3 Recent Books on Bodies and Suffering

I have a Scribd subscription and have been going through the rocky road as they change their model from all you can eat to limited monthly credits. (More on that in another post.) One great thing about it is that it has a great selection of audiobooks, which I never really got into before. Well, that’s a bit of an overstatement: The typical price and hassle made me disinclined. For a while, we were getting books on tape from the Durham Public Library and that was good fun (still one of the best libraries of my experience). Zoe and I would read to each other (which really helped with my insomnia), but we don’t do that so much anymore.

Audiobooks are really really nice for walking, which I do a lot more of than I used to.

In any case, I just finished 3 audiobooks which formed a bit of a theme:

  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (read by the author). A letter from father to son about being Black in the modern United States.
  2. Elie Wiesel, Night (read by Geroge Guidall). The second most famous Holocaust memoir (probably the most famous by a survivor; Anne Frank didn’t make it).
  3. Carolyn Maull McKinstry, While the World Watched (read by Denise George). A memoir by someone who survived the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. (The four girls who died were her friends including her best friend.)

Between the World and Me is by far the most lyrical. Probably the most common word is “body.” Coates directs our attention relentlessly to the bodily area but there is a systematic interplay between the body and our various conceptualisations. Corporal punishment is discussed extensively as a manifestation of black parents’ love under conditions of profound, pervasive fear. Coates’ own struggle with that fear and how it affected his interactions with his son are lucidly and honestly laid out. It’s a wonderful book. (And now I’m feeling the pain of not having the non-audio version ready to hand!)

I do not remember reading Night before, though it’s a standard book-list book. I remember having a copy. I remember reading The Painted Bird, but I don’t specifically remember reading Night. The role of fear, the body, and the fragility of the relationship between father and son had resonances for me with Between the World and Me. One recurring element in Between the World and Me is the death at the hands of the police of a young black man,  Prince Jones, and how that death weighs on Coates. (Coates interviews Jones’ mother.) And that is significant. In Night, Wiesel loses everyone.

While the World Watched is best in the early bits, when McKinstry describes the bombing (she was nearly killed in it!) and the protests she participated in. The world she describes there is similar to the one Coates’ describes, but, for her, the world grows better. I felt her discussion of her PSTD, associated alcoholism, and recovery elided a lot. Pretty much God does all the work with her alone and the effects on her family are little touched up except by key symbolic moments (e.g., her children were outside alone and a neighbour brings them in after some minor danger).  The last bit is mostly preaching (she has become a Dr. of Divinity).

I felt that hearing these together made them stronger, but I struggle to articulate how. I feel myself falling back on comparisons, a la Vessels of Evil, but that feels wrong. Each author uses superlatives to describe their evil experiences, but they don’t seem, objectively, similar. Each author has, to a great degree, transcended the horror they describe and are flourishing. Which almost had to happen for me to have access to their accounts. At my age, background, education, and prior knowledge, there is not much new in these. I appreciate the stories and the writing, but I’m not transformed. Not my feelings; not my thinking; I am richer afterwards, but somehow the same.

I can recommend them all. And I wouldn’t be surprised if one (or all) of them was a life changer for other people.


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