How I Read “Between The World and Me”

Editors at The Atlantic invited me to review Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between The World and Me”. It’s a three week book club. Today marks the second week.

The invitation came in on a Thursday, I think. The first review was to go live on the following Monday. I’m a few months out of grad school reading and at least two and a half years from seminar reading. As anyone who has had to tackle a couple books a week in grad school can tell you, reading for analysis is different from reading for fun. I have spent this summer trying to remember how to do the latter because I was worried that the former had ruined my single hobby, reading for fun.

I found the grad school skills useful for analyzing the text, even though the context was a bit different. It was a good exercise for breaking down reading for students. It is also useful for an academic article I”m currently revising on text analysis.

First, I had to read the book. That seems silly but you cannot always take for granted that every book review has had a marathon reading session with the book in question. You learn that in grad school, too. Because I wanted to engage the text closely in my essays, I opened several documents for a rudimentary kind of systematic reading process.

Reading the book on an e-reader was helpful. I read BTWAM on my Kindle. I could highlight text as I read. Kindle saves those highlights in a cloud-based platform. That means the digital version of in-text highlights or underlining are auto-saved and chronologically ordered for me in a document I can then cut-and-paste to word. I highlighted text that resonated with me for any reason. For example, I highlighted this:

I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their façade of morality, unlike the streets and their bravado, unlike the world of dreamers. I loved him because he made it plain, never mystical or esoteric, because his science was not rooted in the actions of spooks and mystery gods but in the work of the physical world. Malcolm was the first political pragmatist I knew, the first honest man I’d ever heard. He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief. If he was angry, he said so. If he hated, he hated because it was human for the enslaved to hate the enslaver, natural as Prometheus hating the birds. He would not turn the other cheek for you. He would not be a better man for you. He would not be your morality. (p.34)

The highlight was not annotated. I did not always stop to consider why the passage resonated with me. I just marked those that did. Other passages were way more generative. The highlights include robust annotations. For example this passage:

galaxy and its inhabitants—their homes, their hobbies—up close. I don’t know what it means to grow up with a black president, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, social networks, omnipresent media, and black women everywhere in their natural (p.21)

On another document of notes, I responded to that text with:

Reminds me of the adult/child sphere. And it is gendered, maybe naturally so. He’s seeing the eyes through those of a boy-man and it’s almost adolescent. Isn’t there something about boys’ ville or something? The encroachment of male spaces and the almost homoerotic fetishization of male-only domains where they can perform man rituals without the prying, judging eyes of “ewww girls”? So much of what women do is trying to understand the internal lives of men. For black women doing so is perhaps especially dire. It feels that way anyway. Understanding the internal lives of YOUR black men becomes one of those fear-driven talismans Coates describes, like ass whoopings. We need to understand you to help you stay alive. I think I wonder if black men ever ponder the internal lives of women and do so with the same urgency that doing so isn’t just nice or feminist but life saving?

I moved back and forth between highlighting the text and noting my responses. I do not edit my responses. The point of this exercise is to capture my visceral response, even if those responses won’t end up in any formal writing.

After reading the text I summarized it in one page. This should also sound familiar to grad school survivors. One page forces you to eliminate extraneous notes and to focus on the central themes in a text. The page should also give a few external citations that you think the text is in conversation with. I immediately thought of Kiese Laymon’s “Long Division” and Alford Young Jr’s “The Minds of Marginalized Black Men”.

snapshot of notes

After this it is time to return to my notes. I just read them, once, twice and even a third time. I am the methodological tool here. It’s not a content analysis that needs to be reproducible (a big aim in sociological analysis of text). But I am borrowing the ontology that frequency signifies something, be it resonance, meaning, theme or context.

Once I read the notes as written I start moving the notes around, ordering them by theme or their relationship to other responses that are similar in tone or content. These patterns help me refine what I thought of the text and, more importantly, hints at why I thought that about the text.

My contested read of the BTWAM as two texts in one book comes from this process. The sections in my notes about the dialogue between Coates and his son had a different tone and higher frequency of notes I’d call generative (signaling they resonated with me) than did the text I’d say was more outward-facing, or talking to the audience.

snapshot of text annotations

I then take the re-ordered notes and put them next to the highlights and annotations that I’ve cut and pasted from the Kindle app. I think about them as a conversation. Am I off-base? Did I misread a section of the text? What precisely about the text prompted this note? Is it the word structure, the tone, the context, the absence of context, etc.?

I had done this by Friday. On Saturday I had to start writing. I had the talk I always have with myself. Can I contribute something to this reading that I have not yet seen? (I stopped reading reviews once I accepted the invitation, by the way. I wanted to be clear about my own voice and to talk to the text rather than the reviews). And, could I illustrate my read of the text through Coates’ text. That was really important to me because I think doing so is a sign of respect for someone’s creative work. As someone writing a book, I do not take lightly how hard this whole thing is.

I decided on three conversations I wanted to have and that I thought a couple of people would be better for them having been had.

The first essay aimed for situating the text and my read of its duality. Robert Greene II does another version of this that does a great job of situating the book in a canon. I was aiming more for situating the book in a genre. Tomato/tomatoe.

The second essay deals with the most generative aspects of the book. It was clear in my notes that reading of gender, gaps and meccas was that for me.

The third essay lands next week.

I accepted this invitation knowing that The Atlantic isn’t an academic journal. But, BTWAM is destined to land in classrooms. How could it not? I’ve already taught Coates’ essay on reparations twice. For that reason, it seemed like service to my profession, broadly defined as people, to engage the book as thoughtfully as I knew how given various constraints. I could not rely on theory, for instance. I couldn’t explain my methods. I couldn’t riff on late-stage capitalism and racism as I really wanted to do. This was not for that. But all of those things informed the 1200 or so word essays. The theory and training are there. If you can’t see them it is because you’re not looking, you’re not inclined to assume the best of me, or it’s not your job to do either.

And, I’m okay with that. I’d hope my students would appreciate engaging the zeitgeist. I can’t ask it of them if I don’t first ask it of myself.

5 thoughts on “How I Read “Between The World and Me”

  1. This post is a gift for anyone who is teaching advanced active scholarly reading as an intrinsic part of writing strategy. I’m bookmarking for my classes. Gracias.

  2. I appreciate the walk-through. I also quit reading, well, anything after I finished grad school because it did kill reading for fun. I am still relearning how to read for pleasure rather than deconstruction.

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