This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark publication of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” With its jazzy rhythms and unadulterated views of racism, the 581-page opus won the 1953 National Book Award, and today it continues to challenge readers to enter the dark corners of the American psyche.
“It’s an odyssey that deals with just about every possible horror that can result from racism,” said Berkeley resident Bonnie Hughes. “It never lets up. Just when you think you’ve come out into the light, it’s back in again.”
This month, Berkeley is sponsoring a citywide reading of Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” The “Invisible Man” Project, a collaboration of the Berkeley Arts Festival and the Berkeley Public Library, began with free distribution of 500 copies of the book in July, and continues through August with a series of public discussions.
The idea is to connect an urban populace through literature, says Pat Mullan of the Berkeley Public Library.
“We’ve tried to encourage people to talk about the book if they see each other with it,” Mullan said. “I’ve heard that it’s [already] been happening on the buses and other places.”
The first official discussion of “Invisible Man is tonight, in the recently-renovated Central Library’s Community Room. Coming Aug. 22 will be a screening of local filmmaker Avon Kirkland’s documentary “Ralph Ellison, an American Journey.”
In addition to being a writer, Ellison was a jazz trumpeter trained at the Tuskegee Institute. On Aug. 24, the influence of music on his writing will be discussed by UC Berkeley Visiting Professor Anthony Brown. Brown’s sextet will follow his lecture with a concert that is designed to focus on Ellison’s musical inspiration, including Thelonius Monk.
Mullan said the idea for Berkeley’s community reading and ensuing activities came from Seattle.
The program “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book” began in 1998 with Russell Banks's “The Sweet Hereafter” and has become an annual event. Other cities quickly caught the vibe. Chicago gave out more than 2,000 copies of Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” last fall, and Los Angeles is reading “Fahrenheit 451” this year.
Elision, who died in 1994, did not complete another work of fiction beyond “Invisible Man” in his lifetime. Subsequent to his death, a book called “Juneteenth” was culled from a work in progress, but gathered more attention for the way it was put together than for its content.
“Invisible Man” is a difficult read, Mullan says, but worth the effort.
“The imagery is very intense, and the fact that it’s this kind of epic journey, rather than [following] the arc or story line of a regular novel makes it a little more challenging,” he said.
In addition to the free books contributed by Friends of the Library – which were snatched up the first day they were given out – the project is being promoted by lapel pins which match the maroon color of the paperback. Local booksellers such as Cody’s are giving out the pins and offering a discount on the book.
The following are activities scheduled this week:
“Focus on Invisible Man: A Community Literary Discussion,” 7 p.m. Thursday. Community Room, Berkeley Public Library.
Video screening: “Ralph Ellison: An American Journey” Commentary by filmmaker Avon Kirkland, 7 p.m. Aug. 22, Community Room, Berkeley Public Library.
“Reading Between the Notes: Ralph Ellison’s Writings,” talk by Anthony Brown, 2 p.m. Aug. 24, Community Room, Berkeley Public Library.
Anthony Brown Ensemble Jazz concert tribute to Ralph Ellison, 8 p.m. Aug. 24, Reading Room, Berkeley Public Library.