A Year in Reading: Robert Jones, Jr.

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2021 was the first year in which I read books as a published author and I realized that there is a distinct difference between reading books as an average reader and as someone whose own book is now out in the world. First, I no longer have time for “pleasure reading.” I receive many requests to read other authors’ books to possibly provide a blurb. I also read the books of authors whom I will be in conversation with for book tours and other events. What that means (because I am, by nature, a slow reader) is that I have to delay reading the books that I purchased to read as part of my favorite pastime, and my “To Be Read” (TBR) pile grows taller and taller by the minute because I continue to buy the books I want to read as I am reading the books I’m asked to read. But it’s really a win-win. I get to read some great books way before they hit the shelves, books like Neruda on the Park by Cleyvis Natera, Brother Alive by Zain Khalid, The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan, and The Town of Babylon by Alejandro Varela.

Happily, the books that I am asked to read become books that I want to read, as I discovered when I read Mateo Askaripour’s Black Buck earlier this year. I didn’t think I would be a fan of absurdity and satire until Askaripour’s novel showed me how it could be done in a way that is innovative, smart, biting, and timely. I’ve not seen discussions of race, class, and gender done in quite this way. The title of the book, which works on a multitude of levels, is also quite daring. I was lucky enough to be asked to moderate a stop on Dawnie Walton’s book tour for The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, and read the book in preparation for our conversation. This was the book that made me feel like an anxious reader again. Opal and Nev is perfect in every conceivable way, easily my favorite novel of 2021. I haven’t been this enthralled by a book in a very long time and really didn’t want it to end. It’s a wonderful reevaluation of musical history that will having you using Google to determine if the characters and situations are real. It’s superb.

I also got to speak with Maurice Carlos Ruffin about his collection of short stores, The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced as much joy, pain, laughter, and sadness as I have while reading these stories set in New Orleans. Ruffin gives the Black residents of that city the depth, breadth, and attention they deserve. The opening story alone is magnificent, and I’m left asking how Ruffin is able to pack so much meaning into so few words.

Dante Stewart’s Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle is another book I read before interviewing the author on a book tour. Unlike the aforementioned works of fiction, Shoutin’ is memoir about the trials, tribulations, and illuminations of a young Black man from the American South who is attempting to rethink Christianity such that it can be used in favor of liberation rather than subjugation. And this young man, at age 29, is writing on the level of James Baldwin, who is clearly one of his influences. His memoir is full of truth, love, and hope.

Long Division by Kiese Laymon is the only book that I’ve read twice: I read the original version some years ago and fell in love with it. I later learned that it wasn’t the version the author wanted to release and he bought back the rights to rerelease it in the manner he had intended—a book where the end is in the middle. Depending on which direction you start the book, the latter half is flipped upside down, replicating the plot in ingenious ways as it tells the story of a Black boy in the South coming of age in the midst of love, violence, and time traveling. If I loved the first version of this book, I absolutely adored the revised version.  

I had the esteemed honor of reviewing legendary author Gayl Jones’s first novel in 22 years, Palmares, for The New York Times. And what an experience that reading was. Jones is a master writer. While reading Palmares, it often felt like I was reading something written for another dimension; that’s how complex and glowing her skill is. This story of a young woman attempting to find a lost love and escape the confines of slavery is one for the ages. A masterpiece that will be studied for hundreds, if not thousands of years.


Lastly, I’m currently reading Honorée Fanone Jeffers’s The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois, an 800-page epic that caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey and became a celebrated Oprah’s Book Club pick. I’m only 125 pages in and I can see why Ms. Winfrey selected this rich, lyrical, genius of a story about a Black woman whose entire lineage is told from beginning to present, revealing the complex history of the United States.
Other books on my list that I haven’t had the chance to read yet, but really, really want to:
Felon: Poems by Reginald Dwayne Betts
Punch Me Up to the Gods: A Memoir by Brian Broome
Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement by Tarana Burke
Everyman by M. Shelley Connor
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Matrix by Lauren Groff
Zorrie by Laird Hunt
Hell of a Book by Jason Mott
Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth by Wole Soyinka

And at least a hundred more that I have not listed. Happy reading!

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005