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