Tag Archives: reading

How I Spent My Summer Vacation (which lasted two years, apparently)

American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror

Hello! It’s been a very long time since my last post, which was October 2013. That’s at least 14 years in blog years. While I’m not coming back to regular blogging–not yet, anyway–if there’s anyone out there who remembers me, I wanted to share some great news.

I recently published a book, American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror: Falling Skies, Dark Knights Rising, and Collapsing Cultures (Praeger, 2015)It’s in some ways a vast elaboration of some of the topics and cultural criticism that I spent two years exploring on this very blog. Although, and I can’t emphasize this enough, it took far longer than a hour to write.

Here’s the description:

Bringing together the most popular genres of the 21st century, this book argues that Americans have entered a new era of narrative dominated by the fear—and wish fulfillment—of the breakdown of authority and terror itself.

Bringing together disparate and popular genres of the 21st century, American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror: Falling Skies, Dark Knights Rising, and Collapsing Cultures argues that popular culture has been preoccupied by fantasies and narratives dominated by the anxiety —and, strangely, the wish fulfillment—that comes from the breakdowns of morality, family, law and order, and storytelling itself. From aging superheroes to young adult dystopias, heroic killers to lustrous vampires, the figures of our fiction, film, and television again and again reveal and revel in the imagery of terror. Kavadlo’s single-author, thesis-driven book makes the case that many of the novels and films about September 11, 2001, have been about much more than terrorism alone, while popular stories that may not seem related to September 11 are deeply connected to it. 

The book examines New York novels written in response to September 11 along with the anti-heroes of television and the resurgence of zombies and vampires in film and fiction to draw a correlation between Kavadlo’s “Era of Terror” and the events of September 11, 2001. Geared toward college students, graduate students, and academics interested in popular culture, the book connects multiple topics to appeal to a wide audience.

Features

  • Provides an interesting new framework in which to examine popular culture
  • Examines films, television shows, and primary texts such as novels for evidence of cultural anxiety and a preoccupation with terror
  • Offers insightful and original interpretations of primary texts
  • Suggests possible conclusions about cultural anxiety regarding breakdowns of tradition and authority

 You can read more about it here at Praeger’s website, or you can go to good ole Amazon.

As it turns out, I miss writing the blog. And I have an idea for the next book, and some of the ideas  should work well as the kind of short explorations that blogs are known for, with the plan to revise and expand in book form later. Here’s hoping–for me, anyway, and maybe for you?–that I’ll be able to get that project underway and that, a few years down the road, it will lead to another book.

Sorry about the long internet silence, sorry about some more subsequent silence, and here’s hoping that 2016 is a big year for American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror as well as the beginning of the next project.

Cheers!

 

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This: The Popular Culture Studies Journal!

PCSJ-Cover-791x1024

OK, Hourman needs to go on hiatus for a little while.

But in the meantime, I’d like to share something that I–in my secret identity as Jesse Kavadlo–wrote that took significantly longer than an hour.

In the brand-new, just launched Popular Culture Studies Journal, I have an essay titled “9/11 Did Not Take Place: Apocalypse and Amnesia in Film and The Road.”  I’m very happy with it, and the other articles in the journal are excellent and more accessible than the average academic journal.

So happy reading, and when Hourman returns, probably in about two months, look for an interesting new direction.  I’m thrilled to have broken 600 Followers and over 65,000 views, which I do not take lightly.  The readership and response to the blog has far exceeded my expectations, and I’m looking forward to getting back to it soon.  Thank you.

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Everyone who believes in books, or has (or has been) a child, should read Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree

Far From the Tree

A quarter of Americans read zero books per year.  The Onion, as usual, put it best: “Print is Dead at 1803.”  I know this is a blog. You’re reading it on a screen.  And I like blogs, and websties, and Facebook. (Twitter, however, is too scary. Mean people.) I read articles and sites online every day, sometimes for hours.  I teach online classes and collect and respond to student papers, even in face to face classes, electronically.  But books are different, and special.  People need to read more of them.[1] Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity demonstrates precisely what a book, and no other form or medium, can still do.

Greatly exaggerated

Greatly exaggerated

What it’s about: children who are different from their parents.  That, of course, would be all children, but a simple recitation of the chapter titles alone reveals something of the book’s scope and depth: Son, Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, Transgender, Father.  The first and last chapters refer to Solomon’s personal experiences and bookend the other the chapters.

Of course, it takes nearly a thousand pages to cover the material.  Solomon frames his discussion of seemingly disparate groups in two main ways.  First, he talks about parents and children as having both “vertical” and “horizontal” identities.  Parents default toward the vertical—that is, what is the same between parents and children, and what is passed down (the language itself suggesting verticality) directly from parent to child.  Hearing parents, heterosexual parents, cis gender parents expect and assume their children will be the same as them.  But often, children are radically different, instead having what Solomon calls horizontal identifies, therefore becoming part of a new, horizontal community outside of the biological family —the deaf community, the dwarf community, the disabled community.  And sometimes, there is only the identity without the community: prodigies, children born of rape, children whose disabilities prevent them from any form of communication, who, unlike other groups, have not coalesced into an identifiable horizontal identity.

But even the idea of identity itself is complex, which brings Solomon to his other framework. Drawing upon his own experience as a gay man and the cultural trajectory homosexuality has taken during his lifetime, Solomon suggests that his subjects can each be understood as operating on a kind of spectrum.  On the one end of the spectrum is illness, which requires intervention: homosexuality, and various kinds of disability, were believed to necessitate cures, treatment to establish the vertical identity of the parents.  But on the other end of the spectrum is identity: a meaningful difference that is not perceived as undesirable, one not to be taken away, pitied, or, for that matter, admired.  Where different syndromes and orientations fall on this spectrum, however, is subject to contentious debate.

Not surprisingly, the book is exhaustively researched and extensively documented: over 100 pages of notes alone, so it felt nutritious—I learned more on every page.  But it is not just a synthesis of academic articles, or the more than three hundred interviews that Solomon conducted himself. The tensions between these ways of understanding children who are not like their parents—vertical/horizontal; illness/identity—inform each chapter, and my summary cannot do justice to the overall intelligence, nuance, morality, and warmth that comes through.   It is a long book that easily moves back and forth between individual case studies—no, not case studies, people, since “case study” sounds more clinical than the human, and humane, portraits that emerge—and academic analyses spanning literature, psychology, history, and medicine, navigated and negotiated by an author who places himself, and his well-informed beliefs and ideas on the page.  By the time I was done, I felt as though I had been through something, and gotten to know, and love, Andrew Solomon himself.  I didn’t agree with everything I read, but I considered everything I read.  Nonreaders are quick to create a false dichotomy between books and life, but they are wrong. The best books provide a deep, meaningful life experience for the reader.  Books, like births, create horizontal communities and identities as well.

One of the few 1-star reviews on Amazon.com, for me, helps explain the book as well as one of the many 5-star reviews: “The author talks 2 much- and he is super boring and actually sounds like he just took a class in college and is repeating what the professor said- very disappointed.”  This reader, unwilling to put in the time, retreats into the worst cliché, boredom.  (The part about “repeating what the professor said” baffles me, though, as through Solomon somehow didn’t write it.)  Reviews like this help me to understand the zero books per year number.  A good book, unlike other popular forms of reading, to say nothing of other forms of entertainment, makes the reader work, but feel as though the work is worth it. Even if I did not work as hard as Solomon, who took over ten years to write Far From the Tree.

I don’t know how he finished it so quickly.

Time: 50 minutes, not counting reading the book.

In Comments, feel free to share a book that you felt to be a meaningful life experience.  While Far From the Tree is of course nonfiction, any genre is fine.


[1] I’m not going to get into the electronic vs print book issue here, except to say that I still read books only in hard copy, and I can’t imagine having read this one on a screen.

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Bedtime Stories After the End of the World (Ages 12 and under)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Liposuction

The days of waiting for an owl on your eleventh birthday, revealing that you’re a wizard and inviting you to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, are over. Instead, children—young adults, or YA, in the publishing parlance, now fantasize about being entered into the Hunger Games’ tribute lottery at twelve.

Owl

Katniss, please don't shoot and eat me

The fall fascinates me.  Harry Potter’s wizarding world belongs to a genre I think of “Secret Worlds,” with predecessors JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, and CS Lewis’s Narnia, and successors in Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book and Lev Grossman’s Magicians.  There is our world as we know it—Muggles, or worse, Kansans—deadened by lack of magic real and metaphorical. But then the protagonist, who is somehow both special and ordinary at the same time, discovers, or is invited as part of an initiation or rite of passage into adulthood, into a closet kingdom, via some mundane threshold: a window, a hidden train, a magicked out car, fireplace, or, um, boot, or best yet, an actual  closet.  There, they discover that the world is full of possibilities, and that they are more special, more integral, to saving it then they had dared dream.  The books’ pages function as that wardrobe, opening and taking the young reader into its realm. While danger obviously must ensue, the books begin and remain inherently hopeful that the world will be saved, and that it is worth saving. The status quo is essentially an optimistic one—restoring order is a good thing, even if part of that restoration means sending the satisfied protagonist back home, to apply the valuable lessons of the adventure to what he or she comes to understand as real life.  Yes, Harry Potter complicates things, since you can argue that he belongs in the wizarding world and not in the Dursleys’ domestic nightmare. But by the end of the series [600 million books and the highest grossing film series of all time and I have to say spoiler?] Harry too has restored what we understand as the proper pillars of love, family, and society, The Voldemort Years an awful aberration rather than the way the world is or must be.    

In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, Patrick Ness’s Knife of Never Letting Go, Michael Grant’s Gone, and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, plus other books that I haven’t read yet but plan to—Ashes, Ashes; Bar Code Tattoo; Empty; Maze Runner; Feed, and more—the new YA lit genre is not Secret Worlds but World’s End.  Narnia, Harry Potter, Neverland, and Oz were always Utopian, if Utopias in peril.  Some of that threat even included a nicely, dramatically apocalyptic sensibility, especially Narnia, with its Christian inflected Last Battle, but also late series Harry Potter, with its sense of an impending End Times.  

Harry Potter and the Deathly Everybody's Dead

But the newer books are different.  They’re dystopian, not apocalyptic but post-apocalyptic, the filthy children of Orwell and Huxley and Bradbury, as these things always are, but also, for me, more indebted to the pessimism of 1970s and 1980s lit and film: Stephen King’s futuristic, non-supernatural run, Kurt Vonnegut, JG Ballard, Margaret Atwood, Planet of the Apes, Escape from New York, Omega Man,  Mad Max.  Who would have guessed that the most influential YA published in the 90s would not be Harry Potter but rather Lois Lowry’s The Giver?

But the previous dystopia authors and movies were not aiming for the mall, the ‘burbs, the multiplex, and the tweens.  (I apologize for the use of the word “tweens.”)  If all fantasy, as Freud suggested, operates on the contrasting yet simultaneous levels of wishes and fears—as I believe—Harry Potter is a lot of wish fulfillment (Magic! Friends! School is awesome! Flying! Etc!) tempered with fears (a powerful dark wizard wants to kill me!). The New Dystopia is awfully heavy on the fear: starving (Hunger Games; Gone’s sequel is called Hunger); loss of self, mind, and identity (Uglies, Knife); a seeming loss of freedom and the end of the current social order.  But where is the wish fulfillment? Other than the fact that the post-world world opens up the requisite narrative need for conflict, struggle, and adventure, what is the appeal?

I’m not going to wrap this up now, and the clock is ticking, but I think there are a few possibilities. First, I didn’t mention the one other book that these series remind me of: The Lord of the Flies.  It is, or was, a staple of highs school reading, in part because of its ratio of heavy-on-the-cautionary-tale with just enough wish fulfillment.  In it, high school students get to understand just what would happen if You Kids Stopped Listening to Us.  You want to do what you want?  You want freedom? You don’t like rules? OK, smart guys, take a look at this. It may seem as though it would be a blast to live in a world without adults, but it’s all fun and games until Simon loses an eye life.  

The nature of adults in the New Dystopia is very different. In Gone, the adults are just, um, gone.  And some Lord of the Flies-style mayhem ensues.  But mostly—in Hunger Games and Uglies as well—the reader gets to see how fragile, how flimsy, and how arbitrary the veneer of adult society really is.  There is the Lord of the Flies-style wish fulfillment of a world without grownups, but not the guilt, because in these worlds—taking place after the end of our world, rather than, like Harry Potter, Narnia and the others, parallel to it—the absence of supervision is generally the adults’ fault or poor decision.  No accident, no separation.  The adults either chose to do it or screwed it up.  And the kids are the only ones left to see the world for what it is, struggle to survive, and—maybe—clean it up. The true fear of the books goes beyond food or even death—it is that these dystopias represent some adult version of utopia.   It’s Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes, not as shock or twist, but simply as the way the world is:

Or Charlton Heston at the end of Soylent Green:

And even for happy, well-adjusted teens, adult utopia=teen dystopia gets enacted and exaggerated.  In the end, that’s what the books do: exaggerate and make literal the metaphorical struggles and hungers that teens—and, it seems, plenty of adults—immediately recognize.  Isn’t high school  a version of the Hunger Games, with each kid competing for limited resources, hoping yet fearing that they’ll be catapulted into the spotlight, going back and forth between fashion show and death match, pushed by a hyper-competitive culture of achievement and selectivity to view their peers as rivals?   Any resemblance to free-market capitalism is surely unintentional. Uglies represents the tension between wanting to be yourself and wanting to fit in, that adolescent contradiction that says “Look at me! Look at me!  Look at me! WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME?” In the novel, all teens get full body plastic surgery at age 16 to eliminate every flaw, but in doing so, who they really are becomes corrected as well.  Again, it’s a sci-fi version of how they feel, with adults, for the most part, absent, behind the scenes of the operations, or adversarial upholders of the crooked status quo.  The stakes are, remarkably, even higher than in HP and Narnia, and the books are more radical for it—the teen heroes are not struggling against usurpers but rather against the legitimate machinations of commerce and government themselves, the libertarian flipside to the books’ seeming anti-capitalism.  

It’s conventional wisdom that the Harry Potter books began as jolly fun before the series grew up and got dark.  But it’s worth remembering the scary three headed dog and two faced evil wizard(s?) who populated Sorcerer’s Stone.  Maybe in terms of darkness, The Hunger Games picks up where Harry Potter leaves off.  After all, The New York Times, discussing the problems and promises of the Hunger Games movie franchise, suggests as much:  “One possibility might have been to follow the “Harry Potter” model, which succeeded as perhaps the first middle-grade novel to bring in adults to both the reading experience and the movie theater. As Harry and his Hogwarts friends made their way into the upper grades, the stories themselves became darker and more sophisticated — decidedly young adult” (see article here).  

 And this image, condensing every frame of the whole HP series, certainly grows darker and darker. 

 

Huh. They really do get darker.

But as dark as the New Dystopias seem, like the Secret Worlds novels, they suggest, again and again, as Shakespeare once sang, that the children are our future.  Adults, not so much.  They’re the problem.

There’s your wish fulfillment.  And your fear.

 

Time: 90 minutes! What the hell?

 

Jesse Kavadlo

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Hunger Games are from Venus, Hunger Artists are from Mars

Some assembly required. Batteries not included.

Just in time for the movie, if two years behind the teens, I read The Hunger Games.  But even though he’s been dead for almost ninety years, Franz Kafka beat me to it.  In 1922, just a few years before he died, Kafka published the short story A Hunger Artist, a weirdly candid but unsurprisingly depressing mediation on a man who starves himself for the entertainment of others.  Although the story was published ninety years ago, it is already nostalgic, looking back on the golden era of starvation artists, a real-life phenomenon where men would live in cages, their wasting public for gawking spectacle. As the story opens, “During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one’s own management, but today that is quite impossible.” 

As usual with Kafka, it’s nearly impossible to easily interpret, although at least no one wakes up as a cockroach.  Is the story autobiographical and symbolic, with emphasis on the word “artist”: starving artists as hunger artists, sacrificing themselves for their art?  Is the hunger artist a Christian martyr or Christ himself, sacrificing his body for the seeming benefit of others, even if those others don’t know it? Is the story sincere or ironic—does Kafka really think that slow starvation is a great performance?  Is the hunger artist a victim of a vicious society or the perpetuator of a con, making a living literally doing nothing?  Is he misunderstood, as he believes, or does he misunderstand himself?  Kafka seems to want to story to seem spiritual and existential, but in our contemporary culture of eating disorders and reality television, he now seems anorexic and narcissistic, equally food- and attention starved—psychiatrically disordered, rather than acetic, spiritual, or even alienated.    The hunger artist would have loved the present.   

So let’s cut to the present.  The Hunger Games, the first major post-Harry Potter young adult lit phenomenon, seems the titular heir to Kafka’s hungry hungry hero.  Yet I had some major qualms about the book—at least until I was more than halfway through it.  Like Hunger Artist, Hunger Games is also nostalgic, not because the days of starvation are behind them but because they are ahead. In this futuristic, totalitarian dystopia—like there’s any other kind?—America is now Panem, but not the friendly skies: a weird amalgam of technological advancement amidst an overall feudal, semi-agrarian society. 

Our futuristic dystopian overlords, apparently.

In order to keep the story’s twelve districts in line and circumvent rebellion, the government, such as it is, uses a lottery to select two contestants—Tributes, one boy and one girl—from each district, elevates them to celebrity status, has them model haute couture and eat haute cuisine, makes them appear on TMZ, then televises their gory fight to the death, with a single winner rewarded with food and other valuable prizes.    The good news is that this set up keeps ex-contestants from robbing convenience stores or starring in pornography once the show is over.  The bad news is that it doesn’t make much literal or political sense.  We like our ultimate fighting and our reality stars separate, not that I’d be surprised by Kickboxing with the Kardashians.  But time tested, old fashioned slaughter, secret prisons, pograms, public impalement, and killing fields are far more cost effective for the frugal, discerning despot.

The influences show everywhere: Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, obviously, Stephen King’s Running Man and The Long Walk, an episode of Justice League called War World, which itself borrowed from Spartacus, and every battle royale ever written, from Koushun Takami to Ralph Ellison. Plus, the writing seems equally prosaic. While it’s ostensibly the first person POV of Katniss Everdeen, our protagonist (and therefore, we quickly surmise, winner of the Games, a kind of built in spoiler), the language is often so clichéd and dry that it reads more like a book report about some other, better written novel that Katniss read and is telling us about secondhand.

Yet somehow, even with this ticker of criticism running through my head as I read, I found myself enjoying the book more and more, until by the end, none of the problems mattered, any more than the unlikelihood of talking bears or the existential crisis of wishes in a fairy tale. 

Even more than what turns out the be the novel’s narrative triumph—that is, somehow creating suspense even when the ending is predestined; somehow making interesting a violent snuff film of a bunch of kids killing each other—is what the novel does for gender.  It may seem, in our post-Aliens and Terminator world, that female heroes are at last the norm, but they’re not, not really.  Katniss is simply herself, and who she is is tough, but not particularly smart; self-preserving more than altruistic, even if, like Kafka’s hunger artist, she seems to sacrifice herself for her sister Prim and despite that she does rue Rue; skilled at traditionally masculine tasks like hunting; and lucky, but the kind of lucky that comes after the disaster of living in Panem and winding up in the hunger games.  In other words, she’s far more like Harry Potter than Hermione Granger, more Peter Pevensie than Susan, who does receive a bow and arrow from Father Christmas but is admonished to use it only “in great need…for I do not mean for you to fight in the battle.”  Girls are supposed to be the smart ones, the sisters, the girlfriends, the blank slates, the protected, the supporting characters. Katniss is not any of those things.  She’s better. Yet at the same time, the book never seems to have any gender agenda.

What’s more interesting, though, is her contrast with the male District 12 tribute, Peeta, whose name sounds feminine and reminiscent of bread (he’s the baker’s son), who protects himself in the hunger games by painting himself in camouflage and hiding, and whose sensitive romantic dumb love for Katniss could give Bella a run for her hanky.  This alone would be an interesting gender reversal. But the book does more.  After an improvised rule change forces Katniss and Peeta to team up, Peeta’s injuries make him more of a liability than an asset for Katniss. But not only does she have to protect him, she needs to protect his male ego, so that as she’s protecting him, she has to make him believe that he’s protecting her.  Edward, Jacob, and all those other guys just have to protect, without any self-consciousness and subterfuge.  And in the end, [yes, yes spoilers, although why you’re reading this if you haven’t read The Hunger Games is a mystery to me] when Peeta and Katniss both live, we discover that Peeta’s leg has been amputated.  He’s been saved by a girl like a hundred times, and then symbolically castrated.  And all he wants is looooove. 

I remember in my first year of college reading a super politically correct textbook called Racism and Sexism.  I no longer have it, so I can’t double check this (although I never sold books back so it must still be on my old bookshelf in my parents’ house).   But in it I remember a thought experiment for guys, imagining that every President, nearly every major world leader, nearly every famous scientist, nearly every writer until only a hundred years ago, etc etc etc, was a woman, and how women must feel about the real world.  I got it then, of course.  But I think I get it much better now, thanks to Katniss and The Hunger Games.  In the back of girls’ minds, there had to be a little nagging that the girl is always a Wendy but the boy gets to be the Peter Pan.  Yet when kids read Hunger Games today, they’re not going to think about Kafka, or Shirley Jackson, or the occasional clichéd language.  They’re not even going to notice that Katniss stands almost alone as a realized yet nonchalant female hero.  They’re just going to take the book as it is, and Katniss for herself. 

For a story in the dystopian future, it makes me very optimistic.  And the only Kafkaesque hunger the fans feel is for the next book. 

Time: a little over an hour

Jesse Kavadlo

Coming soon: from Wall-E to Hunger Games to Gone to Uglies: what’s with all the dystopia for kids?   

UPDATE: Here’s that post: https://jessekavadlo.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/bedtime-stories-after-the-end-of-the-world-ages-12-and-under/

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Eye-Catching Image, Specific Subtitle: One Man, or A Woman, A Formula, and The Extraordinary Journey to Save the Campus Reads Book

Any disparaging puns are unintentional I SWEAR!

I’m a member for my university’s campus reads program.  Like a lot of schools, for the past five years we’ve selected a book to be given to all incoming first-year students—and plenty of faculty and returning students—to foster academic community.  It’s a very nice idea, and I’m behind the sentiment completely—I, you know, being someone who, I assert, believes in Reading, and Books, and Sharing, and, um, College.  And Reading!  There is just one small problem.

It’s nearly impossible to pick a book.

You’d think with approximately one zillion books in print that it would be a snap.  But to keep the costs down, we need paperback.  To fulfill part of the mission, we need a book with a theme of diversity or social justice.  To keep students interested, and to keep open the possibly of bringing the author to campus, as we did twice, the book should be relatively recent (but not so recent as to be in hardcover only; see stipulation 1), and the author needs to be alive.  (Although bringing a dead author to campus would surely also keep students interested.)  If the book is too long, or too esoteric, or too technical, or too mature, or too advanced, students won’t read it, since it’s not always enforceable homework, per se.  If the content is potentially controversial, parents—and possibly students—will complain.  

Think, then, of cost, diversity, context, length, content, and potential disagreement—to say nothing of actual quality or literary merit—it’s like a Ven diagram with seven circles:

This doubles as my future album cover

The one book that I felt was perfect and championed—the .001% overlap in the Ven Diagram of programmatic strictures— was Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, a powerfully written and researched nonfiction narrative of one family’s experience in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  But the book’s strength did not come from the ready-made fodder of disaster; it came from what it subtly, increasingly argued to be the intersection between natural and human-made disaster, and the domestic consequences of the War on Terror’s collision of religion and politics.  Of course, some students didn’t like it, and at least one parent complained, but, for me, it was perfect.  And, unfortunately, perhaps unique.

The publishing industry, though, seems to have smelled this niche opening.  (Ew, sorry.) Lots of catalogues, and even whole conferences, have crept up devoted to choosing and fostering the campus read.  So far, so good.  The problem, though, is that based on the known constraints, they all are starting to sound alike.  When a formula works—good looking, non-sparkly vampires in the modern world; what superheroes would be like in real life; peanut butter and jelly; twelve bar blues; schools for wizards—I’m totally there.  But when it doesn’t, the results seem not just predicable, but trite, regardless of the topic or intentions.

And the formula the industry has devised seems cribbed from their initial best sellers.   Before I began coordinating University Seminar (required class for all first-semester students), for years all first year students read Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson.  Yes, yes, lots of people love it.  As it happens, it is one of my least favorite books.  We replaced it with The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them.  Better: it engaged in student voices, involved a school, brought in class and race issues (unlike Albom, who seems insulated and vacuous) and makes death seem dangerous (unlike Albom, whose paunchy prose and insufferable attitude makes his book the braindead version of Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich).  

Two years later, we used Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson. Mortenson’s subsequent scandal aside—this was before it broke—the formula’s seams were already showing and wearing thin: an overwritten account, from the perspective of a white, privileged person, about  wild success, despite the haters, in helping others less fortunate (Morrie is just old, but as the genre drags on, the needy are young and dark), while also learning valuable lessons in humanity and humility that the writer is now virtuously passing onto you, dear readers, for what I think was at least $15,000 a pop in speaking fees, to say nothing of the hundreds (for some schools, thousands) of books pushed.

By now, though, we’re entering the decadent stage of this peculiar genre.  I don’t claim to have read all of the books below, but who can?  No, don’t judge a book by its cover, but what about its cover, title, subtitle, blurb, and, um, content?  All of these were pulled from the same catalogue, and each essentially plays Mad Libs with the titles, worth repeating here, of Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson; The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them; and Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time.

How about these?

Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference

An Unquenchable Thirst:  One Woman’s Extraordinary Journey of Faith, Hope, and Clarity

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness

A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School

Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother

Gertruda’s Oath: A Child, A Promise, and A Heroic Escape During World War II

Make the Impossible Possible: One Man’s Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary

Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood

Black Hearts:  One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death

Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers

And the winner for longest title:

The World is Bigger Now: An American Journalist’s Release from Captivity in North Korea . . . A Remarkable Story of Faith, Family, and Forgiveness

Now, let me emphasize: these books may be important.  Some are probably even fine.  Stories of triumph over adversity, of courage, of inspiration, are, for the most part, a good thing. Several books attempt to allow sometimes-silent people an opportunity to tell their story.   

And yet—messages are not enough.  Books are not meaning -filled syringes or lofty content-delivery systems.  If Zeitoun had been called A Mighty Big Wave: A Man, an Extraordinary Voyage, and an Incredible Story of Survival and Reunion—and the writing and message matched—I would not have pushed for it.  In fact, Zeitoun is not a success story or feel-good read at all.  Its language is always lean and clear, never sentimental; its ending, equivocal; part of its message, dark and critical.  In the end, these books above traffic in the sensations and trappings of war, danger, and death, rather than their intellectual, political, or emotional entanglements.   The problem may not be the lack of options of the over-determined Ven diagram.  The problem may be in what we want out of a campus read in the first place. 

For me, the role of a good book is not to make the reader feel good.  It is to make the reader feel at all. And think.  And see the power, and even limitations, of language and story.

Time: 75 minutes (dammit), plus images, which I’ve decided never to count.

AND: Got a suggestion for a campus reads book? I’d love to hear it in Comments.

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I Have Issues with Fictional Characters’ Names

I’m teaching Henry James’s “Daisy Miller: A Study,” a very frequently taught short story, in my just-started American lit class.  If you haven’t read it, or read it a long time ago, it’s an ostentatiously written drama from 1878 about a group of privileged Americans living in Europe and their reaction to a new-money girl, the title character, as seen through the perspective of Winterbourne, a young man who finds her, in a word repeated a million times, “pretty.”  Nearly everything about the story is ambiguous or could be argued from either side, which is one of the reasons it works so well in a class: is Daisy a strong, free-spirited proto-feminist, or a foolish girl?  Does she understand the way the vicious polite society talks about her behind her back—and if so, what does this say about her behavior?  Does Winterbourne really love her—or does Daisy really love him—or are they both toying with each other in different ways?  Does Daisy—does Winterbourne?—understand what she—or he?—is doing?  Does Daisy’s [do I really need to say Spoiler Alert about a story that’s over 130 years old? Fine. “Spoiler Alert.”] death at the end suggest a misogynistic society, a kind of death wish, recklessness,  or just a fogey author who needs to punish his own literary creation?  Is Daisy “innocent”—another repeated word throughout the story—or, in the words of Jimi Hendrix, experienced?  Is this even a fair question?  Does Winterbourne experience an epiphany at the end thanks to some revealed information, or has he learned nothing? And over a hundred years of scholarship more.

HOWEVER.  For all the complexity, intricacy, and layered ways of reading, one aspect stands out: for all of James’s painstaking realism and period detail—clothes, speech, scenery—Daisy’s and Winterbourne’s names are so heavy-handedly symbolic that they threaten to bring everything down.  “Daisy”=fresh, lovely flower; “Winterbourne”=bearing or aspiring toward cold. ‘Cause you know, winter kills flowers! So much for subtlety.    

Maybe it’s more complicated—Daisy’s real first name isn’t even “Daisy;” it’s “Annie.” Her last name “Miller” could be analyzed, and Winterbourne’s first name, “Frederick,” could be worked in.  But the headline “WINTER KILLS FLOWER!” is inescapable.

Last month I wrote about Lev Grossman and The Magicians.  As much as I love the novel and admire the marriage of magic and realism, the main character’s name, Quentin Coldwater, still leaves me, um, cold.  A book-smart kid from Brooklyn (something I know a little about) is far more likely to have a name like Chang, or Furci, or Jackson, or Reddy, or really, for that matter, Grossman.  Like Winterbourne, Coldwater connotes someone chilled in his emotions, and “throw cold water on” means “criticize something that people are enthusiastic about,”  both of which describe Quentin well.  (“Coldwater Creek” and women’s apparel, less so).    

And the alliteration is reminiscent of real-life writer Quentin Crisp; of course, Crisp changed his name from Dennis Pratt.  Quentin Coldwater is closer to Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, but for me is most reminiscent of superhero names—especially recent X-Men villain Quentin Quire—and the never ending litany of Clark Kents, Peter Parkers, Lex Luthors, and Bruce Banners.   OK, Bruce Wayne doesn’t have alliteration, but he has two first names, along with Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Steve Trevor (Wonder Woman’s love interest).   Speaking of Steve, Dr. Stephen Strange gets—who could have seen it coming?—mystical powers! Dr. Victor Freeze develops cold powers!  And Dr. Victor Von Doom’s parents should have changed every name involved.  I don’t know what he’s a doctor of, but I’m guessing it’s not English.  As J. Jonah Jameson (triple alliteration!) slyly notes, of Dr. Octopus, “Guy named Otto Octavius winds up with eight limbs. Four mechanical arms welded right onto his body. What are the odds?”  Pretty good, I’d say.    

Would you take a college course from this man?

The Wizard of Oz pits sweet but sassy Dorothy Gale (meaning: “a very strong wind”—cyclone?) against wicked Mrs. Gulch (“a rocky ravine”).  The Bourne Identity’s Jason Bourne—Quentin Coldwater gets the Winter, Jason gets the Bourne—rediscovers his true self after losing his memory and becoming, quote unquote “born,” if you will, by fighting the covert operations who had previously employed him.  Guy named Bourne gets amnesia.  What are the odds?   Lev Grossman held a contest in December on his blog to provide a last name for one of his main characters, Julia.  The result: Julia Wicker. Gal named Wicker winds up becoming a witch.  What are the odds?   

But what’s the alternative to non-symbolic names?  While Hermione Granger gets both mythological allusion and a last name metaphorically fitting her reading habits, title character Harry Potter gets the Everyman treatment—no allusions, no symbolism.  But then, the LACK becomes the point.  His nonsymbolic name symbolizes his very ordinariness and relatability.  The Big Lebowski’s unliterary name is itself funny, and like Daisy, he then anoints himself anew. (The Dude also Anoints.)  I would quote Juliet’s “What’s in a name?” here, but Romeo and Juliet’s names have become symbolic, even if they didn’t start that way. 

When names belong to fictional characters, then, they’re either already filled with meaning, or we can’t help but fill them with meaning ourselves. 

Even if it would be unfair to warn women with floral names to stay away from Winterbournes , or Coldwaters, in real life.  Maybe they should, just to be on the safe side.

Time: 60 minutes, not counting making the My Name Is Daisy Miller image or, as usual, uploading.

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