Uncommon Books

Most graduates, I’m sure, can’t tell you the day after — much less years after — what the commencement speakers said at their graduation ceremony. In normal times, it all becomes a big blur of ill-fitting caps, swirling black gowns, solemn processionals, deep exhalations, and celebratory balloons.

But I remember clearly one commencement address because the man who gave it gave me a lasting gift.

At my graduation from the MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles on June 24, 2007, one of the commencement speakers urged us graduates to maintain a commonplace book. I’d never heard of such a thing, so I was intrigued and paid attention.

Keep a commonplace book from this point onward, he advised. Use it to write about each book that you read. Preserve what you learn from those books. They are your teachers….

He explained that commonplace books have a long and rich literary history. Neither diaries nor journals, which generally are chronological and introspective, commonplace books have been used for centuries by readers, writers, students, and scholars to help remember useful ideas or facts. Over the years, commonplace books have come to include any manuscript that an individual uses to collect material on a common theme.

So ever since my graduation from AULA thirteen years ago, I’ve followed that speaker’s advice and kept a commonplace book in which I write up the books I’ve read. Not really book reports or book reviews, these one- or two-page entries for me are more like responses: The book has spoken to me, and I choose to talk back. These write-ups are also a way to chronicle the books I’ve read. Otherwise, I fear I might forget them.

My Commonplace Book #3

Now that I’m on my third volume of commonplace books, I enjoy looking back occasionally to see where I’ve been, literarily speaking: What books have I spent time with and welcomed into my mind and my heart? Where have these books taken me? How have they shaped my thinking, enlarged my soul?

Africa has featured prominently. My own four published books take place largely in Africa, a continent I love as if it were my adoptive mother, having lived there, in three different countries, for a total of nearly nine years. Many of the life-changing books I’ve read have been by African writers, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, and Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime; as well as memoirs by white authors born and raised in Africa, such as Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and Peter Godwin’s When a Crocodile Eats the Sun and Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa.

I’ve also striven to understand, through reading brilliant books by outstanding African-American authors, race relations in the United States, where the dynamics are far different from those in Africa. I’ve wished – no, required – these authors to teach me, to allow me to walk in their shoes (or their fictional characters’ shoes) as I walk through their books’ pages, to help me understand what it’s like to be the descendent of slaves and to be treated like third-class citizens in their own country, a country that professes equality for all. These books have permanently raised my consciousness on this vital issue.

Here, then, drawn from the more than three hundred books I’ve written up in the volumes of my commonplace books to date, in the order that I read them — and including their publication dates and a very brief summary — are the books I’ve read in recent years that have fulfilled these wishes for me.  If you haven’t already read them, I would urge you to do so. Perhaps form a book group and use this short list as a starting point, or suggest this list to your existing book club. It’s never been more important to learn what books such as these can teach us.

And I wholeheartedly welcome your comments and additions:

  • Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (2004) – a moving and candid memoir of his early years, and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006) – based on his years in the U.S. Senate, both by Barack Obama.
  • The Color of Water (2006) — a memoir of growing up in a black neighborhood as the child of an interracial marriage, by James McBride.
  • Dust Tracks on the Road (1942) – an acclaimed memoir by the African-American writer whom Alice Walker called “a genius of the South,” Zora Neale Hurston.
  • Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (2003) – an eloquent biography of one of the most intriguing cultural figures of the 20th century, by Valerie Boyd.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010) – a brilliant chronicle of the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South in search of a better life, by Isabel Wilkerson.
  • The Known World (2009) – this historical novel tells the story of a freed black man in Virginia who owns thirty-three slaves, by Edward P. Jones.
  • Invisible Man (1995) – Ellison’s first novel won a National Book Award and established him as one of the key writers of the 20th century, by Ralph Ellison.
  • All Our Names (2015) – a deeply moving story about a love affair between an American woman and an African man in 1970s America, by Dinaw Mengestu.
  • Black Boy: An American Hunger (1945) – the story of Wright’s coming of age and development as a writer, by Richard Wright.
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1984) – this poetic and powerful memoir has become a modern American classic beloved worldwide, by Maya Angelou.
  • Between the World and Me (2015) – this memoir, written as a series of letters to his teenage son, confronts the notion of race in America and how it has shaped American history, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
  • Becoming (2018) – an intimate, powerful, and inspiring memoir by the former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

P.S. – After having just seen the brilliant film “Just Mercy,” next on my reading list is the 2015 book by Bryan Stevenson, of the same title, from which the movie was drawn. As Michelle Obama says in her memoir, “Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.”

19 thoughts on “Uncommon Books”

  1. I LOVE the idea of a commonplace book, Bonnie! Not only as a place to record the nuggets I take away from reading a particular book but–as I’m loath to admit–just so I can remember what I’ve read! Thank you for your thoughtful reading suggestions for this important time.

    1. Thank YOU, Roxanne! So happy you like the idea of commonplace books for recording our book-memories. I don’t have my Vol. 1 here with me in Mexico, so I could only draw from the relevant books in Vol. 2. There are SO many books in this important genre! So much more to learn as we continue “becoming.”

  2. Great list, Bonnie! Between the World and Me is one of my all-time favorites. I am now reading How to be an Antiracist, which is fabulous. And I realize that Goodreads is my “commonplace book.: It has a list of every book I have ever read (that I could remember). Besos Amiga.

  3. I love you, Bonnie. I cried when I read your list of books on race. You are the least racist person I’ve ever known—of any color. You are an inspiration to us all.

  4. I am kicking myself that I have never thought about keeping a commonplace book, although, for the last few years, I have kept a record in Goodreads. I would like to add Ta-Nehisi Coates’ novel The Water Dancer to the list.

  5. Dear Bon,

    What a wonderful post. I love commonplace books, but I’m afraid it’s a dying art. You name many great books, some that I have read, but many I have not. I read Things Fall Apart in college, but I have little memory of it. A copy of it is in a pile of books sitting in front of me. I’m teaching it next year. I want very much to read: The Warmth of Other Suns, The Known World, and Invisible Man. I also want to read all the other books on your list. I am so moved and motivated by the Black Lives Matter protests. I’m trying to educate myself as much as I can by reading diverse voices.


    1. Dearest Paul — I seem to be intent on keeping dying arts alive! And not just maintaining commonplace books but also reading books. I fear we’re a dying breed, Paul dear. 🙁

  6. I was forwarded your blog by a friend. Really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for the list of books to read, some of which I have read. Look forward to reading more from you.

    1. So good to hear from you, Ann! And please thank your friend from me for forwarding my WOW. Please subscribe (it’s free), so you can receive new posts directly every week. Best wishes, Bonnie

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.