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America’s Most Literate Cities, 2011

Drawing from a variety of available data resources, the America’s Most Literate Cities study ranks the largest cities (population 250,000 and above) in the United States. This study focuses on six key indicators of literacy: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and Internet resources.

And here are the top ten:

  1. Washington, DC
  2. Seattle, WA
  3. Minneapolis, MN
  4. Atlanta, GA
  5. Boston, MA
  6. Pittsburgh, PA
  7. Cincinnati, OH
  8. St. Louis, MO
  9. San Francisco, CA
  10. Denver, CO

Chicago Tribune introducing new book section as premium paid content

With so many newspapers eliminating book review sections, it’s good to hear of one adding more book coverage. But there is, of course, a catch: a $99/year charge for the premium content.

The literary publication represents an effort by the newspaper to explore the concept of premium paid content as a means to bolster revenue beyond the traditional subscription and advertising model.

“It’s a new approach to content creation and delivery,” said Gerould Kern, senior vice president and editor of the Chicago Tribune. “Audiences want very specialized information, and we are going to give them that.”

The new section “will feature 24 pages of book reviews, author interviews and Chicago-focused literary news, along with a weekly bonus book of short fiction.”

But will readers pay $99 a year for material similar to what they can find online for free?

Guess What’s Next: Literary Predictions for 2012

The Center for Fiction asked a group of publishers, booksellers, literary agents, and book critics what changes in the world of literature they expect to see this year:

Drive-thru bookstores, hybrid forms, fake memoirs, celebration and regret as the cultural gatekeepers lose their keys….Here’s what might be on the horizon

Some of my worst friends are books

They offer consolation, wisdom, company of a kind, but they’re really not interested in you

Writing in the U. K. Guardian, Rick Gekoski looks at the relationship between books and their readers:

It is instructive, and a little alarming, to observe how highly literary people write about the crises in their own lives, and the role that books can play in responding to them. Reading Joan Didion on the sudden death of her husband, or John Sutherland on the collapse of his life through alcoholism, I am struck and surprised, both envious and a little chagrined, by how literary their frame of reference is. In the midst of the crisis, or, what is somewhat different, in the midst of the recollecting and recounting of that crisis, a major reflex is to turn, for consolation and understanding, to favourite and esteemed authors.

Without readers there would be no books, and therefore no writers. “Writers and readers coexist and invent and reinvent each other in some symbiotic way,” Gekoski writes, and in that way we incorporate into ourselves what we learn from books:

one can hardly distinguish a sense of “self” which isn’t composed, in part, of the voices that we have introjected: from parents, teachers, lovers, books. And in times of trouble we consult them all, unwind the threads to reanimate the individual voices, seek consolation. After all, most of our serious literature is about human misery. If you want a happy message buy a greetings card. Happiness is something you feel, for a time; unhappiness is what you write and read about.

Gekoski’s conclusion:

For there to be a conversation – a dialogue – there have to be at least two active participants. That’s company. A book is not company. We engage with it, argue with it, carry it around in our pockets and minds, are haunted by memories of it for years. But it doesn’t argue back, doesn’t engage, never inquires how our day has been, gives only what it wishes. Books are selfish. Everything, every word, is on their terms.

That’s what I like about them.

Well, yes and no. I don’t believe that every word is on the book’s term. Different readers find different meanings in the same books according to their own needs, their own unique blend of temperament and experiences. And an individual may read the same book differently at different times in life, with an understanding shaped by current conditions. What most readers experience is a transactional exchange of knowledge with a book in which the reader and the book continually interact with each other.

I would argue that this type of conversation—of dialogue—goes on between books and their readers all the time.

14 Literary Settings Inspired by Real Places

In Mental Floss Stacy Conradt offers a list of “a handful of “fictional” places you can actually visit”:

  1. Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri
  2. West Egg from The Great Gatsby
  3. Laura Ingalls’s Little House in DeSmet, North Dakota
  4. Holden Caulfield’s New York City
  5. Klickitat Street in Portland, Oregon, where Ramona Quimby and her creator, Beverly Cleary, grew up
  6. Winnie-the-Pooh’s Hundred-Acre Wood
  7. The house of the seven gables in Salem, Massachusetts
  8. H. P. Lovecraft’s The Shunned House in Providence, Rhode Island
  9. Leopold Bloom’s (and James Joyce’s) Dublin
  10. Thoreau’s Walden Pond
  11. Sleepy Hollow, otherwise known as North Tarrytown, New York
  12. Agatha Christie’s Majestic Hotel, actually the Imperial Hotel in in Torquay, England
  13. The Spaniards Inn in London, source of inspiration for John Keats, Bram Stoker, and Charles Dickens
  14. Several possible models for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island
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Finally, Out with the Old Year. . .

In what I promise will be the last list of “best books of 2011” reported here, Washington Post book critic Ron Charles summarizes his favorite novels of 2011 in the following categories:

  • most devastating
  • best Western
  • weirdest sex
  • best seafaring tale
  • most metaphysical
  • best novel about novels
  • best modern-day feminist “Huck Finn”
  • best novel about Katrina
  • second best Western
  • easiest to recommend
  • best environmental novel
  • best foodie novel
  • best magicians
  • best music novel
  • best novel about the Apocalypse

. . . And in with the New

The Millions (and if you haven’t yet seen this site, you should take a look) offers its extensive list Most Anticipated: The Great 2012 Book Preview:

readers this year can look forward to new Toni Morrison, Richard Ford, Peter Carey, Lionel Shriver, and, of course, newly translated Roberto Bolaño, as well as, in the hazy distance of this coming fall and beyond, new Michael Chabon, Hilary Mantel, and John Banville. We also have a number of favorites stepping outside of fiction. Marilynn Robinson and Jonathan Franzen have new essay collections on the way. A pair of plays are on tap from Denis Johnson. A new W.G. Sebald poetry collection has been translated. And Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer have teamed to update a classic Jewish text. But that just offers the merest suggestion of the literary riches that 2012 has on offer.

The list comprises 81 titles and is arranged by month of publication.

The Christian Science Monitor joins in with its list 20 non-fiction books to watch for in 2012. The CSM always offers its lists in one-per-page format, so don’t click on this one when you’re short on time or patience.

For audiobook fans, Publishers Weekly provides its January Audiobook Release Roundup with links to offerings from the following audio publishers:

Cat Women of the Moon

This link will take you to a two-part BBC audio program by Sarah Hall about the popular motif in science fiction of an all-women society surviving without men.

Street-smart Walter Dean Myers named national ambassador for children’s literature

 Walter Dean Myers, the author of “Fallen Angels,” “Sunrise Over Fallujah,” Monster,” “Hoops” and other hard-hitting novels for youth, has been named the new national ambassador for children’s literature. He succeeds Katherine Paterson (“A Bridge to Terabithia”), who had served in the spot since 2010.


“The choice of Mr. Myers represents a departure from his predecessors and is likely to be seen as a bold statement,” Julie Bosman wrote in The New York Times.”His books chronicle the lives of many urban teenagers, especially young, poor African-Americans. While his body of work includes poetry, nonfiction and the occasional cheerful picture book for children, its standout books offer themes aimed at young-adult readers: stories of teenagers in violent gangs, soldiers headed to Iraq and juvenile offenders imprisoned for their crimes.

“While many young-adult authors shy away from such risky subject material, Mr. Myers has used his books to confront the darkness and despair that fill so many children’s lives.”

Humans have the need to read

Gail Rebuck reports on research about how getting lost in a good book transforms the human brain:

Psychologists from Washington University used brain scans to see what happens inside our heads when we read stories. They found that “readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative“. The brain weaves these situations together with experiences from its own life to create a new mental synthesis. Reading a book leaves us with new neural pathways.

Anyone who has ever gotten lost in a good book knows about the transformative power of reading. Perhaps the most important quality of reading “is its emotional role as the starting point for individual voyages of personal development and pleasure. Books can open up emotional, imaginative and historical landscapes.” Without the kinds of experiences reading provides, Rebuck warns, the species will suffer: “The research shows that if we stop reading, we will be different people: less intricate, less empathetic, less interesting.”

In related news, Nicholas Carr, whom Rebuck cites in her article, offers an excerpt from his essay “The Dreams of Readers,” “in which I mull over my own experience as a reader and try to connect it with some of the interesting new research, by scholars like Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto, that’s being done on the psychology of literary reading.” The complete essay appears in the book Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!, published by Vintage Books, which is available as a paperback in the U.K. and as an e-book in the U.S. Other contributors to the book include Zadie Smith, Mark Haddon, Tim Parks, and Blake Morrison. The work of Keith Oatley and others is available at OnFiction: An Online Magazine on the Psychology of Fiction.

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Happy New Year!

Novels and Television

Recent news that HBO plans to adapt the works of William Faulkner for television has prompted critical discussion of the suitability of novels for this kind of medium translation.

“The novel and television are commingling as never before. And it’s about time,” declares Laura Miller in TV and the novel: A match made in heaven. She argues that television and the novel have more in common than do the novel and theatrical film because “[r]arely are a book’s most devoted admirers satisfied by the film.” Not only must much of any novel usually be cut to fit the 90- to 120-minute format of a feature film, but the standard three-act structure of film also trims much of the rich expansiveness of a novel. “A television series, however, has the time to spread out and explore the byways and textures of a novel’s imagined world,” says Miller. But whereas the necessity for mass-market appeal of shows on the broadcast networks prevented more than an occasional successful adaptation of a novel until the advent of cable, “A network like HBO, however, doesn’t need to attract large audiences; rather, it aims to persuade a much smaller population of subscribers that it’s worth paying a little extra every month to see better programming.”

Craig Fehrman makes many of the same points in The Channeling of the Novel:

The cable network [HBO] has optioned a number of widely recognized literary works, including Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!,” Chad Harbach’s “Art of Fielding” and Mary Karr’s memoirs. “At some point in the last year,” says Michael London, the indie-approved producer whose Groundswell Films brought “Goon Squad” to HBO, “everyone in the business had an epiphany that the DNA of cable television has much more in common with novels than movies do.”

“Indeed, where a movie means paring a novel down, a TV show can mean breaking it wide open,” Fehrman adds. He reports that many authors are now eager either to write their novels with an eye toward later TV adaptation or to collaborate on an adaptation after book publication. He compares this trend to what happened in the 1930s, when authors such as William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, and F. Scott Fitzgerald all headed for Hollywood to try their pens at writing for the new medium of the feature film.

Defining Words, Without the Arbiters

You may remember learning in school that there are two kinds of dictionaries:

  1. descriptive: those that describe how language is used
  2. prescriptive: those that dictate the standards for how language should be used

In school your teachers used the second type almost exclusively, admonishing you to check the dictionary to find out whether a particular word in your paper was acceptable. You remember: “Ain’t ain’t in the dictionary” and that kind of thing.

This article describes the rise of Worknik and a few other linguistic databases that have arisen with the explosion of electronic communication. For these databases “automatic programs search the Internet, combing the texts of news feeds, archived broadcasts, the blogosphere, Twitter posts and dozens of other sources” to discover exactly how language is currently being used. Without the intervention of human evaluation, such databases serve only to describe how language  is used rather than to prescribe how it should be used.

25 literary resolutions for 2012. What’s yours?

The Los Angeles Times asked writers, editors and publishers what their literary resolutions for 2012 will be. If you’re looking for some literary resolutions, you’re bound to find some inspiration here. These resolutions range from “I’m going to reread “Moby-Dick,” “Crime & Punishment,” and “The Scarlet Letter” to “Read more poetry. Use fewer commas.”

And, in a related article, the LA Times checked back with some of the people who had offered their literary resolutions for 2011. Reading through this piece might soothe your conscience a bit. Lots of these people didn’t quite fulfill their annual resolutions, either.

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If your life is anything like mine, you’re swamped right about now with holiday preparations and festivities. This week’s installment of Monday Miscellany, therefore, will be mercifully short.

An Introduction to Psych You Up. Literally.

Maria Konnikova is a woman after my own heart. At Scientific American she has just introduced her new column, Literally Psyched, a “journey of interdisciplinary exploration”:

Here, I propose to use literature and creative inspiration to explore concepts in the psychology of the mind and human thought. To create a place that will blend the world of fiction and non-fiction, that of the literary and the psychological, of artistic inspiration and scientific exploration. To use whatever inspires me—a book, a character, a line, a moment—as a window of insight into the human mind. For who are creative writers but individuals who have dedicated their life and art to observing and chronicling humans as a whole: their interactions, their dreams, their hopes, their disappointments, the full complexity of their internal life?

And, as if her interdisciplinary approach to the areas in which literature (and other creative endeavors) and psychology intersect weren’t enough, she begins this introductory post with a personal story, a narrative anecdote from her own life that illustrates how she has become the person she is.

Literature, psychology, and life narrative all wrapped up together! This is good stuff. I think she’d probably be interested in Literature & Psychology.

Not Exactly Everyday Engineering: a Q&A with Brian Clegg

Publishers Weekly interviews Brian Clegg:

In his new book How to Build a Time Machine, Brian Clegg takes a “pop science” look at time travel, explaining quantum entanglement and superluminal speeds in terms that even a technophobe could understand. We asked Clegg about his book, some of his favorite time travel stories, and the most important scientific discovery of his lifetime.

I’ve always been fascinated by the literary potential of time travel. Devising a means of time travel is a challenge to a writer’s creative ingenuity: a blow to the head, a drug, a complex machine, a dream, a wormhole in the space-time continuum, a genetic disease, a ghostly netherworld. But the means of time travel is only a gimmick. What’s really important are the philosophical, psychological, scientific, and moral questions that would arise if, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, we were to come unstuck in time: What happens if a time traveler changes history? Can time travelers meet their older or younger selves in a different time period? If I could go back to an earlier time in my life knowing what I know now, would I change anything, and, if so, what might the results be? What advice would I offer my younger self? Would I listen to anything my older self had to tell me? Would I want to know how and when I was going to die?

Asked about his favorite fiction involving time travel, Brian Clegg, who has a degree in physics from Cambridge, replied:

One of my all time favorites is a short story by Robert Heinlein called “All You Zombies.” Heinlein sets up a wonderful time paradox, where the main character, who has had a sex change, goes back in time to impregnate his younger, female self. The resultant child is then moved back through time to become the mother. The character has literally come from nowhere. Perhaps my favorite novel with a time travel theme is Joe Haldeman’s Forever War, originally envisaged as a counter to Heinlein’s gung-ho Starship Troopers. Because the protagonists in Forever War are always taking long journeys at near the speed of light, they travel far into the future. By the time they return home everyone they once knew is dead, the world is not the one they remember – so there is nothing for it but to sign up for another tour.

See, its the implications of the time travelers’ actions, not the time travel itself, that’s fascinating.

Clegg believes that our ability to construct the technology necessary for time travel is thousands of years away. “But for me the amazing thing is that it’s only a matter of getting the technology right. There’s nothing in physics that prevents time travel.”

Give the holiday gift with the most staying power

For Walter Rodgers, writing in The Christian Science Monitor, that gift is books:

Even the best Christmas gifts lose their luster within a few months. Books have a staying power few gifts can match. I have nothing left from Christmases long past except my childhood books, each still prized. This season, give books. They are our bulwarks against time, ignorance, and barbarity.


Finally, here’s a photo for the season:



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Publishing Words: The Future of Books

Writing in The Harvard Crimson, Sofie C. Brooks discusses how the rise of ebooks may change the publishing industry:

What the publishing industry faces right now is a customer base that demands a digital product even as the technology that makes these products possible is still in its early stages of development. Random House has experienced a 200 percent growth in eBook sales this year, and every other company’s sales tell similar tales.

Brooks suggests some ways that authors, publishers, and distributors could work together in the changing world of literary publication.

While there are still those who continue to cling to the beauty of the traditionally printed word, literature is not dependent on its physical form. Unlike an opera or ballet, the words of Dickens, Chaucer, and Shakespeare still ring true even on an electronic screen. The essence of the art is inextinguishable, and the rest may turn out to be just details.

The Talking Cure at Work in Contemporary YA Fiction

We keep hearing that modern society has come to rely on drugs rather than psychotherapy for dealing with mental health issues. But, Kabi Hartman assures us:

Nevertheless, fictional teenagers are still talking to therapists for pages on end. Having now read a growing pile of novels, I can vouch for the fact that teen protagonists are actually having insights and getting better. In fact, the majority of these novels depict psychotherapy as transformative.

Hartman likens the several novels she discusses here to the tradition of religious conversion narratives (think John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress). And she finds hope in the picture that these novels offer, that adolescents can achieve self-knowledge through therapy:

these novels, however rife with soap operatic bad luck and sentimentality, champion the idea that self knowledge emerges in dialogue with a trusted other. Although most of them grind out cookie cutter conversion stories, I cannot be hard on these works. Ultimately, they suggest that engaging with someone else, face to face, is transforming — or, at the very least, provides more scope for plot and character development than popping a pill.

Are Rereadings Better Readings?

Writing in the New Yorker blog “The Book Bench,” Nathaniel Stein looks at the value of rereading books. He refers to “’On Rereading,’ Patricia Meyer Spacks’s charming and strange blend of memoir, literary criticism, and scientific treatise.” After retiring from teaching, Spacks undertook a period of rereading many of the literary milestones of her life.

Spacks’s constant fixation is the paradox of the simultaneous “sameness” and “difference” of rereading—how it is that the words are exactly the same but our perceptions of them so different?

Stein himself is more interested in the question “are rereadings better readings?”

What rereading tells us about ourselves, and how we have evolved intellectually, is as important as what it tells us about the books, Spacks believes. She’s endlessly interested in “how our minds, hearts, experience, personal and cultural situation, or all of the above … have changed since the last time we read those words.”

Stein further writes that Spacks believes rereadings “can reveal unwelcome truths about our past selves, and cause disenchantment—in the most literal sense—with the books we used to love.”

I haven’t read Patricia Spacks’s book, although I have now added it to my ever-growing list of TBR (to be read) books. But Spacks seems to subscribe to the reader-response theory of literature, which posits that readers bring to bear all their past experiences and learning when they read a book. In this respect, then, a rereading of a book could very well differ from the first reading because the reader is now a different person. When we reread a book we originally loved and find out that we now love it less, that realization may say more about us than about the book. I suspect this is what Stein says Spacks means by recognizing “unwelcome truths about our past selves.”

However, the experience may also work in a more positive direction. Whenever I find myself feeling down on humanity, I reread To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Immersing myself in the story of Atticus, Scout, and Jem Finch always reminds me that there are many good and decent people in the world.

How about you? Are there any books that you have enjoyed rereading?

10 Famous Literary Characters and Their Real-Life Inspirations

Here’s an intriguing list. And–surprise!–not all the literary characters are human.

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Why is dystopia so appealing to young adults?

A dystopia is an imaginary world in which people live dehumanized lives of fear and subjugation; it’s the opposite of utopia. In this piece YA writer Moira Young examines why distopian novels such as Suzanne Collins’s recent Hunger Games trilogy are so popular with young people:

Books for young people set in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian worlds are not new. Three notable early examples are Madeleine L’Engle’s science fantasy A Wrinkle in Time (1962), William Sleator’s suspense novel House of Stairs (1974) and the politically intriguing The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry. Some of the big names of the new wave, along with Collins, are British-based American author Patrick Ness, Mortal Engines writer Philip Reeve, and young adult science-fiction novelist Scott Westerfeld. But what is it that attracts teenage readers to dystopian fiction?

Her answer?

Teenagers like to read dystopian fiction because it’s exciting. It all comes down to the story. The story comes first, and the setting – extraordinary though it may be – is of secondary importance.

For the most part, dystopian fiction owes more to myth and fairytale than science fiction. These are essentially heroes’ journeys – they just happen to be set in an imagined future world. The hero, reluctant or willing, is just as likely to be female as male. Something happens – an event, or a messenger arrives bearing news – and the teenage protagonist is catapulted out of their normal existence into the unknown. They cross the threshold into a world of darkness and danger, of allies and enemies, and begin a journey towards their own destiny that will change their world. They will be tested, often to the very edge of death. The stakes are high. The adults are the oppressors. The children are the liberators. It’s heady stuff, far removed from the routine of everyday life.

The outer, global journey of the characters is matched by an inner, emotional and psychological journey. These are no cartoon superheroes. They, like their teen readers, have to deal with recognisable concerns and problems, including friendship, family, betrayal, loss, love, death and sexual awakening.

And in defense of adults who write these stories for adolescents Young says:

These are dark, sometimes bleak stories, but that doesn’t mean they are hopeless. Those of us who write for young people are reluctant to leave our readers without hope. It wouldn’t be right. We always leave a candle burning in the darkness.

And we write good stories. That’s why teenagers read them.

Any successful novel has to be, at its heart, a good story. That what makes books such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale so appealing to both young people and adults. We have an innate affinity for stories, which is why children beg for “just one more” bedtime story. And this same natural response to stories allows young adults to recognize the representative nature of these tales instead of being overwhelmed by their darkness. No matter what age we are, we all learn from these stories. That is the beauty and the power of narrative.

Why Should The Reader Care About Your Story?

And, from the other end of the pen, here’s more on story. Writer Jim Gilliam explains how a harsh critique from a novelist forced him to reread his novel in progress as the reader rather than as the writer. He asked himself, “As a reader why should I care about this?”

I write for my readers and if I’ve placed the reader in the scene with my protagonist and the reader feels the same things that he does, and the reader fears for his life, and vicariously for their own, then I have accomplished my ultimate goal and the reader has paid me the greatest compliment by staying with me until the end of the tale.

You can use this same criterion when you read a novel. If you find that the novel isn’t pulling you in, the reason often lies in the writer’s inability to put you inside the character’s mind and heart.

In praise of easy reads

This piece by John Self comes from the U. K. newspaper The Guardian, which is why the introduction deals with the recent kerfuffle over the Man Booker Prize. But if that means nothing to you, you can skip down a bit further, to Self’s discussion of readability, which “essentially means ‘not too hard going’.” A book with readability is “something that slips down effortlessly.”

And here’s Self’s recommendations of books that have readability as well as literary merit:

The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore
The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith
Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler
Trauma by Patrick McGrath

These Are the Greatest Geek Books of All Time, Readers Say published its own list of “9 Essential Geek Books You Must Read Right Now,” a link to which you’ll find at the beginning of this article. Here, readers have produced their own list:

  1. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
  2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  3. 1984 by George Orwell
  4. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman
  5. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
  6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  7. Cosmos by Carl Sagan
  8. Dune by Frank Herbert
  9. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

I don’t consider myself a geek by any means, so I was surprised to discover that I’ve read 5 of the books on this list. I really hated Stranger in a Strange Land, but I DID read it.


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Vashon Great Books club one of oldest in U.S.

The Seattle Times spotlights 92-year-old Grace Crecelius:

For 61 years, Grace Crecelius has cracked the books. Not just any books, mind you, but the works of Plato, Descartes and Kant, Shakespeare, Marx and Freud.

At 92, Crecelius is the oldest member of what may be one of the longest-running book clubs around — the Vashon Island Great Books Foundation discussion group.

The Great Books Foundation was founded in 1947 by Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins. Its purpose is to help readers of all ages become more reflective and responsible thinkers by engaging with great works of literature. Since its beginning the Foundation has expanded its materials to serve students of all ages (K-12, college, and adults). While its original offerings focused on great works of thinkers such as Plato and Socrates, current materials include newer literary works such as contemporary novels and even science fiction. Its aim is to “make the reading and discussion of literature a lifelong source of enjoyment, personal growth, and social engagement.”

On the Great Books web site you can search for a group in your area. If there isn’t one, you can also find out how to start a group. The Foundation also offers instruction in how to practice civil discourse in discussion of the ideas presented in literature.

P.D. James writes Jane Austen sequel

P.D. James could hold back no longer.

The 91-year-old detective novelist said Wednesday she was glad to finally complete a long-desired project – a sequel to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

James’ “Death Comes to Pemberley” will be published by Faber & Faber in Britain in early November and by Alfred A. Knopf in the United states on Dec. 6.

Ms. Readers’ 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time: The Top 10 and the Complete List!

Scholar, activist, provocateur, teacher, community-builder, inspiration: No one word can span the career of bell hooks or capture how much we love her work. According to Ms. readers’ selections of the best feminist non-fiction of all time, she’s your favorite writer, with three books in our top ten–including number one–and a total of seven books throughout the list. To judge by the final picks, issues of work, sex and intersectionality ranked highest among our reader’s feminist concerns.

And here are the top 10:

10. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women
by Jessica Valenti
Seal Press, 2009
Jessica Valenti combats a nation’s virginity complex, arguing that myths about “purity” are damaging to both girls and women. She points the way forward toward a world where women are perceived as more than vessels of chastity. 

9. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center
by bell hooks
South End Press, 1985
Cementing her place as one of the most influential feminist theorists, hooks’ Feminist Theory explores Kimberle Crenshaw’s conversation-changing idea of intersectionality: the way racism, classism and sexism work together to foster oppression.

8. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism
by bell hooks
South End Press, 1999
Named after the famous speech by Sojourner Truth, this must-read by bell hooks discusses black women’s struggle with U.S. racism and sexism since the time of slavery and doesn’t shirk from how white middle- and upper-class feminists have at times failed poor and non-white women. 

7. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture
by Ariel Levy
Free Press, 2005
What do phenomena such as Girls Gone Wild say about feminism? This book looks at the ways women today make sex objects of themselves, and she’s not impressed. She chews out false “empowerment” based on self-objectification and offers feminist alternatives. 

6. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women
by Susan Faludi
Crown, 1991
This landmark book sounded the alarm about a pervasive backlash against feminism. She painstakingly refutes each insidious anti-feminist argument–for instance, that feminism is responsible for a supposed epidemic of unhappiness in women. What’s really wrong, she says, is that equality hasn’t been achieved; in fact, the struggle has only just begun. 

5. Nickel and Dimed
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books, 2001
Long-time Ms. columnist Barbara Ehrenreich posed undercover as a low-income worker to gain material for this empathetic portrait of how the bottom half lives. She reveals that simply making ends meet is a silent struggle for many Americans, especially for women with families to support.

4. A Room of One’s Own
by Virginia Woolf
Harcourt Brace, 1929
This classic from the 1920s makes a devastatingly eloquent argument with a simple takeaway: For a women artist to thrive, she must have space in which to work and some money for her efforts. 

3. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
by Audre Lorde
Crossing Press, 1984
This master work by Audre Lorde, a Caribbean American lesbian feminist writer, collects her prose from the late 70s and early 80s. Many of these pieces made feminist history, including her candid dialogue with Adrienne Rich about race and feminism, her oft-quoted critique of academia “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” and her Open Letter to Mary Daly. 

2. Cunt: A Declaration of Independence
by Inga Muscio
Seal Press 2002
Inga Muscio’s 2002 feminist manifesto radicalized a new generation. She argues for the reclaiming of the tarnished word cunt, and discusses her personal experiences with self-protection, sex work, abortion and solidarity.

1. Feminism is For Everybody: Passionate Politics
by bell hooks
South End Press, 2000
Fittingly, in Ms. readers’ favorite feminist book of all time, bell hooks argues that feminism is for everybody, regardless of race, gender or creed. She urges all to live a feminism that finds commonality across differences and makes room for impassioned debate. 

Movies Totally Different From The Books They Were Based On

You know how readers almost always say that they liked a book better than its movie version? Well, in another one of those lists that they love so much, The Huffington Post presents “movies that feature totally different endings, story lines, and main characters than the original book. Here are a few of our favorite examples. Be warned, spoilers ahead!”

From Chick Lit to Victim Books: Problems with the Woman’s Book Club

Luanne Bradley asks, “What came first, the depressing women’s book clubs or the morbid books?”

The inevitable prerequisite [of book group selections] is the agreed-upon selections must be meaty enough to spark evocative feedback for eloquent sharing round the coffee table. As a result, our picks are highly wrought works of historic, political or cultural significance perpetually mired in sadness. Or, as a fellow member recently commiserated, “Can’t we move on from the holocaust and women in pain?”

I do admit that my own book group has read so many holocaust books that we’ve decided on a moratorium for that subject matter. And a few years ago we read so many books about men who treated women badly that we called ourselves, for a time, the SOB book group.

But back to Bradley’s article:

“As someone who has written about ‘women in pain,’ women dealing with the death of a child, for example, I think that the premise of your question is problematic,” novelist Ayelet Waldman tells me. “All interesting stories are about someone in crisis – in ‘pain’ if you will. Who wants to read about happy people doing happy things? Story is conflict, conflict is story. The Corrections was about people in crisis. Does that fall into your category of ‘victim-literature?’ If it doesn’t, then I think you should take a good look at the question you’re asking, and consider whether it isn’t inherently sexist.”

One suggestion Bradley has for finding other types of books to read is not to “rely solely on the New York Times lists and peruse book stores for the employee recommendations. Oftentimes, you will find sparkling little stories that didn’t cut the mustard with the corporate giant, but are worthwhile nonetheless.”

And my personal assignment from my book group is to find a good mystery that we can all cozy up to this fall.

Why teens should read adult fiction

We’ve seen the discussion before about whether YA (young adult) literature is too dark for adolescents. In this article Brian McGreevy dismisses this subject:

My concern is not this debate — in fact, I consider it to be moot. The YA category is a marketing distinction, not a moral one, however much parents would like it to be a synonym for “safe.”

Instead, he argues that when adolescents reach the point when they’re interested in reading adult fiction, they should be allowed to do so. He calls this point “the V.C. Andrews Curve, after the author of ‘Flowers in the Attic.’”  At this point, “not only will your kids survive an exposure to violence and sexuality in books, but it is crucial to their moral development”:

Of course adolescents have an irresistible attraction to adult themes; perverse and puritanical an instinct as there is in this culture to prolong childhood, there is a far stronger counter-instinct in children to analyze, simulate, and as soon as humanly possible participate in the challenges of adulthood.

Furthermore, he argues that books provide a kind of experience that neither films nor video games can provide:

What neither films nor video games are cut out for is developing the critical faculties that reading does. Higher-order mental processes are not even strictly required to enjoy a movie, whereas books, by nature, are undemocratic. A combination of education and innate sensitivity is required to enjoy them, and the reward is the closest possible experience to entering another human being’s consciousness and revising the parameters of your own. It’s harder because it should be.

I’ve often thought that preventing children who are growing into young adults from reading about the truths of human existence is both a disservice to and a devaluation of them. Young adults know and understand more than we give them credit for. And, while parents’ desire to protect their children from adult knowledge may have good intentions, preventing young adults from learning about adult life leaves them unprepared for a world that they will eventually grow into, whether we like it or not. We need to trust our children:

They’re equipped with a strength and ingenuity they’re not often enough credited with. Life’s genesis and termination — and every gradation of human experience in between — is their birthright. They are entitled to learn about it at exactly the rate it is appropriate to their individual moral development to do so. And as long as you love them enough, they’ll end up basically OK.


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The greatest death scenes in literature

Five judges of the 2012 Wellcome Trust book prize for medicine in literature ponder the question “What makes for a great literary death scene?” Tim Lott calls their choices “eclectic.” Take a look, and see if you have other favorite death scenes to add to the list.

The 10 best songs based on books 

Here’s another list, this one in pictures.

Hey, Teacher. Let Kids Read Alone.

Writing in the Huffington Post, high school English teacher Steve Terreri suggests that school may be contributing to rather than stemming the decline of reading by American adults. He argues that classrooms try to turn reading, which is essentially a personal and solitary activity, into an act of social conformity:

Reading a book or story or poem or play on one’s own is a peculiarly individual experience. No other medium comes to mind so absent of social or communal qualities, and considering the collective genius currently available in books on every imaginable subject, I’ve often speculated that the modern classroom’s entire reason for being is to translate individual learning experience into social consensus or application.

Terreri concludes:

Considering how wide the differences between reading on one’s own and reading in a class are, I’m interested in how educators might take some aspects from the former to let high school students read just to read and still not only foster literacy but stimulate interest in literature.

How to get your kid to be a fanatic reader

Best-selling author James Patterson weighs in on the issue with CNN:

Sorry, moms and dads, but it’s your job — not the schools’ — to find books to get your kids reading and to make sure they read them.

Patterson says that boys especially need encouragement to read: ” Boys should be made to feel all squishy inside about reading graphic novels, comics, pop-ups, joke books, and general-information tomes.” He encourages family members as well as sports and entertainment superstars to model reading.

Of course Patterson has a vested interest in encouraging youngsters to read. But this article is refreshingly free of self-promotion. It also contains links to many organizations where parents and schools can find information to help them promote reading among children.

Censorship Causes Blindness: The 5 Best Banned Books Turned Films 

In honor of the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, celebrated last week here in the U.S., Word and Film offers its own list:

  • American Psycho
  • Lolita
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Lord of the Flies
  • The Handmaid’s Tale

Be sure to visit this site, which provides the official trailer for each film.

Books that deserve to be banned

Also in honor of Banned Books Week, Salon writer Laura Miller—facetiously, of course—asks:

Where were these censors when we really needed them — that is, when our 10th-grade teachers assigned “Beowulf” or “The Pearl”? As deplorable as real-life book banning may be, there’s some required reading that those of us at Salon would love to see retired from the nation’s syllabuses simply because we were tortured by it as kids.

Remember Silas Marner? How about Green Mansions? See what books Salon editors remember with distaste. And then take a look at some of the many comments left my readers. They provide an informative exchange.

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2012 Stamp Preview: A Stamp a Day

The United States Postal Service will be issuing some new literature-related stamps in 2012. Click on the numbers to see more information about these:

  • #2 Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • #11 O. Henry
  • #31 Twentieth-Century Poets: Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, E. E. Cummings, Robert Hayden, Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams

One in Six Americans Now Use e-Reader with One in Six Likely to Purchase in Next Six Months

Yet more evidence of the rapidly growing popularity of e-readers. This release announces the results of a Harris Poll of 2,183 adults surveyed online between July 11 and 18, 2011:

While some may lament the introduction of the e-Reader as a death knell for books, the opposite is probably true. First, those who have e-Readers do, in fact, read more. Overall, 16% of Americans read between 11 and 20 books a year with one in five reading 21 or more books in a year (20%). But, among those who have an e-Reader, one-third read 11-20 books a year (32%) and over one-quarter read 21 or more books in an average year (27%).

Overall, e-readers do not seem to be contributing to the downfall of reading, but they are a fact that publishers will have to adapt to in order to survive.

9 Things That Happen When You Read

Susan K. Perry, Ph. D., writes about creativity in her “Creating in Flow” blog for Psychology Today. In this entry she discusses The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Here is her own paraphrased and adapted list, based on Pamuk’s book, of 9 things that happen when we read:

1. We observe the general scene and follow the narrative. Whether action-filled or more literary, we read all novels, Pamuk says, the same way: seeking out the meaning and main idea.

2. We transform words into images in our mind, completing the novel as our imaginations picture what the words are telling us.

3. Part of our mind wonders how much is real experience and how much is imagination. “A third dimension of reality slowly begins to emerge within us: the dimension of the complex world of the novel.”

4. We wonder if the novel depicts reality as we know it. Is this scene realistic, could this actually happen?

5. We enjoy the precision of analogies, the power of narrative, the way sentences build upon one another, the music of the prose.

6. We make moral judgments about the characters’ behavior, and about the novelist for his own moral judgments by way of the characters’ actions and their consequences.

7. We feel successful when we understand the text, and we come to feel as though it was written just for us.

8. Our memory works hard to keep track of all the details, and in a well-constructed novel, everything connects to everything.

9. We search for the secret center of the novel, convinced that there is one. We hunt for it like a hunter searches for meaningful signs in the forest.

Describing what happens when we read is difficult because, once we begin to think about what’s happening, whatever it is stops happening. However, these 9 points seem to describe what I later remember as going on during a period of intense, prolonged reading.

How about you?

Prize-Winning Female Authors Respond To Questions About Gender Gap

Merritt Tierce and Apricot Irving, two winners of the Rona Jaffee awards given to female writers who display both promise and excellence early in their careers, answer questions about how women writers fare in relation to their male counterparts.

5 Free College-Level Writing & Lit Videos

Recommendations of five videos relating to writing, reading, and publishing from YouTube’s education channel. Here’s your chance to learn for free from masters such as Ray Bradbury, Clive Cussler, Maxine Hong Kingston, Penelope Lively, and David McCullough.