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A digital Malcolm X: Manning Marable's enhanced e-book biography

AuthorsBusinessMartin Luther King Jr.

Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” was one of the standout books of 2011. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle and National Book Award finalist, it was the first full biography of its subject, a counterpoint to “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and an astonishing exercise in context; Marable sought to evoke Malcolm not as symbol but as human being.

The death of the author, a professor at Columbia and an influential scholar of African American history, just days before the book’s publication makes for a poignant irony. This was in every way imaginable a coda for both Marable and Malcolm, a cap to two very different, yet in some sense related, careers.

Perhaps most astonishing about “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” is the way it cuts through myth to reveal Malcolm in all his complexity: fraught, conflicted, contradictory, struggling with both his public persona and his private life. Reading it, we get the feeling that we are seeing him as he really is.

That same intention motivates a new e-book version of the biography, which weaves video clips throughout Marable’s text. We see, for instance, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. respond to Malcolm’s 1965 assassination, or Malcolm himself exhorting a Harlem crowd in 1961 on behalf of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad: “He’s not trying to build churches, he’s trying to build businesses. Because businesses make jobs for you, and churches don’t make jobs for anybody but preachers.”

This, of course, is what e-books promise, especially when it comes to biography or history: a way of not just reading but also giving dimension to the material, of moving beyond words alone into the sources from which a book is built.

And yet, despite the thrill of watching Malcolm speak (and it is a thrill to witness him talking, gesturing —a young man, vibrant, only 39 when he was killed), it’s a frustration that the clips are so short. Nearly all come in at under a minute, with the exception of a seven-minute Marable lecture and a documentary about the making of the book. What this offers is more a taste than any real immersion.

That’s the point, I suppose — not to overwhelm the book but to “enhance” it, as the saying goes. And yet, I come away from the digital “Malcolm X” wanting more. Not from Marable, who did a remarkable job separating the life from the legend, but more from the e-book. More video, more of the documentary record, more of the building blocks on which this superlative biography resides.

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