Shelf Life: Clint Smith

Welcome to Shelf Life,’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.

Seven years after his debut Counting Descent, Clint Smith releases his second poetry collection, Above Ground (Little, Brown), which reflects on how fatherhood has altered how he perceives and engages with the world. In between collections, he wrote the NYT-bestselling How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the Hillman Prize for Book Journalism, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. It was chosen as a common read at seven colleges and universities and as a President Obama favorite in 2021.

Smith, a staff writer at The Atlantic and contributing editor at Poets & Writers, wrote his dissertation on justice reform and juveniles sentenced to life in prison with no parole for his Ph.D. in Education from Harvard. He taught high school English in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and writing and literature at jails and prisons; hosted the YouTube series Crash Course Black American History; has given TED talks; and won the National Poetry Slam championship in 2014 with the Beltway Poetry Slam team (Elizabeth Acevedo was a member and a teacher at the same high school).

The New Orleans-born, Maryland-based Smith wanted to play professional soccer (the Arsenal fan played at Davidson College, where he started a student poetry group and was classmates with Stephen Curry), likes David Attenborough nature docs, does group Hannah Andersen pjs, revels in dad jokes, and prefers pancakes over waffles. Flip for his recs below.

The book that:

…I recommend over and over again:

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. I am far from the first to recommend this book but that is because it’s so extraordinary. A pure masterclass of narrative nonfiction that exists at the pinnacle of the genre. It is the book that a historical phenomenon as important as The Great Migration deserves.

…shaped my worldview:

An Immense World by Ed Yong. One of the joys of having young children is that you are constantly watching them discover different parts of the world for the first time. I felt that same sense of wonder while reading Yong’s book, which gave me awe-inspiring insight into how animals experience the world through their unique senses. I’ll never look at the animals around us the same way again.

…I read in one sitting, it was that good:

Lost & Found by Kathryn Schultz is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. Sentence after sentence it blew me away. An incredible literary excavation of love and loss.

…currently sits on my nightstand:

Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond. There are few authors who write with more moral urgency than Desmond. Just like his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted, his new book pushes us to more deeply examine how the landscape of inequality in America came to be.

…has the greatest ending:

Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. Du Bois. This book is one of the most important historical texts in American history, and the final chapter, “The Propaganda of History,” is a complete dismantling of southern, Lost Cause mythology. It is a chapter that should be read in every American history class.

…broke my heart:

Invisible Child by Andrea Elliot. Elliot spent almost a decade following a young girl named Dasani and her family in New York City as they navigated the city’s landscape of equality. What Elliot produces is a remarkable portrait of a family trying to stay together, and a devastating portrait of how the structural forces of poverty work to keep them apart.

…helped me become a better writer:

I’m going to cheat and select two forthcoming books: Family Lore by Elizabeth Acevedo and Bright Red Fruit by Safia Elhillo. Elizabeth and Safia are dear friends and over the years we have often gotten together to co-work and write. During the pandemic, we had weekly writing check-ins over Zoom where I had the great pleasure of watching both of these beautiful books written from beginning to end. Watching the evolution of their drafts taught me so much of revision, and gave me even deeper admiration for how talented they both are.

…is a master class on dialogue:

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Really it’s a masterclass of everything. I always tell people that I am the president of the Pachinko fan club. It is one of my favorite novels of all time and gave me insight into a part of history, and a part of the world, from perspectives I had never encountered. A must read.

…I’ve re-read the most:

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. I don’t reread novels very often, but Exit West is a book that I couldn’t stop myself from coming back to again and again. Reading it was such a transporting experience, and the story carries such a distinct voice. I am filled with awe and admiration when I read it.

…I consider literary comfort food:

Cardinal by Tyree Daye. Daye is one of my favorite poets writing today. He writes of home, of family, of the South with so much love and tenderness. Each poem is a glass of lemonade in front of those you love most.

…fills me with hope:

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green. I love the way John Green’s mind works. This book of essays traverses so many parts of our world—both elusive and quotidian—and demonstrates, ultimately, how remarkable it is to be human.

…everyone should read:

Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight. Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass is probably the best biography I have ever read. If you want to understand America, you have to understand Douglass. He is one of the true founding fathers of this country, someone who helped America see what it was, and who helped direct it towards what he believed it could one day be.

…I’d want signed by the author:

Would have to be a copy of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by the man himself. Now I just need a time machine.

Bonus question: If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be:

Loyalty Bookstore in Silver Spring, MD. My neighborhood bookstore and one of my absolute favorite places.

The literary organization I support:

Free Minds Book Club, an organization in D.C. that conducts writing and literature workshops in local jails and prisons. They also help support formerly incarcerated people after they have been released.

Read Smith’s Picks:
Headshot of Riza Cruz

Riza Cruz is an editor and writer based in New York.


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