clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The children’s librarian who hated Goodnight Moon

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

The moon rising behind the Empire State Building, January 12, 2020.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of January 12, 2020.

To a large extent, book publishers have themselves to blame. Despite arguing that they provided necessary intangibles to the book-publishing process, they have spent the last decade gutting their marketing and editorial departments. It is increasingly common for publishers to work with freelance editors, many of whom recently left or were pushed out of prestige imprints, on projects. The layoffs were a cost-cutting move as conglomerate publishers consolidated imprints, but it has inadvertently leveled the playing field. Dean Koontz no longer has to go to a big publisher to have his needs met; Amazon and Bantam, his former publisher, are drawing from the same talent pool.

Not to think about literature evaluatively is not to think like a writer—it cuts literature off from the instincts and ambitions of the very people who created it. But to think only in terms of evaluation, in terms of craft and technique—to think only of literature as a settled achievement—favors those categories at the expense of many different kinds of reading (chiefly, the great interest of reading literature as an always unsettled achievement). To read only suspiciously (Stakes¹) is to risk becoming a cynical detective of the word; to read only evaluatively (Stakes²) is to risk becoming a naïf of meaning, a connoisseur of local effects, someone who brings the standards of a professional guild to bear on the wide, unprofessional drama of meaning.

The Didion comparison irks me mostly for how boringly lazy it is, especially when it is used by writers, whose job is presumably to write original thoughts composed of original words. The work of a young female writer may indeed resemble Didion’s in that she is also women whose work involves observation, analysis, and sentences, but there is little depth to the comparison beyond that. Haley Mlotek neatly summed this up in a 2015 Awl article: “Joan Didion is a living stereotype and I only mean that in the most literal definition of the term: Joan Didion functions as a mental shortcut. Joan Didion requires very little explanation to a very large group of people, representing a class of consumers who tend to be young, female, upper middle class, white, and somewhat inwardly tortured.”

Gilbert represents the fantasy of many women writers — the juggernaut bestseller, the speaking gigs and financial success and adoring fans– and also the nightmare: the contempt of critics, the “chick lit” label, the inability to crawl out from under a single book that has been deemed unabashedly female and therefore unworthy of serious critique. Her life and work illuminate women’s ambivalence toward female power, and their uncertainty about whether that power should celebrate the feminine or reject it.

All of which is to say that one feels a consistent, accompanying shift toward the subjective in the fiction of our moment, in what it does and does not do. What it does do: relate intensely personal lived experience, depict trauma, and—maybe especially—project personality. What it does not do: usually attempt any sort of objectivity or try to situate a narrative in a moral framework.

The problem with this is, from my point of view, situating narrative in a moral framework is what novels do better than really any other type of art. No other narrative form can so dexterously tell a story while critiquing it, a sleight-of-hand enabled by the engaged moral interplay of an author/narrator with his or her narrative. The reluctance to engage on this level may become an inability, and this is a loss. Not just artistically, but socially, as well. During times of moral crisis like the one we’re living in, we need books of moral power and daring that challenge us. Books that are willing to take a stand, and in doing so, dare us to do the same.

  • In celebration of its 125th anniversary, the New York Public Library released its top 10 most-checked-out books of all time. Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day tops the list.
  • Notably, although the NYPL’s list is dominated by children’s classics, Goodnight Moon does not appear. It gets an honorable mention, with the explanation that “extremely influential New York Public Library children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore hated Goodnight Moon when it first came out,” so the library failed to acquire it as long as she was there. Which: What? At Slate, Dan Kois investigates everything going on in that disclaimer:

Miss Moore’s taste was particular. She loved Beatrix Potter and The Velveteen Rabbit and was a steadfast believer in the role of magic and innocence in children’s storytelling. This put her in opposition to a progressive wave then sweeping children’s literature, inspired by the early childhood research of the Cooperative School for Student Teachers, located on Bank Street in Greenwich Village. The Bank Street School, as it became known, was also a preschool and the teacher training facility where Margaret Wise Brown enrolled in 1935. This progressive wave was exemplified by the Here and Now Story Book, created by Bank Street’s leading light Lucy Sprague Mitchell in 1921. A collection of simple tales set in a city, focusing on skyscrapers and streetcars, it was a rebuttal to Moore’s “once upon a time” taste in children’s lit.

The women were drinking peach schnapps, telling stories about the worst things they’d ever done. They had already skimmed through the missing years in haste, as though the past were gruesome, the two decades of lost friendship something untouchable and rotten. Maybe it was, Nic thought. Melodie had said she was a real-estate agent in San Luis Obispo, still playing the field. Her face was so artificially plumped and frozen that it resembled a Greek-chorus mask that had slid between genres and settled on tragicomedy. Sammie was overripe, a bruised apple. Five kids with Hank, she had said with a sigh, all seven of them packed into the little house her mother had left her, in the same little town where the women had all grown up.

So in 5th grade I picked up a Hardy Boys book and was determined to love it. I hated it, but I forced myself through every word. And while I’m still mad at myself for forcing myself through a book I actively remember hating, it taught me something about myself (which I would later learn again working in retail): I’m very bad at pretending to care about things that I don’t care about. I didn’t care about the Hardy Boys. I cared about Nancy Drew.

And here’s the week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with all our books coverage by visiting Happy reading!

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.