I am going to attempt to explain why I intentionally went an entire year without reading a new book. I am not quite sure I can find the words to articulate why I did this. And, even if I do find those words, I’m not quite sure my book fast will make any sense. But I’m going to try. Here goes.
Book proposals often include a section where you’re asked to list and synopsize recent books that draw similarities to the book you’re attempting to sell. The point of this is to prove that there’s a market for your type of content and also to articulate exactly what distinguishes your book from those other books. (If you can’t do the latter convincingly, that’s probably proof your book might not need to exist.)
I am writing a collection of essays that also serve as a bit of a memoir. Included will be commentaries on race, racism, blackness, masculinity, sex, Pittsburgh, my parents, basketball and popular culture. Much of it is intended to be funny. Much of it is not. Also, it is vulnerable, messy and (in parts) terrifyingly unflattering.
Basically, on a surface topical and thematic level, there isn’t much distinguishing this from other recent essay collections and memoirs written by black Americans. What makes it different is me—my humor, my insights, my tone and my voice. There are quite a bit of people and quite a bit of resources invested in the belief that I’m a good-enough and unique-enough writer to make these unoriginal topics and themes interesting and compelling.
Even before this process began, I’d always been hyperconscious of originality, even if originality doesn’t quite exist. I want people to know, within the first few lines, that they’re reading a piece written by Damon Young. I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing. But it definitely is a thing. And I’ve definitely taken it to the extremes before, being so concerned with stylistic flourish or perhaps the absurdity of a particular angle that I neglect the actual content.
The book, however, has transmuted this angst into a full-fledged anxiety. Whereby I do everything within reason to ensure there are no parts of anyone else’s books or thoughts or allusions or analogies or references in my book. Only, this is literally impossible to do.
One, because there’s absolutely no way to know what’s in everyone’s books. And, also, because even the most unique style and voice and tone is nothing but a distillation of all the styles and voices and tones that person has consumed.
So I just did what I thought was the most logical thing: I stopped reading books. If I couldn’t prevent even subconscious overlap from happening, at the very least I’d be able to look in the mirror and tell myself that it was unintentional. Which is somewhat akin to being a kid so scared of his teacher accusing him of copying his neighbor’s answers during a spelling quiz that he takes the test with his eyes closed.
Anyway, I’m almost done with the second draft now. And, most importantly, I’ve come to realize exactly how dumb this fast was. I can’t think of any sort of creative activity where the best way to get better at it is not to consume any of it. And since this fast is over, I can finally read some of the books that friends and fellow authors have sent and recommended to me over the past year, including:
Electric Arches, by Eve L. Ewing (Haymarket Books)
Poetry intimidates the fuck out of me. I read it and sometimes it makes me feel like I don’t know how to read (or write). Still, I’m looking forward to reading Eve’s book, just to see how the expert command and economy of language she exhibits on Twitter translates to this medium.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, by Hanif Abdurraqib (Two Dollar Radio)
I met Hanif in New York City last year, as we were both invited there as part of a two-day-long convening of critics of color. (Eve, one of the organizers of the event, was there, too.) And then, a week after that trip, I got a text from the homie Samantha Irby, who was so excited about and in love with Hanif’s book that she demanded I allow her to buy and send me a copy of it. I obliged.
I began reading it last week, and there’s a passage in his essay about the Weeknd that’s one of those things that are written so fucking perfectly that it made me drop the book and think about farming or something for a living.
Oh, and speaking of Samantha ...
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby (Penguin Random House)
My book fast began when I was halfway through her book last year. Which is no commentary on the book. It’s fucking hilarious and sad and vulgar and vulnerable and all the things I’d expect a book from someone like Samantha to be. I just happened to start reading it during a weird time. And now the times are ... incrementally less weird? I don’t know things.
Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America, by Stacey Patton (Beacon Press)
I met Stacey last year when I spoke at Morgan State University (where she teaches). And while I hadn’t read her book yet, I addressed (and agreed with) the themes in it in a piece I wrote on VSB last year about corporal punishment.
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, by Brittney Cooper (St. Martin’s Press)
It would be rude to continue not to read a memoir penned by one of your favorite people when it’s sitting on a desk in your dining room. And even ruder (and stupider) when considering that you’re a part of her book tour.