Reading is a kind of breathing for me. I grew up with four siblings in tiny houses and apartments. Privacy was a luxury. Reading provided personal space to negotiate, no matter what was going on across the room or at the other end of a sofa. Books were always around. Pulp Westerns my father read till they slipped into his lap or dropped to the linoleum when he fell asleep. Romances and best-sellers my mom brought home from Mrs. B's, a lending library where she clerked part-time. Books from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where my uncle Otis escorted me Saturdays and taught me to use the card catalog. I couldn't have articulated it back then, but I understood I wasn't being told everything I needed to know by family, friends, the newspapers, and radio, certainly not everything I dreamed I must, must grasp. Reading didn't exactly free me but turned me loose in worlds as different from home as movies, the Highland Park Zoo. Worlds not pinned down by color or poverty, worlds unpredictable as my body's hungers, its spurts of overwhelming growth, curiosity, and fear. Reading was a medium like air, water, earth I could not do without if I wished to keep chasing whatever kind of creature I might turn out to be.
Reading's also my business. For over 40 years, I've earned a living by teaching writing and reading. I struggle daily with the impossible task of maintaining intimacy with classics and keeping up with contemporary authors.
A brief, belated warning label: I hate lists. Consider them—from best-sellers to best booties—symptoms of media hype, our culture of quick fixes and runaway consumption. Of course, lists also can be fun and/or necessary, especially for a teacher of literature. So I submit this list as a snapshot—momentary, arbitrary—emblematic of a vital, ongoing process that might generate a different list tomorrow. John Edgar Wideman is the author of God's Gym and is working on a novel about Frantz Fanon.
What's on John Edgar Wideman's Bookshelf? Read more!