In Defense of Reading

Our friend Trevor Algatt sent this beautiful essay out to his mailing list. We're delighted that he gave us permission to share it with all of you through our blog. Over here at Book Jawn Podcast HQ, we've been thinking a lot about balancing reading, taking action towards a better world, and reflecting on how we use the knowledge we collect from the books we read (and how to be intentional about our reading choices). Trevor's essay resonated with all those themes.

Trevor is an actor and writer and maker of music, voiceover, and Inside Acting Podcast. He's a passionate vegan, and advocate for education on climate change and food politics. He's from Philly, like the cream cheese! So he he knows what the word "jawn" means. You can sign up for his mailing list if you'd like to keep up with his weekly reflections and recommendations for books, work outs, documentaries, and more.

I remember the first time I felt shame for being a lifelong reader.

It was maybe a decade ago. I was at a retail job, doing that unwelcome thing that people who don’t know any better do: I was giving unsolicited advice. I was talking at M, an overworked and underpaid guy in customer service—and a brand new, sleep-deprived dad. After a minute or two, he came back at me:

"Oh yeah? And what book did you read that in?"

He smiled and laughed and even apologized for the quip a minute later, but I was already in it: feeling that hot butter knife of shame. The ambush of a hard truth. I'd become a human printer.

Over the years, more than a few friends and peers have suggested that maybe, Trev, you read too much. That maybe, Trev, you should maybe spend less time with reading and more time doing—acting in and on the real world, instead. Take a risk. Do something different.

Still others have suggested that—reading? DO NOT APOLOGIZE FOR THAT. Ever. It’s among the most important things you can do. Stay the course. Restless curiosity is a virtue.

They’re both right.

On the one hand, yeah, reading and learning can be a compulsive trap—an easy way to escape, distract, and procrastinate. There is, after all, a good bit of safety in the world of words, in that untapped dimension of infinite potential, where fresh, opioid ideas funnel themselves into curious, impressionable minds. Reading is one of those super easy ways to appear noble and proactive while avoiding the actual Work of living and doing and being.

On the other hand, there are entire galaxies of possibility and history and wonder living in the world of books and literature, eagerly awaiting the next breath of a question. What would a culture be without books? Without stories? They’re the sum total of human experience, ready and willing, asking for only a small degree of compassion and priority in exchange for magic.

Of course, read too much and we turn into false prophets, helplessly regurgitating mashed potatoes of noise that nobody asked for. We become transparent souls, high on itinerant knowledge, and low on real-world risk. Fascinating only to ourselves.

Read too little, and we stiffen—collapse into a single dimension, responsive only to the limited scope of our own tiny experience. Deprivation by omission.

But somewhere between the two—between escape and education—we earn the right to reflect and report.

For me, reading time is sacred time. I make a concerted effort to spend 30 minutes or more with a good (or bad) book each day. Books are more than just thesis statements, entertainment, or information. They’re living arguments, and the mechanics of persuasion can be just as powerful as the content.

Or, to put it another way: the how of a book is just as essential as the book itself. Reading is the study of a messenger as much as it is of a message. It’s education via osmosis, because it demands participation—even when rooted in procrastination.

I'd even argue that the act of reading is self-discovery: an always-open invitation to consider ourselves anew, both as individuals in a Universe governed by Law, and as a collective in a Universe of mutual design.

In short, there are worse ways to spend your morning.

Maybe I’m writing you a blind letter here. Maybe my cognitive dissonance is on flagrant display. Because, sure, there are things in my life that I’d like to be different. There are things that I'm afraid to do the hard work of changing. Believe me, I’m aware of my shortcomings, my flaws, my unsupportive habits.

But on the same note, I’ve never felt motivated by the promise of money or mansions or cars or bikini-clad harems. Food, yes. Self-mastery? Absolutely. But wealth?

It depends on how you define wealth.

I often wonder, if M had said that to me—oh yeah? and what book did you read that in?—and I hadn’t read anything, in any book…

... what would this life be like instead?

 

Two Lady Book Club: An Update and Some Opinions

Hello, Sarah here. Remember when we used to blog on the regular? This is probably not a return to that, but it is an announcement of sorts. 

We've had all sorts of changes and upheaval over at Book Jawn HQ, with Grace moving and Ryan stepping in to fill her spot as co-host. We were talking about how we chose books for our two lady book club and what made other people want to read along. We talked about Twitter polls,  self-selection, and taking turns. They all have their merits, but ultimately because podcasting sometimes can feel like a pretty one-sided form of communication, we decided to maintain letting you guys decide via Twitter. 

However, we are super committed to creating a conversation around intersectionality. And we wanted to make sure that we were encouraging other people to read books about people unlike them. To step out of their comfort zone (their reading nook, as it were). 

There was a book club at Big Blue Marble called Women of the World run by the fantastic Maleka Fruean. I love the idea of highlighting an identity (be it racial, religious, sexual, national, etc) and letting people chose from a short list of books by women whose writing highlights it. 

Not only does it make us research and read responsibly, but it creates some follow up suggestions if you enjoy that month's selection. And it amplifies voices that often aren't by traditional publishing. 

So, this first month, we are choosing books by black women. We hope you'll vote and let us know what you'd like to see more of from us in the future. 

Respectfully, 

Sarah

(and Ryan and BookDog)

All Was Well: Therapeutic Techniques for PTSD in Harry Potter

The literature that resonates most deeply with people holds up a mirror to their experience. The struggle to rise above adversity isn't new, but J.K. Rowling offers a new take on an old theme. The titular character in the Harry Potter series is not only faced with the abuse and neglect of his family or the death of his parents, he also learns at age eleven that he is a wizard. The magical world has always known what Harry is just learning – that the dark wizard who killed his parents was allegedly destroyed when he attempted to murder Harry. Readers might not relate to the supernatural elements of the story, but good and evil take many forms. In the real world, trauma sometimes leaves scars as real as the lightning bolt on Harry's head. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is most often associated with war veterans, but can affect people who have experienced other disturbing situations as well. Harry Potter is a trauma survivor whose symptoms and salvation have real world allegories based in practical psychology. Harry's symptoms manifest in realistic ways and the things that affect his resilience are based in legitimate treatments for PTSD. While Rowling may not have intentionally created a trauma narrative, certainly her work was influenced by her own struggles with depression and anxiety, which are comorbidities of PTSD. Regardless of her intention, readers have identified with and found solace in a story not unlike their own.

fly.gif

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines PTSD as “the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor” (APA 462). The APA goes on to specify that PTSD requires both the experience of trauma and the subsequent feeling of fear (467). Harry's early life is profoundly affected by his parents being murdered. He

“had somehow survived a curse from the greatest Dark sorcerer of all time, Lord Voldemort, whose name most witches and wizards still feared to speak. Harry's parents had died in Voldemort's attack, but Harry had escaped with his lightning scar, and somehow - nobody understood why – Voldemort's powers has been destroyed in the instant he had failed to kill Harry. had been brought up by his dead mother's sister and her husband.

He had spent ten years with the Dursleys … believing the Dursleys' story that he had got his scar in the car crash that had killed his parents” (Chamber 4).

If the violence surrounding his parents' death weren't enough trauma, the Dursleys routinely neglect and abuse Harry owing to their fear of magic. Once Harry begins school at Hogwarts, it seems as though he will have a safe environment to grow and learn, but from his first year on, he is confronted with the threat of Voldemort's return. In his first year, while Harry is still reeling from the shock of learning that he is a wizard and trying to establish a baseline for what constitutes a magical norm, he is attacked again by Voldemort. And again in his second year, he faces Voldemort as well as a basilisk who shatters his arm with a fang. His third year is relatively calm, and the Dark Lord doesn't make an appearance. In Harry's fourth year, the narrative for the series shifts and he is faced with dragons and merpeople in the Triwizard Tournament after witnessing a show of loyalty by Voldemort's Death Eaters at the Quiddich World Cup. As he is poised to win the competition, he is whisked away by dark magic and watches his classmate be murdered and Voldemort return to power. This marks a change in the series in which death is a reality that Harry and his friends learn to deal with a part of life and war. Trauma, grief, and loss are a huge a part of Harry's story after this, and in subsequent books he loses a mentor and the only family member he's ever felt loved by.

 

The APA's diagnostic criteria specifies that the “traumatic event [must be] persistently re-experienced” through reoccurring thoughts, dreams, flashbacks or physiological or psychological distress when presented with triggers. There are hints of memories even before Harry goes to Hogwarts. He mentions dreaming about a flying motorcycle to the Dursleys in the first book, (which is, of course, Hagrid, delivering him to Little Whinging). Harry's primary triggers are, unsurprisingly dementors and the prior incantatum spell. Harry's first experience with dementors comes on the train back to school in the beginning of the third book. Dementors are the creatures that guard the wizard prison, Azkaban, and they have a horrific effect on everyone who encounters them:

"Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them... Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself... soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life” (Azkaban 187).

And they do. In the presence of a dementor, Harry hears his parents' final moments. It's awful, but it's complicated. In addition to fear, Harry feels “angry with himself, guilty about his secret desire to hear his parents voices again” (Azkaban 246). Fighting Voldemort after he has risen to full power again is a fresh new trauma that triggers a spell called prior incantatum when their wands meet. The ghosts of the last several people killed by Voldemort emerge from the tip of his wand, and in it Harry meets his parents, who guide him to the successful end of the deadly duel.

Another of the APA's symptoms is avoidance of stimuli and “persistent symptoms of increased arousal” (468) (such as anger, hypervigilance, or an exaggerated startle response). While Harry doesn't back away from conflict, he certainly doesn't seek it out. One of his most well recognized forms of stimuli is the ache in his scar that happens when Voldemort is present or active, and yet over the course of the series, he tries to hide this from the people in his life who care about him, lest they overreact. However, in Harry's fifth year, his anger comes to a head and manifests in shouting at his friends, “pouring out of him; his frustration at the lack of news, the hurt that they had all been together without him, his fury at being followed and not told about it. All the feelings he was half-ashamed of finally burst their boundaries” (Phoenix 65-6). At the end of term, following the death of his godfather, Harry flies into a rage at Dumbledore. He is unable to control his grief and anger and in a destructive fit, he breaks many of the items in the headmaster's office. Despite claiming not to care, Dumbledore is wise enough to recognize this emotional outburst for what it is, even if Harry does not, and explains that “You do care … You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it. …. You have now lost your mother, your father, and the closest thing to a parent you have ever known. Of course you care” (Phoenix 842).

While Harry has all of the symptoms of Post traumatic stress disorder, he also has a strong support network at Hogwarts. One of the primary treatments for PTSD is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The Mayo Clinic defines this technique as “work[ing] with a mental health counselor … in a structured way, attending a limited number of sessions. CBT helps [patients] become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so [they] can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way” (Mayo). If there was a more specific magical version of CBT than Lupin's anti-dementor lessons, it's hard to imagine what it might be. The idea was for Harry to be able to confront his fears with “the nearest [they'd] get to a real dementor. The boggart will turn into a dementor when he sees [Harry], so [they'd] be able to practice on him” (Azkaban 236). Eventually, Harry is able to produce a corporeal patronus “which is a kind of anti-dementor – a guardian that acts as a shield between you and the dementor” (237). Lupin isn't the only one who plays a theraputic role in Harry's life. Hermione and Ron both help Harry to deal with the trauma of being constantly attacked by Voldemort and his Death Eaters, as well as the long summers of abuse and neglect he endures from the Dursleys. No one is more of a mentor than Dumbledore, whose goal is always Harry's best interest. Even the things he does that put Harry in harm's way, he does for his own good. Every time Harry is forced to look death in the face, he debriefs with Dumbledore, despite being freshly devastated from a fresh new trauma. Dumbledore explains:

“It I thought I could help you … by putting you into an enchanted sleep and allowing you to postpone the moment when you would have to think about what has happened tonight, I would do it. But I know better. Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it. You have shown bravery beyond anything I could have expected of you. I ask you to demonstrate your courage one more time. I ask you to tell us what happened” (Goblet 695).

This, coupled with Dumbledore's willingness to allow Harry to fight his own battles, is a good example of exposure therapy, which the Mayo Clinic defines as contact with what a patient “find[s] frightening so that [they] can learn to cope with it effectively” (Mayo). Dumbledore states that even though Harry “met challenges even grown wizards have never faced” (Phoenix 838), he didn't tell Harry about the prophecy that would shape his life because he “cared about [Harry] too much … cared more for [his] happiness than [his] knowing the truth, more for [his] peace of mind than [Dumbledore's] plan, more for [Harry's] life than the lives that might be lost if the pain failed” (838). Despite this, allowing Harry's “struggling under more burdens s than any student who has ever passed through this school” (839).

Last, but certainly not least, Harry finds comfort and healing in recreation – something that more and more therapists, like Lynn Notesteine from Temple University. She says:

“Play therapy is a specialized area of practice and a way to relate to clients who are unable to verbalize their feelings. Because of this, therapy happens through play. It gets to the emotional functioning of children and that expression of emotion through play” (Getz).

quidditch-snitch.jpg

Harry quickly learns quiddich and wizard chess during his introduction to the wizarding world. His first real broomstick ride is as liberating for Harry as living with the Dursleys must have been restraining. It was effortless and joyful and “he realized he'd found something he could do without being taught – this was easy, this was wonderful. He pulled his broomstick up a little higher and heard screams and gasps of girls back on the ground and an admiring whoop from Ron” (Stone 148). Harry's aptitude for flying lands him on the house quiddich team, the youngest player in a century and a seeker, just like his father. Being part of a team is the antithesis of the marginalization he experienced in the home of his aunt, uncle, and cousins. Being celebrated for a natural talent is a welcome contrast to having been bullied at his muggle school by non-magical peers.

Quite a different example of play therapy is wizard's chess, which Harry learns from Ron over Christmas break at Hogwarts. The difference, Rowling explains wizard chess is “exactly like Muggle chess except that the figures were alive, which made it a lot like directing troops in battle” (Stone 199). As a novice, Harry “wasn't a very good player yet and [the pieces] kept shouting different bits of advice at him, which was confusing. 'Don't send me there, can't you see his knight? Send him, we can afford to lose him” (Stone 199). Like quiddich, Harry's chess lessons have a specific practical payoff when he and his friends are forced to play a real life game of chess on a giant board in order to stop Voldemort. After Ron sacrifices himself so that Harry can earn a checkmate “the white king took off his crown and threw it at Harry's feet. They had won. The chessmen parted and bowed, leaving the door ahead clear” (Stone 284). In the end, their sacrifice “for the best-played game of chess Hogwarts has seen in many years, [Dumbledore] award[s] Gryffindor House fifty points” (Stone 305).

The Harry Potter books have been hugely cathartic to people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Perhaps this is because writing them was so helpful to Rowling herself during times of emotional distress. The author lost her mother to multiple sclerosis at the age of forty five and channeled some of the longing of orphaned Harry into her writing (Adney 7). It might well have been her mother Rowling was thinking of when she had Dumbledore explain the Mirror of Erised, saying that “It shows us nothing more of less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you” (Stone 213).

If the Mirror weren't enough, Rowling also created thestrals as a way for her readers to identify with the grief and loss that becomes more and more common as the series progresses. Rowling describes them, through Harry's eyes as:

“ horses, although there was something reptilian about them, too. They were completely fleshless, their black coats clinging to their skeletons, of which every bone was visible. Their heads were dragonish, and their pupil-less eyes white and staring. Wings sprouted from each wither – vast black leathery wings that looked as though they ought to belong to giant bats. Standing still and quiet in the gloom, the creatures looked eerie and sinister. Harry could not understand why the coaches were being pulled by these horrible horses when they were quite capable of moving along by themselves)” (Phoenix 196-7).

thestral.jpg

Later during a Care of Magical Creature lesson, Hermione explains that “The only people who can see thestrals … are people who have seen death” (Phoenix 446), which explains why Harry is only able to see them in his fifth year, following the death of Cedric during the Triwizard Tournament.

Later, Rowling's apartment was robbed of all her mother's things, she lost her job, and moved to Portugal to teach English. There, she met and married Jorge Arantes after briefly dating and having a miscarriage. She gave birth to their daughter some time later. The pressure of parenthood and Arantes absence due to work caused a lot of tension in the marriage and mental distress for Rowling. “I simply felt like a nonperson. I was very low and I felt I had to achieve something” (Adney 8). Arantes evicted Rowling from their apartment after she told him that she was no longer in love with him. Things escalated quickly and Rowling required police intervention to return for her daughter and possessions. Unemployed, with no money or other resources, she returned to England to stay with family and find work. There, she famously worked on Harry Potter in cafes and college computer labs when possible. Through all of this, Rowling struggled with depression, suicidal thoughts, and feelings of worthlessness. She created dementors as a “way of showing depression through characters” (Adney 9). When Harry first encounters these horrors of the wizarding world, he's on the Hogwarts express headed for school. Rowling describes them as such:

“a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling. Its face was completely hidden beneath its hood. Harry's eyes darted downward and what he saw made his stomach contract. There was a hand protruding from the cloak and it was glistening, grayish, slimy-looking, and scabbed, like something that had decayed in water …
But it was visible only for a split second. As though the creature beneath the cloak sensed Harry's gaze, the hand was suddenly withdrawn into the folds of its black cloak.
And then the thing beneath the hood, whatever it was, drew a long, slow, rattling breath, as though it was trying to suck something more than air from its surroundings.
And intense cold swept over them all. Harry felt his own breath catch in his chest. The cold went deeper than his skin. It was inside his chest, it was inside his very heart ...” (Azkaban 83)

Even a boggart has this effect on Harry. Again, Rowling:

“A dementor rose slowly from the box, it's hooded face turned toward Harry, one glistening, scabbed hand gripping its cloak. The lamps around the classroom flickered and went out. The dementor stepped from the box and started to sweep silently toward Harry, drawing a deep rattling breath. A wave of piercing cold broke over him” (Azkaban 238).

As is true of mental health issues in general, dementors affect people in different ways. Lupin tells Harry that the “dementors affect [him] worse than the others because there are horrors in [Harry's] past that the others don't have” (Azkaban 187). Dudley, a muggle with an arguably blessed life, is unable to see the dementors when they attack he and Harry in Little Whinging, he is rendered speechless and left in a ball on the ground for Harry and Mrs. Figg to deliver back to the Dursleys. Later, Mrs. Figg is asked to testify on Harry's behalf and says that “everything went cold, and this was a very warm summer's night, mark you. And I felt … as though all happiness had gone from the world … and I remembered … terrible things” (Phoenix 145).

Most stories involve adversity. Regardless of genre or audience, stories are about overcoming obstacles and growing as humans. Harry Potter is challenged with not only the normal rites of passages of growing up, or with the abuse and neglect of his aunt and uncle, like non-magical humans might be. He is faced with dark magic, with the adjustment to a whole new society, and with the fresh hell of attempted murder over and over again. There's no question that a life that begins with loss and progresses with violent trauma is a landmine of emotion and horror. But with the help of his friends and mentors, Harry gains the needed tools and resources to dig deep within himself for the resilience and courage that marks him as a Gryffindor. His salvation was in the support of his friends and the magical community. He did great things, achieved overwhelming success and saved the wizarding world. But he didn't do it alone. His courage came from the people who loved him most – his triumph over adversity came because Dumbledore, Ron, and Hermione taught him that love was like a phoenix. It could be extinguished, but not killed. And in the end, for Harry, for Rowling, and for millions of readers … that has made all the difference.

Works Cited:

  • Adney, Karley, and Holly Hassel. Critical Companion To J. K. Rowling : A Literary Reference To Her Life And Work. New York: Facts on File, Inc, 2011. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 29 May 2016.
  • Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-5. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric, 2013. Print.
  • Getz, Lindsey. "The Power of Play Therapy." The Power of Play Therapy. Social Work Today, n.d. Web. 29 May 2016.
  • Mulholland, Neil. Psychology of Harry Potter : An Unauthorized Examination of the Boy Who Lived. Dallas, TX, USA: BenBella Books, 2007. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 20 April 2016.
  • "Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)." Post Traumatic Stress Disorder- Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, n.d. Web. 29 May 2016.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Book 1. Toronto: Scholastic, 1998. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Random House, 1999. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K., and Mary GrandPré. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 1999. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K., and Mary GrandPré. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York, NY: Scholastic, 2002. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K., and Mary GrandPré. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2003. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K., and Mary GrandPré. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2006. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K., and Mary GrandPré. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2007. Print.

List Jawn: Bill Schulz's Favorite Social Justice Books

We're starting a new series here on the Book Jawn blog, where we will be collecting themed book lists from creators and experts in fields that interest our community. We are so grateful that Bill Schulz took the time to send us the most influential social justice books throughout his life!

Currently Dr. Schulz is President and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in Cambridge, MA, and serves or has served as a consultant to a variety of foundations, including the MacArthur Foundation, UN Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, and Humanity United of the Omidyar Network. He is an Adjunct Professor of Public Administration at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service and an Affiliated Professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago. (Read more about his work on The Huffington Post). 
 

There are so many books that paved my way to a life in social justice that it has been hard to choose.  As a kid, books associated with the Civil Rights Movement took center stage, particularly MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me.  JFK’s Profiles In Courage also inspired me.  As I grew older, some of the following books became significant: 

Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society is the classic theological statement of our responsibility for the world around us:  not just to live a personally ethical life but to combat the inevitable moral corruption that besets conglomerations of humans formed into societies. 

Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity placed our obligations to shape history within the context of an existentialist understanding of freedom.  We can never know if we’re “right” but we have to act anyway. 

Marilyn French’s novel, Womens Room, opened my eyes to the experience of women and the need and promise of a feminist revolution. 

And Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed made the relationship between colonizer and colonized crystal clear and pointed to a way, a “pedagogy,” to undermine it—a way reflected, by the way, in much of UUSC’s work.

Thank you so much Dr. Schulz!

 

Missed Assignments: A Comprehensive List of Books I Have Not Read

by Grace Gordon

If you've been with Book Jawn Podcast from the beginning, you may know the much-referenced To Kill a Mockingbird story from our early meetings. In case you haven't been taking notes, here it is: Sarah and I were in one of our first planning sessions for the podcast, and we got on the subject of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. The publication of the book had just been announced, and Sarah was excited and nervous and asked me how I felt that this (prequel? sequel?) follow up to To Kill a Mockingbird was coming out more than fifty years later. 

"Well..." I stammered, looking for a way out of this discussion, "well, I actually haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird."  

Time seemed to stop as Sarah dropped her sandwich and looked at me in panic. I learned that this was one of the most important books for her growing up. She was so passionate about the book that she offered to hand deliver me a copy that night. (A sign of true bookish friendship.) I ended up listening to the audiobook, with a fantastic narration by Sissy Spacek, and within a few months To Kill a Mockingbird became one of my favorite books of all time too. Sarah and I also hosted my favorite bookstore event of all time together, a midnight release of Go Set a Watchman.

The experience made me think about all of the classics I have never read, which is most of them. I have been working in bookstores since I was fifteen, and I have always been a voracious reader, but never when it came to "classics". Perhaps this is because I dropped out in what would have been my junior year of high school, because I was acting and modeling and I have rejected traditional schooling my entire life.

I grew up with phenomenal teachers. I had teachers who created independent studies for me so I could translate Octavio Paz or read contemporary world literature for credit, teachers who supported me and engaged with me about whatever I wanted to read. My parents spent countless nights of my childhood and teens bringing me to midnight book releases, wizard rock shows, and Shakespeare rehearsals. My godmother gave me the 814 page copy of The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan when I was nine. All of this support and flexibility was not enough to keep me in school, and I am glad I did not stay. Regardless, my commitment to "self-education" is largely due to these adults who raised me and let me make decisions for myself, like what I wanted to read. 

Having worked in bookstores for years, I notice that customers can make assumptions in extremes. Either they believe that because I am a bookseller I have read every book ever published, or they think that because I am a young woman I must have no interest in reading anything at all. Both of these assumptions are wildly untrue, but reading To Kill a Mockingbird made me realize that perhaps some of these classic books were worth braving my distrust of anything assigned in a normal high school classroom.

So I begin my confession, my list of famous and celebrated books I have not read. Some of these I will read, and when I do I will note their completion on this post. I'm excited to dive in, but I am also posting this as a retrospective on assumptions we make about strangers. You never know what someone likes or what they've read, until you read their lengthy diatribe on their blog!

No, I haven't read:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkein (I read the Hobbit)

Animal Farm by George Orwell

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Dune by Frank Herbert

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

A Song of Ice and Fire (series) by George RR Martin

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov 

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

 

What classics have you never read?

To Grace, from Sarah. Merry Christmas!

Once upon a time in a land called Philadelphia lived a benevolent princess named Grace. She was kind to all humans and animals and had a grand vision of building a brighter, more empathetic future through art.

One year, just before Christmas, Grace and her friends began noticing a trend of internet based harassment from troll ass dudes. “This will not do!” She said, and put on the magical Santa suit that bestowed magical powers to the wearer. And then she took to the streets to shake down some sources.

First, she asked Jerkface McPoopypants, a low level programmer who ran the local MRA subreddit. He didn’t want to talk but she used her most powerful weapons to change his mind.

punch.gif

Eventually he stopped crying and spilled the beans. He wept openly, despite her disgust and said that he’d do anything she asked if she just wouldn’t beat him up anymore. She said that if he changed his ways, she wouldn’t have any reason to pay him another visit.

He agreed and confessed that he didn’t know anything about higher level crimes but his brother, Josh, could use science to help. She took his digits and went to the address McPoopypants had given her. She was surprised to find that Josh was none other than Josh Hutcherson. Josh invited Grace in, cooked a meal for her and confessed to be working on a device that could zero in on the misogynist thoughts and intentions of evildoers.  It traced internet connections with racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, abilist or otherwise bigoted activity.

“Whoa.” Grace said, gobsmacked. “You’ve put a lot of thought into this.”

Josh shrugged. “Well, yeah. Obviously. Feminism is nothing without intersectionality.”

He smiled at her. She smiled back. “Should we get to it?”

“Hell yeah.”

They turned the machine on. After a brief warm-up period, the device roared to action.

“Wait, what is this?” Grace asked.

“Oh, it also makes pretzels. I just really love pretzels.” Josh said.

Half an hour later, they had an address. “Do you wanna drive or should I?” Josh asked, throwing on a coat. 

"You drive." Grace said, and sat in the back. 

"Um. You can ride up here if you want?"

"I know. I just don't want to. Drive!" She snapped her fingers, and Josh swooned. 

When they got to the address, Josh started to knock. 

"Um, no. Let's not." Grace said, and opened the door. "We have the element of surprise on our side. Let's use it."

Josh nodded. "Oh, that's a way better idea. You're so smart!"

"And you're pretty." Grace patted him, gently. Josh beamed. 

They stalked silently through the rooms of the sterile looking mansion until they got to a room that was humming with computer activity. 

In front of a wall of computers sat a lone figure in an office chair. He turned slowly to reveal none other than Miles Teller. 

"I should have known!" Grace exclaimed. 

"Known what?" 

"That you were behind all of this internet bullying."

"Oh, please. You pansies need to toughen up. I'm just trying to have a good time."

"And THAT'S how you have fun? Not cool, bro. Not cool." Josh said, and knocked a computer off the desk. 

"Go ahead. I've got hundreds of computers. And better still, I've got a plan to keep all women off the internet forever." 

"Not on my watch." Grace roared, and Miles saw the angry fire in her eyes. He stood up, looked her in the eye, and then ran like a coward down one of the hallways. Grace and Josh were hot on his heels before Grace whipped around. 

"I'll get Teller. You shut down his systems."

Josh nodded. "Anything you want."

Miles made it to a room and locked Grace out, but she grabbed a golf club and started banging her way through the wall. "You can't hide."

As she burst through the wall, he stood up, his head connecting with the golf club's arc. He fell, dead weight to the floor in front of her. 

"Oh, shit." She said. "That wasn't really how I saw all this going down." 

Grace bent down to check his pulse, felt that it was slow but steady, and stood back up. Josh came through the hole in the wall. He looked at Miles's prone body on the floor and then at Grace. 

"Oh crap. Is he dead?"

"No, just knocked out. Did you take care of his computers?"

Josh grinned modestly. "I uh ... I changed his settings to automatically comment with pictures of baby animals where he would have otherwise spewed hate and negativity." 

Grace hugged him. "That's brilliant!"

Josh blushed. "I'm pretty AND smart!"

Grace laughed. "What should we do about this douche?"

"I have an idea." Josh said. "I know someone who can help." 

"Great. I've got a podcast to do." Grace replied. "I'll check in later." 

A couple of hours later, Grace came back with pizza. She made her way through MIles's house and found Josh standing outside of a door. 

"What's up?" She asked.

"We'll know in just a minute." They ate pizza in silence for a few minutes and when the door opened, Beyonce exited in a cloud of smoke. 

"WHOA." Grace said. "Bey? What are you doing here?" 

"I just installed an electronic device that will zap Teller if he even THINKS about harassing anyone ever again?"

"Are you a surgeon?"

"Yeah, it's just a hobby I do sometimes when I'm not on tour."

"That's so fucking cool." 

"Yeah, I know." Beyonce and Grace high-fived, and Bey grabbed a slice of pizza. "What do you wanna do now?" 

"Let's go for Franzen and Carter next." 

"Cool." Beyonce said. She nodded at Josh. "You hang out here for a couple of days and do the emotional unpaid labor of taking care of this fool."

Josh nodded. "Of COURSE. It's the least I can do." 

He blushed. "Grace ... will you call me sometime?" 

Grace shrugged. "We'll see."

He walked them to the car. And as they drove out of sight, Beyonce sang out the window: 

"Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night."

And they all lived happily ever after. 


What Makes Fiction Feminist?

(by Sarah)

Grace and I have been talking about feminism for as long as we’ve known one another. Weirdly, we didn’t apply it to books until recently. Even after we started this podcast, the idea to apply one of the founding principles by which we both live to this project that we both put a lot of time and energy into, didn’t occur to us. I can’t remember how it happened, but here we are.

Here we are, in coffee shops, and in the car, and hunched over our respective laptops at my kitchen table. Here we are talking, endlessly about what makes fiction feminist. Can dudes write feminist fiction? Can a character in a book be feminist even if the book doesn’t have a feminist plot or theme?

Here we are, having spirited debates about intersectionality and tokenism and appropriation. Here we are, texting one another into the wee hours of the morning about books and movies and advertising that makes us angry.

And here we are talking about the bookstore we worked at and how often we were talked down to and patronized by anarchist bros who clearly knew more about street harassment and slut shaming then we could ever gather from, y’know, firsthand experience.

And here we are. Making a podcast about the two things I love most in the world: books and feminism. I don’t think there is a comprehensive checklist about what makes a book feminist. Even books that are part of a broadly accepted canon of feminist lit are sometimes problematic because of their lack of diversity or inclusiveness. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list by any means. One of the great things about feminism is that it is broad enough to include all of us.

What (I think) makes a novel feminist:  

- Passes the Bedshel-Wallace Test 

This should be a given. There should be more than two  female-identified characters in a feminist novel. They should have names and talk to each other about something besides a man. This is a really bare minimum. 

- Sex positive

No slut-shaming or victim-blaming. No abortion remorse or invalidating of sexual identities or decisions. Or if so, there needs to be an overall point that is ultimately empowering to a female identified character in the book. 

- Not sexist, racist, homophobic, abilist, transphobic, ageist, etc.

Characters in books can be bigots. Sometimes they start out as bigots and grow as people. Sometimes bigots make convenient bad guys. Overall, the message of a feminist book should not elevate any form of discrimination.  

- It has to be a good ass book.

Because fuck sacrificing quality for representation. Fact or fiction, our stories matter in complicated, nuanced, important ways. 

- Romance isn’t anti-feminist.

Love is something we all think about and (I hope) experience. So is heartbreak. Romance as a genre gets a bad rap because the primary audience is women. A book can be commercial and not literary and still be totally valid and important to a lot of people. A heroine who waits to be rescued and is helpless without the help of a hero is bullshit though. See: most fairy tales, Twilight, my worst nightmares.  

- Representation.

There should be at least as many capable female main characters as there are male main character. They should not be entirely homogenous: white, straight, cis, able-bodied people.  There's a thin line between representation and tokenization, though. One person of color, one disabled character, or one queer character doesn't suddenly make a book diverse. Especially if that character could be replaced by an inanimate object with no impact on the story. 

Because I'm not pretending to have a definitive answer, I asked my friends, some of the kindest and most brilliant people I know, what defined feminist fiction to them. This is what a few people had to say: 

"1. A novel that directly addresses or espouses feminist views & concepts
2. A novel that is a product of feminism
Example for #1 might be Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, that is satire and has characters dealing with Feminist(TM) issues (beauty standards, queer identities, sex positivity & safety, racialized femininity, etc). 
Example for #2 might be The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne, which features very prominent, diverse, and complex cast of female and trans women characters. That, in itself, is a goal of feminism--to get books with characters like that, even if the characters themselves are deeply flawed, are not role models in any sense, and do some seriously shitty things and unfeminist things."
-Moose Lane
"One of two things: highlighting and contradicting misogynistic stereotypes and societal perceptions, and/or positing a social order that has destroyed or does not contain those things."
-Aus, founder of The Wheelhouse
"I like a book that brings you into the world through a strong female voice, shows a female perspective and issues women deal with like My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki. The main character gives a first person narrative. There is a lot of contrast between the main character who is a career woman and a battered housewife. The book deals with sexual stereotyping and job discrimination."
-Shellie, Chicago
"A deep exploration of how social gender roles have shaped persons into male and female and the costs of that to personhood. Also, I didn't at all mind how British novelist Anna Livia wrote a novel about a group of women in which all of the men where named John: John Busdriver, John Boyfriend, etc."
Elliott, Philadelphia

Again, this is a long conversation with priorities that are constantly changing and with opinions as different as the all encompassing. What defines fiction as specifically feminist for you? 

 

TV I Am Reading: Episode One

(by Grace Gordon)

If you've listened to a couple episodes of our podcast, or you've met me in real life, you probably know how much I love television. From  Gilmore Girls to True Detective, I love watching TV shows. There is something special about devoting yourself to a full season (or more than one) of character development, extended plot lines, mysteries, and drama. My attachment to movie characters can rarely rival my attachment to TV characters......

....Similar to how I feel about book characters.. So, thanks to Sarah's recommendation, I am here to tell you about the books that started some of my favorite TV shows.

1. Daredevil (Netflix Original Series)

Stream instantly on Netflix!

Order your copy of Daredevil: Born Again by Frank Miller.

I started this show months after it was released, and I was so enthralled I kept posting online about it. "Talk to me about Daredevil!" "Why hadn't I watched this til now?" "Where can I learn to box?" Most of my friends agreed that I was a little late to the party. To be fair, all of us are late to this Daredevil party, because this comic has been out forever. I went to Atomic City Comics and had a lovely staff member show me where to start in the comics. See above for a link to Daredevil: Born Again by Frank Miller.

2. The 100 (The CW)

Stream Season 1 on Netflix!

Order your copy of The 100 by Kass Morgan.

I think The 100 was one of those random TV shows I started on Netflix, uninspired with my options one late night. That was one of the best accidents of my TV watching career. This show starts off lukewarm: 100 teen criminals are sent down from the last remaining space station to see if post-apocalyptic radioactive earth is inhabitable, because the space station is running out of oxygen, and these teens have broken Space Laws and are therefore "expendable".  (Why teens? Why not adult criminals? Well, because if you commit a Space Crime and you're over 18, you are immediately executed.)

There is need for suspension of disbelief here. But after a few episodes of world building, and characters getting more multidimensional, and was that a f**king two-headed deer that just walked by, the viewer is hooked. This show is special. The actors on the show get progressively more fantastic, and invested. The story becomes so complex and emotional that you forget why you ever doubted it. The thing is, the story isn't about science fiction special effects, or teen romance, it is about survival. It is about sacrifice, leadership, and the reprehensible decisions the characters have to make to protect their people.  Oh, and the lead characters are hugely compromised of women: a woman doctor, women battle commanders, a girl who lived UNDER THE FLOOR til age 16 because of the 1 Child Per Family Space Law, and Clarke, our leading lady, who was the good girl thrown into jail for trying to release Space Government secrets that would have lead to the death of the rest of the human race.

So why read the books? The 100 trilogy by Kass Morgan (The 100, Day 21, and Homecoming) is completely worth the read if you are addicted to the first two seasons of the show like I am. They are worth the read because they are completely different. Kass Morgan's book was optioned for a TV series before is was published. Which means that, although many characters and the basic plot premise is the same....the story itself is surprisingly different than the show's. 

3. The Leftovers (HBO)

Available on HBO Go or HBO now.

Order your copy of The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta. 

Full disclosure: I have not finished this book yet. I'm about halfway through. The first season of HBO's series took the TV community by storm. Season 2 released in October! 

If you don't know what the story is about, it starts three years after one day, suddenly, ~3% of the world's population disappears. Not "goes missing". They just vanish. Was it the rapture? Why were those people chosen to disappear? The story follows Kevin Garvey, (Police Chief of Mapleton, NY in the show, and mayor in the book) as he picks up the pieces of a broken town, a broken family, and a broken world with no answers. This show also features some creepy cults, Christopher Eccleston (the 9th Doctor) as a slightly insane, depressed church pastor with the best intentions, and some really great scenes with weird/uncomfortable sexual content.

Up Next in TV I Am Reading:

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. (TV miniseries by BBC Two)