Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Seventh-Inning Stretch

Before beginning The Shack, I decided to look at Must Read, a collection of scholarly articles edited by Sarah Churchwell and Thomas Ruys Smith. Their book discsuses different bestselling books in the United States from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first century.

http://www.amazon.com/Must-Read-Rediscovering-Bestsellers-Charlotte/dp/144116216XThe introduction gives an overview of the history of the bestseller, as well as a summary of scholarly attitudes towards bestsellers and a discussion of popular American reading through US history. I have already discussed what the introduction says about bestsellers and scholarly attitudes towards bestsellers. I have to admit that I had a good understanding on the history of popular reading, at least up to the nineteenth century, since I did research on that subject for  my dissertation.

Churchwell and Smith point out that since literacy in the United States has always been fairly high, the market for reading materials has always been significant. The US was born at the same time that mass production of printed material was burgeoning in Europe, so that the US has always been a place of readers. In the early US, much popular writing was practical--almanacs--and religious--bibles and theological tracts--but the novel and mass-market periodical publishing made fiction an early presence in the US.

Because of weak copyright laws, the US and Great Britain were mutually flooded with pirated copies of each other's literature. While Americans tended to read the same things that the British read, the British often had access to American books too.

Certain kinds of materials tended to be more popular than others--the thrillers and romances of today's bestseller list have their counterparts in the nineteenth century. What made one book a raging bestseller was often a combination of good marketing and good timing. Some writers were well aware of the need to promote their "brand," for example, and those who did, such as E.D.E.N. Southworth, helped maintain their audience over many titles. Topicality also benefited a book.The anti-slavery book Uncle Tom's Cabin came at a time when the U.S. was seriously reconsidering its pro-slavery stance. A tie-in to other genres and the multivolume series were other ways that a book could have above-average popularity. Film tie-ins explain the fame of Gone with the Wind and The Grapes of Wrath, for example, whose film versions came out only two or three years after the books were published.

To explain why a particular book becomes a bestseller requires an examination of its particular circumstances, a mapping of the book's content to its social context. Two of the articles in Must Read are on my reading list:  The Kite Runner and The Da Vinci Code.

Georgiana Banita's "The Kite Runner's Transnational Allegory: Anatomy of an Afghan-American Bestseller" argues that The Kite Runner's popularity arose in part from good timing: it had readers who had an interest in US-Afghanistan relations after 9/11. The author argues that the book marks out American guilt over its treatment of Afghanistan.The story's protagonist, Amir, returns to Afghanistan out of guilt of his ill-treatment of his half-brother Hassan, just as English-language readers might use the book to connect to Afghanistan out of their guilt for their countries' involvement in Afghanistan and its neighbours. The book's protagonist is suited to this reading agenda. Amir is both an American "saviour" and a world citizen; his attitude towards Afghanistan is mediated by the view that the country needs American intervention to fix it as well as a internationalist's insistence for humanitarian assistance for all peoples.

In "The Fiction of History: The Da Vinci Code and the Virtual Public Sphere," Stephen Mexal claims that Dan Brown's book appeals to people who are interested in history yet want that history to be transmissible in a single, coherent narrative. The book offers the excitement of an international thriller through frantic trips through the streets of Paris and London, travelogue style. Buildings, works of arts, and history figures are all readable as part of one theory hat explains how all the buildings, works of art and historical figure are related. The Louvre is not just a standalone museum, in other words, holding a mass of information that would take intense study to completely understand: instead, it is easily connected to a cathedral in London and all the history that London reflects.

Thus a straight line connects Italian Leonardo Da Vinci to Englishman Isaac Newton. That line then moves backward to touch upon all that the Western World views as important: namely, Christianity. The straight line is not obvious, but all someone has to do is to solve a puzzle or observe closely to see the straight line: history is "the sort of thing that can be hidden and discovered, like an artifact or secret plot." This view of history is comforting to those who dislike the ambiguity in and multiplicity of interpretations that historians today tend to value. Mexal discusses the customer review section for The Da Vinci Code at Amazon and notes how many people dismiss the book based on even the smallest errors, especially errors in street plans. (Mexal notes that Brown "lacks credibility as a cartographer.") The desire for an absolute narrative makes Brown's book both questionable for many readers but also attractive, for at least Brown offers a single narrative, even though, inevitably, it fails to provide an unassailable explanation of history.

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