#tobyreads: Social Change and Meditations on Society


I’d had a copy of Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An Americal Lyric on my to-read shelf for far too long. Given the rave reviews her new book Citizen: An American Lyric has been getting, I thought that it might be wise to give this earlier work of hers a read. And thus: a new entry in the category of “books I should have read months ago, if not years ago.” Which is one of the dangers of reading: the regret that you didn’t read a certain work sooner.

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is a meditation on many things: death, politics, the body, depression. It’s told in short prose fragments, sometimes interrupted by images: some stills from television or film, some images of televisions with text layered over them, sometimes diagrams or found texts. I think it would be a safe bet to suggest that readers who enjoy Maggie Nelson’s body of work will also find Rankine’s work resonant (if they don’t already).

It’s also–I can’t emphasize this enough–fantastically written. It’s the kind of book where I go searching for a representative quote and find myself unable to settle on any one particular passage. It’s excellent, deeply moving work, the kind of book with the power to bridge new connections in the reader’s mind.

I also read Mark Kurlansky’s Ready for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America–in part because I was curious and in part for WORD’s Music Writing Book Group. (Which, admittedly, I run.) It’s both a musical history of “Dancing in the Street” and an examination of the social change that it helped advance. Kurlansky is taking a broad historical approach here, looking at histories of race and American music and examining the development of Motown Records. Along the way, there are discussions of Marvin Gaye’s political consciousness, styles of drumming, and more. And, in tracing the song from its first version through a number of covers–some of which preserved the original’s spirit of social change, while others simply to focus on its celebratory elements–looks at music that prompts social change in one era can become the celebratory music of the upper classes for another. (By which I mean: Kurlansky looks at how Mick Jagger and David Bowie’s cover of the song has aged in England.)


Photo of Claudia Rankine by John Lucas.

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