In 1592, the Chinese philosopher Li Zhi wrote this preface:
I desire to burn this book. I say that I must burn and discard it. I cannot keep it… As for those who find my work grates upon their ears, they most certainly will succeed in killing me…
Li Zhi titled his manuscript, fittingly enough, A Book to Burn. The title can be read in many ways: as a challenge, a warning, a self-fulfilling prophecy, or even a bit of black humor. He followed it up with two sequels: Another Book to Burn and A Book to Hide. What drove him to publish a manuscript so controversial that he was certain it would bring about his death?
Li Zhi’s exasperation with the corruption, greed, and superficiality of the powerbrokers in his society fueled his writing. As he wrote, “if the ancient sages had not built up indignation they wouldn’t have written anything. To write something without indignation, that would be like shivering when you’re not cold, or groaning when you’re not sick. Even if they had done that, who would pay attention?”
Li Zhi never gave himself over fully to any one ideology. He called himself a Confucian, but was endlessly critical of Confucianism as he saw it practiced in the world around him. Even when he joined a Buddhist monastery and shaved his head like a monk, he let his beard grow long and refused to stop eating meat. You could call him a contrarian or a crank, or you could say that he was one of those people whose uncompromising principles make it impossible to live with the world as it is.
Nor did Li Zhi show much interest in creating an internally consistent philosophy. In fact, A Book to Burn is extravagantly and even joyfully self-contradictory. Perhaps, as some scholars have argued, that was his way of forcing readers to exercise their own judgement and form their own opinions. He didn’t want to become one of those dusty experts whose words people parroted without real understanding.
This was a radical position, because Li Zhi lived in a time when cultural status and success were deeply tied to “toeing the line” of acceptable beliefs. To receive a high-ranking position in the bureaucracy, young men were required to pass the famously difficult civil service exams. Success depended on regurgitating orthodox opinions. There was even a scandal in 1595, when it was revealed that students had passed the exams by copying example essays word-for-word from their study manuals. As a youth, Li Zhi passed the first level of the civil service examinations, but he refused to sit for the second, thus taking himself out of the running for any truly prestigious positions. This was perhaps the first sign of the rebellious streak that would come to define his life and work.
Despite his top-notch classical education, Li Zhi valued popular entertainment as well as the classics, and the vernacular tongue as well as the refined language of scholars. He followed the doctrine of Wang Yangming, believing that anyone had the potential to become a sage. He argued that women had equal intellectual powers to men, and were only deprived the opportunity to develop them. He even took on a female disciple, Mei Danran—an extremely shocking choice at the time.
Li Zhi challenged the orthodox belief, laid out in the classic text the Doctrine of the Mean, that the relationship between ruler and subject was the fundamental basis of social order. Instead, he argued for friendship as the most important social relationship. Indeed, Li Zhi’s friendships were central to the development of his philosophy. A Book to Burn started as a bundle of letters circulated among Li Zhi’s friends, and, in its preface, he justifies his choice to publish such a dangerous volume with the hope that “if one of my essays speaks to the heart of another, then perhaps I may find somebody who understands me!”
Yet the letters also record the strain that Li Zhi’s uncompromising principles put on his friends. He believed in harshly criticizing those friends who strayed from what he saw as right. As a result, many of his relationships suffered. As Rivi Handler-Spitz, Pauline Lee, and Haun Saussy write in the introduction to their translation of Li Zhi’s selected writings: “A Book to Burn reports the recurrent bewilderment and loneliness Li experienced as one by one his friends grew tired of his relentless faultfinding and abandoned him.”
On the other hand, those of his friends who refused to compromise their ideals often suffered for it. In 1579, one of Li Zhi’s role models, the philosopher He Xinyin, died in prison after being arrested for his radical ideas. Li Zhi must have known that the same fate was coming to him, sooner or later. In 1602, the Wanli emperor ordered Li Zhi arrested. He died in prison that same year, and all copies of A Book to Burn were ordered to be thrown on the bonfire, fulfilling the promise of the title.
Yet the official prohibitions only increased the text’s cachet. Zhu Guozhen wrote that almost every member of the literati kept a treasured copy of A Book to Burn hidden like a precious rarity. In fact, Li Zhi’s name became such a selling point that booksellers slapped his name on entirely fabricated manuscripts. Wang Benke wrote in a preface to one of his books, “Within the four seas there is no one who does not read this gentleman’s writings; there is no one who does not desire to read them all; they read them without stopping, and some even read pirated editions.” Not bad at all.
In 1982, the American Library Association established Banned Books Week in response to the increase in challenges to books in libraries, classrooms, and school libraries.
Of course, censorship and challenging creative thought did not begin in the 1980s. The earliest form of censorship was book burning, carried out in order to solidify governmental power, erase history, and prevent the spread of ideas.
Dr. Whitney Strub tackles the latter in “Black and White and Banned All Over: Race, Censorship, and Obscenity in Postwar Memphis.” According to Strub, the Board of Censors and the Memphis city government worked to censor films and media that they considered inappropriate. Ultimately, the films that they censored included scenes featuring a mixing of Black and White characters. There was a particular focus on regulating images of real or imagined intimate relations between Black men and White women, a trope that is a legacy of Reconstruction. The censors felt that the message of these films was one of “social equality” that challenged normative values. The intent was that by censoring these images, the Black community in Memphis would not get the wrong idea about their “place” in society.
Books, film, and art are commonly banned or challenged in American society because they are sexually explicit. However, as Strub notes, historically people use sex as a code for race. It is easier or more politically correct to claim that you oppose a work of art because it is sexually explicit, than to object to how it portrays race. A prime example of this comes from the challenges of Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou in schools and libraries across the country. All three of these works deal with issues relating to racism and have a sexual component. Nevertheless, they make a larger argument about the role and treatment of girls and women in American society.
Attempts to remove texts like these limit students’ ability to engage with subject matter that will help them survive in society and understand what is happening in their own lives and the lives of others. Tonya Perry explores the impact in “Taking Time to Reflect on Censorship: Warriors, Wanderers, and Magicians.” She notes that there are three roles an educator can play: warrior (who teaches just the facts), wanderer (who encourages questioning and interpreting experiences), and magician (where learning meets action and transformation). The magician educator will have material that addresses subject matter such as sexual harassment, sexuality, racism, and sexism, and demonstrates to students how they can put this knowledge into action. Thus, students become producers as opposed to being consumers of knowledge.
According to Perry, those who censor in an attempt to “protect” students are actually doing them a disservice by not providing them the language and tools to communicate. Furthermore, it disproportionately impacts the students who come from underrepresented communities. Censorship signifies that their stories and histories are not valuable or important enough to be studied. As Strub notes, the act of censoring puts attention on the action of the challenge rather than addressing the societal issues that are facing American communities. In other words: censorship is a dangerous distraction.
This is the bookstore I want to live in. Mundo Azul (Choriner Straße 49, Berlin) is an international celebration of beautiful children’s picture books — some of which I knew, many of which I did not, and all of which are well worth reading. While browsing, I had the sense that the proprietor, Mariela Nagle, had selected each one intentionally. She displays them not because they are popular — though there are some well-known titles, along with many that were (to me) discoveries. She displays them because they’re art that she wants to spend more time with, and that her patrons should get to know.
And then there’s the space itself.
Two rooms of books, carefully displayed on wooden shelves, many book-covers facing outward — catching the eye, drawing you in for a closer look.
There are places for sitting and reading.
(Or for taking silly selfies with your friends.)
And what is that tiny sign in the middle of that bookshelf over there?
Yes! That one! On the little easel.
“Silent books”? Does that mean what I think it means…? Yes. Perusing the books confirms that they are all wordless. An entire shelf devoted to wordless picture books! When Mariela Nagle noticed my interest, she strolled over with a new one she had just gotten in — from Portugal, which (she says) has more independent children’s book publishers than anywhere.
I think I got that right. Mariela, if I am mistaken, please correct me! I visited the shop with no intention of writing about it — so, I took no notes. I only decided to write about it afterwards, as I walked away thinking of all the people who would love this shop! Instead of writing only to them, I decided to shout it from the rooftops! Or, at least, from the laptops — via this blog.
If ever you are in or near Berlin, you must visit Mundo Azul. Plan to spend the afternoon. Yes, all of the afternoon. And it is OK if you do not speak German. Mariela speaks German, English, and Spanish (and possibly other languages — I neglected to ask).*
If you cannot get to Berlin, I highly recommend browsing…
After you’ve done that, you’ll of course start saving up for a trip to Berlin….
Vielen Dank an Mariela und Ada! Es war wunderbar!
* Update, 11 July 2019: I met up with Mariela this evening at “Drawings from East & West: Sino-German Picture Book Exchange Salon,” and I asked. She also speaks Italian and French.
One of the most frequently taught novels about the Philippines is Jessica Hagedorn’s 1990 Dogeaters. The novel takes place in the Philippines, a former colony of the United States, in the 1950s. Income inequality is extreme. Political turmoil churns as leftists rise up to challenge the ruling dictator. And in Hagedorn’s fictionalized iteration, the lives of three families of various classes become entangled in revealing ways.
Specifically, Hagedorn focuses on the women living in midcentury Manila, breaking down the ways in which neocolonialism can impact gender. In “Masquerade, Hysteria, and Neocolonial Femininity in Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters,” Asian American literature scholar Juliana Chang finds that there are two forms of ambivalent femininity in the novel: masquerade and hysteria. While psychoanalytic theory has described these forms of femininity as operating under American and Western bourgeois family and closed patriarchal systems, Chang posits that the forms are also relevant in a former colony like the Philippines.
By this theory, masquerade is “a performance of femininity that masks feminine claims to power and covers over other contradictions of patriarchy.” This is exemplified by both the commodified and privileged female characters throughout the novel. The character of Zenaida, a mother whose labor is taken for granted, becomes a symbol of exploitation. Zenaida feels that she is only a surplus laborer; fittingly, she drowns at the end of the novel.
The novel takes place in a time of political turmoil. Hagedorn prominently features the First Lady, rather than the male head of state, as the political face of the country. Chang notes that this privileged figure is another example of “masquerade femininity” and spectacle. Hagedorn’s descriptions of how the First Lady must behave emphasize the pressures of women to be feminine in ways that are acceptable to the patriarchy, down to the grace with which she must wipe her tears.
The hysteric’s role, on the other hand, is “both to arouse and irritate paternal desire.” According to Chang, a character exemplifying hysteria is Baby Alcaran, the daughter of the powerful businessman, Severo Alcaran, and his wife, Isabel. Hagedorn makes a clear distinction between the mother and daughter. The mother is a symbol of upper class femininity. Baby, on the other hand, is often described as having physical traits and characteristics “like a man.” Baby sweats, chews her nails, has “flat breasts” and wide hips. These descriptions refuse the patriarchal normative standard and “insist on its contradictions.”
According to Hagedorn, the neocolonialist Philippines held a heteronormative standard that ignored the possibilities of queer and female subjects. The structure of global capital, and the commodification with which human lives and labor are treated in the Americanized colony, only enforce these dominant systems. By representing diverse characters in Dogeaters, Hagedorn offers examples of the contradictory nature of neocolonialism—these characters are people who are not welcomed by the dominant systems, and yet they exist, living and loving in the world of the novel.
Hagedorn’s novel does not rely on tropes, but rather questions how those tropes came to exist. In the end, with its multiplicity of female and queer characters, Dogeaters presents an alternate narrative for the Filipino woman.
The post The Filipino Novel That Reimagined Neocolonial Gender appeared first on JSTOR Daily.
I was not expecting—but was gratified to see—an enormous response to my latest piece in The Atlantic, “The Books of College Libraries Are Turning Into Wallpaper,” on the seemingly inexorable decline in the circulation of print books on campus. I’m not sure that I’ve ever written anything that has generated as much feedback, commentary, and hand-wringing. I’ve gotten dozens of emails and hundreds of social media messages, and The Atlantic posted (and I responded in turn to) some passionate letters to the editor. Going viral was certainly not my intent: I simply wanted to lay out an important and under-discussed trend in the use of print books in the libraries of colleges and universities, and to outline why I thought it was happening. I also wanted to approach the issue both as the dean of a library and as a historian whose own research practices have changed over time.
I think the piece generated such a large response because it exposed a significant transition in the way that research, learning, and scholarship happens, and what that might imply for the status of books and the nature of libraries—topics that often touch a raw nerve, especially at a time when popular works extol libraries—I believe correctly—as essential civic infrastructure.
But those works focus mostly on public libraries, and this essay focused entirely on research libraries. People are thankfully still going to and extensively using libraries, both research and public (there were over a billion visits to public libraries in the U.S. last year), but they are doing so in increasingly diversified ways.
The key to my essay were these lines:
“The decline in the use of print books at universities relates to the kinds of books we read for scholarly pursuits rather than pure pleasure…A positive way of looking at these changes is that we are witnessing a Great Sorting within the [research] library, a matching of different kinds of scholarly uses with the right media, formats, and locations.”
Although I highlighted statistics from Yale and the University of Virginia (which, alas, was probably not very kind to my friends at those institutions, although I also used stats from my own library at Northeastern University), the trend I identified seems to be very widespread. Although I only mentioned specific U.S. research libraries, my investigations showed that the same decline in the use of print collections is happening globally, albeit not necessarily universally. In most of the libraries I examined, or from data that was sent to me by colleagues at scores of universities, the circulation of print books within research libraries is declining at about 5-10% per year per student (or FTE).
For example, in the U.K. and Ireland, over the three years between the 2013-14 school year and the 2016-17 school year, the circulation of print books per student declined by 27%, according to the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL), which represents all university libraries in the U.K. and Ireland. Meanwhile, SCONUL reports that visits to these libraries have actually increased during this period. (SCONUL’s other core metric, print circulations per student visit to the library, has thus declined even more, by 33% over three years.) Similarly, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL), which maintains the statistics for university libraries in Canada, notes that during these same three years, the average yearly print circulation at their member libraries dropped from 200,000 to 150,000 books, and their per-student circulation number also dropped by 25%.
Again, this is just over three recent years. The decline becomes even more severe as one goes further back in time. In the 2005-6 school year, the average Canadian research library circulated 30 books per student, which slid to 25 in 2008-9; by 2016-17 that number was just 5. Readers of my article were shocked that UVA students had only checked out 60,000 books last year, compared to 238,000 a decade ago, but had I gone all the way back in the UVA statistics to two decades ago, the comparison would have been even more stark. The total circulation of books in the UVA library system was 1,085,000 in 1999-2000 and 207,000 in 2016-17. Here’s the overall graph of print circulation (in “initial circs,” which do not include renewals) from the Association of Research Library (U.S.), showing a 58% decline between 1991 and 2015, but an even larger decline since Peak Book and an even larger decline on a per student basis, since during this same period the student body at these universities increased 40%.
These longer time frames underline how this is an ongoing, multi-decade shift in the ways that students and faculty interact with and use the research library. All research libraries are experiencing such forces and pressing additional demands—the need for new kinds of services and spaces as well as the surging use of digital resources and data—while at the same time continuing to value physical artifacts (archives and special collections) and printed works. It’s a very complicated, heterogeneous environment for learning and scholarship. Puzzling through the correct approach to these shifts, rather than ignoring them and sticking more or less with the status quo, was what I was trying to prod everyone to think about in the essay, and if I was at all successful, that’s hopefully all to the good.
I’m walking to Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair in Sydney’s Domain at high tide, scanning the small bay in Woolloomooloo, as I always do, for fish or stingrays. There’s nothing to see in the flat green water nudging the sandstone cliffs ...
Generosity and thoughtfulness are not in abundance right now, and so Kathleen Fitzpatrick‘s important new book, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, is wholeheartedly welcome. The generosity Kathleen seeks relates to lost virtues, such as listening to others and deconstructing barriers between groups. As such, Generous Thinking can be helpfully read alongside of Alan Jacobs’s How to Think, as both promote humility and perspective-taking as part of a much-needed, but depressingly difficult, re-socialization. Today’s polarization and social media only make this harder.
Fitzpatrick’s analysis of the university’s self-inflicted wounds is painful to acknowledge for those of us in the academy, but undoubtedly true. Scholars are almost engineered to cast a critical eye on all that passes before them, and few articulate their work well to broader audiences. Administrators are paying less attention than in the past to the communities that surround their campuses. Perhaps worst of all, the incentive structures of universities, such as the tenure process and college rankings, strongly reinforce these issues.
I read Generous Thinking in a draft form last year and thought an appropriate alternate title might be The Permeable University. Many of Fitzpatrick’s prescriptions involve dissolving the membrane of the academy so that it can integrate in a mutually beneficial way with the outside world, on an individual and institutional level. You will be unsurprised to hear that I agree completely with many of her suggestions, such as open access to scholarly resources and the importance of scholars engaging with the public. Like Fitzpatrick, I have had a career path that has alternated between the nonprofit and academic worlds in the pursuit of platforms and initiatives that try to maximize those values.
With universities currently receiving withering criticism from both the right and left, it is critical for all of us in the academy to take Generous Thinking seriously, and to think about other concrete steps we can take to open our doors and serve the wider public. The deep incentive structures will be very hard to change, but we can all take more modest steps such as thinking about how new media like podcasts can play a role in a more publicly approachable and helpful university, or how we might be able to provide services (e.g., archival services) to local communities. Fitzpatrick’s Humanities Commons, a site for scholars to connect not just with each other but with the public, is another venue for making the generosity she seeks a reality.
Much more needs to be done on this front, and so I encourage you to read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book.
As many teachers do, I teach Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. When confirmed reports of his sexual harassment and other abuses of power became public, I knew I had to talk to my class about it — I had already taught Absolutely True Diary in my on-line Multicultural Children’s Literature class earlier in the semester. Thinking that our conversation might be of use to others who are confronting this issue, I’m sharing my initial question, my response to their conversation (which highlights recurring themes), and a quotation from one of the students (shared with her permission). Because I have to prepare our on-line conversations several weeks in advance, this begins in early March but their responses were only due in late March — and my response followed.
Because I’m preparing these discussions about three weeks in advance, this will appear as “due” after March Break. And that is in fact when it is due. I don’t feel I can add anything further to our current week. But I also don’t feel that I can ignore this. So I am making this visible now (March 6th) even though you’re not obliged to discuss it until March 27th.
For the past month, those of us in the children’s literature / young adult literature community have known that Sherman Alexie is among those accused of sexual harassment. Last week (Feb. 28), Alexie issued a denial/apology. Yesterday (Mar. 5), three of his accusers went public.
This raises an important question for us — as students, future teachers (some of you), or current teachers (me and some of you). Should we continue to teach an author who has harmed others? And that is the question I am posing to you right now. Should work by Sherman Alexie be on future iterations of this syllabus? Or ought we instead replace him with, say, a work by another indigenous writer — perhaps Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves —?
This is a hotly debated question, and — from our previous conversations — I know that you will express yourselves with care and consideration for divergent points of view. Those who argue for often note that those who create great works of art may not lead exemplary lives; their own personal failings are irrelevant to the greatness of their art. And, certainly, as a colleague of mine observed via email, in our English classes we teach many writers who, in their private lives, were horrible human beings. Those who argue against might say that there is no legacy so important that we can look the other way. As Roxane Gay puts it, “I no longer struggle with artistic legacies. It is not difficult to dismiss the work of predators and angry men because agonizing over a predator’s legacy would mean there is some price I am willing to let victims pay for the sake of good art.” She suggests instead that we turn to artistic work created by those “capable of treating others with respect.” If these are two opposing poles of the debate, there are of course many positions between them. And there are other ways of exploring possible answers to this question.
As I say, it’s a difficult, messy question.
I have my own answer to it, which I will share after our conversation — and, indeed, which might be changed by our conversation.
Time passed — including March Break — and the students’ conversation unfolded on-line. It was the most contentious conversation we’ve had this semester, but — to their great credit — they remained civil even when they strongly disagreed. I then wrote my promised response, which I reproduce below.
Hi, everyone. Sorry I’ve been a little quieter this week. Have been a bit under the weather. Indeed, your El Deafo discussion (two weeks from now) lacks my second planned video because my voice is still a bit wonky.
Anyway. To this discussion!
Thanks, as ever, for wrestling with a difficult and painful subject. You may be interested to know that — here on campus — we held a discussion on this subject before March Break. The English Department blog published a summary of that discussion on Tuesday of this week.
In your discussion, some liken the removal of a book from a course syllabus to censorship. I see the parallel being made, but — as the creator of many syllabi — I would argue that removing a book from a course syllabus is not the same as censorship. The book is not banned. It is still for sale, and still in the library. Also, since I regularly revise my syllabi, I am often taking books off and putting others on. I do this for many reasons, including the never-ending quest to improve the course, the need to stay current (new books keep getting published), and my own need to refresh the syllabus (if I teach the same works over and over, then I risk getting stale).
Another theme I notice in your discussion is the idea that removing this book would consequently remove Native American literature from our Multicultural Children’s Lit syllabus. It wouldn’t. We could read Erika Wurth’s Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Rain Is Not My Indian Name, or Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House. Debbie Reese makes some Native YA Lit recommendations in this blog post. There are many Native children’s and YA books to choose from. Indeed, there should be more than one on this syllabus. There isn’t because the class strives to cover as wide a range of identities as it can, which (I realize) risks making this book the “single story” that Adichie warns against.
I would, however, agree with those who note that (and I’m paraphrasing here) monstrous people have made great art, important art, influential art. Faulkner’s “go slow, now” approach to ending Jim Crow was immoral and unjust, but if I were teaching a class on twentieth-century American literature, I would assign Faulkner. If I were teaching a class on twentieth-century Native American Literature, I think I would also assign Alexie — bringing in the full context, the women who have spoken on the record, the women who have spoken off the record, those who defend Alexie and those who accuse him. We could have a more developed version of the conversation we’ve had here.
But I don’t teach a Native American Literature course. I teach a Multicultural Children’s Literature course and I teach a Young Adult Literature course. Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary has been on both of those syllabi. It will not be on either syllabus in the future. There are many reasons why, but here are four.
Because, yes, as some of you have correctly noted, humans are flawed. We make mistakes. We have regrets. We do things we should not do. And we would be naïve to expect our artists, writers, actors, musicians, to be paragons of virtue. But, for me, a pattern of predatory behavior crosses a line.
Though my sense is that not all of you do, I believe the accusers. Why? Many reasons, the first of which (as I say) is that there is a pattern of behavior here. When there’s a pattern, we cannot say, “oh, it was just this one isolated incident.” Also, it’s really really hard to speak publicly about being sexually harassed or assaulted. Women who do get slut-shamed, called liars, blamed for seeking publicity, harassed further, and may face professional consequences. When a woman makes the decision to speak up, she is putting herself at risk. That’s why so many of those men named in the #MeToo movement have gone unnamed until now. Calling out the predatory behavior of powerful men (or women, but it’s usually men) is risky. It’s necessary to call them out, but it requires a level of bravery and emotional strength that not all people have — and nor should they be required to have. Surviving the traumas of harassment and assault takes a lot out of a person. (Big understatement.)
The emotions in this discussion have been more raw than they usually are — which is quite understandable, of course. I mention it here for several reasons, the first of which is that a couple of days have elapsed since the discussion and my response. I wish we could have had this conversation in person because then we could have addressed some of these questions in person. The asynchronous nature of this class means that we could not. But, since we could not, you should know that you all did far better than all of the on-line discussions I’ve seen on this subject. There have been much more contentious posts on recent School Library Journal articles, for example. This discussion never even approached that level of vitriol. Indeed, it was remarkably vitriol free.
That said, I recognize there may yet be some frayed nerves and lingering bad feelings. So. If anyone would like to talk with me about this, please let me know. I am willing to set up a Zoom chat for anyone who’d like it — or multiple Zoom chats. And, whether people seek those or not, I ask that you do your best to sustain the professionalism you’ve managed to sustain throughout the term. We do not have to agree with each other, but we do have to make an effort to understand and respect each other.
For the record, I respect the variety of opinions offered here. I’ve given you my response because I promised that I would. But, as I’ve said before, you do not need to agree with my assessment of a book or, in this case, whether to teach the work of a particular author.
For those who want to read more about this, Debbie Reese has a chronicle of the Alexie story as it unfolded (when you click on the link, scroll down).
Finally, if I may, I’d like to close with the wise words of your classmate Maria Vieyra, who (in this discussion) writes:
None of us are epitomes of perfect ethical behavior, morality, or wisdom, but I believe most of us can agree that there should be consequences for predatory sexual behavior because it does indeed hurt people. And monetary costs from boycotting a book are a small form of justice that we are all able to be a part of, and I do not think it is too heavy a price to pay for the sake of the victims and the future.
To all of you: Thanks ever so much for taking the time to wrestle with this contentious and difficult issue. I hope that, though your own responses may differ, you all have arrived at a deeper understanding of what’s at stake in either retaining a book or removing it.
So… that was our class discussion. Also, I didn’t mention this in my response above, but most students thought I should continue to teach Alexie. Five students — all of them women — argued against teaching his work. (18 students participated in the discussion.)
I would not claim to have the “right” answer to the question of whether to teach Alexie. This is just my answer. I would say, though, that each syllabus is a political document that is built on moral choices. What we include on a syllabi and what we omit from that syllabi are deeply enmeshed in morality and in politics — which, of course, makes the creation of any syllabus fraught, complicated, and on some level unsatisfying. (Or, at least, that’s my experience: I am never 100% happy with any syllabus I’ve created.)
Art is always political. So is teaching. We cannot pretend otherwise.
The objects of your nostalgic longing may disappoint you, if you are willing to look at them openly and honestly. If you read, create, or write about children’s literature, today — the 114th birthday of Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) — would be a good time to admit this to yourself. OK, the time for such admission is really long overdue, but do not be too hard on yourself. The power of cultural inertia is hard to resist.
That said, do resist. Make the attempt. As Seuss himself wrote in a different context, “face up to your problems / whatever they are.”
This particular problem is one to tackle today because Seuss’s work contains both much to admire and much to oppose. Yet, because of his status, people are much more comfortable admiring than looking critically at his work. In the U.S., he is revered as a patron saint of children’s literacy, and children’s literature. In 1997, the National Education Association adopted his birthday as a day to celebrate “Read Across America Day.” It still uses his Cat in the Hat as its mascot, even though — starting this year — it’s shifting its focus to diverse books.
I am partly to blame for this shift.
In a report that helped inspire this change, Katie Ishizuka-Stephens cites the essay that became the title chapter of my Was the Cat in the Hat Black? As I point out, Seuss’s Cat is racially complicated. He’s partially inspired by blackface minstrelsy, African American elevator operator Annie Williams (who wore white gloves and a secret smile), and Krazy Kat (the black, ambiguously gendered creation of bi-racial cartoonist George Herriman).
I’m happy that Ishizuka-Stephens’s report has persuaded the NEA to shift their “Read Across America Day” focus to diverse books. Half of U.S. school-age children are nonwhite. But of children’s books published in 2016, only 22 percent of children’s books published featured nonwhite children, and only 13 percent were by nonwhite creators. Celebrating stories in which our multicultural young people can see themselves is a better choice than celebrating Seuss.
Which is not to say that Seuss must be thrown out of our classrooms — though that is of course an option. It is, rather, to suggest that we consider which Seuss we use, and how we use it.
At left: Dr. Seuss, from “Four Places Not to Hide While Growing Your Beard” (Life, 15 Nov. 1929). At right: Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957).
Racial caricature in Seuss’s work can help people understand how racism works. Seuss did both racist work and anti-racist work, often at the same time. In the 1940s, he created political cartoons, some of which dehumanized people of Japanese descent, and others of which were critical of both anti-Semitism and racism against African Americans. In the 1950s, Seuss published Horton Hears a Who!, hailed by one reviewer as “a rhymed lesson in protection of minorities and their rights”; wrote his first version of The Sneetches, an anti-racist fable; and published an essay that critiques racist humor. During that same period, he recycled racist caricature in his books. In If I Ran the Zoo, protagonist Gerald McGrew travels to “the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant / With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant,” and to the “African Island of Yerka” where he meets two stereotypically rendered Black men.
That Seuss is doing both racist anti-racist work at the same time can be confusing because many of us see racism as an “either/or”: people are either racist or not racist. Indeed, that’s how Seuss himself understood racism. In a June 1942 cartoon titled “What This Country Needs is a Good Mental Insecticide,” he draws a long line of men waiting to get inoculated against the “racial prejudice bug.” The insecticide goes in one ear, and the racist bug tumbles out the other. I wish we could fumigate racism from our minds, and applaud Seuss’s optimism. Unfortunately, racism is not a bug. It’s a feature. Racism is not aberrant. It’s ordinary. It’s embedded in institutions and in culture — such as the cartoons and books of Dr. Seuss.
It’s upsetting to learn that a beloved children’s author used racist caricature. So, many people — especially White people — seek explanations and offer excuses. In response to recent criticism, his grand-nephew Ted Owens has said of Seuss: “I know one thing for sure — I never saw one ounce of racism in anything he said, or how he lived his life, or what his stories were about.” Mr. Owens’ claim relies on perception and intent. But racism does not require either. People can perpetuate racism without intending to. I don’t think Seuss intended to. Because he was unaware of the degree to which his visual imagination was steeped in caricature, he recycled racist stereotypes even as he was also writing anti-racist parables. Dr. Seuss was the “woke” White guy who isn’t as woke as he thinks he is.
“Now, wait just a minute,” some may object. “Seuss was a man of his time. We should not impose contemporary standards on him or his work. People thought differently then.” But that is a gross oversimplification. All people in any given historical moment do not think about race in precisely the same way. As Robin Bernstein has shown in her work on nineteenth-century anti-racism, the range of available racial beliefs remains constant over time, but the distribution of those beliefs change. In the past and in the present, both extraordinary and perfectly ordinary people have opposed White supremacy. Similarly, both remarkable and unremarkable people have supported White supremacy. To claim that people 60 years ago were racist but people now are enlightened both naturalizes past racism as inevitable and implies that social change is a natural, ongoing march towards a brighter, fairer future. Yet, as we are reminded daily, our current president and his party are actively working against precisely such a future. Progress moves in fits and starts, makes gains and endures setbacks, and always requires people committed to making a positive difference.
Seuss can be part of this positive difference. His more progressive books — The Lorax (1971) or The Butter Battle Book (1984), to name two examples — might teach children about the need to care for the environment or to oppose the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Horton Hears a Who! could teach them to stand up for those who are targeted by bigots: the Whos’ size is an arbitrary mark of difference that could represent any such visible sign of human variance. As for the books featuring racist caricature, one option is to remove them from the curriculum. Another is to read them critically. With the guidance of a thoughtful educator, Seuss’s racist caricature can help young people understand that racism is not anomalous. It permeates the culture. Seeing this caricature can also let them know that it’s OK to be angry at art — that anger can in fact be a healthy response to work that demeans you.
We might also follow Roxane Gay’s advice. As she writes, “There is no scarcity of creative genius, and that is the artistic work we can and should turn to instead.” Gay is writing in the context of the current #MeToo movement, suggesting that we discard work built on the dehumanization of others. We could follow her advice by pushing Seuss aside and instead celebrating diverse books — doing what the NEA is doing in its program even if it (curiously) retains the Cat in the Hat as its mascot. Ishizuka-Stephens has assembled a great collection of “21 Books for an Inclusive Read Across America Day.” That’s an excellent place to start.
Wrapping yourself in an unreflective nostalgia for the art you grew up with may comfort you, but if that art denigrates women, or caricatures people of color, or otherwise harms minoritized communities, then you bear responsibility for the pain that this art inflicts. I realize this is a hard truth to face and that some who read this will — instead of facing themselves and acknowledging their responsibility — attack the messenger. Some may indulge in projection, locating in the messenger those faults that they refuse to admit in themselves. Others will find different strategies of denial, displacement, or dismissal. In so doing, they will continue to be part of the problem.
For those who prefer to be part of the solution, know that you need not abandon nostalgia. It’s OK to be nostalgic, as long as that nostalgia is what Svetlana Boym called “reflective nostalgia.” It “dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt” (xviii). As Boym wrote, reflective nostalgia reminds us that “longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, as affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgment or critical reflection” (The Future of Nostalgia 49-50).
So. Reflect. Dwell on those ambivalences. Develop your capacity to reflect. Activate your compassion.
And buy diverse books. Teach diverse books. Read diverse books.
I’m excited to announce the publication of my latest book, The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image.
It’s a gratifying publication in many ways. It is the first project that I have co-authored with my good friend and colleague Christian Keathley, and as such, it was quite fun to put together. It is based on the NEH-funded workshop on videographic criticism that we ran at Middlebury in June 2015, so it both brings back many memories from those fabulous two weeks, and shares much of what we did with a larger audience, including my overview of fair use for videographic practice. It also features the writing of three other friends who collaborated on the workshop with us, Catherine Grant, Eric Faden, and Kevin B. Lee.
I’m also quite happy with its mode of publication. The book is published by caboose books, a small independent press based in Montreal that strives to publish works in film studies that go against most trends in academic publishing by being affordable and accessible. Our book is part of a series, Kino-Agora, that features short books that straddle the boundary between long essay and short book—ours is only 64 pages. But it is priced accordingly: you can buy the book directly from caboose for $5 plus shipping, or from Amazon for $8 (free shipping) or as a $4 Kindle download.
I also created a companion site on Scalar, featuring many examples of videographic exercises created by the participants in our workshop. The open access Scalar site should provide a good sampling of the type of work produced at the workshop, and also features numerous videos produced by participants over the past year. We hope it will be a useful resource for both teaching this type of work and for inspiring people to take the videographic plunge!
We hope the low price will be tempting enough to encourage readers to explore this new mode of critical engagement. I can certainly say that my own adventures in video making has been incredibly rewarding and has expanded my critical horizons – I hope this book will help others join in!
I have a lot of books. Books in my office, books in my family room, books in my study, books in my basement, books on my wishlist. This is not a new thing, nor is it likely to change anytime soon. Before I was a technology professor, I was a librarian. I have an MLS from Michigan, worked for several years as a Government and Law Bibliographer at the Library of Congress, and then got my PhD in Library & Information Science from Alabama. It was the "information" part of "information technology" that drew me to my job at RIT, and I still speak regularly at library conferences.
But still. Books. Everywhere. And it can be difficult to know at any given point where a particular book I've read lives. Do I still own it? Is it in my house? My office? More importantly, can my friends check to see if I have it (and can I check to see if they have a book that I'm interested in)? Seems like a problem that could and should be solved with technology.
In fact, nearly eight years ago I reviewed a lovely Mac OS X program called Delicious Library, which allowed me to hold a book up in front of my computer's webcam and have it be looked up online and added to my library. It failed for me, though, because its ability to share that library with others was very limited, and because it was still somewhat laborious to pull books off the shelf, hold them just so in front of the webcam, and then replace them.
This week, however, some of our students started talking in Facebook about how much they'd like to be able to know what books other people in the school had--especially faculty, who are often willing to loan books from their extensive collections. I wanted an easy way to facilitate that kind of group book sharing, and it seemed that there must be a way to do that, one better than the promising but cumbersome tools I'd looked at back in 2004. Shouldn't there by now be a combination of phone-based scanning and web-based sharing that would satisfy this need more elegantly? One that would work not just for geeky librarians like me, but for anyone in our community who wanted to share their book collection? The answer is yes. And no. I've spent the past several days experimenting with three web-based personal library management sites--LibraryThing, GoodReads, and Shelfari--as well as iPhone apps for scanning in the barcodes of books. I haven't found the perfect solution--they all have a few flaws still--but I plan to go with LibraryThing for my book collection, at least for now. Here's my assessment of each of the tools, however along with some "how-to" for those who want to try it themselves. I start with the scanning tool, since it's applicable for all three sites. Then I talk about each of the library sites, including account creation/cost, ability to organize your library effectively, and privacy/sharing functionality with a focus on group sharing. All three of the sites are quite good at allowing you to view and organize your own personal collection, so I didn't focus on that in my evaluation.
Scanning Books with Red Laser
I poked around online to see if anyone had found a way to use an existing iPhone scanner app with online book sites. The answer was yes; Julie Duffy had written a nice tutorial on pairing LibraryThing with Red Laser, a free barcode scanning app for iOS, Android, and even Windows Phone. Since the tutorial was two years old, some aspects of the process have changed, so I've documented how I did this. And it turns out that you can use the same process with the other two sites, although GoodReads has an app with its own scanner.
First, I used RedLaser on my phone to scan the barcodes of my books. When you launch the app and choose "Scan", there's an option at the bottom to turn on "multi-scan," which is particularly useful if you plan on scanning a number of books, since it stays in scan mode after each successful scan. I was frankly amazed by how quickly it was able to focus on and process each barcode. I was able to scan in over 100 books in about half an hour. A few warnings--many books on my shelf had multiple barcodes, with one being focused on retail processing, and the other containing the ISBN. Make sure you scan the ISBN barcode, or the data won't import properly. The images below show both the wrong way (on the left) and the right way (on the right) to scan such a book. Beware also of barcode stickers placed over the book jacket barcode by bookstores--they use a proprietary product code, so may need to be removed for proper scanning.
After you've scanned a set of books (try it with a few the first time to be sure it works), click the Done button (and if you've scanned in a lot of books, be patient--it will take a few seconds to leave the scan screen and show you your items). Then view the History (bottom left icon). You should see a list like the one on the left. Tap the button in the top right corner that says "Edit & Share," and then the "Select All" option, and you should end up with something like the list on the right.
Choose "Share" and email the list to yourself. You'll get an email listing the items you scanned, but the text of the email isn't what's useful. The URL at the top of the message is what you want. It will look something like this: http://redlaser.com/lists/?list=inNPDdB8sn (That one's from my first office bookshelf scan.) Don't worry if not all the information you want is there--the online sites I'm going to review will take the data from that URL and run the items through Amazon's database to extract everything from publication data to cover images.
Go ahead and delete those items from your history in RedLaser, so that you don't duplicate the items in your next batch of scans. Now you're ready to go to whatever site you choose for organizing your books. Here are my thoughts on the three I evaluated.
I've got a soft spot in my heart for LibraryThing (henceforth LT), because it was created way back in the early days of the social web, and has always included a focus on input from librarians and services for libraries. The downside of LT is that it retains a very web 1.0-like design and UI, and I struggled a bit at first to figure out how to accomplish the things I wanted to do. Overall, though, it wins out for me in terms of both organizing and sharing with a group. (It's also better for performing batch operations on groups of books, but that's probably only important for power users.)
Creating an Account
LT is only free for up to 200 books, which is probably plenty for most people but not nearly enough for a bookworm like me. You pick your own amount to pay for either an annual subscription or a lifetime account; suggested amounts are $10 and $25, and I kicked in the $25 for lifetime. (The site is ad-free, and I value that.) You can create the account using your Facebook or Twitter credentials, or you can create a purely local account on their system. Going with Facebook doesn't give you access to your social network, though, so other than ease of account creation there's no great advantage to using it. On the plus side, it doesn't do any annoying Facebook posts on your behalf, either.
Importing and Organizing Books
Like all three of the tools I evaluated, LT allows you to add books individually by searching for them in its database (by author, title, ISBN, etc), or by importing them from a variety of sources. To import your RedLaser list, you go to the "Add Books" tab and then select "Import Books" from the list at the bottom. You're given the option to import from a file (useful if you already have some or all of your books in another program or website), grab from a webpage, or paste a list into a text box. The RedLaser data can be added either by providing the URL you got in the email you sent yourself, or by pasting the contents of the text file included with the email. I recommend the former, since it's very quick.
Where LT really shines is in the next step, since after identifying the ISBNs in the file, it gives you the option to assign a tag to all of the imported items, and/or to place them in specific book collections. Since I wanted to keep track of where my books were, I added the tag "home" or "office" to each import. I can easily change that tag if I move a book, or add a second tag if it's a book that I have in both locations. I could also have done this with collections, and I haven't decided yet which would be better, but doing the tags was the quickest and easiest approach to start.
Sharing Your Library
LT is designed primarily as a public sharing tool--by default, anyone and everyone can see your book collection. (Here's mine: www.librarything.com/catalog/mamamusings) You can create a private collection, but that's a bit cumbersome. Since the main purpose of using the site for me was to let colleagues, students, and friends know what books I have, that's actually a plus for me, but I know not everyone will feel that way.
At first, I wasn't very impressed with LT's group functionality, as it seems to be focused primarily on discussions rather than on a display of shared books, and the whole point of this was for colleagues and students to be able to browse my library. After playing around with it, however, I discovered that there's an option to search the libraries of all group members. There's also a "Group Zeitgeist" page that shows commonly-held books within the group. So, group search is excellent, but group browse is limited. Given a choice, I think the search is more important (but I'd love to have a richer browse function).
Where LT fails, however, is in making it possible to find and connect to your friends on the site. It turns out there is a "Friend Finder," but it's buried deep inside the site, under "Edit profile and settings." You'd think that would be available from the "Connections" area of the site, but it's not.
There's also no way that I could find to share a book to Facebook or Twitter. From the LT blog I discovered that if I review a book, I can choose to post that review to Facebook--but I don't want to have to post a public review in order to share a book with my friends. Some simple "share this" links on an individual book's page would be nice, so that I could post the book info or send it to someone via email.
GoodReads (GR) is the site that the majority of my Facebook friends seem to use for tracking books their currently reading or want to recommend. It's also the only one of the three with a native iPhone app, which is a useful addition for both scanning in new items and searching your own collection. If your primary goal is to organize your own books, and do some occasional sharing via social network sites, it's probably a good choice. GR is a prettier site than LT, with better layout and typography, and a smoother user experience. That's not a huge thing, but it does matter.
Like LT, GR allows you to sign up with your Facebook account, or create a local-only account. I used Facebook, because of my focus on wanting to share my library data. I was prompted to add my Facebook friends, but didn't want to spam them requests, so I didn't send a request. Nonetheless, I'm able to see what they're all reading from my home screen--which I actually think is a good thing, since it reduces the amount of social network recreation necessary. If I've linked my Facebook account, it probably means I want my FB friends to be able to see my books.
In the left sidebar menu of GR's "My Books" section there's an "Import/Export" link, which takes you to a page that allows you to upload a file or import from a web page. These work exactly like the LT options--you can use the RedLaser link, or upload a file from another library program or site. I was able to easily export my books from LT and import them into GR, and then add a few using RedLaser as a test.
Unlike the other two sites, however, GR has its own mobile app, which has built-in scanning capability. It's nearly as fast as RedLaser, and is just as accurate. As a bonus, it shows you the book name as you scan, even in multi-item scan mode. For a casual reader, that probably makes this a great choice.
The biggest problem for me with GR's import is that there was no way to assign a tag or collection to all items in the group import. That's a huge problem when I want to be able to easily indicate that an item is either at home or at work. If I add the books individually I can provide that, and it did maintain the tagging information from the LT import file, but books scanned in via my phone and batch imported would need to be individually edited.
Sharing Your Library
GR is great at letting you share an individual book, with other users, or with a group. The problem is, it's only good at letting you share individual books, and I couldn't find any way to share a full library (or even a subset of books from my library). To share my book collection with the RIT group, I would have to individually add each book. That's a deal-breaker. There's a simple batch editing option that allows me to move books to a new virtual shelf, but no way to share them with a group. It seems like it would be an obvious thing to add group bookshelves to the shelf list, but it's not there right now. The only way to add a book to the group bookshelf is to search for it from the group bookshelf page. When adding it, you must choose "read", "to-read", or "currently reading", which leads me to believe this group function is really optimized only for book reading groups who are reading specific books together.
Like LT, once connected to Facebook GR lets you share your reviews on the site. But again, there's no easy way to post a given book to your own wall. There is a "recommend" function that allows you post the book to someone else's wall or email it, although that won't let you share to a Facebook group (which would be better for my purposes).
So, from a sharing standpoint, GR really fails for me, and between that and the lack of tagging at import I had to reluctantly abandon it as an option at this time.
Shelfari is currently owned by Amazon, which has pluses and minuses. On the plus side, it already knows what books you've purchased. On the minus side...well, it already knows what books you've purchased, and you may be reluctant to continue to share ever more data about your media consumption with a vendor. Like GR, it has a more polished look-and-feel, but also suffers in the sharing department.
Because Shelfari (SH) is an Amazon property, you're prompted to sign in using your Amazon account. If you don't have one, you're prompted to create one. There's no way to login without an Amazon account. (If, like me, you had a Shelfari account before the Amazon takeover, it will detect matching email accounts and merge them.) There is an FB app, but it's confusing, because when you try to activate it you're told it no longer exists, but then it happily configures itself. More on that in the sharing section.
From any view of your SH profile, you can select the "Shelf" dropdown menu and choose "Import Books." You're given three options here--to import your Amazon purchase history (a bad choice, in my opinion, especially if like me, you regularly buy gifts for other people on Amazon), to import from a web page (which works with the RedLaser list page), or to import from a file (which works with a variety of sites and programs, and allowed me to import my library from LT).
Like GR, however, you have no option to tag or categorize the books in your import if you're bringing the books in from RedLaser. Tags are preserved if you're importing from LT, which is another reason to use tags rather than collections if you're importing your books into LT.
Sharing Your Library
SH's group functionality is very similar to GR's. You can't add a group of books--you can only add books individually to the bookshelf. On the plus side, you can add a book from your bookshelf directly to a group, but it still has to be done one book at a time, and you have to choose a designation of "We're Reading" or "We've Read" when you add it. (There's a "None" option, but it turns out that simply means "don't add it to the group.")
SH does, however, allow you share an individual book on your own wall/timeline, Twitter feed, or even your LinkedIn profile.
Once again, the lack of an easy way to share a shelf or collection of books with a group makes this not a viable option for my purposes.
There's clearly more that could be written about all of these sites, especially in terms of how the social components--reviews, ratings, presence in your friends' libraries--enhance the information available about a given book. Since this post is already over 3,000 words, however, I'll end it here. I hope you found it useful!