BY MARC VELASQUEZ
This is the first part of our new series, “Read This Book Now.” Each week, for the next few months, one of our contributors will recommend a single book. Put aside everything you’re doing and read it immediately.
I found The Autobiography of Malcolm X on the sale table of an Orlando bookstore. Years earlier, a friend of mine had read it for class—he called it the greatest thing he ever read—and told me it should be at the top of my reading list. I took his reaction for hyperbole, and ignored his suggestion. But when I saw The Autobiography of Malcolm X on sale, I thought, “What the heck? For $4.99, why not?”
I like books, but I have never reacted to a book the way I did to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It was all I could think about. For weeks, my conversations with co-workers all started with the phrase “When Malcolm X was….” I carried the book in my back pocket and read it whenever I had a free minute. It took over my life in a way that no book ever had, or has since.
I wasn’t sure why the book captivated me the way it did. There are very few similarities between Malcolm X and I, and he doesn’t seem like a person with whom I would immediately identify. Yet I did.
In retrospect, I believe that my love for this book came from my background in literature. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the closest thing to an epic we have in American literature, and Malcolm X is the closest we have to an epic hero. (I know, you’re going to make the case for Moby Dick or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and you may have a point. But this is my review, so I stand by my assertion.)
Like any good epic hero, Malcolm X is layered and complex. His convictions and his worldview are malleable, consistantly molded by the world around him; they change drastically twice over the course of his life. He is constantly confronted with choices, and sometimes the decisions he makes are admittedly incorrect. Yet, he has an unwavering resolve to complete his mission—bad choices are only minor setbacks. And in the end, he is not afraid of the journey; he is willing to be changed by it.
Also like any good epic, the language is poetry. Well, not literally, but as close to it as you can come in prose form. Alex Haley found the cadence in Malcolm’s dictations, and as a result, the words roll off the page. Haley’s epilogue—written in the time between Malcolm X’s assassination and the book’s first publication—in itself, deserves to be read.
Ultimately, I think you should read this book because Malcolm X is worth remembering. He was as influential in the Civil Rights movement as Martin Luther King Jr., and is far less celebrated. We can all rattle off four or five MLK quotes, but what comes to mind when I ask you to quote Malcolm X? Does it have something to do with Plymouth Rock? Are you picturing Denzel saying it?
I’m not trying to mock the movie. The movie is an adaptation of the book, and about as true as any adaptation can ever get. The movie might teach you quite a bit about Malcolm X; it will show you his struggle. But reading the book is like meeting him. It’s like having a conversation with Malcolm X. Wouldn’t you want to do that?
Maybe all this sounds like hyperbole. It did to me when I ignored my friend’s recommendation years ago. I know better now. Read this book.