Kevin Young's "You Are What You Read"

Our friend Kevin Young is the author of seven books of poetry and the editor of eight others, including Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, winner of a 2012 American Book Award, and Jelly Roll: A Blues, a finalist for the National Book Award. His recent book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2012, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and winner of the PEN Open Award. His next volume of poems, Book of Hours, is forthcoming from Knopf in March 2014. He is currently a professor and curator at Emory University in Atlanta, where he lives with his family.

Would you say this pile of books defines you?

Not really—I mean as you can see, I have literally thousands of books I've gathered or was given over the years. It was hard for me to pull only a few for you to see ... I just grabbed some first editions here and old copies I have of books I love. Speaking of definitions, this college dictionary [American Heritage Dictionary] I got right before my senior year of high school. I still use it twice a week. I read it—all of it!

You seem to have a passion for old, rare books.

For me, getting the earliest editions of the book tells you something crucial, something lost in the digital. Who owned it maybe, how it was well-read—or well-loved. I love the textures and the stories that the old copies tell. Used bookstores are the best in that way.

Is there is one book you return to over and over?

Yes and no. I feel like all of these books are versions of that. There's not the one book. These three poetry books are a first edition of Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney, Gwendolyn Brooks's A Street in Bronzeville, and then Good Times by Lucille Clifton. These are all first books, remarkable debuts that really sing to me.

Do you have book envy?

I have look envy. I love the look and feel of books so much it's almost like, “Oh, I'd love a book like that” rather than “Oh, I can't believe they did that with that book," or “Oh, I would never do that.” It's more participatory. I feel like reading is this great shared project where, across, time you're connected with people who wrote long ago and never imagined you or maybe somehow did. That's what I like about books as physical objects.

Did you have a naughty book you would read under the covers?

When I was a kid people would pass around Judy Blume books, but I read comic books. That was the thing I binged on. And I still have them all which is probably how I started collecting. Like many people did, I read Richie Rich kid comics—but then I'd visit my cousin in Louisiana who was away at school and he would have The Hulk and Captain America and the Falcon under his bed; not really clandestine, but still quite a thrill to discover.

Continue reading the rest of Kevin’s “You Are What You Read” on Medium.

Melanie Dunea