Reading Update: Roots by Alex Haley

I’ve already mentioned how I feel about Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley, and so I won’t even hem and haw with an introduction: I didn’t like it.  And neither should you.

If you didn’t already know (or haven’t seen the 1977 miniseries based on the book), Roots traces author Alex Haley’s lineage back through his slave ancestors, beginning with the man captured from the African brush land, Kunte Kinte.  It’s a pretty epic story, beginning sometime in the 1600’s, and ending with the funeral of Haley’s father in the 1960’s.

After listening to me rant yesterday, my dad asked why Roots was considered an important literary work.  I don’t really know, except to quote this little blurb from the book’s website:

Alex Haley’s Roots is the monumental two-century drama of Kunta Kinte and the six generations who came after him. By tracing back his own roots, Haley tells the story of 39 million Americans of African descent. He has rediscovered for an entire people a rich cultural heritage that ultimately speaks to all races everywhere, for the story it tells is one of the most eloquent testimonials ever written to the indomitability of the human spirit.

So OK.  Props to Haley for tracing his lineage back two hundred years.  Given the African American experience, it couldn’t have been easy.  Plus, I believe Haley may have been one of the first to do so…or, at least, do so and then write a nationally bestselling book about it.

But then, does Haley really deserve an ‘A’ for effort in this department given the charges of plagiarism?  At one point, Haley admitted that passages from Roots were plagiarized from Harold Courlander’s novel, The African.  Plus, the veracity of the entire novel was called into question by a genealogist and historian, when they claimed that the slave Toby—the named given to Kunte Kinte once he reached the American colonies—couldn’t have been the ancestor from which Haley’s lineage sprung.  Oops.

Much of the hype surrounding the novel is similarly muddled.  Fan sites claim it was a “Pulitzer Prize winner,” but in fact only won a special award from the Pulitzer committee.  Sorry guys, not the same.  And I still can’t figure out which National Book Award it allegedly won (it’s not listed as a winner by the National Book Foundation).

All of that mess aside, though, the book doesn’t deserve even a quarter of the acclaim it’s garnered for one simple reason:  the writing sucks.  I know that sounds juvenile, but how else could I put it?  I don’t want to blame Haley—he is the co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X—but in Roots, he sounds like a well-meaning, ambitious, but talentless high school sophomore trying to finish his first creative writing assignment.  And about that quote?  Unless the definition of ‘eloquent’ has changed, Roots is one of the least eloquent stories I’ve ever read.

I know all this sounds harsh, but considering once I start a book I am determined to finish it (no matter how bad it is), I was stuck with this crap for 888 pages.  Suffice it to say: I’m bitter.  I wasted a lot of my time on this book, and so I’m not afraid to say that the “30th anniversary special edition” I read had so many typos, I’m embarrassed for the editor.  Now, considering I love copyediting, I usually find mistakes in every book I read.  But these were pretty glaring mistakes, which is disappointing on many levels.  How can I trust the accolades and hype generated by Haley’s publisher, when I can’t even trust their editors to find a misspelling of “nearly” (spelled “neaily”)?

Then, there’s all the fundamental mistakes Haley makes—ones that would earn a freshman creative writing student a C at best.  The man has obviously never heard of the “show, d0n’t tell” rule, and is addicted to adverbs (misplaced ones at that: “they liked him genuinely”).  And then there’s the cheese factor:  the entire book is riddled with over-the-top sentimentality and cliches.  While very thorough, the portraits of his slave ancestors are unrealistic, shallow and a little embarrassing.  Instead of exploring his characters, he projects the same personality onto the same, vapid canvas.  What results is, despite seven generations and 800 pages, the same story being told over and over again.

For me, a good book is all about good writing.  Story is important as well, and I’ve liked many a book that would never win the Pulitzer Prize.  I can be a book snob, but as long as the writing is competant, I am happy to read.  But when the writing is blatently and noticeably bad, I can’t  look past the writing to enjoy the book.  Thus, why I could never read (and enjoy) the Twilight saga.  I hate to put Roots in the same category as Twilight, but there you have it.

And so, don’t read Roots.  There are so many quality books out there, that you don’t need to waste your time on something you’ll just regret two, three, or four weeks later.

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2 thoughts on “Reading Update: Roots by Alex Haley

  1. Ouch! Sounds terrible. I tried to read it a long time ago when I found it on my mother;s bookshelves and I was never able to get into it. I had no idea that all that other controversy went on. Fascinating.

  2. I found this book in my garage and I was into it immediatley! I’m only 12 years old and I read this book twice. I love the way Alex Haley describes the hardships so know I’m inspired to become a writer myself!

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