Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
Disclaimer: This Booklover column is not about a Nobel Laureate.
Exploring Nobel literature is an ongoing bucket list process that periodically takes a turn down other literary roads. Four books have recently caught the attention of this booklover: Bruce Chadwick’s I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing That Shocked a Nation; Jessica Wapner’s The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Mutant Gene and the Quest to Cure Cancer at the Genetic Level, and the two books by Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me. History, scientific research, and race relations — welcome to my world.
What makes Nobel literature words different from bestseller words, narrative words, or just the words of a well-told story that you just want to read again and again? This is an unresolved question for me and requires constant pondering — which is okay because the only way to hopefully answer it is to continue reading. Not a bad solution to the problem.
There have already been two passes through Chadwick’s book. Each time I am intrigued. The glorious illustration of the founding fathers and the beginnings of this experiment called democracy is not what you get. You get a piece of history told in three parts and only 240 pages in such a real, gritty and densely rich way that you feel you are walking the streets of either Colonial Williamsburg or Richmond Virginia investigating a murder. Part One of the book is a description of “The Murder.” Part Two details “The Investigation.” Part Three transcribes “The Trial.” George Wythe was one of this country’s founding fathers. He was the first law professor, signed the Declaration of Independence and represented Virginia at the Constitutional Convention. He was held in high esteem in the early community of our nation. Thus it was a shock when Wythe, on his deathbed, accused his young hooligan grandnephew of poisoning him for his money. Of the many interesting details, nuances of the period and vignettes of day-to-day life in the 1800s, the one that left me really thinking was the reasoning behind the decision of the two lawyers who came to the grandnephew’s defense. Politics makes for strange bedfellows. Pick up the book and find out.
From a capsule of our Nation’s history to the historical timeline of a de novo scientific discovery that lead to a drug to manage chronic myelogenous leukemia (also referred to as CML) is not such a stretch. “The First Clue” has the reader “hovering” over a microscope with David Hungerford in 1959 when he realizes that one of the chromosomes, in a sample prepared from a patient with CML, is too short. This short chromosome that Hungerford observed would be known by many names, one of which is “The Philadelphia Chromosome.” Hungerford had a passion for photography as well as science. The new camera-equipped microscope, where he spent his time staring at the black and white squiggles called chromosomes, was located at a cancer center in Philadelphia. Geography was the influence for the name of the aberrant chromosome that is formed by a translocation between chromosome 9 and 22 in patients with CML. With 38 chapters, some of which are entitled “Right Number, Wrong Place,” “Where the Kinase Hangs the Keys,” “Plucking the Low-Hanging Fruit,” “Not Over My Dead Body Will This Compound Go into Man,” “Buzz in the Chat Rooms,” and “A Gleevec for Every Cancer,” Wapner writes in a way to honor the science and appeal to the layman. It is a gift. She excels at it.
Threading the two previous books’ themes to race relations might be a difficult weave, but the crafting of words to explain a perspective is one where Coates’ genius shines. The power in his two books is so great that it leaps from the page. You want to memorize it so you can quote it, because just telling someone what the book is about doesn’t do it justice. And justice is one of the things that Coates is looking for. His first book The Beautiful Struggle tells his story of growing up in Baltimore. His second book Between the World and Me is written to his son as a guide for what it means to be a black man growing up in America.
I leave you with a piece of Coates’ knowledge from The Beautiful Struggle:
“The Knowledge was taught from our lives’ beginnings, whether we realized it or not. Street professors presided over invisible corner podiums, and the Knowledge was dispensed. Their faces were smoke and obscured by the tilt of their Kangols. They lectured from sacred texts like Basic Game, Applied Cool, Barbershop 101. Their leather-gloved hands thumbed through chapters, like ‘The Subtle and Misunderstood Art of Dap.’ There was the geometry of cocking a baseball cap, working theories on what jokes to laugh at and exactly how loud; and entire volumes devoted to crossover dribble. Bill (Coates’ brother) inhaled the Knowledge and departed in a sheepskin cap and gown. I cut class, slept through lectures, and emerged awkward and wrong.
My first day at Lemmel (middle school where Coates attended school), I was a monument to unknowledge. I walked to school alone, a severe violation of the natural order of things. …Everyone moved as though the same song were playing in their heads. It was a song I’d never heard. I shrugged my backpack a little tighter on my shoulder and made my way.
Later I’d understand that the subaudible beat was the Knowledge, that it kept you ready, prepared for anyone to start swinging, to start shooting. Back then, I had no context, no great wall against fear. I felt it but couldn’t say it.”
And a few of Coates’ words to his son about the choice for his name from Between the World and Me:
“The Struggle is in your name, Samori — you were named for Samori Touré, who struggled against French colonizers for the right to his own black body. He died in captivity, but the profits of that struggle and others like it are ours, even when the object of our struggle, as is so often true, escapes our grasp. I learned this living among a people whom I would never have chosen, because the privileges of being black are not always self-evident. We are, as Derrick Bell once wrote, the ‘faces at the bottom of the well.’ But there really is wisdom down here, and that wisdom accounts for much of the good in my life. And my life down here accounts for you.”