bell hooks, Belonging

The first time I read bell hooks’ Belonging: A Culture of Place, I decided not to review it here. hooks is a well-known and well-respected writer, so it’s not like she needs (or would particularly benefit from) my approval.

That’s not something that’s stopped me before, though. Besides, she’s dealing with enormously important issues and questions that no one else on the planet thinks about in the same way, and more people really should get the benefit of her thinking. These ideas are collected together nowhere else, so the question is how well Belonging represents the best of hooks’ ideas.

Mostly, I just wasn’t sure how to characterize the book’s atrocious level of finishing: and it really is atrocious. Routledge should be ashamed of letting this book depart its offices looking like this, and that’s why I couldn’t bear to review it last time. Details on that at the end of the post, though, because we’ve got some great stuff to talk about first.

It’s an eddying, circular book, this one, and hooks goes over the same ground numerous times in Belonging. The same touchstone writers and volumes are cited more than once (Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison, Carol Lee Flinders, M. Scott Peck, Wendell Berry, and others), and sometimes the same quotations are offered in more than one chapter. The same insights, too, come up again and again, and the same crucial moments from her childhood are re-recounted.

But I’m more than okay with that, because bell hooks is dramatizing here the cumulative process of discovery and self-discovery, illustrating how hard it is to hang onto what we’ve learned. When you leave the country young for the city, as she did, and when it takes years for you to figure out how to remain country the way you need to, while making the most anyone can possibly can from what the city has to offer, and when you manage somehow to return nonetheless to the country, well, lessons sometimes have to be learned more than once, and they get learned each time in a slightly different context. Sometimes it’s a grandfather’s habits with a plough that prompt her; sometimes it’s a postmodern cultural critic. It’s a treat to watch her keep approaching the same lessons these different ways.

Among the key lessons are these: black American culture was still 90% agrarian less than a century ago, and the overwhelming emphasis on black urban experience now is itself a highly successful product of white supremacist oppression. Black Americans have been led (and in some ways forced) to forfeit and to deny their historically very intimate links to nature, so they’ve had to fake their way into developing a wholly urban culture without any tradition or history of urban existence. An awareness of black American culture’s historic roots in nature must be developed before that culture can become fully mature and hence overcome (while retaining, as it must in order to remain mature) the scars of slavery, segregation, and racisms both official and unofficial. Without some sense of and for nature, black American culture can never really generate a sense of permanence, of place, of belonging.

These, as I say, are among the many lessons of this book. hooks’ comments on porches and quiltmaking are inspired, and some of her pieces on family are impressively moving. Mind you, I wish she spent more time commenting on, rather than praising, the texts and writers she cites, and I rather selfishly wish she’d offered some more overt clues for how to apply her book to places other than Kentucky (rural British Columbia, for example...), but there’s a lot here to grab onto. The book deserves readers, lots of them.

Routledge, though, has badly screwed up the chances of that. If I was bell hooks, I’d sue them.

By my casual, though slightly obsessive, count, more than 150 errors survived the editing process: extra letters (the name “Chollly”), transposed letters (like “form” rather than “from,” more than once), missing quotation marks and apostrophes (even spots where a single word had a double quotation mark at the beginning, a single at the end), spellcheck errors (Gerard "Manly" Hopkins, not "Manley"), you name it. Some sentences don't end with a period; some end with two; some have a period in the middle somewhere.

hooks uses several quotations twice in this book, and not a single one of them - NOT A SINGLE ONE - is quoted the same way twice. How do you misquote Psalm 121, for example, especially when you get it right the other time the line appears?!? “I will lift up mine eyes UNTIL the hills, from whence cometh my help” - I mean, honestly. How is it possible that not a single repeated quotation appears the same way twice?

But MOST egregiously, there’s more than one case where there’s a missing “not,” so hooks appears to be saying precisely the opposite of what she’s been arguing all along. Appalling. If I wasn't worried I'd come off sounding like Gordon Ramsay, I'd have more to say than that.

Routledge, you should be ashamed. I’m tempted to write and demand that you send my entire purchase price directly to bell hooks, because you’ve done her ZERO favours with this volume! I've complained mildly in the past about small-time presses not helping their authors, and I stand by that, but this butchery is thorough enough that it looks like sabotage.


Caroline said…
I sincerely agree. When I was reading this book for a class assignment, a lot of the argument was overwhelmed in my eyes because the grammar was just so frustrating... My favourites included the double periods because they're so... blatant.
Anonymous said…
I have just started reading "Belonging." By page 18, I had to stop and do a Google search about the publishing of this book. I simply cannot believe the editing mistakes. They have to be intentional. That, or the file that was sent to the printer was an incorrect version. Thank you for this post and for corroborating my indignation. What the publisher has done to this work is shocking.

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