"For me, the books I read were the call—the call to adventure, to thinking, to acknowledging other points of view. But to complete the ritual, I needed to respond."
My dad was a voracious but indiscriminate reader. He didn’t go to the bookstore and spend all afternoon painstakingly picking through the shelves in search of the perfect tome. He just marched down to the local used bookstore and bought books by the pound. Like hamburger. That meant that we had a large variety of books on every conceivable subject laying around the house.
Whenever I would ask my dad a question about anything, be it personal or about the world, instead of sitting me down for a Hallmark moment of father-son bonding, he would point at a book on the shelf and then go back to his own reading. Not so great for building our relationship, but awesome for making me read a vast spectrum of diverse voices about subjects I might never have otherwise even noticed.
Because of his Silent Librarian routine, I grew up with a keen interest in history, science, journalism, and fiction. I saw reading as a way to be part of this large community of people wanting to share their knowledge and their perspectives. As if the authors were all sitting in a circle talking to each other and I was overhearing the conversation. But reading didn’t allow me to fully engage with this community of voices because I was only listening.
“Call and response” is a tradition in African culture that goes back to tribal religious and civic ceremonies. It followed Africans to America and became embedded in slave songs in America and even in the black version of Christian services. For me, the books I read were the call—the call to adventure, to thinking, to acknowledging other points of view. But to complete the ritual, I needed to respond. The response would mean others would hear my voice and that would make me part of the community.
My response became my writing. In high school, I participated in a journalism program that led to me interviewing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What I wrote about didn’t shake the world, but it shook my world. My voice had joined the social choir that sang from those books: songs of love, hope, knowledge, kindness, and compassion. I felt forever bound to the voices in those books as part of their circle and have hoped with each new work, I am calling others to join us and add their voices.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a huge Holmesian—7”2”, NBA’s all-time leading scorer, six-time MVP, Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as a New York Times bestselling author, and a regular contributor to The Guardian and The Hollywood Reporter. He has written fifteen books, including children’s stories, three autobiographies, several historical works, and essays.
This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" enews October 2018 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.