Category: Non-Fiction

Midnight

Cover image for Midnight by Victoria Shorrby Victoria Shorr

ISBN 978-0-393-65278-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“The passion that he’d pledged at St. Pancras, the pledge that she’d taken at sixteen as everlasting—there were still moments when she felt it. But trust in it, the way she did then? Maybe not. She might not then, by nineteen, have staked her whole life on that love, as she did that first summer. Because what if it wasn’t an entirely new kind of love the two of them had discovered? What if it was just another one of those great romances that flames high and then turns to ash?”

In every life there is a midnight, a dark moment, and a critical turning point. Victoria Shorr takes three women from history, and captures them on that threshold. Jane Austen accepts the proposal of a wealthy suitor, and then the next morning, reneges and says she cannot marry him. Still recovering from her most recent miscarriage, Mary Shelley waits on the shores of the Gulf of Spezia for word of her husband, who has been missing at sea for five days. Joan of Arc’s portrait is taken on the eve of her execution for heresy. Fearing the fire, she recants, only to recant the recantation upon further reflection. These are their darkest hours, their crucial decisions.

Shorr divides her work into three separate sections, beginning with Jane Austen, then Mary Shelley, and finally Joan of Arc. The chapters also grow progressively longer; only fifty pages for Jane Austen, then twice that for Mary Shelley, and a full one hundred and twenty pages for Joan of Arc. Austen’s section is short, and sticks closely by the facts, though Midnight is by its nature speculative, imagining what these women must have been thinking and feeling in such circumstances. But this style does not become fully realized until Shelley’s section, and takes its fullest form with Joan of Arc. When she recants, Joan of Arc is no more, and becomes simply Girl X, who knows nothing of saints and kings, and simply wants to live. Joan is the hero, the chosen, the Maid of Orléans. Girl X just wants to avoid being burned alive.

As a whole, these three sections cohere somewhat. While Austen’s section feels underdeveloped, it makes an interesting counterpoint to Shelley, since both women’s choices about marriage had profound impacts on them as writers. Could Austen have written and revised her novels married to a man who sired ten children on the woman he did eventually marry? Shelley is evidence of just what a toll childbearing could take on mind and body. Most of her writing career came after her husband’s death. Both Shelley and Joanne of Arc feel fully fleshed out in their adjacent chapters, but Joanne is not English, not a writer—not even literate—and while Shelley is awaiting news of the death of her husband, Joan is a maiden awaiting the knock that will bring her own death. In many respects, Joanne seems almost to belong to another book entirely.

There will no doubt be some debate over categorization of this book, which straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction. It is based in fact, and significantly researched, as the bibliography indicates, but it is also interpretive, verging on novelization, and this only becomes more the case as Midnight progresses. If the book’s feet are on the ground, its head is in the clouds, delighting in speculation. Despite being somewhat uneven, it makes for an interesting journey, chewing over that which we cannot know for sure, but can vividly imagine as we put ourselves into the shoes of these famous women.

ALA Midwinter Non-Fiction Preview

At the end of January, I had the chance to attend two days of the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference in Seattle. I had a great time attending panels, meeting up with book blog and librarian friends, and browsing the exhibits.  As usual, publishers were spotlighting some of their upcoming titles. Here are a few of the non-fiction titles that I am excited about!

Midnight by Victoria Shorr

Cover image for Midnight by Victoria ShorrA biography in three parts, Midnight examines three famous women at moments of crisis and reflection. Jane Austen’s moment comes at the death of her father, and a proposal of marriage, a critical choice between securing home and hearth, and a writing career. Mary Shelley finds herself on the shores of an Italian lake, five days after the disappearance of her husband in a storm. Going still further back, Joan of Arc reckons with meeting her fate at the stake for the second time. Midnight captures three notable women at their darkest hour, including two of my favourite authors, and a religious figure who fascinated me in my younger years. Coming March 12, 2019 from W. W. Norton Company.

Biased by Jennifer L. Eberhardt

Cover image for Biased by Jennifer L. EberhardtSocial psychologist and Stanford professor Jennifer L. Eberhardt studies unconscious racial bias, and its implications at the the institutional level, particularly for the criminal justice system, such as policing and prisons.  It seems especially important for those who consciously believe in equality to consider how social training and subconscious impulses may be affecting our behaviours and perceptions in ways we are not fully aware of, and the cascading effects of those behaviours on the lives of those around us. Other early reviewers have touted Eberhardt’s clear explanations, and her ability to combine academic research examples with personal stories to illustrate her point, an ideal combination for an academic publishing a general interest book. Biased is due out March 26, 2019 from Viking.

Shakespeare’s Library by Stuart Kells

Cover image for Shakespeare's Library by Stuart KellsIn literary scholarship, the books, letters, and papers of famous authors become, after death, invaluable treasure troves for those who study their work. But in the case of the English language’s most famous wordsmith, no such legacy remains. Stuart Kells follows the many efforts that have been made in the four centuries since the Bard’s death to locate his papers, and the various searches and expeditions that have tried to track down William Shakespeare’s library. But the itinerant playwright seems to have left little trace.  I’m a sucker for books about books, so I expect this one will really hit the spot. Originally released last year in Australia by Text Publishing, the US publication comes April 2, 2019 from Counterpoint.

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

Cover image for A Woman of No Importance by Sonia PurnellInvestigative journalist Sonia Purnell digs into the secret life of Virginia Hall, one of World War II’s most accomplished spies and Resistance organizers. An American woman who lost her career in the diplomatic service to a hunting accident that led to the amputation of her leg, Hall found a second chance working as a spy for the British after the fall of France. She continued her work even after her cover was blown, and she became one of Germany’s most wanted, a bounty on her head, and posters of her face calling out for her arrest. I continue to be endlessly fascinated by this period of history, and I particularly like fresh perspectives that challenge our assumptions and expectations about the roles people played. Look for A Woman of No Importance April 9, 2019 from Viking.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong

Cover image for The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong Given that she was one of the internet’s first big bloggers, it probably isn’t surprising that the first blog I ever followed was Heather B. Armstrong’s dooce blog, way back in the day before she was even a mom, let alone a “mommy blogger.” So when I saw her forthcoming memoir at ALA, I thought it would be cool to catch up. After struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts for many years, The Valedictorian of Being Dead follows Armstrong’s decision to participate in a clinical trial for an experimental treatment that would chemically induce a coma and brain death, before bringing her back. Coming April 23, 2019 from Gallery Books.

Did you have a chance to attend ALA? What forthcoming non-fiction titles are you excited about? Let me know in the comments!

Top 5 Non-Fiction 2018

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2018. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!

American Kingpin

Cover image for American Kingpin by Nick BiltonYou can buy anything on the Internet if you know where to look, and the man who made much of it possible is the subject of Nick Bilton’s account of the Silk Road, the dark web site selling everything from drugs to weapons. The man behind the tech was Ross Ulbricht, a young programmer from Texas with strong libertarian leanings who believed that a free market was the solution to all of America’s drug woes. But for many years, he was known to investigators only as The Dread Pirate Roberts, the anonymous entity—possibly more than one person—behind the huge influx of mail-order illegal narcotics to the United States. American Kingpin follows the gripping story of how multiple agencies pursued an increasingly paranoid Ulbricht, and the missteps that finally brought him to justice.

Categories: True Crime

Bad Blood

Cover image for Bad Blood by John CarreyrouIf you want to be fascinated and horrified, look no further than John Carreyrou’s portrait of the rise and fall of Theranos, and its wunderkind CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. Holmes consciously modeled herself on Apple icon Steve Jobs, but the technology on which she built her empire was flawed at best, and outright fraudulent at worst. Theranos claimed to be able to conduct multiple blood tests with only a single drop of blood as a sample, but Bad Blood investigates the extent to which that claim was untrue, and exposes a stunning series of lies and fabrications that misled venture capitalists and ordinary patients alike. Holmes was selling a vision, a dream, and her own image as a tech genius, but her product was fundamentally flawed. In exhaustive detail, Carreyrou chronicles how Holmes fooled employees and investors for so long, in one of Silicon Valley’s most sordid scandals.

Categories: True Crime

Educated

Cover image for Educated by Tara WestoverTara Westover’s memoir has topped many 2018 best of lists with good reason. In it she has rendered a gripping account of her unusual upbringing, and how her hunger for knowledge ultimately became the catalyst that helped her break free of her abusive family. Educated recounts her childhood in rural Idaho, with two parents who blended religion and survivalism in extreme ways, which were exacerbated by her father’s mental illness and her mother’s brain damage. Westover didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was seventeen, ostensibly having been homeschooled to that point. In a story that reveals the true power of knowledge, Westover’s formal education—first at Brigham Young University, and then at Harvard and Cambridge—is a poignant illustration of how learning to think for yourself can both unravel your family and save your life.

Categories: Memoir

Rage Becomes Her

Cover image for Rage Becomes Her by Soraya ChemalyWomen are frequently characterized as the more emotional gender, but there is one emotion that is stereotyped more male than female, and which is taboo for women—anger. Anger is considered ugly, selfish, and unfeminine, and from an early age, women are discouraged from expressing it, or even talking about it. Angry women are characterized as hysterical, or downright insane. Writer and activist Soraya Chemaly argues that this denial of women’s anger is one more way in which women are kept under control by a patriarchal society. Anger can be destructive, but never more so than when it is turned inward and subsumed. Turned outward in constructive ways, it can be a response to injustice that lights a fire for change, and it is this acceptance and expression of women’s anger that Chemaly is arguing for. Rage Becomes Her is a book that affirms that women have a lot to be angry about, and offers validation and comradery to those who have been feeling that rage in a society that repeatedly denies its existence. And finally, it offers encouragement to not just accept that anger, but to turn it towards building a community that will use it as fuel for working to make the world a better place. Women have managed their anger for long enough; now it is time to wield it.

Categories: Social Justice

So You Want to Talk About Race

Cover image for So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma OluoRace is an undeniably sensitive subject, particularly in America today (but Canadian friends, you need to read this, too). With grace and patience, and occasional humour, Ijeoma Oluo tackles many of the questions you might be too embarrassed to ask about race, for fear of putting your foot in your mouth. Oluo covers such fundamentals as “What is racism?” and “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?” to get readers on the same page, working from the same definitions, before tackling more specific queries, such as “What is the school-to-prison pipeline” and “Is police brutality really about race?” So You Want to Talk About Race is a stunning work of emotional labour that takes the time to work privileged readers through hard subjects in a way that may actually have a chance of getting readers to see it as a question of systemic injustice rather than as a matter of individual failing about which they need to be defensive. This is the fundamental grounding in understanding systemic racism that our education systems currently fail to provide anywhere below the college level, and often not even there.

Categories: Social Justice

With the exception of Rage Becomes Her, I’ve check out the audio for all these titles and can highly recommend them in either format. And that’s it for 2018 top picks! Here’s to a New Year of reading ahead.

What were your top non-fiction reads in 2018?

Palaces for the People

Cover image for Palaces for the People by Eric KlinenbergEric Klinenberg

ISBN 978-1-5247-6116-5

Few modern social infrastructures are natural, however, and in densely populated areas even benches and forests require careful engineering and management to meet human needs. This means that all social infrastructure requires investment, whether for development or upkeep, and when we fail to build and maintain it, the material foundations of our social and civic life erode.”

In the summer of 1995, a brutal heat wave struck Chicago, killing more than 700 people. When sociologists, including Eric Klinenberg, began to study the deaths, they realized that communities with similar demographic conditions sometimes had vastly disparate survival outcomes during the heat wave. The disaster formed the core of Klinenberg’s earlier book, Heat Wave, but it also leads into his most recent publication, where he examines the physical conditions that develop communities and make them resilient. In many ways, Palaces for the People combines Heat Wave with Going Solo, where he examined the increasing trend towards living alone, and Modern Romance (with Aziz Ansari) where they looked at how people form romantic relationships in the digital era. In Palaces for the People, Klinenberg examines public libraries, parks and community gardens, schools, and sports leagues, in an effort to demonstrate how these “social infrastructures” improve our communities, our relationships, and our quality of life.

The concept of social infrastructure is related to, but distinct from, social capital, in that social infrastructure represents “the physical conditions that determine whether social capital develops.” Social infrastructures are the places people congregate, and develop communities. The physical landscape of a neighbourhood can be the difference between neighbours who develop “strong and supportive relationships” and those who become “isolated and alone.” If roads and subways and electric grids are the hard infrastructure of a city, soft infrastructure is what we fall back on when these things fail. Klinenberg also notes that while pubs and cafes are classic “third places,” they are not the focus of Palaces for the People, because “not everyone can afford to frequent them, and not all paying customers are welcome to stay for long.”

Klinenberg takes as his first, and key example, the public library, drawing his title from the phrase used to describe the libraries endowed by “robber baron” Andrew Carnegie, who gave away most of his fortune in his later years, so that he is today better remembered as a philanthropist. Klinenberg freely acknowledges Carnegie’s predatory behaviour a titan of industry, someone who was involved in breaking unions, and exploiting workers. However, he still cites Carnegie’s contribution to public libraries as an unparalleled work of public service and social infrastructure building, giving away what would be billions in today’s dollars to endow thousands of libraries.

Klinenberg puts his finger on the pulse of the public library when he writes that “the problem that libraries face isn’t that people no longer visit them, or take out books. On the contrary, so many people are using them, for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed.” However, Klinenberg never delves deep enough into the public library to touch on the tensions that often arise between the different groups trying to coexist in these spaces, and the entitlement some “tax paying citizens” feel to never be exposed to people experiencing poverty or homelessness. In glossing over this divide, Klinenberg loses the opportunity to engage with this tendency to self-segregate, to lay private claim to public spaces, or to retreat from public spaces when too many “others” occupy them. Those who can afford to buy their own resources and materials can abandon the public library, just as some white people responded to the desegregation of public swimming pools by building private pools in their own backyards.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Palaces for the People are the cases that look like social infrastructure on the surface, but do not effectively serve as such in practice. Gathering places are not necessarily good social infrastructure. Klinenberg highlights a number of institutions that have deleterious effects on community, creating further division rather than unity. Among them are private country clubs, gated communities, fraternities, and tech campuses. In the last case, tech companies often create elaborate social infrastructures for their high level employees—demonstrating that they understand the concept—while shutting out the campus’s service workers, as well as the surrounding neighbourhood. In most cases, all a tech campus means for the existing community is more traffic, and rising rent. The segregation of spaces that are ostensibly open to the public, such as public pools, and churches, have damaged their ability to serve as effective social infrastructure, though this varies widely from case to case. Klinenberg also notes that safe, separate gathering spaces for minority groups are important social infrastructure despite their segregated nature.

Palaces for the People also takes a look at what role technology plays in our social infrastructure, and our changing civic life. Klinenberg has harsh words for tech companies in general, and Mark Zuckerberg in particular, for the claims they have made about community, versus the reality that has played out as social media proliferates. However, he is careful to qualify that digital technology cannot be simply scapegoated as the source of all our woes. He points to studies that find that polarization has actually increased most among people over the age of seventy-five. By contrast, social media is most heavily used by the eighteen to thirty-nine cohort. Therefore, Klinenberg cautions that “social media may well contribute to our widening ideological divisions, but if the Internet doesn’t explain changes in the group that has grown the most polarized, it cannot be entirely to blame.”

Palaces for the People provides a high level look at a number of social infrastructures and their impact on their communities, any one of which could probably be the subject of their own book. However, this is a broad, useful introduction for the non-academic reader into thinking about how our investment in public spaces impacts our private relationships, as well as our larger civic life and social cohesion.

You might also like The Nature Fix by Florence Williams

Good and Mad

Cover image for Good and Mad by Rebecca Traisterby Rebecca Traister

ISBN 978-1-5011-8179-5

 “Having had the rare and privileged experience of having had my anger taken seriously, valued on its merits, I no longer believe that it is anger that is hurting us, but rather the system that penalizes us for expressing it, that doesn’t respect or hear it, that isn’t curious about it, that mocks or ignores it. That’s what’s making us sick; that’s what’s making us feel crazy, alone; that’s why we’re grinding our teeth at night.”

2018 may feel like a unique moment for the public expression of women’s anger, but in Good and Mad, journalist Rebecca Traister seeks to situate it within a broader history of angry women in American politics, from the suffragist movement, to Shirley Chisholm’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination, to Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas, to the current Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. Traister examines how anger, both felt and displayed, has operated for women in American politics, using historical examples and recent events to demonstrate how an emotion that is depicted as the opposite of feminine has fueled the feminist revolution, and continues to be an important source of power and energy for women’s movements.

Traister notes that while she had had the idea for this topic for some time, when it became clear to her that the moment to write it was now, she produced the draft in relatively short order. Thus, Good and Mad is definitely of the current political moment, heavily involved in the ethos of the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement. It is extremely relevant, though this focus may be detrimental to its staying power, and become dated quickly. In that case, however, it will be a time capsule testifying to all the reasons American women have to be good and mad right now, as well as a reminder that this anger has its roots in a long history of injustice, not just current events.

Traister examines major female political figures such as Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Maxine Waters, to show how they have used or concealed their anger, and at what political cost, being portrayed as aggressive, mad, or crazy for behaviour that was a mere shadow of the antics of many men on the political stage. Women’s anger must be couched and justified in ways that men’s anger is not. Traister points to comedy and tears as the two covers under which female anger most commonly operates; necessary disguises, useful, but not without their own costs. It would have been interesting to also look at how the anger of women on the political right—where traditional gender roles are more openly applauded—is perceived and portrayed. Do they get a pass on their anger when it aligns with the party’s views? Are they punished more or less harshly for deviation? Traister makes some brief mention of more conservative women, but does not delve into this line of inquiry.

Good and Mad includes an examination of the ways in which women police one another and themselves in accordance with patriarchal standards. Traister is particularly insightful in her discussion of the successful women who spoke out against the #MeToo movement, analyzing how their success within a patriarchal system led to their defense of the men who supported their advancement, at the expense of those men’s victims. The fall of these men threatened the legitimacy of their successes within a corrupt system. However, Traister also notes that media portrayals of internal conflicts within feminist movements tend towards supporting stereotypes about how women behave in groups, rather than parsing women’s differences in meaningful ways that support understanding and cooperation. Just as abolition and suffrage were historically pitted against one another, to the detriment of both causes, so too do opponents seek to divide and conquer modern feminist movements. Traister engages in a more nuanced discussion of how women sometimes work against themselves.

Good and Mad is a work that pays decent attention to intersectionality, particularly on the issue race, though somewhat narrowly focused on Black women to the exclusion of other women of colour. Traister opens on the 1972 Presidential nominee bid of Shirley Chisholm, discusses how Rosa Parks’ anger has been whitewashed, and considers how Black women, frequently stereotyped as angry, have been asked to bear the burden of performing the emotions white women also feel, as well as the punishment for displaying them publicly. She makes some brief nods to trans inclusivity, does not specifically discuss how these issues might operate uniquely in trans women’s lives or political movements. The very breadth of women’s identities and experiences both demands intersectionality, and makes it very difficult for any single work to be encompassing.

Traister closes with a call for women to do for one another what the culture at large will not; witness and validate the anger of other women, while being mindful of the other power dynamics that intersect with women’s issues. Having shown how anger has been an effective, if double-edged, tool for women’s movements of the past, her cri de coeur is that we not let this energy go to waste by bottling it up and allowing it to eat us alive at a moment that is ripe for action.

You might also like Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly

Astounding

Cover image for Astounding by Alec Nevala-Leeby Alec Nevala-Lee

ISBN 978-0-06-257194-6

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

As the atomic age dawned, Campbell was acclaimed as a prophet, a role for which he had carefully positioned himself—he had planted “Deadline” in the magazine so that he could point to it later, orchestrating the most famous anecdote of his career to illustrate the genre’s ability to foresee the future. The fact that he hadn’t predicted anything at all was a distinction lost on most readers, who exulted in their newfound relevance.”

In 1937, a young science fiction writer with a background studying physics and chemistry at MIT, got his big break. He became the editor of Astounding, a pulp magazine that was one of the top publishers of the genre. He was only twenty-seven at the time, and though he had begun as a writer, he is better remembered for his work as an editor, shaping and choosing the direction of the genre, and the authors who would come to define it. He would go on to publish writers such as L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov, ushering in what is commonly known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction in the years before the Second World War, and serving as the genre’s gatekeeper. He would become the namesake of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which is awarded by the company that owns Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the magazine formerly known as Astounding, of which Campbell was the editor for more than thirty years. The publisher has billed Astounding as the first full biography of John W. Campbell Jr., though Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard are also major subjects of the work. Author Alec Nevala-Lee is well-read in early science fiction, and can offer commentary on the evolution of each author’s style, and how it fits into the genre more broadly. He is also a science fiction writer himself, and has had stories publisher in the current incarnation of the magazine about which he is writing.

Astounding is a work of biography that grapples directly with the more problematic history and behaviour of its subjects, and how those attitudes shaped the direction of the genre. Campbell was widely acknowledged as a difficult person to work for, even as he was accorded great respect by the writers he shepherded into the field. While he began rooted fairly firmly in the science he had studied at MIT, in the years after WWII, he veered further and further into pseudoscience, beginning with his early involvement in Dianetics. Racism also often lurked beneath the surface of the stories he commissioned and published, and both heroes and writers were almost invariably white, and largely male. His views on race only became more venomous and marked with age, and Nevala-Lee argues that “the question of how Campbell’s views affected the fiction that he published is central to any consideration of his legacy.” Nor does Nevala-Lee shy away from Hubbard’s abuse of his wives, or the fact the Asimov was known for groping and otherwise sexually harassing female fans, as well as women who worked for his publisher.

Nevala-Lee also notes the absence of women from the genre, and devotes significant attention to Leslyn Heinlein, and Doña Campbell, and the important role the two women played in their husbands’ early work, as well as the deep friendship that developed between the two couples. Doña was known to edit and retype Campbell’s early stories, liberally fixing his atrocious grammar and spelling. Both women talked through plots and stories with their partners, playing a significant role in the development of the ideas that finally made it onto the page, and into the annals of science fiction history. Heinlein even suggested that their wives could run the magazine if the two men were pulled into the war. Ultimately, however, both couples would divorce, and the two women slip from the pages of Astounding, though Nevala-Lee returns to them in the conclusion. Each man remarries, and Ginny Heinlein and Peg Campbell take up their places. Kay Tarrant, the woman who Campbell referred to as his secretary, but who in fact handled “the entire practical and administrative side of the magazine” is frequently mentioned, and seems intriguing, but unfortunately we do not get to learn much about her.

Hubbard and Dianetics play an important role in Astounding, but if you are most interested in Scientology, that is not the core focus of the book. However, Campbell was deeply enmeshed in the early days of Dianetics, before the founding of the Church of Scientology. He regarded it as scientific research, and his deep obsession with auditing tore down the remains of his first marriage, and directly led to his second. He was interested in regaining lost memories of his childhood, and recovering from the trauma he believed these forgotten events had left him with. Doña’s resistance to having their daughters audited led him to believe she was hiding some terrible abuse she had perpetrated against them. His second wife began as his auditing partner, and they continued to practice well after the schism with Hubbard. Officially speaking, Campbell’s role in the early days of Dianetics has been erased. Nevala-Lee quotes Asimov as having said, “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.”

Astounding is an insightful look at the early days of science fiction provided through the examination of Campbell’s inner circle of friends and writers. Nevala-Lee’s consideration of the impact their characters and prejudices had on the formation of the genre is a particularly important contribution to the history of science fiction.

You might also be interested in Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

Reader, Come Home

Cover image for Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolfby Maryanne Wolf

ISBN 978-0-06-238878-0

Unlike in the past, we possess both the science and the technology to identify potential changes in how we read—and thus how we think—before such changes are fully entrenched in the population and accepted without our comprehension of the consequences.”

I was introduced to the work of Maryanne Wolf in grad school, in a course about multimedia literacies that examined perspectives on information literacy in an evolving technological landscape that requires new readers to acquire multiple skill sets. I read Proust and the Squid in 2012, five years after its initial publication, but by then Wolf was already deep at work on this new venture, examining how the principles she laid out in her first book had begun to shift in the evolving digital landscape, where babies can be soothed to sleep with iPhones, and some toddlers know how to work an iPad but don’t understand why a print book doesn’t respond to touch commands. Reader, Come Home seeks to examine what we risk losing if we fail to approach the new literacy landscape with eyes wide open, as well as what we stand to gain from an evidence based approach to the future of reading.

What drew me to Wolf’s perspective in grad school remains true of her approach to Reader, Come Home. While some critics raise an almost hysterical ballyhoo about the perils of the digital age, Wolf takes a more balanced and pragmatic attitude. She frequently references Socrates, who was an adamant opponent of the shift from an oral, dialectic method of learning, to one that relied on the written word. He was worried that students would never truly master a concept if they could look it up, rather than having to commit it firmly to memory. Sound familiar? Many a similar argument is raised about the digital shift, and while Wolf points out that Socrates was right that reading has changed the way we operate in the world, it has proved an invaluable tool for civilization. Her approach to digital technologies is much the same. What she is arguing for is essentially mindfulness, an observant approach to the changes that have already begun to subtly shape our reading lives, and will only more profoundly affect the reading lives of children who are just beginning their journey into literacy. Only by studying the evidence about what reading is doing for us, and how that is changing, can we make informed decisions about how we want to read, and how we want to teach future generations of children to read.

Doing our best by future generations of readers is a daunting prospect by all accounts. We have only just begun to understand the neuroscience of the reading brain, and how that landscape shifts when the reading occurs on digital rather than physical platforms. Furthermore, we can only guess at the future we are preparing children for; many of the jobs that they will hold as adults do not exist yet, after all. It is even possible that some of them will benefit from growing up constantly switching and navigating between multiple platforms and inputs near simultaneously. But while it is difficult to know the precise skills that they will need, Wolf argues that we cannot go wrong by preserving the development of the reading brain circuit that ultimately leads to deep analytic and critical thinking skills. To allow this development to be fractured by the near constant interruptions of the digital world as it is currently designed, would be a mistake in her reckoning.

Wolf divides her book into letters, addressed to the reader, and signed by herself, though this conceit can be easily forgotten in between. In the early chapters, she delves into the neuroscience of the reading brain, using the metaphor of the three ring circus. As she points out, reading is not a natural, hardwired skillset of the human brain. Rather, it is neuroplasticity that enables the brain to adapt a variety of brain regions originally developed for other purposes to this human invention. But the flip side of neuroplasticity is that we must use our skills, or risk losing them. A digital media consumption style that sees consumers change sources of information twenty-seven times per hour, and picking up their phones nearly two hundred times per day inevitably affects our focus. This fracturing of our attention affects memory, which in turn affects comprehension, and our ability to critically assess the information we consume, or draw inferences between disparate sources.

But if Wolf is concerned about how the reading lives of adults with fully formed prefrontal cortices and well-developed reading circuits, the heart of her worry is clearly much more focused on new readers—perhaps unsurprising in someone who studies reading acquisition. Several of the letters are dedicated to her ideas about how to teach children multiple literacies in an evolving environment, modelled on the best studies about teaching bilingual children. Her suggestions come with the caveat that we must continue to study and change these recommendations as we learn more about reading in multiple mediums. She specifically warns against forbidding screens, arguing that this will render them into tantalizing forbidden fruit.

Undoubtedly, these digitally native readers will grow up to have their own ideas about how they wish to interact with information. As a cuspy millennial, born before the digital revolution but growing up alongside it, I have some inherent wariness of how older people view my generation, and I have no doubt that younger people will come to feel the same about us. But when it comes to the relative merits of the digital versus physical reading, I think Wolf, overall, puts it well: “The stakes are far too high to cling to one side or the other. The reality is that we cannot and should not go back; nor should we move ahead thoughtlessly.”

All You Can Ever Know

Cover image for All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chungby Nicole Chung

ISBN 9781936787975

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

I never had a name for what was happening. I had never heard of or read about any racism other than the kind that outright destroys your life and blots out your physical existence.”

Nicole Chung was prematurely born in 1980s Seattle to struggling Korean immigrant parents who already had two other daughters at home. Told that her biological parents were unable to afford the medical care she needed, or provide for a child who might be sick all her life, they placed her for adoption. She was raised in small town southern Oregon by white parents who touted a colour-blind philosophy, and were ill-equipped to help a lone Asian child navigate what her race meant in a town where almost no one else looked like her. But it wasn’t until she was pregnant with her own first child that Chung truly faced up to her desire to discover more about where she had come from, and reconnect with her biological family.

Writing clearly and eloquently about her own experiences, adoptee Nicole Chung describes the mythologizing of the adoption narrative, and how this comforting, pre-packaged story ultimately backfired as she struggled to find her identity. Despite the best of intentions, her religious adoptive parents’ emphasis on the idea that their family was fated, chosen, and meant to be made it difficult for Chung to ask the questions that she desperately needed answers to. A simplistic understanding of race and racism suffused the family dynamic, making it difficult if not impossible for Chung to find the words to explain to her adoptive family the racially motivated ostracism she began experiencing in elementary school. The simple story a divinely-ordained chosen family designed to make her feel special and loved proved drastically oversimplified when put to the test beyond the boundaries of their home.

But if the adoption narrative proved to be oversimplified, so too was the stereotypical reunion story of a biological family lost and then joyfully found. Reaching out to her biological relations proved to be just as complex as navigating the intricacies of interracial adoption. Instead of an intact family waiting to welcome her back into the fold, Chung found that her biological parents had divorced, and that her sisters had been divided by the separation. Finding her roots meant not just locating and contacting her biological family, but also figuring out what place she wanted to have within these complex dynamics that had played out over the decades of her absence. They had lives and histories to which she was a stranger, and their relationships had undercurrents she would have to learn when and how to navigate.

But happily, Chung does forge a deep bond with one of her new-found sisters, who had believed that the baby their mother had carried during that long-ago pregnancy had died in the hospital. The tentative flowering of the sibling relationship is one of the more joyful aspects of Chung’s memoir, and is explored alongside the two women’s own journeys into motherhood. Here Chung discovers that her adoption is a choice that comes with multi-generational consequences; her children will have three sets of grandparents, only some of which they will ever know, as well as their own struggles with the concept of their Korean identity, and their disconnection from the culture and language of their ancestors. In this exploration, Chung excels at taking the adoption narrative beyond “good” or “bad,” instead seeking to portray the institution that created her family in all the complexity that neat narratives seek to oversimplify. Her story refuses to be so constrained.

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