Updated on 02.26.07

Ten Books That Changed My Life #5: Invisible Man

Trent Hamm

Invisible ManInvisible Man
Ralph Ellison
Changed my life in January 2000

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

When I was a little boy, laying flat on my back on the hallway outside of my bedroom as a child, reading obsessively, I dreamed of being a writer. I dreamed of writing a novel that would actually be able to touch someone and completely make them rethink their entire world, even though our life experiences may be nothing alike. I wanted to write something incredibly beautiful as well, with linguistic phrases that would stick in a person’s mind; twists of letters and words that were so perfect as to bring someone to tears.

That boy grew up, went off to college, and instead spent his studies investigating the hard sciences. I let the coals of my writing dream grow ever dimmer, but I never gave up that passion for reading. I would literally read two or three books a day for my entire collegiate period, always seeking some sort of new idea or new way of looking at things. I read some incredibly powerful books, some of which twisted my mind in profound directions and others which showed me the incredible beauty of words.

But nothing else I read during my six years as a college student blew me away quite like Invisible Man. It is a mix of beautiful language and powerful thought on a level I’ve never really absorbed before or since. In fact, it was so powerful to me that it reawakened my desire to become a writer, and without that reawakening, this blog wouldn’t exist (for starters).

I am an invisible man. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.

What’s it about?

In a straightforward way, this book follows the life of a black college student in the south in the early 1950s who is expelled for showing a white trustee of the college the actual living experience of a black person in the South at the time. This could have easily turned into a generic condemnation of racism right here, but that would make this book boring and no different than any other book about race – Ralph Ellison is too much of a genius to take that easy road. Instead, the student shows the trustee that in fact the disturbing stereotypes are often true. The liberal trustee, fueled by white liberal guilt, immediately withdraws support from the school, and thus the student is expelled.

He wanders for a bit, winding up in New York City, then eventually seems to find acceptance in a group called “The Brotherhood” who on the surface preaches a message of equality, but in actuality are just as blind as the trustee. By the end of the book, I felt such a mortal tie with this central invisible man that I nearly wept when that last powerful line crossed the page.

On the surface, Invisible Man is about an individual trying to find his way in the world, moving from being a loner to being part of a social movement back to being a loner again. Peel away that layer and it almost seems to be about race, but if you peel away that layer you’ll find that the book is about humankind, stumbling along trying to figure itself out.

There are a lot of books out there that touch upon these issues, but they all seem to want to blame someone. The truth is that there is no truth outside of our own experience, that everyone’s experiences are different, and by spending all of our time being racist or fighting racism, we’re not actually solving a damn thing.

How did Invisible Man shape the person I became?

It reawakened my desire to be a writer. If I could claim credit for any written document I’ve ever read, it would be this book. It is beautiful in every way that the written word can be beautiful, from the ideas to the characters right down to the word choices and the literary aspects. I dream of being able to write something even a tenth as amazing as this book.

It reminded me quite clearly that actions speak louder than words. Does this seem to contradict the idea that I want to be a writer? Ideas are the basis for actions, and words are a way to communicate ideas. Thus, in a way, actions are an amplification of words, but in order to stir up action, the words must be powerful and beautiful and persuasive. The things I choose to do are based on ideas in my head, but many of those ideas were transferred there by words, and words can sometimes reach very far, like a skipping rock across the smooth surface of a pond. I could let this dissolve into a rant against political correctness (my opposition to it basically came from this book), but this is neither the time nor the place for it.

It made me rethink my views on the world in general. Basically, I realized that what is true for me isn’t necessarily true for anyone else, and the best thing an argument can do is help me build up a greater understanding of what I find to be true about the world. I used to argue to win; now I debate to understand.

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  1. Michelle says:

    The truth is that there is no truth outside of our own experience, that everyone’s experiences are different, and by spending all of our time being racist or fighting racism, we’re not actually solving a damn thing.

    Are you saying that it’s fine to fight racism (and engage in other socially worthy activities, I presume) but that it’s equally important to live your own life and develop your mind so that you can achieve things that no one but you can achieve? That’s the only sense I can make of your point, since I know you are not advocating selfishness.

    If so, it reminds me of something that Josephine Baker supposedly said, although I can’t find it on line. Near the end of her life, when she had problems with taxes and other such things, she was asked if she had any regrets. She responded “I lived Josephine Baker’s life. No one else could have done that.”

    I’ve always liked that concept.

  2. Bobby says:

    Interesting. Never heard of the book but will have to check it out.

  3. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Michelle: you’re spot on. You can do more to fight racism by simply living a life where race is not an issue than by ranting about racism. Live your own life with your own values and own experiences – and let your shadow affect the lives of others.

  4. Jai says:

    I have had this on my list for so long. I own it but have never read it. Your description & explanation is beautiful. I imagine Ralph would be pleased to have inspired you. Thanks for reminded me why I wanted to and need to read this book.

  5. Michelle says:

    Glad I got it right.

    I assume that your concern is that people will become obsessed, live a limited life, and end up accomplishing neither their explicit goals (e.g., to end racism) nor anything else.

    Where do we draw the line? How much is too much? I suspect this is a classic case of “Your mileage may vary”, but here is where I think the line can and should be drawn for most people:

    Donate to organizations that promote equality.
    Support candidates who do the same. Boycott racist corporations. Write letters to the editor. March, if the opportunity arises. But don’t get obsessed, and don’t let the continued existence of racism (in spite of your best efforts, damn it!) get you down.

    Of course, this applies to any issue one cares about, not just racism. I hope I don’t confuse anyone by continuing with the example that Trent started.

  6. Andre says:

    Hey Trent, these spotlights are great and a great way for me to look into books to change my own life. Thanks again

  7. Toby Getsch says:

    Trent, what do you mean with this.

    “The truth is that there is no truth outside of our own experience…”

    I understand and appreciate the part that Michelle already asked about and you clarified. That’s a great concept and one I wish more people lived. But, I don’t understand that first part of that sentence.

  8. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Toby: it’s basically a philosophical statement. Basically, I believe a truth as being an agreement between two people. However, no two people agree on everything, and the set of things you agree on with one person is not the same set as you would agree on with any other person. Thus, your set of truths is unique. If you read the Wikipedia entry on truth ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth ) and understand it, it’ll make complete sense.

  9. mike says:

    I don’t know if you’re into graphic novels, but if you’re open to it I’d suggest you read Watchmen by Alan Moore. It’s my favorite literary work, period. Yes, literary work. It’s utterly brilliant on soooo many levels. Read it a few times if you can. I still find new insights every time I read it, which is probably more frequently than is healthy.

    The Wikipedia entry does it no justice, nor does the Amazon description. Check it out for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

  10. alex says:

    “The truth is that there is no truth outside of our own experience.”

    If that was true, how could it be true? If there is no truth outside our experiences than there can’t be a universally true truth that “there is no truth outside our own experience.”


  11. Helen says:

    As far as I understand it, that is a misuse of the word truth. Truth something that is not a lie: for example, if I say “Look, there is a tree” and we look, and see a tree, then that statement is true. It is a fact. It is not a fact because we both think we see a tree: it is only true if there is an actual tree standing there. If there is no tree, and we see one, then we are both victims of delusion: what we think is true is in fact false.

    Relativism doesn’t work. Truth is not an agreement between two people: that is simply a shared opinion. Relativism means that we usually take whatever the majority perceive to be true as a universally functional truth. Understanding that there is such a thing as absolute truth means that minorities armed with facts can fight institutionalized fictions.

    Some concepts cannot be expressed as truth or lie because the word becomes meaningless when applied to it. If you can’t establish it as an actual fact, then don’t call it truth.

    That said, I think this book sounds wonderful and you are right that everyone is an individual; the idea that racism/anti-racism (snobbery/class-consciousness, sexism, homophobia etc) are all buying into stereotypes is right on.

    Everyone is unique. Everyone has a story.

  12. Andi says:

    Your description of truth serves as an example for why truth is not always true. A tree percieved by the human eye as existing does not necessarily exist. We only know as much as our own minds allow us to percieve. Because “truth” is meant to extend beyond the perceptions of we mere humans, we cannot know what is true in the world, but rather what is true for ourselves individually. Individual truth is all we can be sure of. Your insistance that truth is fact illustrates the human arrogance that believes what we reguard as “fact” truly is.

  13. spectrekitty says:

    Thanks for a great review of one of my all-time favorites! This book is, indeed, powerful, and beautiful – and awful! Some of the things that happen to the nameless main character are horrific, but the plot flows along in a rather surreal atmosphere. It’s as if the main character himself is minimizing the terrible things that happen to him.

    On the one hand, I would like to see “Invisible Man” incorporated into all high school curricula. On the other, I don’t think kids are capable of understanding it on the level of one with more life experience. I read it in my 40s, but had I read it as a teenager, a lot of the impact would have been lost on me.

    So if you have not yet read this masterpiece, you’re missing out. One caveat: At the bookstore, if you ask for “THE Invisible Man,” you’ll get the H.G. Wells sci-fi novel. This is simply, “Invisible Man.”

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