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1 week ago
Would we ever call it “readable” fiction?by Sarah Statz Cords
Recently a discussion on Fiction-L centered on a poster’s desire to create a display of “readable nonfiction” titles. It made my heart glad to see that numerous people responded to the question with a number of great nonfiction title suggestions. But I’d be lying if the chosen title of the display didn’t rankle me just a bit.
Now, it is no secret to anyone who knows me that I am a diehard nonfiction reader. I read novels too, but they’re a much tougher sell; if, on the other hand, you start a sentence with something like “Hey, I read a great biography the other day…” or “Have you seen this new science book…” you can be sure I’m listening and will most likely add that book to my TBR pile, regardless of subject.
So every time I see the words “readable” or “narrative” in discussions of nonfiction, I feel a bit sad about all of the nuances of nonfiction types and genres that are being missed. To some extent I understand the use of the terms; when dealing with nonfiction, library staff often feel compelled to make distinctions between NF titles that are used almost exclusively for informational purposes and those that can be read more recreationally or, arguably, more as a “story.” But I would submit that most of the “informational” types of NF have their own names: cookbooks. Baby name books. Car repair manuals. Decorating books. Self-Help.
The problem I have with “readable” and “narrative” is not that they are inaccurate labels. Rather, it is that they are so broad as to be useless, and they obscure the glory and variety of nonfiction titles. The Fiction-L list of readable nonfiction titles will be an interesting one–but it may not be a very unified list (I don’t know, for example, that I would suggest Erik Larson’s true-crime history Devil in the White City to the same reader who might enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-discovery memoir Eat, Pray, Love–and they were both on the list).
As previously noted: I’m completely biased (as only a person who has written two nonfiction reader’s guides can be). I also take my nonfiction way too seriously. As Albert Brooks once said in the wonderful movie Broadcast News, “I grant you everything.” But these are my questions: How can we become more comfortable thinking about NF in terms of both subject areas AND genres (or interest categories, which is what bookstores use)? How can we learn about and promote more specific types of nonfiction? What tools do you currently use to learn about nonfiction titles and their peculiarities? These are the things I want to know–because I think there’s a world of biographies, memoirs, women’s nonfiction, true crime, adventure, science, “big think” (like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point), “year in the life,” and foodie titles out there–they’re all readable, and they all deserve displays of their own.
A guilty pleasure is something one enjoys and considers pleasurable despite feeling guilt for enjoying it. Often, the "guilt" involved is simply fear of others discovering one's lowbrow or otherwise embarrassing tastes, rather than actual moral guilt. Fashion, music, and food (especially unhealthier foods high in sugar and/or fat) can be examples of guilty pleasuresA true Readers' Advisor must resist this notion of some books being "better" than others because our entire profession revolves around the fact that reading anything has intrinsic value. RAs are non-judgmental. We need to treat the reader who only wants James Patterson titles the same as the one who only reads Tolstoy. They are equal patrons simply because they want to read something that they will enjoy. Our goal is to match readers with THEIR next good read, not OUR next good read. I have an entire lecture prepared on just this topic, but I will stop here for now.
Committed to a quiet life in little Enniscorthy, Ireland, the industrious young Eilis Lacey reluctantly finds herself swept up in an unplanned adventure to America, engineered by the family priest and her glamorous, "ready for life" sister, Rose. Eilis's determination to embrace the spirit of the journey despite her trepidation--especially on behalf of Rose, who has sacrificed her own chance of leaving--makes a bittersweet center for Brooklyn. Colm Tóibín's spare portrayal of this contemplative girl is achingly lovely, and every sentence rings with truth. Readers will find themselves swept across the Atlantic with Eilis to a boarding house in Brooklyn where she painstakingly adapts to a new life, reinventing herself and her surroundings in the letters she writes home. Just as she begins to settle in with the help of a new love, tragedy calls her home to Enniscorthy, and her separate lives suddenly and painfully merge into one. Tóibín's haunted heroine glows on the page, unforgettably and lovingly rendered, and her story reflects the lives of so many others exiled from home.Overall, I was disappointed in this book. I felt like it was all surface. Everything was laid out for you; there was no ambiguity. Quite honestly, I was shocked by how well it has been reviewed. I was also quite worried that we would have nothing to discuss. Thankfully I wrong on that front.
Earlier this month, we found out two iconic (in very different ways) literary works were being given the graphic-novel treatment. Sea Lion Books announced their interpretation of Paulo Coelho’s spiritual journey The Alchemist, featuring art by Daniel Sampere. Then, last week, the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam announced they will be creating an illustrated version Frank’s famous diary, with Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon (the duo behind the graphic novel of the 9/11 commission report) at the helm. And prior to his death this week, one of the great Harvey Pekar’s last projects was a graphic-novel adaptation of Studs Terkel’s working-class gem Working.So in the spirit of "if you can't beat them, join them.," Paste Magazine continued this article by noting "Eight Literary Works That Deserve a Graphic Novel Treatment."