What Do You Like?

Ever since I started working in books (and before that, when I reviewed books) people would ask me for recommendations.  Friends, family, random college classmates who I ran into on the street and said, “Oh, I’m leaving for vacation tomorrow, tell me what I should read.”  I always found this a hard question to answer, analogous to the questions I got when I worked as a bartender in graduate school.  People would sit down at my bar, gaze absent-mindedly at the rows of liquor behind me, and say “What should I have?”  I usually turned this question back on them: “What do you like?”  I explained that if they gave me a category (gin, vodka, whiskey, wine, beer) I could spin off hundreds of variations, but I was often perplexed by people who just couldn’t say.  (One older female bartender listed it as a rule to younger women she trained: never get involved with a man who doesn’t know what he likes to drink).  But the same applied to books: did the person who was asking me for a recommendation like mysteries, or novels that were funny, or novels that were funny and uplifting, or big serious biographies of historical figures?  After a while I developed a different way of handling the question.  I started keeping in my head a shortlist of books that were just so good, with such a unique but universal quality to their content, that I could recommend them to almost anyone.

“Losing My Cool” by Thomas Chatterton Williams is one of those books.  Williams is someone I hadn’t known much about before picking up his book, though I’d read his 2007 op-ed in the Washington Post, which set off a minor firestorm by arguing that the  “glorification of lower-class reality in the hip-hop era . . . has quietly taken the place of white racism as the most formidable obstacle to success and equality in the black middle classes.”  Chatterton’s memoir is the story of growing up in suburban New Jersey in the eighties and nineties, the child of a black father and a white mother.  It is a story about the allure of hip-hop culture, and how Chatterton came to see it as diametrically opposed to the values of his father, a man who spent his life immersed in the great books of western civilization.  The story of that clash is the story of Chatterton’s adolescence and young adulthood, told in the most vividly personal way, but also a story about culture, race, class and family in contemporary America.  It is as absorbing as it is challenging and contentious, and has a new place on the recommendation shortlist, next to the Tom Collins.

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