I see many headlines in a day.  One from Book Riot caught my attention with its linked story on BoingBoing.  This particular story is poignant and points to the ridiculous polarization politicians are stoking to play for our votes.  (I swear, politicians should be made into their own country so they can ruin their own lives without affecting the rest of us.)  This headline deals with the remarkable person George Dawson.  The son of a farmer, and descendant of slaves, Dawson made a living as a laborer in Texas.  His life was probably no more noteworthy than those of many other working-class individuals, but Dawson had a story to tell.  Illiterate, he learned to read at the age of 98—let that sink in.  At two years shy of a century he decided to improve his life.  He subsequently wrote a memoir, Life Is So Good.  So far, so good.

For reading, not banning!

His story was so inspirational that the Carroll Independent School District named a middle school for him.  He became a adult “poster child” for literacy.  Now, here’s where the headline comes in.  The very school that is named after him is trying to ban his book.  As part of the reactionary Republican response to race relations, politicians—local and national—are trying to rewrite American history so the white guy is always right.  Always good.  Always Christian.  Always moral.  It doesn’t matter how many times he cheats on his wife and his taxes, he is the paragon of virtue and respectability.  To suggest that he promoted slavery and treated Black people as property and beat and lynched and left them in poverty, well, that’s just too powerful of a pill to swallow.

Banned Book Week begins this month, on the 18th.  Every year I try to read a banned or challenged book in honor of the occasion.  Censorship has been on the playlist of fascists from the beginning.  Propaganda works.  All you need to do is use emotional appeal to short-circuit the rational faculties and then laugh all the way to the bank.  Slavery?  What’s slavery?  Do you mean to suggest that white men used slaves?  Poppycock.  We have always been as upright with the same moral rectitude as the Donald.  And the Ronald.  And all white men who stand under the big R.  Pay no attention to the Black man who learned to read at an age when most of us are dead.  Is that such a big deal?  What need do you have to read when Fox News can provide all the (mis)information you need?

Dark Academia

Genres can be slippery things.  Those of us who dabble in fiction sometimes find it difficult to describe what we do.  Writing is individual expression and it may have elements of this and that.  Given my disposition, much of my fiction has some horror features but I tend to think of it as something else.  My wife recently sent me an article on Book Riot about the genre Dark Academia.  The piece by Adiba Jaigirdar begins by asking the question of what exactly dark academia is.  The label conjures up books about something untoward happening in the halls of learning, and that certainly qualifies.  It’s difficult to be more precise because it’s different things to different people.  Some of my fiction, in my own mind, falls into that category.  Things go wrong in higher education all the time.  Why not preserve it in fiction?

I’ve attended, and worked at some gothic places.  The contemporary university, such as Rutgers—although it’s old by American standards—has continuously modernized and although I don’t know it’s history well, I suspect gothic was never its aesthetic.  The same is true of Boston University where I went to seminary.  Edinburgh University, while also modernizing, has retained much of its gothic feel.  That’s certainly true of New College, where I studied, in the heart of the medieval old town.  There’s a gravitas to such dark settings.  They invite strangeness.  My first teaching job was at the intentionally gothic Nashotah House.  Although I didn’t agree with the politics I loved the setting.

I seem to have slipped from Dark Academia into Gothic Academia.  Indeed, it’s difficult to keep the two distinct in my mind.  When I taught I maintained the tweed jacket and somewhat disheveled look of someone who has something else besides grooming in mind (this is entirely genuine).  Indeed, that’s one of the great charms of higher education.  You need not constantly worry about each hair being in place—they’ll take care of that when they shoot the movie.  Not many people, and probably a diminishing number given the state of things, experience full-time life in academia.  It can be well lit and modern.  If done right, however, it should take you into odd places.  Discovery is generally messy.  Perhaps that’s part of the dark of dark academia.  When we use our brains we end up in unexpected places.  I’m not sure I understand dark academia, but I have a feeling that I’ve lived it even without my fiction.

Strange Reading

The internet has changed things.  Perhaps forever.  I’m thinking particularly of the way we read.  Not just ebooks, either.  I’m primarily a book reader.  That is to say, I prefer long-format, print writing.  Since we’re fairly isolated (this applied to me even before Covid-19), one of the ways we discuss books is via social media.  There are any number of sites where this takes place such as Book Riot or Goodreads.  I tend toward the latter because that’s what publishers tend to pay attention to.  Each year I participate in a couple of reading challenges.  On Goodreads my goal is a set number of books.  But this has a hidden aspect as well.  What counts as a book?

As a matter of course I don’t count the odd Dr. Seuss book I pick up and read in a matter of minutes.  Nor do I count the many, many books I read as part of my job.  The ideal method of tracking reading on Goodreads is to use the ISBN.  Older books, especially, come in multiple editions, often with differing content.  One way that publishers make money on public domain books is by adding a new introduction or preface to which they own the copyright even though the majority of the text is in the public domain.  The first commandment of capitalism includes the phrase “what the market will bear.”  You can price up until people stop buying.  In order to get value for money, short books are often bound together with other material.  This especially applies to novellas.   Who’s going to pay ten bucks for a book of under 100 pages?

The problem is counting them on Goodreads.  In order for the ISBN to count, you really need to read all the stories in a book.  In steps Amazon.  Making it simple to self-publish, many individuals have rushed in and have saturated the market with public domain material bound and distributed by their own print-on-demand editions.  If I want to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the older dilemma was you couldn’t buy it alone.  It was almost always bound with some stories I didn’t want to read.  Now, however, some savvy book smith can download an electronic copy, word-process it, format it and sell it to you at a nice markup.  And you can enter the ISBN and get credit for only what you actually did read.  This is a strange new way of reading.  Before I had challenges to complete I’d read a short story or novella and not worry about the rest of the book.  For now, anyway, my reading patterns have changed just to keep up with the challenge.