On March 21 at Random House’s New York City office, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) discussed United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good (Ballantine; LJ 3/15/16, ow.ly/4n050S). At the engaging talk, part of the publisher’s Big Ideas Night series, Booker shared stories from his book and answered audience questions. Prior to the event, he spoke to LJ.
Before we talk about the book, what was it like speaking at the American Library Association Midwinter meeting?
It was great. I mean libraries—I faced this as mayor, the state cutbacks to the city and the battles we had over funding, trying to get libraries to stay funded and strong—libraries provide such an essential service. They’re not sort of an add-on, they’re not a nice thing to have—they’re an essential part of our democracy. And so to talk to all these committed folks who are not paid glamorous amounts of money, who aren’t household names, but who are so committed to what I think is part of the spine of our democracy, was exciting.
How did United come about?
I think the germ of the idea came from campaigning for the first time in the whole state. I was crisscrossing New Jersey’s towns and I found that the one question that was similar no matter what neighborhood I went to was more of a lament that our society is becoming more fractured along partisan lines, and the divisions within America and people wondering how can we get anything big done anymore. It made me really want to answer that. In many ways I thought the experiences I had from my childhood all the way to getting to the Senate really spoke to a different America that I wanted to highlight.
What was the writing process like?
Yeah, it was hell [laughs]. It took me to dark places in my soul and I’ve never done anything this long before so it was tentative and, while being a full-time senator, it was just brutal. But there were definitely delightful moments in the process, like going back and interviewing people, tracking folks down, and that was really magical to me at times because I discovered more connections than I even knew were going on at the time. So whether it was hearing and learning about Ms. Virginia Jones and her affection for me when I thought she didn’t have any in the beginning, all the way to finding guys that were dealing drugs around the building and actually interviewing them. So it was pretty powerful.
I really enjoyed the organization of the book, that you centered chapters on people who influenced you. Was that always the plan?
I’ve sort of surrendered to the word “memoir,” but I didn’t want to write a typical political memoir. I just wanted to celebrate others who were the best teachers of my life. I had originally wanted to write just a collection of essays. And through the process I realized that they should fit together chronologically and there should be sort of a narrative arc, but really, this was about celebrating others. And in many ways, having me be the student throughout and trying to be very confessional. Whether I was being arrogant or sanctimonious or just plain wrong, I just wanted to put that out there and let people see how we all touch each other and influence each other far beyond what we even think. And therefore, when we choose to engage with someone else with love and kindness, we tend to influence people in more beneficent ways than we even imagine.
Did the central theme of unity emerge as you were writing or was it there from the beginning?
It’s from the beginning. This idea of interdependency I think really is the story of America. As I often say, self-reliance and rugged individualism are really wonderful qualities, but rugged individualism didn’t get us to the Moon, it didn’t map the human genome, it didn’t overcome segregation. We’re really here and who we are because of our ability to rely on each other. And so that to me is not only sort of the story of our history, but I think it’s the promise of our future.
Your optimism for our country was so wonderful to read. Can you speak to that?
I don’t understand how someone could give an honest view of our history and not be hopeful. We had wretched, deeply entrenched discrimination, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, racism, all of these deeply brutal realities in our country that we still were able to overcome and those kinds of things give me hope. I mean when you see people who had so many reasons to despair not give up fighting, even though they would never live to see abolition, they would never live to see the suffrage movement come to fruition or the labor movement come to fruition, they did not stop believing. I think the history of this country is a screaming testimony to the achievement of impossible things, impossible ideas. And so understanding that we come from that makes me—regardless of the wretchedness of the circumstances that we have now, from our criminal justice system to the toxicity of our soil—think that there’s still cause for hope.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I hope they feel activated, that they realize that they’re maybe more powerful than they thought—that they don’t have to be a senator or a president or a Supreme Court justice to effectuate dramatic change in this country. That with what they have, where they are right now, they could be doing more to advance the cause of this country. There’s a point in the book where I talk about not allowing your inability to do everything undermine your determination to do something. That whatever we criticize in the world, we have to assume that nothing about it is going to change unless we do. The change we make might be one thing. Like I decide that you know what, I’m going to, every week, post something on social media about this problem, trying to educate my circle of friends and then maybe do a call to action every once in a while. We have the ability not to change the whole world but we can change people’s worlds. I just hope people, when they finish this book, will feel more motivated to do that.