“Book clubs are frustrating affairs,” says Philip Weinstein, a professor of English at Swarthmore College who will be running one of these irritating to-dos starting Thursday in Aquinnah and traveling through five town libraries during the spring. “But they’re provocative, too,” he qualifies, sipping tea in the brightly-lit front room of his Aquinnah home. Mr. Weinstein hopes this will be particularly true of the up-coming discussions, which will take in five novels dealing with race in the American experience.
The books to be discussed as part of the new reading group Fictions of Race are about 30 years apart in publication date and span the 20th and 21st centuries. There will be a month between meetings to allow readers to get through the challenging books on Mr. Weinstein’s schedule. Going chronologically, the group will discuss William Faulkner’s Go Down Moses next Thursday, Jan. 31; Richard Wright’s Native Son in early March at West Tisbury; The Confessions of Nat Turner by the late Tisbury resident William Styron at the Vineyard Haven library; Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon at West Tisbury in early May; and finally Edward Jones’s The Known World in Oak Bluffs this June.
The professor is keen to note that you can’t read these books in a day: “It’s crucial to do the reading. And what you have to have is the willingness to stay with complexity and confusion, to see why it wasn’t worked out earlier.”
According to Mr. Weinstein, the aforementioned frustration results when one person’s experience of a book, which is personal, doesn’t relate to others’. But, he says, verbalizing what you think about a book is often essential, and the discussions can form part of your final experience of the book in important ways. Also, just as discussion can change your impression of a book, some books inspire discussion that goes beyond the realms of fiction appreciation, though Mr. Weinstein is of two minds about this.
“There are two poles,” says Mr. Weinstein, a William Faulkner expert who will continue work on a part-critical-reading, part-biography of the author between these discussions. “One is that you’re working for the revolution reading the right books. The other is W. H. Auden’s view, that poetry makes nothing happen. But there’s no predicting what ideas burn up what minds. The possibility of action is real, it’s just unpredictable.”
While the books in the course deal in history — even Mr. Jones’s 2003 The Known World deals with slave ownership by newly freed slaves in the 19th century — race is a perennial issue, says Mr. Weinstein.
“It’s the illness at the heart of American history. And history everywhere is pressing on what we say,” he says. Illustrating his point, he describes the Memphis, Tenn., public high school he attended from 1953 to 1958 as new civil rights laws met with the entrenched racism of the American south.
“There were no black people [attending the school] at the time, except those working in the cafeteria, and the principal said he’d leave before accepting blacks. When I asked my chemistry teacher why he thought there would be harassment and violence if blacks were let in, he said ‘You must be some kind of nigger lover.’ Then when I left, in the 1960s, the Memphis education system jumped and now it is all black graduates. But they don’t go to college. White liberals won’t make their children pay for their principles, so they send them to private schools. Race is a permanent issue in American culture.”
Inevitably this makes the subject challenging to satisfyingly broach. When Mr. Weinstein taught a course on race in fiction for Swarthmore alumni in New York, he found the attendees at the New York lectures, who were there not for credits but out of interest, were open; the 18 to 22-year-olds at Swarthmore were defensive during the same course.
“Racial realities are delicate and stubborn,” he says. “When you’re candid, it risks being embarrassing — or wounding. It’s a tall order to be candid and not wound — when does candour become obtuse? When does civility become superficiality? Hopefully we can thrash through this vexed territory together.”
He hopes the topic will be particularly intriguing on an Island such as this, with its racial diversity. This is something he wants to address directly — and he was keen to discuss the work of a black writer in Oak Bluffs, a town with a historical, significant black population. He is particularly interested in getting good question-and-answer sessions at the readings. “There’s no right position, though there are worse or better ones obviously . . . ” he says.
When Mr. Weinstein, who is on a year-long sabbatical in Aquinnah until this summer, hosted his first Vineyard reading group in the fall of last year at the Aquinnah library entitled White, Black, Yellow and Red, taking in the history of white America’s attempted genocide of Native America, he found an energetic and responsive crowd. While this reading club will focus solely on novels about black slavery, Mr. Weinstein says that the Island will provide a good backdrop for discussion of race more generally. “Here successful white people have pockets deep enough to have grand houses with waterfront views,” he says. “But in the 1840s a black population started up and it has been a vacation spot for black Americans for a long time. Meanwhile the Native American population has been economically pushed Westward...” he says.
While eager to broach such topics at the discussions the professor is keen to stay on message. “The key is to move among these issues without forgetting about the great books,” he says.
The club’s first discussion is Thursday, Jan. 31, 5:30 p.m. at Aquinnah library.