When Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first book, “The Beautiful Struggle,” was published in 2008, it landed with barely a ripple. At the time, Mr. Coates was a struggling writer. He had lost three jobs, and he and his family relied on unemployment checks, his wife’s income and occasional support from his father to stay afloat. By the time the book came out in paperback, his fortune had shifted slightly; he’d become a regular contributor to The Atlantic magazine, writing a blog that attracted a moderate but engaged audience.
“I went and did a few events. I did one in Brooklyn and I did one in San Francisco, and maybe 30 people showed up. And I thought, ‘This is what I want. This is it,’” he said in a conversation over a recent lunch.
Suffice it to say that Mr. Coates’s second book, “Between the World and Me,” published in 2015, did not suffer the same lack of readership. An early galley was sent to Toni Morrison, who strongly endorsed the book, calling it “required reading” and likening Mr. Coates to James Baldwin. That year, Mr. Coates was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and the National Book Award in nonfiction. His appearances filled auditoriums and the book was adopted on college syllabuses. It has sold 1.5 million copies internationally and has been translated into 19 languages, catapulting him to prominence.
At the age of 41 (he turns 42 on Saturday), Mr. Coates has become one of the most influential black intellectuals of his generation, joining predecessors including Ms. Morrison, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Dr. Cornel West. “He’s a rock star,” said Dr. Nell Irvin Painter, professor emeritus of American history at Princeton University, adding that Mr. Coates is asking questions that even “other historians have not been asking.”
His new book, “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” traces this ascent. In it, he collects articles he wrote for The Atlantic during Barack Obama’s presidency, interspersing them with explanatory, autobiographical essays. The book goes on sale Tuesday, Oct. 3, and already, his book-tour stop at Brooklyn’s Kings Theater has sold out — a far cry from the intimate crowds of his early career.