Book Review

James Baldwin: Collected Essays (Library of America, 1998)

james baldwin is great; vaccines are also great

December 13th, late morning

I started reading James Baldwin’s Collected Essays – edited by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison – a few days before my November trip to Eastern Canada, and then resumed it when I got back home. I read my way through the rest of the massive tome (which contains at least six normal-sized books) over the three weeks or so that have passed since then. It is, to put it bluntly, a treat.

I by no means read the book slowly, but it took me so long to get through as this is a densely packed anthology containing almost all the long form non-fiction Baldwin published during his lifetime, i.e. all of Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), The Devil Finds Work (1976), as well as all of the essays collected in 1985’s The Price of the Ticket and a handful of other – early – book reviews and critical essays. Surprisingly, given the book’s size and scope, there are notable and numerous exceptions, enough shorter pieces to fill a later, very posthumous, collection of Uncollected Writings (2010), as well as a book-length, late career essay on a series of child murders motivated by racism (The Evidence of Things Not Seen, (1985)).

Given the frankness, wisdom and powerfully articulated use of language that develops through the course of Baldwin’s career, to have the biography at the book’s end inform me that the volume I’m holding is holding out on me is somewhat disappointing. Then again… that one can read a thousand word-packed pages of Baldwin’s highly emotive and (grimly) perennially relevant essays and still be hungry for more is, I think, testament to how fucking good his writing is.

///

December 13th, close to midnight

It’s many hours later.

I tried to quit my job a few weeks ago, on returning from the East [of Canada].

Not because I had such a great time away from Toronto and I wanted to recapture that in the short term, but because I became aware of a projected reversal from my bosses on the corporate employee vaccination policy. The promised policy (introduced with three months’ lead-time) was that everyone must be vaccinated, which I heavily supported (yes, I’m pro-vaccine mandates but would love to not have to be!) and had advocated for since the Summer, when mass vaccination became an Ontario thing.

I probably shouldn’t post about this here, but meh, I get geo-tagged audience stats and like NO ONE in Canada reads this, so we’re good.

I threatened to walk with no notice if my employers did not enforce the promised sanctions on an (until that point quietly) anti-vax senior staff member, sanctions which had been promised to myself and all the other less senior staff who were keen to work in a workplace offering as safe a workplace as possible. To be frank, I expected the big blokey senior lad to be excused from the rules the rest of us had to follow, but instead he was put on indefinite leave until able to show proof of vaccination and my planned exit had to be shelved.

Obviously, I need to work so it is good that I’m not unemployed, but I am tired and I am bored and I do not know when I will be able to stop being either, and the reason why I felt comfortable giving my ultimatum (i.e. no unvaccinated staff or no scott manley hadley) was because it would have been a win-win either way: I could have got to leave my tbf pretty boring job on moral grounds, or I could ensure that my workplace was fully vaccinated. Both were moral victories, I suppose, but only one of them was a fun prospect (tho if I was half the person I’d like to be, I’d have quit on moral grounds a looooong time ago, tho if I was twice the Machiavellian emotionless swine I’d also sometimes like to be, then I’d probably be earning twice as much and doing half the work (as in half of the work I’m currently doing, it already feels like I’m doing half of all the work in the venue haha (not literally but more than literally in terms of admin haha) haha) haha) haha

#work #reallife #inspo #vaxpassbaby

///

December 14th, noon, walking to work haha

The weather has lifted for the past few days and following on from snow and blizzards, we’ve returned to an autumnal ten degrees. I can type on my phone outside again without my fingers going numb, which is a pleasant improvement.

I can’t stop thinking about James Baldwin.

His writing is difficult to move on from, it sticks in the mind, his presence on the page and the pleasant ease with which one can imagine his voice reading every phrase aloud.

Baldwin is in turns insightful, funny, bitchy, angry, tired, bored, energetic, provocative, and even his book of essays on film (The Devil Finds Work (1976)), which offers in-depth analyses of directors, actors and movies I often knew little-to-nothing about (with some exceptions), kept me engaged throughout. Baldwin’s writing about The Exorcist, for example, made me realise that it’s probably a film I should watch, rather than the ignorable fetish-porn I’d allowed popular culture to persuade me that it was.

The structure of the collection is relatively straightforward, but there comes a strange moment of weightlessness. After reading through five non-fiction books Baldwin published chronologically, feeling his persona – and his celebrity – grow, the reader is suddenly flushed back in time to the short, pleasingly confrontational, book reviews of the 20-something Baldwin with something to prove.

It’s a pleasure to then, again, read as the man and the writer goes through his personal journey again, reading as Jimmy becomes James Baldwin, one of the 20th century’s few mainstream cultural titans who deserved every moment of acclaim and attention he received. 

I’d read lots of the pieces and texts within this book before, and I will certainly read lots of them again (unless I unexpectedly die or lose interest in literature which – who knows – might make me happier).

James Baldwin was – inarguably – one of the 20th century’s greatest and most important writers and – thanks to his semi-prolificness and the continued interest in his work posthumously – I still have thousands of pages of his prose left to enjoy.

Highly highly recommended. Like vaccinations.


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