Can a Book Change Your Life for the Worse?

by Willa A. Cmiel

The New Statesman has a new list: 50 Books That Will Change Your Life. It’s an attention-grabbing title, that’s for sure. I’m pretty tired of literary lists, but I it’s a catchy name, and I wanted to see if I had read enough for my life to be satisfyingly changed, for the moment, so I glanced at the first title. It was not what I expected. I read The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James when I was 18. And although it may have changed my life in some form or another, considering how it is described by Darcus Howe (a Caribbean activist, I presume), it is surely not in the way the compiler’s of New Statesman’s list may have hoped:

[The Black Jacobins] is a revolutionary intervention, matched only by the creative guerrilla war launched by Haitian slaves under the leadership of Toussaint l’Ouverture and, finally, the mass insurrection that broke the back of slavery in the Caribbean. From the publication of The Black Jacobins to this day, Caribbean peoples and activists…have drawn strength and clarity from the work as we hastened our way to independence, and as we continue to challenge European governments on issues of race and post-colonial domination.

A first-semester freshman at university, I eagerly signed up for a general education course entitled “World Cultures: The Black Atlantic.” (Honestly, I’m pretty sure I thought it was about the slave trade. It turned out to be about the Haitian Revolution of 1791, but that seemed just as cool.) The professor was an accomplished tenure professor from Spain who taught courses throughout the Spanish, German, French, History, and Comparative Literature Departments. She was one of those academics for whom scholarship was all important and all encompassing, and who have little patience, or at least interest, in the “outside world.” (The little people?) And they treat their students as if they were the same. (Understand, I say this not to judge. Treating students as such is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you are a student who desires that kind of treatment.) To this professor, no one was at university for fun or obligation or even practical purposes like jobs outside the four walls of the library. We were at university for the love of scholarship, on the road to academia.

As a freshman, this was shocking. The reading assignments were long and complex, the teacher unhelpful and unreachable, and even less willing to relate to us. So naturally inclined was she to critical theory, this newcomer (me) could barely follow her lectures. Rather than drop the class or get a tutor or just check out and wing it, I stressed. A lot. It was a harsh welcome into the greater demands of college course work, and I spent lots and lots of time on the phone home with my father – an academic himself, though I’d argue not at all in the same sense – who cheered me through it and was (mostly) successful at keeping me from locking myself in the bathroom, crying on the bathmat. Years later he told me that, despite his calm, he feared I was going to have a nervous breakdown and come home panicked and scarred, hating New York and higher education.

The Black Jacobins was our primary text and the bane of my fall existence that year, although to this day I remember very little of it. As it turns out, the book did vaguely help me out later in a seminar on Herman Melville and Moby-Dick (a book which doubtlessly deserves a top place on the list in question, but tragically is nowhere to be found) when the Haitian revolution was related to the rebellion aboard Spaniard Benito Cereno’s slave ship. Still, no matter how positive an experience rereading it might be today, the thought of James’ book – along with the name “Toussaint L’Ouverture” – is inalienably linked to nightmarish associations of impending doom and horrified panic. Maybe one day I’ll brave it, but for now I’d be satisfied enough with something else, preferably involving a whale.