Stride Toward Freedom by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1958, Harper)
For many today, Dr. Martin Luther King’s words mean “the I have a dream speech”. For others, they mean “his Birmingham jail essay.” Those writings are iconic, but they are used by educators to define his philosophy by showing only a sliver of his work that they can use to promote an agenda.
Stride Toward Freedom wasn’t a speech written to inspire, nor was it a letter written under duress. It is a carefully crafted and meticulously explained history of the Montgomery bus boycott. It is a brilliant study in practical economics, although that factor is generally ignored. People talk about Rosa Parks (and King attempts to rebut some of the claims about her which continue, today, to be promoted) but they don’t remember that her historical value was not merely failing to comply with racist policy but the boycott she triggered.
King explains the policies which had been in place and the prior arrests which had been made. He explains that Parks was not by any means the first to do what she had done… he talks about one young woman in particular who had been arrested just weeks before Parks, for a similar action. Parks was a woman among many who was sick of being pushed around for stupid reasons, and she raised a fuss about it when tensions were at their peak.
There are lessons here. Lessons about history… that Parks was a trigger for a movement that was already happening. Lessons about economics, and how simply removing a portion of expected revenue can bring an organization to the bargaining table. Lessons about government, as King details the many times promises were made, then broken, by governmental leaders. Lessons about political tactics, in situations such as where a false compromise was disseminated in an attempt to dishearten the black community. Even lessons about expectations, as this book was written expressly to inform the black and white people of America of what had happened, and there are no efforts to resort to slang or “street” language but rather a precise, thoughtful explanation of events. Most of all, lessons about King’s actual thoughts and his apparent ease with writing them.
The Whalestoe Letters by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000, Pantheon)
If you’ve heard of “experimental fiction” and aren’t sure if you’d like it, this is the book you want.
The book is generally an excerpt of one of the most popular portions of Danielewski’s acclaimed first book, House of Leaves. I use “generally” because some additional material has been included which was not found in HoL; this is absolutely representative of Danielewski’s work.
It is, as one would expect from an excerpted portion, a short book – little more than 75 pages in length. The bulk of it is comprised of fictional letters from an institutionalized mother to her son, and through those letters the reader is provided information about what led her to be institutionalized and the experiences she is having during her incarceration.
The book builds tension and curiosity by having an unreliable narrator and by allowing time gaps between letters. Things happen in the gaps, but the exact details of those things are left to the imagination of the reader. There is, absolutely, a story present, but the reader is only allowed to see parts, as if it were a jigsaw puzzle where all of the pieces were arranged correctly but a third of them were missing.
Some pages are taken up with words in different fonts, or printed in skewed directions, in an effort to emulate the writings of a person who has lost their connection to sanity. Most of them are produced normally. Clues are left for the reader about the mental state of the sender even in such forms as the way the mother signs each letter.
Those who enjoy the book can then read House of Leaves, which tells a larger story into which The Whalestoe Letters folds. Those who don’t can be certain that experimental fiction is not for them, and develop that certainty without being expected to slog through two hundred pages only to be annoyed at the end.