Sunday, April 21, 2013

Reading between the lines

Maybe we don’t all judge books by their covers, but we do judge them by their dust covers where reviews are commonly printed. In the same way most of us would be reticent to try a restaurant without Yelp reviews, most of us would never dream of a foray into the unknown territory of a reviewless book. In fact, we probably wouldn’t even know most books existed if not for the reviews they receive upon publication, and for a lucky few, when they are chosen for national book clubs, like Oprah's. Reviews serve as not only a guide for readers, but also for book buyers and librarians to stock their shelves.  And those reviews can determine how a book is received, viewed, and read by audiences. But ultimately, how a book is reviewed (or not reviewed at all), carries a deeper meaning for readers who will judge and validate their own choices based on the opinions of very few at the top of the reading chain.

In the summer of 2010, authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner took book reviewers to task for their seemingly unanimous praise of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.  Both writers who have been derided as “commercial” and “chick lit” authors, spoke against literary reviewers in the New York Times over book selections and critiques. Picoult tweeted “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”  While these claims are not completely supported (the New York Times has given credence to female authors in the past), there is cause for concern. 

Oprah loves Jonathan Franzen but he dissed the initial invitation to O's book club saying the he wanted to reach a male audience...

VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts created infographics depicting the number of women-authored books reviewed as compared to men’s and the numbers of reviewers by gender. The charts are striking. And so are the implications. If a book’s reviews measure its acceptability, then there is something wrong with a system in which on average, women represent less than 25% of the literary pool as both authors and reviewers. The New Republic highlighted similar results:

            “The numbers are startling. At Harper’s, there were 27 male book reviewers and six female; about 69 percent of the books reviewed were by male authors. At the London Review of Books, men wrote 78 percent of the reviews and 74 percent of the books reviewed. Men made up 84 percent of the reviewers for The New York Review of Books and authored 83 percent of the books reviewed. TNR, I’m sorry to say, did not  compare well: Of the 62 writers who wrote about books for us last year, only 13 (or 21   percent) were women. We reviewed a total of 64 books, nine of them by         women  (14.5    percent). “We know women write,” poet Amy King writes on the VIDA website. “We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity.” – The New Republic


Reviews drive the perception of a book, but what drives book reviews?  It is from four main sources that books are even considered for review in a prestigious publication like Harper’s or the New York Review of Books. Kirkus ReviewsLibrary Journal, and Booklist all drive mainstream book reviews through their summaries of titles. It is within these one paragraph descriptions of books that reviewers from mainstream sources take their cue.  These summaries also offer reviewers’ opinions about the books. And those opinions matter. A "starred"review in PW still increases a book'schance of getting media coverage and showing up in your neighborhood bookstore.  Unlike mainstream book reviewers, these reviewers are anonymous and sources from these publications say that they are academics, librarians, and subject specialists in the field. The subscriptions to these publications also cost much more than typical magazines that offer book reviews (between $100 and $450 per year). These anonymous reviews give popular reviewers a context with which to frame a book as it is being read. This influences ideas about genre, audience, and literary merit.

When it comes to mainstream book reviews - genre, authorship, and the reviewers themselves are elements that need to be taken into consideration.  In a heavily male-dominated arena that values “literary merit” over genre fiction (such as science fiction, romance, mysteries, etc.), reviews leave many books out of the running.  What we need to remember is that classic authors such as Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, and Jane Austen were all considered genre writers at some point before becoming mainstream literary icons and that our biases towards genres are created by book reviews.  By not reviewing books that are considered genre pieces, especially novels about relationships authored by women that are often tossed into the romance pile, we as readers are missing out on plenty of books.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Rehab Through Reading: The Power of Prison Libraries

"New York is shelving its prison law libraries," reported the Wall Street Journal this week as the New York Prison Commission is allowing county-run prisons to discontinue libraries.  Many don't consider prison libraries to be a necessity, and neither does the Supreme Court - in the 1990s the court ruled that prisoners do not have a "freestanding right to a law library."  And while this might sound like nothing for the general public to feel concern over, we should remember that prisoners are serving a penalty of time in a system meant to rehabilitate them and eventually release them back into society.  We should want the people who have served time in jail to be as fully capable to become law-abiding citizens as possible. Education is a powerful tool - it alleviates ignorance and opens up the mind. And in prisons, the only access to education is through libraries. There might be televisions, but there is no internet access and little contact with the outside. Books are the primary tools for self-education.

"Prison is a bare-bones world of isolation. Other than occasional calls home, letters and family visits, the prisoner is totally separated from the world outside the walls. There is little to distinguish one day from the next. World events become foreign and remote because the prisoner is so disconnected that prison itself becomes their world, their universe. There is little or no rehabilitation or education available to a prisoner. There are no incentives for bettering yourself. The prisoner is warehoused in a mind numbing world of sensory deprivation until his/her sentence is up, then cast back into society, often ill prepared." -Submitted by John Evans, Bostick State Prison, Georgia via Prison Book Program Blog.

Most prisons do have libraries, and besides legal materials, these libraries also stock fiction and non-fiction books, including educational materials (such as how to obtain a GED), and these materials are usually donated from public libraries. Earlier this year in a class on collection development in libraries, employees of the Prison Library Project spoke about their experiences with books in libraries. Two of the members had been incarcerated and described reading as a means of education, connection with others (through book clubs), and maintaining sanity while in prison. Their testimonies reminded me that prisoners are human. Learning and stimulation are human needs that books can meet.

Books are often used in juvenile detention centers to engage young people and hopefully transform their lives.  Books Beyond Bars is a project out of UCLA that donates books to a juvenile detention center and conducts weekly book discussions with the teenagers living there. While it might be more socially acceptable to rehabilitate children who have committed crimes through literature and education, the power to transform is not lost on adults.

Probably the most famous prisoner to ever turn his life around through reading is Malcom X.  But almost anyone who has ever read a great book knows the power of words to transport, engage, and shed light on dark corners of the psyche. If books can change people, they can certainly change prisoners. And those in government know this.  Public libraries receive funding because they are deemed important by taxpayers.  One City One Book programs have sprung up across the country because there is  power in literature that can bridge divides among people and communities. State-funded Early Literacy Task Forces are dedicated to ensuring all children's intellectual access to reading. We know that this is important. We know that reading changes lives. So why withhold this from prisoners?  If the goal of incarceration is to reacclimate prisoners to society, shouldn't we care that there are at least resources available to encourage learning and growth?

Aside from the fact that prisoners have rights to legal counsel, (whether that is accomplished through a library or not) when they are released the rest of society has a right to live among other law-abiding citizens. Producing better people from correctional facilities should be a priority so that cycles of crime and violence don't continue. I love books enough to believe that this is possible through reading and learning. And not just the classics - even completely meritless books by literary standards can offer people a glimpse into their own lives or a fantasy, can allow a reader to see patterns in typical story lines and characters, and can build confidence in the reader if perhaps she has not read a book in years. Reading changes people in one way or another. Words are powerful and they can set us free.

Four walls can never hold me in
They are physical, like bone and skin
The body trapped behind this wall
cannot contain my soul at all
Imagination sets me free
Beyond the fence that surrounds me.
No bricks can ever stop my mind.
No bars can keep my thoughts confined
I can go deep inside myself
Like a dusty book on a shelf
Another world exists inside
My heart is free – I am outside!

-Submitted by Michael E. Heller, Pinckneyville Correction Center, Illinois via Prison Book Program Blog