Thursday News: Gracie Book Club, the Internet’s “best book,” Brontë sisters, and more on Dan Brown
Gracie Book Club Aims to Connect New Yorkers – I feel like this is the year of the bookclub, and New York’s Gracie Book Club is so popular you basically enter a lottery to win a ticket. I don’t know whether this speaks to the desirability of the reading or the fact that it’s run by the City’s first lady and features local writers discussing the books, but either way it feels like some kind of Robert Putnam-esque social movement.
Chirlane McCray , the wife of Mayor Bill de Blasio , initiated the Gracie Book Club Tuesday night, hosting 100 New Yorkers who won tickets via lottery to discuss “Bright Lines,” a novel about Bangladeshi immigrants living in Brooklyn. It is the first of the club’s six books this year, which will all deal with a theme described by organizers as “envisioning distant neighbors.” . . .
The discussion panel included “Bright Lines” author Tanwi Nandini Islam and was moderated by Brooklyn-based author James Hannaham, who proposed the book. Other authors who will be selecting titles include A. M. Homes and Jacqueline Woodson.
The panel’s discussion ranged from the characters to the way New York City is integrated into the narrative. – Wall Street Journal
What is the Internet’s Favorite Book? – This is actually a pretty interesting piece, even though it relies on Goodreads as its database. At least the authors take into consideration the differences between rating and popularity and discuss the different matrices on which we tend to value books (popularity, quality, belovedness, etc.). I’m not a statistician, though, so if anyone who is would like to weigh in (Sunita?) . . .
Our analysis shows that the books people are most exuberant about include Calvin and Hobbes, manga and South American poetry. And if you want to read a classic blessed by both the critics and the Internet, you should pick up a novel by Robert Graves or Vladimir Nabokov—and avoid James Joyce like the plague. We also found that George R.R. Martin is the king of fantasy and Nigella Lawson the queen of cookbooks, and that Goodreads ratings suggest that David Foster Wallace is the 57th most loved fiction writer. . . .
Just like restaurants and mechanics, books are now at the mercy of online rating systems. It may seem perverse to critics to take a piece of literature and reduce to a 1-5 rating, but millions of of readers on Goodreads to just that.
Our examination of these ratings show that the books people rate highest are generally not those that win the Man Booker or Pulitzer Prize. They are crowd-pleasers like Calvin and Hobbes, Japanese comic books and other books with devoted followings. When the Internet decides, James Joyce doesn’t hold a candle to J.K. Rowling. – Priceonomics
The Brontës’ Secret – This article by Judith Shulevitz is really kind of a hot mess, but in a somewhat intriguing way, because Shulevitz is trying to tease out the subversive elements of the Brontës’ fiction. I think she relies too heavily on the biographical, and her argument feels like it’s forming as she’s composing, but there are some worthwhile insights here, too.
In their fiction, the Brontës scrutinized more than just the kind of drudgery that paid. They also filled their stories with the kind that didn’t. In The Brontë Cabinet, Deborah Lutz calls attention to the mixed meanings of 19th-century housework in the sisters’ lives and novels, especially needlework, with which ladies were expected to keep their hands busy at all times. Charlotte was indignant when her first mistress demanded that she add sewing to child care, requiring her to make doll clothes and stitch hems on sheets. Caroline Helstone, in Charlotte’s Shirley, is wearied to distraction by having to embroider and mend stockings all day. And yet sewing also gives Brontë characters a pretext for thinking their own thoughts without being censured for idleness. As a governess, Jane Eyre hides behind her stitching when she wants to watch rather than talk. The title character in Anne’s Agnes Grey, another governess, is happiest sewing with her sister by the fire at home. The Brontë sisters liked to sew together too, while they discussed their works in progress just as they had as children. . .
The acolyte who learned the Brontës’ lesson best was Emily Dickinson, who read both Emily and Charlotte avidly and called Emily “gigantic.” Dickinson’s biographer Alfred Habegger asserts that for her, reading an 1883 life of Emily Brontë “effectively validated her idea of power based in weakness.” But that, too, gets it wrong. Charlotte and Emily Brontë were never weak. They didn’t choose their seclusion because their femininity denied them careers and public life, or not only for that reason. The Brontës lived as they did because they needed privacy to write their extraordinary but scandalizing novels—alternately extolled as having no “rival among modern productions” (as one critic said of Jane Eyre) and attacked for a “low tone of behavior” and “coarseness” (charges leveled against all three sisters’ works). As for homely tasks like baking and cleaning, the authors may have done them only faute de mieux, but the work anchored their writing in a reality that had never been quite so material to fiction before. It also probably helped them stay sane in the process.- The Atlantic
This New Dan Brown Book Will Not Please Longtime Fans – In which Maddie Crum dissects the ridiculousness that is Dan Brown’s “YA Da Vinci Code” (anyone know why they use Da Vinci and not da Vinci?):
Regardless of whether the book is a marketing decision or a genuine misunderstanding of teen readers, it’s uncomfortably patronizing. Retelling a story aimed for adults so that it’s suitable for younger audiences isn’t unheard of; Malala Yousafzai shared her story with kids and adults alike, in separate books for decidedly separate audiences, and YA “crossover” is an established genre meant to appeal to a swath of readers, age notwithstanding. But The Da Vinci Codealready falls into a genre with broad appeal across age groups. To say otherwise undermines the smarts and maturity of avid young readers.
As popular detective fiction, the book is a close cousin to Arthur Conan Doyle’s classics or Agatha Christie’s rich, page-turning mysteries. The language of the story is buoyant. It serves the purpose of keeping the engaging plot afloat. It’s not particularly labyrinthine, it’s not meant to play tricks on the reader. This isn’t Borges or Calvino, writers of mysterious stories that are decidedly not mystery stories and who are better read once critical reading chops have been strengthened. – Huffington Post
You rang? OK, the Goodreads analysis. The statistics are fine, from what I can see of them. The problem is the research design. As you note, they use GR, but they don’t just limit themselves to GR, they focus on a particular list which they acknowledge is made up of the contributions of “particularly active members.” So the sample is skewed to the choices of that group from the start. Then they take the 9000 (out of 45,000) most popular authors and look at their 10 most popular books. But many of those authors don’t have 10 books, let alone 10 popular ones. Shakespeare does but Margaret Mitchell doesn’t.
So the unit of observation becomes the 90k books of 9000 authors from a GR list populated by a tiny, non-representative subset of GR members. No wonder the list is dominated by Calvin & Hobbes. They’re collections, after all, and it’s not as if one collection is going to be massively better or worse than another to most fans (except that the 2-volume collected works are obviously the best).
In other words, GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out. And I say this as a huge fan of Bill Watterson. I think he’s a genius and his comic strip collections are outstanding. But it doesn’t tell us anything about what is the internet’s favorite book. Not even the American-English-speaking internet.
I read The Da Vinci Code as a teenager when it first came out and had no issue with it. I don’t know what or why you would change, which was my first thought upon reading the news yesterday. Maybe a kids version of the book would be more appropriate?
A correction: I don’t know what the sample size is. Since not every author in the “9000 most popular on the list” category has 10 books, presumably there are far fewer than 90,000 observations. So whatever THAT number turns out to be, they then rank the sample in terms of highest aggregate star rating. Some books in their top ten have tens of thousands of ratings, others have less than 3000 ratings. The criterion for inclusion is being on the “Best Books Ever” list. And I’m not sure how books are added to that (I can’t remember how GR lists work).
Anyway, despite all the data science they bring to the table, the overall design is not about “the internet” but about a particular GR list.
“anyone know why they use Da Vinci and not da Vinci?”
Yes. It’s because Dan Brown is an historical illiterate.
Leonardo da Vinci is, as anyone with a passing familiarity with Renaissance Italy knows, NEVER referred to as “da Vinci” — that would be the rough equivalent as referring to President Obama as “President from Honolulu” (although, not to get too political, I have far too many FB acquaintances who call him “the Kenyan”).
But I guess that “The Leonardo Code” did not sing, for some reason.
And don’t get me started on all the other flat-out idiot mistakes in all of Brown’s books that five minutes with the World Book Encyclopedia (let alone teh Google) would have prevented.
Nope, not a fan — can you tell?
“When the internet decides, James Joyce can’t hold a candle to JK Rowling.” James Joyce always gets held up as an icon of quality, I think because he’s difficult. Does that mean he’s good? Or in fact better than JK Rowling?
@Hapax: The thing that annoyed me about the Da Vinci Code was the Woody Allen syndrome: middle-aged, average scholar ends up with the young, hot woman — who is not only smart, beautiful, successful etc, etc, but a descendent of Jesus. Or the smart woman ends up as the trophy for the guy. I’ve read it too many times.
In some respects, the da Vinci code is probably far better read as a teen than it is as an adult already. A lot of books are. I’m making my second go at Dune at the moment,and though I enjoyed it well enough as a teen, it’s in danger of being a wallbanger as an adult. Turns out super special teenage characters with super special destinies is something you grow out of! I suspect the da Vinci Code would be the same. If you don’t know as much about the world, you won’t be yanked out of the book by the factual errors. If you haven’t been exposed over and over to middle aged man gets awarded the hot woman, it won’t bug you as much as a trope (you might still be annoyed by it, but you’ve yet to suffer through being beaten over the head with it over and over).
Though I will say, the Code from Vinci does kinda make sense as a title. It’s not what Brown is going for, but it works.
@MinaKelly: “Turns out super special teenage characters with super special destinies is something you grow out of!”