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How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture.

Thomas Chatterton Williams

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Fanwood, N.J., does not have a literary pedigree, or even a downtown bookstore, and yet it has produced a very talented writer. In this memoir, Williams is transformed from a skinny teenager who shoots hoops, gets into bloody brawls and smacks his girlfriend, into a philosophy major and author. The credit goes to his father, a black man who came from a far grimmer background, the segregated South. “His own family told him,” Williams’s white mother says, that an educated black man in the South was a dead black man, describing how his father had read on the sly when he was a child. Decades later, his father has a doctorate and runs an SAT preparation service from their single-story home, into which he stuffs thousands of books in a way that puts “the laws of not only interior design but also physics to the test.” One summer, when Williams is 7, his father begins teaching him arithmetic, vocabulary and spatial reasoning; the boy would prefer to chase fireflies and play Nintendo. Later, Williams becomes obsessed with hip-hop and winds up on academic probation in college. He eventually returns to books, reading Dostoyevsky and Plato and finding joy in them, an experience that had eluded his father, since he had read only “to derive knowledge, practical knowledge.” In contrast, Williams sinks blissfully into the pages of “The Brothers Karamazov” and plans for his future as a writer. He also realizes that he is free in a way his father never was, a revelation that strikes him as “both deeply tragic and extremely hopeful.”

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