Manning Marable's MALCOLM X

Historian Manning Marable's recently published biography of Malcolm X (Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Viking) is likely to be the definitive account of X's life for some time. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, and justly so. The book is impeccably researched and extensively documented. The larger accomplishment, however, is that Marable keeps Malcolm's story, one already famous from X's 1965 autobiography, so fresh and readable while not sacrificing any authority. Much has been made of some of the revelations about both X's sexuality and murder, but these never overshadow the man himself, who despite the flaws and contradictions Marable addresses -- indeed in many ways because of them -- comes off as more deeply human and admirable.

But even setting these accomplishments aside, for bibliophiles (even those not particularly interested in the history of black America or the civil rights movement) Marable's book has much to recommend it. At its core, A Life of Reinvention is as much the story of the events of Malcolm's life as it is the story of the development of his ideas. In this regard the book does better than any previous biography in demonstrating an aspect of X too often under-appreciated: his willingness to question and reconsider his own assumptions and beliefs. Marable spends much of his time delving into the books and writers both who influenced and who wrote about the black leader. The book therefore is in many ways a narrative of X's travels through the black authors and thinkers of the first half of the 20th century. There is a sort of bibliographic mystery to X and Marable untangles it well. 

Given then Marable's accomplishment as a writer, the book's importance to African American studies, as well as its rich bibliographic landscape, it is especially disappointing that so little attention was apparently paid by the publisher to the physical book itself. The first edition I have just feels cheap. It is bound in plain black paper boards rather than a more appropriate cloth, and is printed on a thin, low-quality paper I strongly suspect is not archival (for more on this unsettling trend, see this excellent Millions post from last year). Even the jacket's design is rather drab and unimaginative. As frequently mentioned in press coverage, Marable's biography was more than two decades in the making and he died just days before its release. He deserved a final product better suited to its importance, commensurate with his efforts, and more worthy of his legacy.

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