Monday, February 23, 2015

Native Son - Richard Wright

Well readers, I have been knocked back on my heels by a powerful classic book yet again. Before I started reading, I didn't read so much as the back of the book, so I had absolutely no idea what to expect going in. This turned out to be great, as the story took a turn I couldn't possibly have predicted. This relentless book maintains an almost unbearable tension and level of suspense throughout. I can't say I liked the main character particularly; for many reasons, I believe he isn't meant to be all that likable, he's meant to help the reader think through the author's main points - and this is very effective. The naturalistic use of language and description was skillful and made me feel I was right there in the story. In the final part of the book, one character gives a multi-page speech that is a scathing indictment of the entrenched racism in American society - I believe this speech should be required reading for everyone. All in all, this is a book that will linger in my mind and influence my thoughts for a long time. Highly recommended.

The particular edition I happened to read, which I found at the library, was made up of the original version of the book (which had been altered to remove some potentially offensive material before being offered as a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940), an introduction by Arnold Rampersad of Princeton, extensive notes, a biographical timeline, and some early criticism and Wright's responses to these critiques. This version also includes Wright's essay "How 'Bigger' Was Born," which provided a fascinating view into how the novel came to be, the inspirations, and insights into the process, which I enjoyed. I recommend this particular edition because all the other material is really relevant and adds to the reading experience.

I'm going to claim this book for the Harlem Renaissance Challenge, as Wright evidently wrote the book in Harlem in the last 1930s. The book is also #27 on the ALA's list of frequently challenged classics (the link doesn't specify, but I can guess some of the reasons, including a smattering of somewhat frank talk about sexuality).

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