WASHINGTON -- A few weeks back, when Clarence Thomas' "My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir" first came out, there was a flurry of commentary on him and the book. From conservatives, there was praise. From liberals, there was a vaguely concealed sense of shock. To them, he seemed so-o-o angry. Wait a minute; I thought they admired anger. Think of their approbation of the "Angry Left." Now the hubbub surrounding Thomas' book has quieted down. In fact, the book is hardly mentioned. This is typical of the circumstances today surrounding the publication of books. When a book that somehow matters comes out, there is a transient period of excitement, a mixture of hallelujahs or spitballs -- then complete silence.
Yet a book, if it is any good, is a distillation of long and careful thought. It is not -- again, if it is any good -- but an extended magazine article. A book is more sophisticated than an article and should command longer attention. If it is very good, a book should provoke thought and comments for a long while after its publication. In the case of Thomas' memoir, I shall be thinking about it and referring to it for a long time. It is one of the best books I have read in years.
It is the chronicle of a complicated and unusual life, accompanied by reflections on that life by a complicated and unusual man. Reading it is a powerful experience. Born a very poor black in a very poor community in the Jim Crow South, Thomas was raised by his tough and deeply decent grandparents. He went through a bizarre period in a Catholic seminary and, after that, radical years at college and law school. He ended up in government service in Washington. Supposedly, according to his liberal critics, he was the beneficiary of affirmative action, but any sensitive reading of this book makes clear that nothing came easily to Thomas.
Then after difficult but successful years in Washington, both at the Justice Department and at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he emerged as a conservative. I take this as proof that Thomas never wanted things to come easily. One of the reasons that so few things came easily to Thomas (he tells us athletics came pretty easily to him) is that usually he has insisted on thinking things out, with a powerful aptitude for reasoning and a critical streak that doubtless he got from his tough-minded grandfather. Another reason that nothing came easily is that he is black and up from poverty. That last reason is known by all, but after reading this book, I came away very much aware that Thomas' powers of ratiocination are first-rate. He is just the kind of person we want on the Supreme Court.
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