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The Baby-Sitters Club makes a strong case for unionization

Kristy’s Great Idea, by Ann M. Martin Scholastic

Slow news week, huh? If you have questions about the health care bill that just passed the House, I will direct you here, here, and here. If, however, you would like to take some time off and think about books instead, you are in luck. Here is the best writing the internet has to offer on books and related subjects for the week of April 30, 2017.

At the time of our union vote, Stacey needed to fund a new perm, Claudia had to stock up on marzipan dollhouse furniture to turn into earrings (she has two holes in one ear and one in the other), and Dawn wanted to buy some clothing that reflected the fact that she is an individual, such as a chambray shirt.

We’re doing something that publishers used to do. We get a lot of credit for being very edgy, state-of-the-art, digital hipsters, and I feel like we’re just doing something that all the great, famous American publishing houses did at their beginnings, when they were all privately owned companies. When Random House was owned by Bennett Cerf, when Knopf was owned by Alfred A. Knopf, when Simon & Schuster was owned by two guys named Simon and Schuster. Now those companies are completely different, they’re conglomerates and they have to be more concerned with their bottom line.

Literature certainly reflects the preoccupations of its time, but there is evidence that it may also reshape the minds of readers in unexpected ways. Stories that vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences may sharpen readers’ general abilities to imagine the minds of others. If that’s the case, the historical shift in literature from just-the-facts narration to the tracing of mental peregrinations may have had an unintended side effect: helping to train precisely the skills that people needed to function in societies that were becoming more socially complex and ambiguous.

Gradually, it occurred to me that I was instead watching a seven-hour-long orgy of violence against women—promoted and marketed as high-minded, politically astute popular entertainment. In what sense is it “feminist” to provide viewers with a glossy, sensationalized portrayal of women’s deepest anxieties and paranoias? What exactly is feminist about seeing women insulted, raped, humiliated, disfigured, beaten, tasered, tortured—and subjected to the sadistic whims of other women? If this is feminism, then so is girl-on-girl mud wrestling, or vintage prison films like Women Behind Bars.

By novel’s end, Houellebecq has his protagonist convert to Islam and his reader entrapped into sympathizing with an author who once declared Islam to be “the stupidest” of all faiths. All of this is accomplished with great subtlety, a product no doubt of the mastery which garnered Houellebecq the Prix-Goncourt for a different book a few years earlier. Submission did not win that top literary prize, but in its pages lie the clues of how art can hasten a macabre moral shift, legitimate prejudice, and mask the tyranny a majority can enact on a minority.

In terms of practical application, I think about book covers the exact same way I think about branding. In fact, something I’ve come to learn over the course of my career is that a book cover is a brand. In both cases, you’re working with the formal elements of image and typography in order to transmit a message and spark someone’s imagination. Before you read a title, you see the title. Typography carries tone. It carries the heartbeat of the book. The imagery, or lack of imagery, captures your imagination. It helps create a setting. It helps enforce the style. It works together with the typography to draw a portrait of the world between the covers.

What’s always struck me as weird is that not that long ago, there was a lot of rhetoric around the Internet as an instrument of peace, and if not as peace, then the expansion of human rights. But the thing is, basically it was built as a weapon. It was built by the Department of Defense to facilitate communication in the event of a war, to have this really decentralized network that allowed you to launch weapons. I think something about the decision in how that architecture was designed has really facilitated the moment that we’re in now. I tend to think that technology never escapes its genesis, and those engineering decisions made in response to the ideologies of the creators just persist.

I thought Brave New World was super fucked up. Sure, there’s fascinating stuff for a bright young reader: the conflict of freedom v. happiness, the social and scientific ethics of a genetically engineered caste system (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon). There is also vivid description of a racist porno, naked kids trained in “erotic play,” state-mandated casual sex, and frequent reminders of how sexworthy and “pneumatic” the main female character is. She has literally no other personality feature. Maybe there are twelve-year-olds who are ripe for a good psychosexual dystopian satire. But being twelve is its own psychosexual dystopian satire, and I was not in on the joke.

Happy reading!

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