Backlist Bop: Take a Ride on the Reading

As main man LeVar Burton can attest, you can go twice as high if you take a look, it’s in a book. Reading, though an essential skill to anyone outside politics, is also a topic of intense literary interest. Scholars across the land plumb what we get from our books, how and why we read them, and what the choices we make say about us and our society.

The University of Illinois Press, an institution founded on the search for knowledge and dependent on America’s increasingly precarious willingness to be literate, periodically publishes research on Reading with a big R, not just to advance various types of scholarship, but as an investment in ways to connect with our own loyal readers. The list below wanders back into the stacks of the immense UIP library to provide you with some reading on reading.

dolbySelf-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them, by Sandra K. Dolby
We all live a blues song, ’cause we can’t be satisfied. With ourselves, that is. Pretty much everyone is looking for a new way to live, create, think, parent, eat, exercise, or make money. If you want more than a dose of the too-obvious, often trite “wisdom” found on your favorite Tumblr, you may pick up a book in the self-help genre. You may even do what it says! Though probably not.

Courageously delving into more than three hundred self-help books, Sandra K. Dolby examines this remarkably popular genre to explore why these books remain publishing perennials. Dolby argues the self-help genre continues the well-established American penchant for self-education. The books articulate problems of daily life and supposed solutions for said problems, and present their content in an accessible rather than arcane form and style. Dolby’s twist: looking at self-help as a form of folklore. As she shows, these books function in many ways like fairy tales, taking traditional materials, especially stories and ideas, and recasting them into extended essays that people happily read, think about, try to apply, and then (God knows) set aside.

sweeneyThe Story Within Us: Women Prisoners Reflect on Reading, by Megan Sweeney
In these oral interviews, incarcerated women share powerful stories about their complex and diverse efforts to negotiate difficult relationships, exercise agency in restrictive circumstances, and find meaning and beauty in the midst of pain.

Their shared emphases on abuse, poverty, addiction, and mental illness illuminate the pathways that lead many women to prison and suggest possibilities for addressing the profound social problems that fuel crime. Framing the narratives within an analytic introduction and reflective afterword, Megan Sweeney highlights the crucial intellectual work that the incarcerated women perform despite myriad restrictions on reading and education in U.S. prisons.

ramsayReading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism, by Stephen Ramsay
Stephen Ramsay offers an intriguing study of computational text analysis that examines how computers can be used as “reading machines” to open up new possibilities for literary critics. Computer-based text analysis has been employed for the past several decades as a way of searching, collating, and indexing texts. Despite this, the digital revolution has not penetrated the core activity of literary studies: interpretive analysis of written texts.

Computers’ processing power allows for the comparison of texts in ways that were previously too overwhelming for individuals. But the canny machines may also assist in enhancing the entirely necessary role of subjectivity in critical interpretation. Ramsay discusses the importance of this new form of text analysis conducted with the assistance of computers and suggests that the rigidity of computation can be enlisted by intuition, subjectivity, and play.