Review: The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

Well, not review exactly. There’s not much more to review in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, given how personal it is, and how tremendously of its time. But it was the first book I read in 2017 (by design), and there are elements of it that I’d like to talk about as we all stagger back to work and try and get moving again after the holidays.

The Fire Next Time

One thing that strikes me about James Baldwin is how little ideological slack he’s willing to cut anyone. (That is a compliment.) He’s clearly worked hard to fight free of easy answers, and it seems clear that he wants the same independence of thought for everyone, and believes that not only can we all be independent and critical thinkers, we absolutely must, or we’re wasting our time.

People always seem to band together in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility.

Or to put it another way, he strikes me as someone who cannot help seeing (also: looking for) the messy, complicated truth, even when he knows it would be easier, and the path of his life would be smoother, if he could unsee it. It seems to apply to everything he looks at: He sees his young nephew, his namesake, and wishes an easier life for him, but he can’t look away from the hardships he knows his nephew will face as a black kid, and then man, in America. On the other side, he shares dinner with a prominent leader in the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammed, and he can’t quite sink into that vision of the world either.

At times The Fire Next Time is very grim. At other times it’s astonishingly hopeful. But it reminded me — and I hope I can take this with me into 2017 — that while uncertainty makes us all look around for leaders who will tell us what to do, the most important thing is to trust my own mind and remember my own accountability. Baldwin says:

One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

I have my own little nephew now coming after me, which made reading Baldwin’s letter to his nephew a particular and strange experience. My nephew will have different fights than Baldwin’s did, and right now, after this election, it’s hard for me to imagine what those fights will be. I hope he will be safe; I hope he will be brave. I hope we can both live lives that will make the world better for the ones who come after us.

  • Must read this. And this has been on my mind: “while uncertainty makes us all look around for leaders who will tell us
    what to do, the most important thing is to trust my own mind and
    remember my own accountability.” I think we are all far too eager to push responsibility onto leaders of whatever stripe and forget that we ourselves, as Baldwin so beautifully puts it, are “responsible to life.” I personally want to change that for myself.

    • Me too, so much! Especially in the last administration, I think I’ve grown complacent, and I want to combat that. Complacency is (among other things) what got us here, and I don’t want to be that person.

      • This is what I came to the comments to mention! I think my biggest lesson from the recent disaster is that the last administration had me complacently believing that good people in government could do a lot of the job of loving my neighbor for me. I hope I will never be that naive again. It is up to me, always, whoever is in power.

  • Aarti

    I loved this book when I read it last year; I imagine it feels even more timely now.

    My first read of the year/last read of the year was similarly specifically chosen. I read The Warmth of Other Suns, and it reminded me of how much people have overcome in the past, and how much we can overcome in the future. It was wonderful.

    Your comments above make me think you may enjoy the book I am reading now, though it is quite different. It’s called Dispatches from Dystopia. She also talks a lot about definitions and how they can change based on who is doing the defining, etc. I have not finished yet, but it’s very interesting. Also, I think you might like it because a significant chunk of it is based in Russian towns that had nuclear plants in the 1980s. 🙂

    • Ha, well, I don’t read MUCH stuff set in Russia, but Dispatches from Dystopia does sound really good. Thanks for the rec! 🙂

  • I found the dinner with Elijah Muhammed so fascinating because you could really see Baldwin working his way through the various arguments he was hearing, sorting out the good and the bad. It’s such a challenge to do that, and Baldwin is a model for us all.

    • Yes! Yes, yes, I extremely agree. Especially in times of stress, it is so easy to find other people to do the thinking for you — and I’m not even saying that in a critical way, because I think there are cases where it is actually better to adopt other people’s opinions when you do not have and cannot easily get enough information to assess the situation yourself. But I appreciate that Baldwin in his search for answers consults his own intelligence first and foremost and really puts in the time to sort through arguments and see what makes sense to him.

  • Kathleen Ann Coleman

    Loved hearing your thoughts on this. Seems like a very important and challenging book.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Great way to start the year! Very much enjoyed reading your thoughts. I have to get around to reading this myself.

  • Laila@BigReadingLife

    Oh! I read this two years ago and loved it, but I feel like I rushed through it and need to read it again, slowly this time, and really let things sink in. I remember thinking how (unfortunately) timely and relevant it still felt. What a marvelous thinker and writer. I’ve still not yet read his fiction, but I intend to.

  • Wow. Your earnestness in this one is touching and makes me feel like I need to read the book immediately. I think we are all getting a lesson on the hard truths right now, and it is difficult and messy and exhausting. But it is worth it in the end.

  • I would’ve never picked this up because I am just so out of the loop, but now this is going high on my wishlist. Thanks for the heartfelt post, Jenny.

  • Wonderful review.