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Oprah’s 10 favorite books includes one living genius: Edward P. Jones

May 7, 2010

Imagine my satisfaction when I discovered that the most powerful person in world literature — Oprah Winfrey — shares my enthusiasm for Edward P. Jones, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Known World.

Jones and his novel were the surprise picks, as noted earlier this week by the Los Angeles Times, when Oprah named her 10 favorite books of the past decade for the 10th anniversary of O, The Oprah Magazine. It is the only novel that did not appear on Oprah’s popular television book club.

For handy reference, here is the rest of list:

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, by Eckhart Tolle; Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible; Night, by Elie Wiesel; A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry; East of Eden, by John Steinbeck; The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski; The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett; The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison; Eric Butterworth’s Discover the World Within You.

Looking over that collection, you might say it includes one other “living genius” — Toni Morrison. And I would not argue with that — she’s a Nobel Prize winner, no less.

But everyone knows about Toni Morrison. When was the last time you heard Edward P. Jones mentioned among elite contemporary writers? Or even among top African American writers? Most likely: Never.

That’s a shame. Jones is a certified genius–he received a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius prize,” in 2005. Just listen to what Oprah says about The Known World: “When this book was published in 2003, it shocked everybody with its depiction of slave-owning blacks before the Civil War. A daring, unusual examination of race.”

My appreciation for Jones’ brilliance increased after I got the chance to interview him in his hometown, Washington, D.C., in 2006. We met in the conference room of his apartment building, down the street from  the National Cathedral.

A wary man who spoke in clipped sentences, Jones was clearly uncomfortable, yet he fought through his social awkwardness to answer my questions fully and honestly. He spoke about about his childhood as the son of an illiterate mother, of living on the streets for several months in 1975, about subsisting on $2 a day while working for a science magazine in the 1970s.

Jones described his solitary life, a year after receiving the $500,000 that goes with the MacArthur Fellowship: Living in an apartment devoid of furniture, with no cable or satellite TV service, his main pastime watching DVDs on his computer.

“I don’t know what the difference is between me and the people who need company,” Jones said. “But I’m probably the only person I know who is like that. I can’t say what it is. I feel no sense of absence or discontent. I like my own company, for the most part.”

Even more astounding than Jones’ lifestyle was his writing process. He doesn’t write every day. He does no research. He seldom if ever basis a character on a real person or a scene on something he’s experienced. He took 12 years between his PEN/Hemingway Award-winning first book, the short-story collection Lost in the City (1992), and his second, The Known World.

He took almost no notes, constructing the narrative in his head, then typing up the first draft in three months.

“If you are writing your own life and changing the names, it’s rather easy,” he says. “If you’re creating something out of nothing, it takes a little longer. I was content at the pace.”

For most writers, as I noted in my Sun-Sentinel profile, this method of taking on a little known and controversial bit of American racial history would be a recipe for anachronism, inaccuracy and hubris.

But Jones is not like other writers. In fact, he remains one of the most remarkable authors I’ve met in more than 20 years as a literary journalist.

Nearing 60, Jones has written only three books: The Known World, Lost in the City, and another short-story collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children. Even if he does not publish another word, I predict he will be remembered as one of the literary titans of our time, a once-in-a-generation genius.

Has anyone out there read Jones and loved his work as I do? Or do you have other underappreciated favorites you’d like to share with us?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Yahia permalink
    May 7, 2010 12:51 pm

    What a wonderful story, Chauncey!

    Edward P. Jones’ asceticism, endurance and singularity of purpose are a real inspiration. He sounds like the real thing, for sure…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 7, 2010 1:28 pm

      He left as tremendous impression on me as a person, as the opposite of what I’ve come to think of as a serious writer. And yet his work is superlative. That’s why I call him a “genius” — a word I try to reserve for very careful use.

  2. Connie permalink
    May 7, 2010 1:10 pm

    I missed this whole Oprah thing when I was on vacation, and you know how I love top 10 lists, so thanks for revisiting it! I too think Edward P. Jones is brilliant. The Known World is a jaw-dropping book. I also love All Aunt Hagar’s Children, his short story collection, which didn’t get half as much attention as it deserved. It was one of my favorite books the year it came out. Love the way this man writes.

    As for the rest of the list: I remember really liking Pillars of the Earth years ago when I read it, and yet I’m not sure it would make MY list (which, quite frankly, changes all the time). Pleased to see Poisonwood Bible on there, though. That’s a winner.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 7, 2010 1:33 pm

      Thanks for the affirmation on Edward P. Jones. I feared I lost my head a little, throwing around the “g” word like confetti, but as Yahia says, he’s the real thing. I enjoy Follett as much as anyone, but I don’t know that he deserves to be on this kind of general list.

      To tell you the truth, though, my main quibble with Oprah’s list: To my mind, it should be restricted to books published in the past decade. That would mean goodbye East of Eden (small loss in my opinion, grumblegrumble), and also The Poisonwood Bible. But lots and lots of worthy books came out in –what are we calling the awful decade just past? The Oughts? The Millennials? The Oh-ohs? The Uh-Ohs, more like…

  3. May 7, 2010 1:28 pm

    Wow, so when you say genius you mean genius. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with his work. However, I think I will have to check him out though. And I am very intrigued by his writing process. I don’t know how he can come up with believable characters. I guess that’s where the genius comes in.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 7, 2010 1:34 pm

      Yes, indeed, I try not to use the word “genius” lightly. I doubt his process would work for any other writer on this planet. And yes, that is much of where my opinion of him as a genius comes from. But the work supports the assessment, too.

  4. May 8, 2010 12:07 pm

    I have not had a chance to read his books yet. I will now. for sure. You do not use the word genius very often. I know it will be great reading. Now as far as Oprah. There are Chauncey and Oprah sitting in a tree, K, i s,s,i n g.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 8, 2010 11:53 pm

      To Oprah I would appears as a bug.

  5. Kris Montee permalink
    May 8, 2010 5:19 pm

    Thanks Chaunce, was looking for someone to put at the top of my TBR list, preferably a stranger.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 8, 2010 11:53 pm

      Kris, always glad to be of assistance. Let me know what you think.

  6. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 10, 2010 10:31 am

    I’ve added him to my to read books too!. Thanks, Chauncey Mabe.

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