Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight – This book took me almost a month to finish but I have never read any single book about Douglass, so I had a lot to learn about his extraordinary life. I had already read so much about him through biographies of past presidents Grant and Lincoln, the Civil War, etc. And all of that is in there. But like when I read Washington’s biography, I felt like I had already learned and knew too much to really get wrapped up in large chunks of the story.
I very much enjoyed learning about his early childhood and days in bondage, his escape to freedom and finding love, purpose and family and the difficulties that come with being an icon and living life on the road.
What I hadn’t expected, was to relate to Mr. Douglass so personally as an artist. After slavery was abolished and the Civil War was over, Mr. Douglass earned a living by touring the country giving speeches. Traveling in those days was grueling enough so imagine how difficult it was for him an older, black man. It’s admirable and honorable, but a tough way to eke out a living.
But he was an artist. His art was his storytelling. <3
After a whirlwind tour giving his “How I Escaped From Slavery” speech, he fell into a depression of sorts. What I liken to “post-publication depression” that my comedy and author friends have all experienced. That feeling after a major accomplishment of, “What next? Is my last, best thing behind me? What if this is all I ever am or do or will be known for?” Douglass felt some shame in that feeling. It was a bit perverse to feel empty and longing for more. Here he had helped abolish slavery, why wasn’t that enough for him?
Reflecting back on the immediate aftermath of the war Douglass admitted that “a strange and perhaps perverse feeling came over me. Great joy over the ending of slavery was at times tinged with a feeling of sadness. I felt that I had reached the end of the noblest and best part of my life.”
I was riding my bike when I was listening to this part of the audiobook, and I laughed out loud so hard I startled a construction worker. I just couldn’t believe my ears. I say and feel this way all the time after Ochi’s Lounge and Comix closed, after my first memoir was published, after the book tour wound down, and now with QED…I replayed the section several times and shared the passage with some creative friends.
In Douglass’ case –as I and many of my friends do– he’d write new speeches, schedule another tour but the audiences weren’t always as keen on his new lectures…they wanted the greatest hit: his escape from bondage. He’d moved on and tired of that story. It was all so relatable and interesting that I wish he were here today to write a book about *that*.
Anyway, it’s a very long read and a good one and I’m glad to have gotten to know an important figure in American history in a more personal way.
Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey by A.J. Jacobs – I had read his book “It’s All Relative” since history/genetics/genealogy interests me. I enjoyed his humor and learned a bit so I decided to try out two of his other books. I have found all of his books are breezy and easy reads. His premises remind me of my friend Mark Malkoff who has filmed stunts like visiting every Starbucks in NYC in one day, having strangers carry him across Manhattan, living in an Ikea, etc. This book was just about gratitude. Be thankful. Okay. Will do. Next.
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A. J. Jacobs – In this book, Jacobs attempts to follow the Bible to the letter by taking everything literally. Most sane people agree this isn’t possible or even what the Bible is meant to be, and it’s not far into the book that even the non-sane people would agree. But he isn’t here to make fun of anyone’s beliefs. He’s fair and patient while keeping it light-hearted while not shying from pointing out some of the more outdated and ridiculous rules about punishment for crimes, mixed fabrics, dietary restrictions, etc. He also asks a question that I have wondered, “How can any woman belong to anything that’s so expressly sexist?” Some of the women I see around NYC are trapped in a cult parading as tradition, in my opinion. And that tradition/religion is dead-set on keeping women subservient.
Jacobs was raised Jewish but is agnostic. I was raised without religion really but with heavy-handed doses of crazy, evangelical, speaking-in-tongues, divine healing nonsense shoved down my throat by Dad’s relatives who were frantically trying to brainwash me during my short summer vacations on the Crews farm. Time was of the essence, ya know? Rapture was imminent, after all.
In the end Jacobs remains agnostic as do I. He learned what good people already know: Life is sacred, be kind.