repeatedly my freshman year, I didn't get to know him until the spring of my junior year. I got the chance to study and analyze his writing style and loved his crisp, passionate language where every word seemed to matter.

His wisdom coupled with a preacher's delivery had an impact on the 1960's and The Fire Next Time not only inspired a poem of mine, it's a constant reminder of how unchecked hate will lead to problems. One of the greatest American writers and perhaps the greatest Black writer.

No writer influences me more than this Harlem prophet. His passion for being a witness who wrote what he saw, write with strong urgency and was able to hold a big mirror to society inspires my writing (and inspired my journey to the Jena 6 rally). He challenged his readers to look at themselves and the world around them.

If you look at the quote underneath my blog name, it's inspired by this book. "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."

My introduction to the genius of William Blake, one of my favorite poets of the 18th century. I had a great teacher tell me about how Blake was involved with the Romantic movement of Poetry and his philosophy of two ideals to create a third place nobody had considered going.

This book is one of those. A satirical, diabolical yet intriguing work that questions religion like many of the Enlightment thinkers before him in the 17th century. Don't worry, I didn't give up my faith but it was a fascinating read that showed Blake's genius and took you to another train of thought.

It blew my mind because I thought this book was sacrilege. Instead, I was fascinated by the Proverbs of Hell and the Memorable Fancys as well as Blake's genius at work. No wonder Aldous Huxley (and eventually Jim Morrison + Co.) were inspired as well.

Ralph Emerson said that poetry is man speaking to other men with insight. Simple yet potent. His essay "The Poet" defined my philosophy on poetry just being something from the soul but also unique.

Next up: Abstract Ideals.


  1. I've read my share of black intellectual literature Eldridge Cleaver, Malcom X, MLK, but have yet to cover James Baldwin. If there was one book I should pick up of his what should it be? I was thinking The Fire Next Time. ur take? oh yeah. im a 99% nonfiction reader.

  2. Fire Next Time is absolutely brilliant. It discusses his meeting with Elijah Muhammad and the NOI while at the same time pondering the state of America in the 60's with race. I never read Giovanni's Rooom or Go Tell It on the Mountain but I would start there. Giovanni was way ahead of its time concept wise.