Thursday, January 04, 2007

Cross-X, by Joe Miller

I finished Joe Miller's Cross-X last night. Joe is one of the old-line Kansas City bloggers, and I recall reading about the birth pangs of this book on his blog - Kansas City Soil.

When I picked up the book, I didn't really care about debate. My high school didn't have a debate squad. Once, when I was in law school, I was asked to judge a debate tournament, with assurances that my lack of experience and knowledge would not hamper my ability to do a good job. Those assurances were lies - I was baffled by the rapid-fire reading of materials and the utter lack of persuasiveness demonstrated.

But Cross-X is about high school debate, and it lures you in through crisp, clean writing and compelling characters. It's kind of a "Friday Night Lights" of debating - human drama and competitive drama in the context of complex societal issues. You learn about the family background of the kids, and you also learn about the desegregation case and the history of black education in Kansas City. You suffer the suspense of waiting for judges to tally their scores, and you cheer for the children of drug addicts to defeat the children of privilege.

The book is set in Kansas City, and I am certain that some of my enjoyment came from that fact. I've been to Central High School, I've met several of the "characters" in the book, I've developed a nodding acquaintance with the author, I know the intersections he describes. Marcus Leach, the most-discussed debater in the book, was a year ahead of Sam while he attended the Kansas City public schools.

But the joy of the book is not the familiar - the joy of the book is how well it stretches our understanding of the unfamiliar. By the end of the book, I was well-briefed on issues in contemporary debate. More importantly, I had walked enough miles to really struggle with racism and class bias in a new and deeper manner.

Had I read the closing chapters first, with their consideration of whether a line of argument amounted to "Let me win because I'm poor and black," I would have closed the book and thought that it amounted to a bad mockery of one of Lewis Diuguid's more strident offerings. But, having been led to that point by a masterful writer and a gripping story, I was able to read and understand from a much more open point of view than when I started the book.

How could bright, young, black students abandon their opportunity to compete at the highest national level of debate, where they would almost certainly be offered scholarships to college? By the end of the book, you'll understand. You may agree or disagree - you may argue the affirmative or the negative - but you'll undertand. When I started the book, I couldn't have understood that.

Joe Miller's Cross-X got me there.


Anonymous Joe Miller said...

Thanks for your kind words! it was great meeting with you and your book crew tonight.

1/04/2007 10:53 PM  

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