Monday, January 19, 2009

MLK Day: To Honor and Serve

Today is the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday--a day that is not only meant to honor and recognize the accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but a day devoted to service. If you click here, you can read about the National Day of Service that is expecting an unprecedented amount of volunteer support, spurred by President-elect Obama's call to all Americans to volunteer today and in the future.

[By the way, if anyone is interested in volunteering on a more regular basis than just today, let me recommend this website "Volunteer Match"]

According to the King Center website,
"Every King holiday has been a national "teach-in" on the values of nonviolence, including unconditional love, tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation, which are so desperately-needed to unify America. It is a day of intensive education and training in Martin’s philosophy and methods of nonviolent social change and conflict-reconciliation. The Holiday provides a unique opportunity to teach young people to fight evil, not people, to get in the habit of asking themselves, "what is the most loving way I can resolve this conflict?""

Since I'm still struggling with a very bad head cold, I'm not venturing out to any of the service events scheduled in my community today. So I thought about what I could do from my couch and with my laptop that would contribute to the spirit of the King Center's idea of a national "teach-in" in terms of non-violence, unconditional love, tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation.

And then it hit me: I could recommend books to read.

The skeptics among you will scoff and say, "Books? What can THEY possibly do with service and with non-violence?"

Well, for starters, Dr. King had to learn the practice of non-violence somewhere. I'm sure he read a lot of books and then discussed the ideas he read about with people and then put those ideas into practice.

Really good books, whether fiction or non-fiction, tell stories. And stories are powerful. We all gravitate towards stories--whether in written form or through the television or even video games. There is a narrative embedded in almost all forms of popular culture entertainment. But the root of it all is an oral tradition of storytelling.

So here are a few books (and I confess, most of them are fiction) I'd recommend in the spirit of the MLK holiday:

*Cathedral - Raymond Carver. A beautiful collection of short stories by a master craftsman. What makes these stories so powerful is that they are about ordinary people--most of them working class or middle class living fairly unremarkable lives. But in each story there is a turn--a moment when the ordinary becomes extraordinary. In particular read "A Small Good Thing" for the theme of redemption and the startling intimacy that can occur between antagonists--there is a moment at the end that is truly heartbreaking and beautiful for the way it brings people together.

*The History of Love - Nicole Krauss. I think I've been recommending this book to everyone I know ever since I read it two years ago. It's about a man who survives the Holocaust. It's about a little girl who has lost her father. It's about people grieving for the loved ones they've lost or let go. And it's about so much more. It is one of the most beautiful and haunting books I've read. The prose is lyrical and gorgeous, and the story is poignant and moving. It is a book about sacrifice--about living through violence and surviving and having the grace and dignity to live your life with love instead of hatred in your heart. There is definitely both reconciliation and forgiveness in this novel.

*The Color Purple -- Alice Walker. If there was ever a book to talk about non-violence in the face of hatred and violence, this book really does talk about the power of love and reconciliation and especially forgiveness. The book is told through a series of letters, some written to God, some written between two sisters. Primarily told through the perspective of Celie, an African American girl who we see mature into womanhood, it is about her life and those around her living in the segregated South of the first half of the century. It's a classic, and one worth re-reading, or for those of you fortunate to have never read it yet, you are in for a treat--the prose is lovely and powerful and you will be swept away and immersed in the world Walker creates.

*East of Eden - John Steinbeck. If you want a book that has everything, this is the book. It is my favorite book, and I'm currently teaching it to two classes this semester. It is about California, a landscape that Steinbeck was all too familiar with, but its themes are much grander: the meaning of truth, sibling rivalry, the nature of love, jealousy, greed, sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness, and how to embrace one's humanity with grace and dignity. The novel focuses on two different sets of families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, and two different sets of brothers, all living through the late 19th into the early 20th C. But really, this is a book for all ages and a book of all ages.

*Dreams from my Father - Barack Obama. If you haven't read this memoir of our soon-to-be 44th president, what are you waiting for? Obama wrote this while he was just finishing law school, before he taught law in Chicago, before he was elected into public office. There is a candor to his observations that is refreshing to read when considering him as a historic and political figure. Quite frankly, it's just a well written book--thoughtful and reflective. And certainly appropriate for the themes of service and love and reconciliation of MLK Day.

[I've provided links via the authors' names to Powell's bookstore so you can get a fuller synopsis--I'm not recommending that you necessarily buy your books at Powell's; I support local bookstores, especially small independent bookshops--but I do find that Powell's has a great list and good synopses of their books--and they are local to Portland and independent, so if you are in Oregon, by all means shop at Powells!]

I'd like to think President-elect Obama would approve of me recommending books as a way of honoring Dr. King's life and contributing a service (albeit very minor) in the spirit of this day. After all, as the New York Times recently reported, Barack Obama is, himself, an avid reader.

So go out and volunteer or read or figure out a way to do honor and service to Dr. King whatever way you can.

1 comment:

CVT said...

I had to do it - your mention of local bookstores (and Powells); I've got a friend here in Portland who owns and runs Looking Glass Bookstore, and she could sorely use the business . . . Just putting it out there for the "local bookstore" supporters out there:

Sorry for the plug, but in these economic times, everybody needs a lift.