Author: Hanif Abdurraqib
Summary: Well written, moving, and informative, this definitely deserved the nomination.
I really enjoyed reading the National Book Award shortlist last year, so I was excited to attempt the longlist this year. Since there are only two weeks between the longlist and shortlist announcements, I decided to start with this shorter book on a lighter topic – the history of a band. For the same reason this book seemed like an easy starting place, I was surprised it was nominated for an award I associate with information dense writing and serious topics. I’ll be the first to say I underestimated this book. The author does an incredible job using the story of this band and his own history listening to them to explore the history of black culture and politics in the US.
My one complaint with this book is that it occasionally felt disjointed. Sometimes a chapter would read as a series of essays on two or three different topics, with the connection only becoming clear in the last few paragraphs of the chapter. Other chapters had a lyrical flow to them that was perfect for a book about music. My favorite chapters were love letters from the author to band members. Sections where the author discussed his own experiences with racism were also particularly strong. His love for the band; his personal experiences; and the personal info he shared about band members gave this book a lot of heart. It gave the different political and cultural moments the author describes a visceral impact.
Reading this felt like reading poetry. It was a ‘quick, easy read’ because the prose wasn’t difficult. But it also had layers of meaning which rewarded spending more time with it. One way that I chose to spend time on this was by listening to songs the author mentioned. While hop-hop isn’t a genre I enjoy and I’m not sure I’m Quest’s intended audience, I found listening to these songs while reading the author’s analysis surprisingly fun. Sometimes I liked his description of this songs more than the songs themselves. I found myself feeling more affection for these songs that weren’t really my thing than I would have expected though. I was more impressed by these songs once I understood what they meant to the band and to the author; how they were made; and how they fit into the history of music.
As with reading Dorothea Lange’s biography and books of her photography together, blending listening with reading here made for a richer reading experience. I’m glad that I’m more familiar with this iconic band and that I now at least recognize some of their more well known songs. I feel like reading this book has made me a more well-rounded person. I learned from it and itt addressed weighty topics with beautiful writingl. I could definitely see it making the shortlist on Monday.