Thursday, February 2, 2017

Books for Dark Political Times: Michael Copperman’s Library

Reader:  Michael Copperman
Location:  Eugene, Oregon
Collection Size:  Five hundred books
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  I Have a Dream: The March on Washington by Emma Gelders Sterne
Favorite book from childhood:  James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Guilty pleasure book:  Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

My personal library is small. I live in a converted garage and rent out the rooms of my house, and I have boxes and boxes of books away in storage and in my office at the university. My awkward little secret is that I am often not much of a reader of contemporary fiction—I tend to read poetry as one consumes fuel, and keep those books thrown about the living room, where just now I am reading the collected work of Langston Hughes as if it might save my life. With everything else, I am immensely selective, and more likely when I am deep in work and process to reread something essential to me which speaks of mystery than I am to begin the latest NY Times bestseller. For instance, I have read Andre Dubus’s Dancing After Hours, five times, and would gladly begin it again. I have read the collected stories of Chekhov two or three times, and these days, every couple months I read his great short story “The Student,” an irreducible and indescribable little short about immanence, which in that story is the suggestion of imminence in the absence of wisdom, meaning, and God.

I keep the books which I am intending to read in a stack atop the rest on the right shelf on one side of the bed—books by friends or acquaintances, gifts, books which I feel I need to read or should have read. Sometimes books jump the queue that demand attention—on top now is a book by my great-grandmother, the writer Emma Gelders Sterne, I Have a Dream: The March on Washington which was published in 1965.

Recently I pulled that book from my father’s shelves of all Emma’s books as if drawn to it—to find a note from my father to me, his unborn son, five years before my birth, charging me with bearing on his grandmother’s legacy of writing, activism, compassion, and justice. As this is one of Emma’s books I did not read in my childhood, and speaks of a strength and solidarity and rising up I feel I may need to summon now, in these dark political times, I am excited to begin.

Atop the left shelf are books I’ve pulled from the shelves because I needed to read them as I work to complete an essay or my novel-in-progress—usually books which have been a long love of mine, or have particular resonance. So it is that Cesar Vallejo, translated by Roberty Bly and James Wright, sits atop that shelf. Vallejo, the music of my heart on big sad days of reckoning. So it is that Hamlet, has been set to the top, too, in this bitter winter, as has Willa Cather’s Five Stories, perhaps her least known work, but so large in lyric and retrospective force. I turn to these books as if to a holy book, a source—they do not directly instruct me, but their art and ethos are somewhere so near to what is in me as I work that they show me a way.

Michael Copperman is the author of Teacher, a memoir of the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta. He has taught writing to low-income, first-generation students of diverse background at the University of Oregon for the last decade. His prose has appeared in The Oxford American, The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Waxwing, and Copper Nickel, among other magazines, and has won awards and garnered fellowships from the Munster Literature Center, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Oregon Literary Arts, and the Oregon Arts Commission. Visit for more information about Michael and his book. 

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

1 comment:

  1. I love this series ... peering into the hearts and minds of writers through their libraries.