If I had the power to compel 330 million Americans to read one and only one book, it would be The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965).
When I first read it as an adult, I knew Malcolm X was a controversial figure in the civil rights movement, but like most Americans, my high school education focused on the Greensboro Woolworth’s sit-ins, Rosa Parks, and Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech—all the parts that are palatable to contemporary school boards. I did not know what to expect.
It is a vivid document of race and religion in the twentieth century, but it’s also a thumping good story.
When he is a child, Malcolm’s father is murdered, his mother hauled off to a psych ward. After some time in the Michigan foster system, he goes to Boston to live with his sister Ella, who is such a charismatic figure that she nearly outshines Malcolm in his own autobiography.
The next few years are one big party, filled with alcohol and drugs. He takes a job shining shoes at a club, where he hears Peggy Lee when she first makes it big. He hangs out with his buddy Redd Foxx. He socializes with Billie Holiday, as one does. He takes his white girlfriend out dancing. He sells drugs. He robs rich people.
Inevitably he is caught. It is in prison that he discovers the Nation of Islam. It transforms him. It is also in prison that he begins to read. He devours books, giving himself the education he never got in school.
After his release, he becomes a minister in the Nation of Islam. He teaches that white people are white devils. He opposes integration. He gains fame as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam. For seven years he devotes himself to his religion, until he has a falling out with the leader, Elijah Muhammad.
And then he travels to Mecca and has an epiphany. On seeing faithful Muslims of all colors, he realizes that white people are not devils, or at least not all of them. He returns to America and begins teaching from this new place of understanding, though he struggles to shed his old reputation.
The book was written by journalist Alex Haley, based the book on interviews he conducted with Malcolm X. I particularly enjoyed the audiobook, narrated by Laurence Fishburne.
I’m going to close with two passages:
“My greatest lack has been, I believe, that I don't have the kind of academic education I wish I had been able to get—to have been a lawyer, perhaps. I do believe that I might have made a good lawyer. I have always loved verbal battle, and challenge. You can believe me that if I had the time right now, I would not be one bit ashamed to go back into any New York City public school and start where I left off at the ninth grade, and go on through a degree.”
“I have given to this book so much of whatever time I have because I feel, and I hope, that if I honestly and fully tell my life's account, read objectively it might prove to be a testimony of some social value.”
When Covid first hit, I started doing book talks on social media as a way to keep in touch with people. I never got out of the habit. I don't discuss books by my clients, and if I don't like a book, I won't discuss it at all. While I will sometimes focus on craft or offer gentle critical perspectives, as a matter of professional courtesy, I don't trash writers. Unless they're dead. Then the gloves come off.