Wednesday, April 3, 2024

James, Not Jim.

I seldom read fiction anymore. At least fiction of the non-Classic, non-epic sort. I try to re-read the Iliad and the Odyssey once a year. They are like looking at a great painting or talking to a great friend. You learn something each time you approach them. But fiction, per se, I've strayed away from. Somehow, my old man brain prefers the more straightforward world of histories and biography. Even if they're not really any more straightforward.

For whatever reason, however, last week I downloaded Percival Everett's latest book, James. 

I hadn't read or heard any reviews, though I knew it had been reviewed by Dwight Garner of The New York Times--a reviewer I try to read regularly and whose book of quotations I prize. More, I did see the headline and subhead as well as the excellent illustration below. You can read the review here. You can buy the book (and should) here.

I'll admit, when I do read fiction I often go into it with a fair amount of cynicism. If the writer is getting all hoity-toity, precious and deep-dish on me, I'll put the volume aside like I tune out ad people who talk about brand-storytelling or use words like cinematography when they're talking about the camerawork in a mayonnaise commercial.

As Huck himself might vernacular, I don't much cotton to talk like that. 

On the other hand, as Slim Pickens said to Harvey Korman in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles," "You use your tongue purtier than a $20 whore." 

I'll say the same, political correctness be damned, of Everett's "James." And Everett's gifts show themselves early. And I was fairly knocked out of my reading nook. 

James toggles like a gamer switching screens as he jumps between the Black patois demanded of him by his owners and his natural, preferred and more eloquent "white" language. He understands the uses and the meaning of language in a way advertising people cannot even fathom. Not only the meaning of words, but the semiotics of language. Not the meaning of the words themselves but, larger, the context they convey.

Here's a passage where James teaches his children how to survive in the white world. And language is a survival skill. Ergo, the Stepin' Fetchit minstrel shit that Henry Louis Gates wrote about in his great "Stony the Road." (Another book worth reading.)

This big below is from Garner's review:

As an amateur historian with an avid interest in America, I read a lot of books about race. Despite the faux outrage of the DeSantis, anti-critical-race-theorists (anti-reality-theorists), the history of America is the history of race. The two cannot be separated. In fact, I'd contend that American "exceptionalism" is largely a product of American racism. Most of the grand edifices and great institutions of America were built by slave labor.

As they say, "You could lookit up."

But this is an advertising blog. 

I promise to stay largely grounded in the banalities of our business. Not the larger issues of the world.

Though sometimes, like today, I choose to write about language. And the meaning of words behind the very meaning of words.

If you're thinking of finding something to think about, think about reading "James." And sharing it.

It's one of those rare books the world would be better off if everyone read.

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