My Year in Re-Reading After 40: Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

I turned 40 this spring, marking at least the halfway point of a reasonably long life, and I’ve come to realize that there are many books on my to-be-read pile that I will not read this lifetime. Like your TBR pile, I’m sure, my stack of books is approximately 3.17 miles high. These unread books stare at me from the shelves and wish lists, silently accusing me of shirking my reading duty. I’d like to credit myself with an antilibrary, but the more homely truth is that life is short and children’s soccer practices are long (so, so long).

But be not ashamed, fellow book-shirkers. The Stoic philosopher Seneca hit upon the solution to our restless bookish ways back in AD 64 in his Letters:

“Be careful … about this reading of many different authors and books of every description. You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment form them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. … If you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read.”

Unlike what the good philosopher Seneca proposed, however, I’m not going to be making re-acquaintance strictly with works of “unquestionable genius.” Or rather, let us say that I’m going to redefine genius downward. I’m going to re-read some books that contain a spark of brilliance, howsoever questionable, that have stuck with me throughout the years. No one’s going to be perusing my emails for wisdom 1952 years from now, so, no pressure.

Now, it just so happens that this month’s selection is an all-timer, that I believe people will be reading centuries hence, but at heart I’m not as entirely highbrow as that. Later in the year I’m going to be diving back into a potboiler Gold Medal truck-stop paperback, the lead-off book of a forgotten fantasy series, an 80s anti-drug PSA in the form of a comic book, and a forgotten short story by a now-famous author, who was decidedly obscure at the time. It’s not all blasts from the last millennia, either: one of the entries came out in 2014, and another just last year.

These books, I can’t quote with any degree of accuracy from them, the plotlines are likely to be garbled, character names mixed up or forgotten entirely. Hell, sometimes I can’t even remember the names of their authors. But they’ve stuck with me all the same. By way of contrast, take In Search of Lost Time, whose seven ponderous volumes I once slogged through in a fit of pure masochistic book-nerdery when I was in my early thirties. What I mainly recall now is that it took ol’ Marcel a reaaaaaaaaaallllly long time to dunk and eat that damn madeleine. Despite that tidal wave of words, or perhaps because of them, those seven revered classics of the Western canon failed almost completelyto make much impression on me. Whereas my memory of a childhood comic book where UFOs descend on a World War II tank battle remains so vivid I can plainly see the very curvature of the font. (If only I could recall the title, I’d find the damn thing on Amazon!)

Likewise, each of the books I’ll re-read this year left an indelible mark on my memory and consciousness. And while that may well say a good deal more about me than the books themselves, I’ve no special regard for the “personal” essay. I’m not going to inflict my own madeleine-dunking on you. I’d rather discuss the books themselves.

Four ground rules apply:

1) I have to already own the book.

2) I can only have read it once.

3) Before re-reading, I can hold the book but only crack it open to smell it; I can only write down what I directly remember.

4) Upon re-reading, I can’t make any reference to secondary sources. I’ll only comment on the book itself.

My aim is get down the impression of these books before reading them. No cheating, either. No wikis, cliff notes, Goodreads, or quotable quotes. Nothing that will jog the memory or revive a long-buried feeling. Before re-reading, I want only those impressions harrowed and winnowed down by time, the visceral gut punches that I can still feel even years later. And then compare them to the actual book itself. Neither, when writing about my re-reading, will I consult any sources about the book in question, no scholarly sources, on interviews, no blog posts or Tweets. Just me and the pages.

It’s entirely possible, even likely, that my impressions will be mistaken, that I will misremember names, places, even plot happenings. Memory is tricky that way; I may have whole books wrong.. It may turn out that a book I’ve long thought of as wondrous in its linguistic fireworks turns out to merely pedestrian. Puerile. Pedantic. Not worth a re-read or even the pages it’s printed on.

Even worse yet, I run the risk that, say, that fantasy book I’ve treasured in the corridors of memory all these years turns out to be … dull. (Like watching insipid superhero movies as an adult.) You may be best off not to re-visit the theme park that thrilled you as a kid … but I’m going to anyway.

Flintstones Park is as dead and gone as my childhood.

Flintstones Park is as dead and gone as my childhood.

But I’ve got to think there’s a reason these books have stayed with me. I’m hoping that reason is that they’re awesome. Maybe the thrill of the re-read just will measure up to the thrill of the original read. I’m aiming to find out!

***

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

BEFORE READING:

I own a pretty old copy of this book, judging from the 60₵ price on the spine. Yep, smells old, that particular musty scent old paperbacks acquire upon long acquaintance with an unloved shelf. The pages have that old green tinge to the edges, too, an effect I haven’t seen in a long time. Why don’t they make books like this anymore?

Green.

Green.

I read this book sometime in my twenties, though I don’t remember where, or where I bought it. (I’m told there exist an amazing class of people who mark the date and location of each new book they buy on its title page, but I’m not one of that bookkeeping tribe.) I had James Baldwin on a list of must-reads, and it appears I was in a used bookstore somewhere (Ft. Collins? Tokyo? Penang?) and complied.

I do remember Go Tell It on the Mountain struck me speechless when I finished it. I had never read anything quite like it, and I remember swearing on the spot that I would re-read it regularly. Fifteen years or so later, I am here to make good on the promise.

What I mainly recall is the soaring force of the redemption and conversion of the main character (whose name I cannot recall, nor can I recall precisely what sins he longed to be forgiven for). A scene in a church, dust rising from the floorboards as the choir stamped and hollered and sang of God’s glory, mixed in my memory now with my favorite Blind Boys of Alabama song, which generates the same feeling in me.

Set to the melody of “House of the Rising Sun,” no less — if church music was always like this, I’d go to a lot more church

This experience of feeling the true presence of God went on for pages and pages, I think, the language rising to greater and more impossible heights with each paragraph. I was plainly jealous of that boy and his encounter with Divine — how I longed for a genuine religious experience like that. Still haven’t. So I guess I’m still jealous.

I vividly recall one other part that stemmed from its bygone era. Another of the main characters, a maid for rich folks in another part of New York City, leaves her baby child unattended in a crib all day. This did not serve as an important part of the narrative; I thought there might have been some suspense attached, but nope. It was just the routine way in which poor folks in that day dealt with the need for childcare, and as a parent myself now, in a vastly different and more privileged era, I’m scandalized by the very thought. We never used a crib for my daughter, but we did with my son, and it’s to imagine having left him there for more than a few minutes beyond sleep.

But what if you had no choice? What if leaving him there was the only way to keep the baby fed? Those are the sorts of choices and the sort of world the characters in Go Tell It on the Mountain lived in, as I recollect before reading.

AFTER READING:

What I want to know is this: how in God’s holy name did I allow iron-dark, unimaginable ages to pass before re-reading this book?

Yep, stole that phrase right from page 80. Also featured: sincerity. So much sincerity.

Yep, stole that phrase right from page 80. Also featured: sincerity. So much sincerity.

What strikes me most about this magisterial book (“magisterial” seems to have been invented specifically to describe the gothic grandeur of this book) is its almost unbearable sincerity. Perhaps sincerity was more in vogue in 1952, when the book was published, or perhaps the daily realities of a systematically white supremacist racist America drove any impulse for irony from James Baldwin’s brain.

Not many (any?) writers working today would write without at least some semblance of ironic detachment about a conversion experience like this: “The mist on this rise had fled away, and he felt that he stood, as he faced the lone tree, beneath the naked eye of Heaven. Then, in a moment, there was silence, only silence, everywhere — the very birds had ceased to sing, and no dogs barked, and no rooster crowed for day. And he felt that this silence was God’s judgment; that all creation had been still before the just and awful wrath of God.” But Baldwin isn’t pulling any punches. His characters mean it, and if he didn’t, he did a masterful job of keeping any air of corrosive skepticism from the text. If Baldwin didn’t believe in every word of the Bible, you’d never know it from this book.

How about a man describing his ambition thusly: “He desired in his soul, with fear and trembling (bonus Kierkegaard reference!), all the glories that his mother prayed he should find. Yes, he wanted power — he want to know himself to be the Lord’s anointed, His well-beloved, and worth, nearly, of that snow-white dove which had been sent down from Heaven to testify that Jesus was the Son of God.” These are not sentences intended to win prizes for sophistication. God love Baldwin for it.

Again and again Baldwin hammers home the sincere belief of the characters that they are not of this world, that one day, one day soon, they will be called forth as God had once called the Hebrews out of Egypt. That the world is unjust they take for granted: black women will hauled off to be gang-raped in the fields by white men; black men will be hauled to jail and beaten by New York cops. In some respects Go Tell It on the Mountain (an unmovable, unanswering mountain, howsoever long and hard one cries out to it) is a long cry against the injustice; in others a long sigh of patient endurance against that injustice, a long hymn of the long wait for the next, better world. As the characters themselves seesaw between longing for the promises of Heaven and anguish at the sordid realities of Earth, so does the narrative whip between hope and soul-stomping despair.

Whatever Go Tell It on the Mountain takes as its concerns, these concerns are not petty. Its epiphanies are not the dull, workshopped sort beloved of MFAers. Baldwin’s characters experience wrenching, agonizing direct experiences of the Almighty Himself. Theysuffer the worst betrayals of all, those wrought upon each other by blood, father upon son, man upon pregnant woman, daughter upon mother, sister upon brother, aunts upon nieces.

And yet the cumulative effect is somehow uplifting, a conversion experience in itself. I don’t think Baldwin meant to inflict some small-minded moral upon us to the effect that one only achieves salvation through suffering, though that is the essence of the Christian message, here conceived. Nor does the book contain a clarion call to right the horrific injustice of this world. The characters do not walk out of all-night church session looking to change the world. They only want to save souls.

So, that religious experience I recalled before re-reading? Turns out my memory had amalgamated the mystical interludes of several characters: Gabriel, the father; John the (bastard) son; Elizabeth the mother, Florence the sister and aunt. All four encounter God in one form or another, throw themselves to dusty floors to fall upon the Mercy of the Blood of Christ. John’s experience lasts all night long, and is the most intense. He does not just see a vision of hell, he dances upon the flames, and only by the great grace of God Himself is he saved from those awful licking flames.

When he returns to the quotidian world, he is forever changed, true enough, but his adoptive father still despises him, his mother remains weak and silent, and he is still badly tempted by sin — most notably by a budding crush upon his older brother in the faith, Elisha (the homoerotic undertone that runs throughout Go Tell It on the Mountain deserves an essay all its own). He is also all of fourteen years old.

I’m not sure I had all that much to be jealous of, really; I think the poverty of John’s experience — both in real terms and by the fact that his tyrant of a father keeps the entire family behind closed doors, away from the evil city, as much as possible — led directly to the wealth of his journeys in the spiritual world. But conversion is a tenuous, uncertain thing, as Baldwin repeatedly makes clear. Better that he were free in a city that didn’t hate him for his skin color, where he could walk down the avenues with a dime in his hand for the picture show without fear, and where his future was his to decide.

In point of fact, John, if he were 14 in 1952, would be 78 today. True enough, he’d have seen great change arrive on the streets of New York, but as we remember Eric Garner and Amadou Diallo, not as much as he’d like. In truth I picture him as Bill Cobbs who played the preacher on that one episode of The Sopranos.

“Only shit in the Bible came out of Pharoah’s ass when Moses parted the Red Sea.”

Wise but not wizened, bowed but not embittered. Given the timbre of Go Tell It on the Mountain, that would count as a happy ending for a boy like John.

It turns out, also, that I misremembered the part about the baby in the crib all day (the baby who turns out to be John in the book). His mother, Elizabeth works the night shift cleaning an office building on Wall Street, leaving John sleeping in the crib, and the landlady, who drinks too much, checks in on him from time to time. Still not something a parent would likely do today, but hardly as egregious as I recall.

I like to dog-ear books; I find writing in the margins too cramped and underlining with pen too messy. Besides, it’s fun to seek out what line or paragraph in a given page truly caught your attention the first time through, what words convey that particular rattle of genius, or humor, or pathos. Sometimes a dog-eared page will leave me baffled, sometimes I find what I’m looking for, but more often I read the page with new eyes, and find something else that catches my eye. Before, I had a few pages dog-eared in Go Tell It on the Mountain — now nearly a quarter of the book is dog-eared. Too much, I suppose, but then again, I could’ve dog-eared every single page. That’s the kind of book Go Tell It on the Mountain is. As an admiring reader, I can really pay it no higher compliment.

Look at all those dog-ears.

Look at all those dog-ears.

So that’s book one of twelve in My Year of Re-Reading. I wonder if any of the others will live up to the tremendous gauntlet laid down by Go Tell It on the Mountain. I doubt it, but then again, next month’s book isn’t really meant to compete on such a plane. That said, Go Tell It On the Mountain didn’t have me dancing through the cornfields of my Nebraska boyhood, waving a branch like a mighty sword, slaying enemies and saving the princess, longing with every febrile beat of a young boy’s heart for a quest that would take me away from the farm and into the wildlands.

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