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What Our Biggest Best-Sellers Tell Us About a Nation’s Soul

“Reading America through more than two centuries of its favorite books.”

In The New Yorker, Louis Menand takes on Jess McHugh’s book Americanon, which discusses “thirteen American books, from ‘The Old Farmer’s Almanac,’ first published in 1792, to Stephen R. Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,’ which came out in 1989.”

In looking at these thirteen self-help books, Menand writes:

In fact, McHugh disapproves of every one of the books she writes about. “Americanon” is, in effect, a critique of American society in the form of thirteen book reviews. It belongs to a critical strategy of attacking current inequities in American life by attacking prior representations of those inequities. This is an entry in the new culture wars.

According to Menand, McHugh “prefers, she says, ambiguity and change to the myth of a unified national narrative. But ambiguity and change are just the keywords in a different narrative.”

Susan Cole, Advocate for Traumatized Children, Dies at 72

Attorney Susan Cole recognized the toll that trauma can take on children:

She began a decades-long examination of the links between education and childhood trauma, using her accumulating experience to identify “broader systemic failures that could not be addressed on a case-by-case basis,” as her husband, David Eisen, put it.

Constant stress and fear were more than just a distraction for students; their effect, she learned, was neurological, activating the fight-or-flight survival instinct permanently.

A Guide To Gender Identity Terms

June is the annual celebration of Pride Month. Over the years I’ve sometimes been confused about how to use correctly the applicable terminology. I’m grateful to NPR for putting together this glossary of terms relating to gender identity.

Proper use of gender identity terms, including pronouns, is a crucial way to signal courtesy and acceptance. Alex Schmider, associate director of transgender representation at GLAAD, compares using someone’s correct pronouns to pronouncing their name correctly – “a way of respecting them and referring to them in a way that’s consistent and true to who they are.”

Creative Writing MFA Programs

Programs offering an MFA (master’s in fine arts) in writing have proliferated.

The Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing is a graduate-level degree earned by students who seek to pursue work as authors, editors, playwrights, or to teach at the college level.

The folks at BookBrowse have put together this discussion of the purpose of such programs. This article pertains to understanding the plot of the recently published novel The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, but the content here is a general description and discussion for anyone who has ever wondered about these programs.

How to Jump-Start Your Post-Pandemic Writing Life

“The habit of not writing, it turns out, is sadly easy to acquire in a pandemic.”

I know I’m not the only person who had trouble focusing on reading and writing during the pandemic. With the arrival of the beginning of the end, Rachel Toor has some advice on how to get back into the swing of things. 

Toor herself is an academic, a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, WA, and her advice is directed toward other academics, whose professional lived are governed by the “publish or perish” mantra. However, I found her advice helpful also for a general audience, such as us book bloggers who may be struggling to get back to work.

The Book Club of My Dreams Was at the Library All Along

My first book group was organized by the local branch of the county public library where I lived. I participated in the group for about 12 years and found some of my closest friends there. It’s something I sorely miss since relocating for retirement.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Last Week's Links Publishing Reading

Literary Links

Judith Butler on the culture wars, JK Rowling and living in “anti-intellectual times”

Thirty years ago Judith Butler published Gender Trouble, a book in which she introduced the notion of gender as performance. The book has since become “a foundational text on any gender studies reading list,” and the question of whether gender is how we act as opposed to our genetic inheritance—known as biological essentialism, or what we now refer to as sex, as opposed to gender—has spilled over from academic halls into popular culture.

Here Alona Ferber interviews Judith Butler, who is now Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature at Berkeley. Butler says that any meaningful debate over trans rights “would have to reconsider the ways in which the medical determination of sex functions in relation to the lived and historical reality of gender.”

How My Reading Journal Accidentally Became a Plague Diary

Zoe Robertson originally expected her reading journal “would document my most comprehensive, most astute thoughts about the books I finished in 2020.” But as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and then continued, Robertson, who lives alone, found that her reading journal a substitute for the discussions she normally would have had with other people. As a result:

I am inclined to believe that this act of writing and containing my thoughts is a means to cure some of its secondary effects – it combats the feeling of being dissolved in the mire of everyday horror, it confirms your existence, it speaks to a side of this Hell that is needed to understand the full scope of events.

writing in a notebook

Battle Of The Books

The folks at NPR are interested in settling the months’-long debate: “What kind of books are best to read during this pandemic? Books that connect you to our current reality? Or ones that help you escape it?”

But here’s an answer from “someone who convinced us that maybe escapism versus reality is a false choice.” Here Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor who teaches African Americal literature at Columbia University, explains why the reading lists in her classes offer a “both, and” solution, “Black authors who refuse to ignore the harshness of the world around them — but don’t ignore the beauty.”

This is a print article based on a recorded interview. There’s a link to the audiofile if you’d rather listen than read.

A Lot of Data and a Little Singing: How The Times’s Best-Seller List Comes Together

The New York Times best-seller list has long been the subject of debate in literary circles. For a long time the engine behind the list was a big, deep secret. This article explains the process: “the work of putting together the lists requires the full-time efforts of the three of us and the support of an information technology team.”

How Do Readers Rate the New York Times Best-Selling Books?

And then Book Riot chimes in: “it’s time to dig into the question that’s been on readers’ minds for decades: do readers really like the books that hit The New York Times Best Sellers lists?”

The article reports on research by SuperSummary, “an online resource that provides in-depth study guides.” The report explains how the study was done and what the major results were. It also discusses some serious limitations of the study, “the biggest of which is how biased the NYT List itself is.”

Be sure to read the whole article to understand the full complexity of such research.

In Crime Fiction, Anyone Can Be a Murderer. That’s What’s So Great About It

The subgenre of domestic suspense thrillers is full of men who treat women badly because, as author Lisa Jewell tells us, around 90% of all violent crimes are committed by men. But, she argues, “We all know men are capable of horrors, but it’s the unexpected criminals who are the most satisfying to write about and to read about. And who could be more unexpected than a woman?” 

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown