Ten Books That Changed My Life #5: Invisible Man

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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