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In which John discusses his two favorite reads of this year so far, both of which are out today.
How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith: https://www.littlebrown.com/titles/clint-smith/how-the-word-is-passed/9780316492935/
Somebody's Daughter by Ashley C. Ford: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250305978



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Good morning Hank, it’s Tuesday.

Although you wouldn’t know it from watching the last month of Vlogbrothers videos, there are actually books other than The Anthropocene Reviewed book, and today I’d like to tell you about my two favorite books so far this year. Both of which, as it happens, come out today.

But first, disclosure: I know both these authors. I know a lot of authors and I don’t think that knowing someone affects my opinion of their books much, but I do think it should be acknowledged.

Okay, let’s begin with How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith, who some of you know from Crash Course Black American History. This is a book about how the U.S. does and doesn’t reckon with the history of slavery. But it’s also very much a book about the present, because Smith is looking at history through present tense visits to tourist sites.

From a visit to Thomas Jefferson’s estate Monticello, where Jefferson enslaved hundreds of people, to a walking tour of sites in New York City associated with the slave trade, Smith shows us how profoundly the present is shaped by the past. But he also explores how the choices we make today about where to center historical narratives end up shaping our understanding of slavery and race and poverty and much more.

Part of what makes this book so brilliant is its both-andedness, like it is both a searching historical work and a journalistic account of how these historic sites operate today. It’s both carefully researched and lyrical, I mean, Smith is a poet and the sentences in this book just are piercingly alive. And it’s both extremely personal, it is the author’s story, and extraordinarily sweeping, it amplifies lots of other voices, both past and present.

One such person is Yvonne Holden, who works at a plantation that centers its tours around the experiences of enslaved people, and she notes in the book that legacies are “not just the things we choose, a lot of them are things we don’t choose.” How the Word Is Passed is about those legacies and how they are at work today, and what happens when we grapple openly with them, but it is also about what happens when we construct false historical narratives to avoid having to confront those legacies. Reading it, I kept thinking about that great Alice Walker line, “All history is current.”

My other favorite book this year is Ashley C. Ford’s Somebody’s Daughter. Some of you will know Ashley from her guest hosting of Dear Hank and John or from her magazine writing, but this is her first book, and wow.

It’s customary to describe books by genre, this is a memoir, and then by plot, this is the story of a young Black girl living through abuse, and yearning for the presence of her incarcerated father. But I feel like those descriptions sort of objectify or depersonalize the pain and love and particularity of this book. Somebody’s Daughter is so much more than any summary of it could be- so much more wrenching, and haunting, and beautiful, and damning, and loving, and everything else a book can be.

The writing sears and soars, the granularity of Ford’s memories and her ability to share them make for a reading experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Roxane Gay wrote of Ford’s ability to “see people for who they are without looking away,” and I think that gift for characterization is a big part of what makes this book so incredible.

But like all my favorite books, it is also about big themes seen through an individual lens- it’s about trauma and family and race, and also about how big systems affect human lives, including the ways that poverty and racism harm children. But honestly, there is nothing simple about Somebody’s Daughter, and I really think that any attempt to summarize it or even to tell you what I love about it only essentializes the unessentializable.

What I can tell you is that the moment I finished it, I turned back to the first page and started rereading it. I am 43 years old and I have spent a big chunk of those years reading, and I don’t think I have ever immediately reread a book before.

Both these books are so special, I cannot believe they come out on the same day. If you’ve read them, let me know in comments what you thought of them. If you’re reading something else, let us know in comments what it is, whether you like it. Because I’m looking for book recommendations. It’s a big priority of mine at the moment. As it says on my 2021 vision board: read more books.

Hank, I’ll see you on Friday.