It’s a glorious thing to live in a community where books are discussed on the editorial pages of the daily newspaper. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests reading aloud to children from birth. The author Anne Lamott reminds us that “people who teach others to read or to navigate a library, who don’t give up on slow or challenged students, will get the best seats in heaven.” Even in the age of Twitter, books are more important than ever.
Sunday columnist Larry Walker — a former state legislator and current member of the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents — has recently offered us pieces on “10 must read books to understand Southern culture” and “Let’s talk Southern books, again.” With school out and summer upon us, Walker’s list of works he believes all Southerners should read is particularly useful for summer reading lists. In fact, on the list of 20, I’ve found several I too need to tackle.
I often preach to my children on the doctrine of “reciprocity,” so I probably ought also to suggest a couple of books. Since 2010 I have been enrolled at Georgia State University, exploring some fields that I overlooked back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In the process I have expanded my own list of essential titles; some are particularly pertinent to Macon’s situation. At the top of my list is Will Campbell’s “The Stem of Jesse.”
Although I was out of the country with my Uncle Sam during part of the 1960s, I was witness to many events of that period. The beauty of Campbell’s book is that it takes place for the most part in Macon on the Mercer University campus. This riveting account also sheds light on the limited opportunities for women at that time. It’s astonishing that most of today’s students know little of such matters.
In that vein, one of my favorite authors is Lillian Smith, who actually lived for a time in Macon. While my favorite book by Smith — an ardent desegregationist and advocate for women’s rights long before these views were widely accepted — is “Memory of a Large Christmas,” her best-known works are “Strange Fruit” and “Killers of the Dream.” This latter work is a sometimes difficult read, but I particularly suggest the section titled “Custom and Conscience,” which depicts the moral awakening of a group of girls at summer camp. It still resonates today.
Another older work (and a harder one to find) is “Ashes for Breakfast,” by the Rev. Thomas Holmes, courageous former pastor of the Baptist church which once stood on the Mercer campus. Holmes, we learn, was one of the participants in Campbell’s narrative..
Those who plan to read just one book in addition to those on Walker’s lists are advised to select “The Stem of Jesse,” published in 1995 by the Mercer University Press and reissued in paperback in 2002. Campbell especially ought to be at the top of the list for readers under age 50. Amazingly, some of the players in this eye-opening tale are still walking the streets in our midst.
Those who didn’t live through the ‘50s and ‘60s, or even ‘70s, may find Campbell’s narrative hard to believe. And yet, when we look around Macon today, we see many of the same institutions still carrying on with better-mannered versions of the same traditional practices.
In his preface, Campbell reminds the reader that his story (of Mercer student Sam Oni) “should have no beginning at all. It never should have happened, because another little baby was born in Bethlehem nineteen hundred and fifty years earlier. All of the players ... call that child the Son of God. And one of his earliest followers said that in Him there was neither male nor female, bond nor free.” This is powerful stuff.
Regent Walker is dead right that literature holds to key to understanding the South. Books are life-altering things indeed, and as we wrestle with the changes that today we see sweeping across the region, we may find in their pages the courage and wisdom to understand events that still confound us and to reject the sins and snares of the past. We have a choice.
Larry Fennelly is an arts columnist for The Telegraph. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.