Obviously it also celebrates a whole lot more. King was much more than a talented writer, and his accomplishments went far beyond the literary. But it’s hard to deny that when we celebrate the triumphs of Dr. King, one thing we’re celebrating is just how well he used words to move people. His speeches are among the most famous ever written, and they helped stir one of the most successful social movements in history, one that is still in progress.
My own awakening to the reality and injustice of racism came through different words. I grew up in the 1980s in a New Jersey suburb so homogenous that not only was I personally unacquainted with any people of color, I was personally unacquainted with anyone who was not an Orthodox Jew. But my favorite books were the Newbery-award-winning novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, and its sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken. My loving these books meant that I spent many hours in the head of Cassie Logan, a young black girl growing up in the South after the Civil War. Through her I came to learn that there is no recourse for certain injustices; that you cannot go to adults to make things right when the adults are the ones making things systematically wrong. I also came to learn that this knowledge is terrifying. That to live as a black child in the South under Jim Crow was to live knowing that your parents — no matter how wise and brave and strong — could not protect you, nor you them, whether it be from daily indignities or stunning, sudden violence. Did I learn this through and through, the way I would have if I’d gone through it? Of course not. Not even close. But it told me something about the way the world was.
Near the start of Let the Circle Be Unbroken, an all-white jury sentences T.J. Avery to death for the assault of a white shopkeeper, despite good evidence of his innocence. For days after reading this, food tasted bland to me, games seemed less fun. Eventually, hopefully, I asked my mother, “But our country’s not really like that, right? It’s just a story.” Ever an honest woman, that mother of mine, she told me no. She was afraid it had been just like this and in certain ways still was. I remember thinking that this was basically it for me as far as ever enjoying life again. This was not a world I wanted to enjoy.
Of course I bounced back quickly. It was easy to fall into forgetting that the world was not as happy and seemingly fair for everyone as it was for me. There were Barbies waiting to star in religious dramas of my own devising; there were other, cheerier books waiting to be read. But Cassie remained an important part of my mental landscape, as so many well-drawn characters have. I tend to think about her a lot this time of year.
That’s because every MLK Day I go through a quicker, less harrowing version of that cycle of fury and forgetting that I went through as a 9-year-old. I read powerful words — some King’s, some not — and I recommit myself to ferreting out my biases, to fully acknowledging my unearned privilege, to seeking ways to work for social justice. This happens at other times too — as it did in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict, and as it does when another new study reveals disproportionate rates of black incarceration. But always these bursts of commitment are shorter-lived than one might hope. Days or weeks later I forget how much of what I enjoy — and what so many people take as their due — is available to me for no better reason than that I’m white.
I forget because I am as lazy, selfish, and frightened as the next person. Because, like so many of us, I am just trying to get by, to hold on to what I have, maybe get myself a little more, and it is easy for me to fall into believing that if only I can get that little more I’m reaching for, I can relax a bit, and then, finally, I can turn myself toward noticing how much of what I have others lack. There are many things that spur me to try harder whenever I fall into this way of thinking. One of those is a fictional little girl who has lived in my head for nearly 30 years. Because I knew her. Because I loved her. Because, for the hours I spent reading those books, it felt as though I was her.
A few months ago there was a lot of media chatter about a study by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano suggesting that reading literary fiction improves our capacity to detect and decipher other people’s emotions. Of course there’s a sizable leap between detecting and caring, as any manipulative psychopath can tell you. But anyone who has ever loved a character like Cassie knows that good novels can make you do both, that your happiness can become tied, enduringly, to the happiness of characters just like you or to characters very different from you, be that in race, class, temperament, age, or along any other dimension. That, as George Eliot put it, “when Wordsworth sings to us the reverie of ‘Poor Susan’ … more is done toward linking the higher classes with the lower, toward obliterating the vulgarity of exclusiveness, than by hundreds of sermons or philosophical dissertations.”
This is certainly not the day to knock sermons or philosophical dissertations. King brought both forms to their highest moral and aesthetic reaches. But novels, or rather the characters who populate them, can stay vivid in our minds far longer than even the most compelling rhetoric. In the interest of sustaining our hunger for social justice in the days and weeks ahead, when the sermons and philosophical dissertations are no longer popping up on every corner of the internet to keep us honest, maybe the best way to celebrate King’s legacy is to pick up a piece of fiction.
Here are 18 that set about “obliterating the vulgarity of exclusiveness” in particularly spectacular fashion.
1. Julie, or The New Heloise by Jean Jacques Rousseau
The novel was just getting going as a form when Rousseau penned this epistolary tearjerker that left behind the kings and swashbucklers of the epics and asked readers to care instead about an ordinary woman’s loves and losses. How effectively did Rousseau bridge the imaginative gap between sexes and classes? We need look no further than this retired military officer who wrote to Rousseau, “Imagine then the tears her death must have wrung from me … Never have I wept such delicious tears. That reading created such a powerful effect on me that I believe I would have gladly died during the supreme moment.”
2. The year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One by Louis-Sébastien Mercier
The big best-selling book of 1770 Paris was a utopian novel that described a future in which not only were the extremes of wealth and poverty abolished, but so was slavery; in the center of the city sat a statue of the black leader who had brought an end to bondage in all the French colonies. The image inspired the abolitionist Abbé Raynal, and others, to issue a call for a “Black Spartacus” to overthrow slavery in the colonial world. When Toussiant L’Ouverture heard that call and answered it with the Haitian Revolution, many of the French masses found themselves in sympathy with the insurgent slaves. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to think Mercier and Raynal helped them feel it, however unintentionally in Mercier’s case. (Unlike Raynal, he wasn’t actually in favor of slave insurrection.)
3. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
The travails of angelic orphan Oliver Twist opened readers’ eyes to the systematic mistreatment of impoverished children in British orphanages and workhouses, where they were kept “without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing.” Oliver Twist and Dickens’ other wildly popular books led to a number of reforms in England’s treatment of the poor, as well as in the Chancery Court system.
4. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Imagine you’re a respectable gentleman of 1851 Boston, scandalized when someone so much as wears too bold a cravat to dinner, and you open this new novel, ostensibly a seafaring adventure, to find that the most admirable character is a “savage” cannibal named Queequeg. Since no one much liked the book at the time, it probably didn’t do much to expand cultural acceptance, but surely we can all agree it was an admirable effort.
5. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harrier Beecher Stowe
Sadly, it seems Abraham Lincoln didn’t really greet Harriet Beecher Stowe with the words, “So you’re the little woman who started this great war,” but if he had, it wouldn’t have been an absurd claim. Her enormously popular sentimental story of a long-suffering, deeply religious man’s trials through servitude did much to stir the empathy of Northern whites for Southern slaves. Unfortunately, it also laid the groundwork for a number of corrosive stereotypes, including that of “Uncle Tom” himself, the dutiful servant blindly grateful to white masters.
6. Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
It may be hard to believe that placing Jewish characters at the center of a literary novel could ever have been a daring act, but in Victorian England there was a good deal of prejudice against the People of the Book. Even a towering progressive like Dickens had no qualms about drawing “The Jew” Fagin as a repulsive, avaricious figure. Eliot’s sympathetic rendering of Jewish characters was a brave act, and one that surely encouraged at least some readers to think differently about London’s society-within-a-society.
7. Nana by Emile Zola
The French reading public was delightedly outraged when Zola invited them to share the perspective of a streetwalker turned high-class cocette. The first edition of 55,000 copies sold out in one day.
8. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Jack London called it “Uncle Tom’s cabin for wage slavery.” Unfortunately, the strongest reaction most readers had to this brutal account of a young immigrant family’s struggle to endure working-class poverty in the Chicago stockyards was to freak out about contaminated beef. Not that inspiring the creation of the FDA was a bad thing, but there was a larger point Sinclair was trying to make about the people who inevitably fall through the cracks in a society slavishly devoted to the dictates of capitalism, and this somehow got missed. It’s a point that seems to get missed a lot.
9. Maurice by E.M. Forster
Written around 1913, but published in 1971, a note on the manuscript of Forster’s moving story of a romance between two young men reads “Publishable - but worth it?” Given what we now know about Forster’s struggle to hide his homosexuality, it’s impossible to fault him for not publishing the novel during his lifetime. But it’s also hard not to speculate what effect the book might have had on attitudes toward same-sex love had he made a different decision.
10. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Has any child read this book and not at least considered vegetarianism? When you’re made to care deeply about the hopes and dreams of a spider and a pig, it changes you. It’s possible it even makes you reluctant to displace spiders, just in case E.B was onto something.
11. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Ellison called his masterpiece, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, an attempt to narrate “the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American.” The extent to which white readers were willing to accept these universals, at a time when the full force of the civil rights movement was just a glimmer in E.D. Nixon’s eye, is a testament to the power of Ellison’s narrative gifts.
12. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
For most Western readers, Achebe’s was the first African voice they had ever heard chiming in about life on the African continent. Until then they’d had white men (and some women) writing rather romantically, if occasionally conflictedly, about colonialism. Seen through the eyes of Onkokwo, the rot at the core of colonialism was a good deal harder to ignore, and the idea that native cultures, and those who value them, were in any way inferior, impossible to maintain.
13. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
LeGuin described her feminist fantasy classic as a “thought experiment” meant to explore a genderless society. There are no men or women on Winter, only ambisexuals who spend most of their time as asexual “potentials.” Though “thought experiment” may not sound like much of a lure, it’s a rich and moving, fast-paced read, one that ensures you’ll never think the same way again about what makes for a man or a woman — and leaves you wondering why we ever assumed these were mutually exclusive options to begin with.
14. Beloved by Toni Morison
Sethe is the perfect answer to any demand for “likable” female characters. Is Sethe likable? Is she forgivable? It’s entirely beside the point. She is real, she is enduring, and she turns the question back on us — are we likable, are we forgivable, collectively, as humans, for creating the context in which she was forced to make her impossible decision?
15. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
Addicts make sustained compassion hard, especially for those closest to them. From the outside, they look so much like selfish jerks with bad willpower. Johnson’s collection of stories makes it easier by forcing you to feel, viscerally, what the disease is like on the inside.
16. The Ecstatic by Victor Lavalle
There are still groups that are wink-wink-nod-nod “OK” to knock, even in the most progressive circles. One is the obese, another is the mentally ill, particularly sufferers of schizophrenia. Three-hundred-and-fifteen-pound Anthony James, funnier, smarter, in certain ways saner than most characters in recent memory, probably did more to combat the fear and ignorance directed at these two groups than even the best public awareness campaign could hope for.
17. What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers
It’s shockingly easy to block out the once-again-ongoing struggle in Sudan, and the Lost Boys created by it. The conflict is too confusing and too sad. We don’t know who the good guys are, and we can’t comprehend the enormity. We want to turn away in self-protective horror. But What Is the What is told with such humor, intelligence, and liveliness that it becomes not only bearable but unavoidable to look with open eyes at Valentino Achak Deng and, through him, thousands more.
18. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
I thought this was hands down the best novel of 2013, and don’t understand how it didn’t win every prize there was to win. It’s a shame, given that I’m certain it didn’t get its due, that I’m not going to give it its due here either. But to tell you how it obliterates the vulgarity of exclusiveness is to ruin a surprise as enjoyable as any I’ve ever encountered in a novel. I will just say that if, on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, you’re looking for a work of fiction to expand the bounds of your compassion, challenge your biases, and generally make you exult in what the right words in the right order can accomplish, then you cannot go wrong with this one.