Friday, April 10, 2015

What Does "History" Mean to General Readers? A Microhistory (sic) of my Adventures in the Bookternet

 After participating in a reading challenge that I found on a blog last summer I've become interested in what people are calling the bookternet. Book-publicist, Rachel Fershleiser, who once did social media and events for Housing Works bookstore, describes it as a way to form community around the solitary pursuits of reading and writing. Publishers are interested in it for marketing purposes, of course, and the PW piece linked above includes an un-ironic discussion of how to "monetize conversations" among far-flung communities of "niche-readers" such as knitters and snow-boarders. It's also a way for writers to connect to their own readers, as Fershleiser argues, as they can tweet and have followers. Indeed: my husband is a devout follower of William Gibson and I am a twitter-groupie of Teju Cole,. Fershleiser is talking about another level of internet celebrity, which for YA-author and David Foster Wallace fanJohn Green developed prior to the release of his most popular book.
   In addition to creating my own sort-of internet challenges for academics to read books outside their specialty, I'm participating in the BookRiot Read Harder challenge. I got interested in BookRiot through their challenge and their book fetish shopping guides, as well as their argument in favor consciously increasing the racial diversity of authors one reads, but I didn't really encounter their full-on philosophy of reader populism until I got into an argument with the site managers about the definition of the historical field known as microhistory, which is "task ten" in their 2015 challenge.
   I was surprised to see this as a category in a popular reading challenge, but I thought it was pretty cool that people were going to read this somewhat obscure category of academic books, and I was looking forward to reading a new one myself. Not knowing what the latest microhistories were, I went to BookRiot's website to check out what they suggested reading.  As one of the other academics in the comment section pointed out, not one of the books on the list was a microhistory. When she and I engaged in a bit of banter, one of her comments was deleted by the editors for being abusive. The moderators deemed it "name-calling"when she said that people who refused to listen when informed of the correct definition were being lazy and narrow-minded. I had traced the origin of the misdefinition to a reader-created list on Goodreads from 2008 which now has almost 900 books and 1400 individual votes. It used the term to classify such books as  Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.  This characterization then seemed to spread from Goodreads to online book reviews and some public libraries.
  Interestingly, and a tribute to its accuracy and fact-checking, Wikipedia's definition has stuck to the original one associated with the work of historian, Carlo Ginzburg who is widely understood by historians to be one of microhistory's inventors and the major theorist of the subfield. Moreover, the editors on Talk-Wiki clarify when asked that the "recent trend of books by Kurlansky et al" are NOT microhistory but rather "topical histories."
    Recalling how excited I was when I first read Ginzburg's classic and genre-defining, the Cheese and the Worms , about the worldview of a 16th century heretic, and curious to see whether it is actually possible to correct a simple error once it has made its way around the internet, I made it my mission to try to reintroduce the original definition of microhistory to the reading community of the bookternet.  Thank goodness for this website to which I can keep referring back every time I get into a debate with someone about what the term means.  I am now mentioned as a participant in a "kerfuffle" over the meaning of the term in a BookRiot video, in which the website's managing editor has included both what they are calling the "academic" and "popular culture" meanings of the term. In case you are not following the links, here is a short definition of microhistory: it is a very detailed historical study of a person or a few people or a single small event, usually occurring in a specific place and during a short span of time, in order to tell some larger story about the culture as a whole. The History News Network explains the philosophical position a bit:
Ginzburg and many of his colleagues attacked large-scale quantitative studies on the grounds that they distorted reality on the individual level. The microhistorians placed their emphasis on small units and how people conducted their lives within them. By reducing the scale of observation, microhistorians argued that they are more likely to reveal the complicated function of individual relationships within each and every social setting and they stressed its difference from larger norms. - See more at:

    Clearly, any big study of something over hundreds or even thousands of years does not fit this definition. If "microshistory" means the history of marriage, manners, or cancer (Emporer of All Maladies is frequently mentioned as an example) then what do these folks think "macro" history is? This brings me to an even bigger question: what do general readers think history is? Judging from the History Channel, that would be wars.  If you take a look at Amazon's best-sellers in history, none of them are by academic historians and a number of them aren't history but current events. So this suggests that history, for most of the public means any book of non-fiction.  And right now, if the bookternet is "the general reading public", they are defining "microhistory" as the "history of just one thing" - and that definition has resulted in a massive list of books, which  should not be surprising -  since if you really think about it for any length of time, any book of non-fiction is going to be about "just one thing" - whether that one thing is a battle, a particular subject,  your favorite cocktail, a year, a set of years,  a pair of lovers in a small town in France, or the story of a 16th century heretic known as Menocchio. I looked through the list of 893 books and almost none of the books on the list fit the original definition of microhistory, but 2 are real academic microhistories and another 13 are kind of in the ballpark.
   In my argument with BookRiot's editors, I said that to be microhistory, it should be confined to a concentrated period of time and one place. So, when in their video which includes my "technical" definition, they gave as examples two books about major battles in WWI and WWII. I'm willing to concede that they are closer to the mark, but probably, neither of these is a microhistory either. It's here that in my effort to not be pedantic, I was overly simple. Because even though those battles were single events happening in single places,  they involved thousands of peoples, were of earth-shaking magnitude and just don't fit the basic methods of the field as defined by its founders. If these are microhistories, then every history of every battle would be a microhistory, thus turning almost all military history into microhistory. What makes a book like Pickett's Charge a microhistory vs. a book about Gettysburg in its entirety? BookRiot has pointed out that historians aren't entirely united in their definition of the field -  and that point does appear in the first sentence of one internet article written by some students that does come up when you google "what is microhistory?"  - but as even that article continues, it points out the same field-defining works, theorists and general theories and methods that appear in most academic pieces and wikipeida. Here is a short article that seeks to explain the fine points of difference between case-studies, biographies and microhistories. Here is another attempt to define the finer particulars and types of microhistory and here is another one. It's not that there aren't popular versions of Microhistory. Jill Lepore's work is influened by Microhistory, and I think it's arguable that Erik Larson is doing something like microhistory.
   I also tried using my power as a Goodreads librarian to edit the title of the original problem list to take out the word "microhistory." That strategy worked for a few weeks, but then those who know the genre as defined by Cod, Milk, Cadavers, etc. discovered my edit and changed it back, One reader explained that whatever it is, microhistory certainly isn't about a single incident or a biography. Of course, many of the books about various subjects that appear on the list are journalistic studies of science, medicine or current events and aren't history at all.  But since for the bookternet (which has no connection to the history-net), microhistory has come to mean something else, let's call it "general cultural studies of everyday life as defined through food, objects, diseases, practices and behaviors", There is now an effort underway to edit the microhistory list on Goodreads in order to get back to the original misdefinition. This effort includes purging all the classic works of microhistory from the list.    All this argument and counter-correcting says something about the niches and corners on the internet that the PW people were talking about, and about the narrow readership that still exists for academic history, including, it seems, one of its most lively and accessibly written sub-fields, microhistory.
    It is as if readers who really liked science fiction but didn't have a name for the genre decided that these books should be called "mystery"  because the subjects were unknown, speculative and mysterious, and then made a list of what some of us would call science fiction works with the subtitle, "a narrative work about fictional characters dealing with the unknown" and then everyone who stumbled across the list just added their favorite novels until the list came to embrace the entirety of fictional writing and even some long poems (because the ending is unknown in all these books until you get to the end).. At that point, another group of people, identifying themselves as in-the-know, would then make an effort to bring the list back to a set of books that you and I would classify as science fiction and expunge such strange and inappropriate books as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from the list as insufficiently mysterious because they are not set in outer-space or in another dimension. Meanwhile, no one in their corner of the internet has read or written mysteries or knew that the term once referred to any other kind of book. If such people chimed into the discussion they became exotic or expert representatives of some obscure knowledge community, or for some, annoying pedants who should just get over it, or, at the extreme, mean-spirited book snobs who are ruining mystery reading for everyone.
  Now, because I have argued so much about it there, people ask me on Goodreads,  "Is X a microhistory?" and in most cases the books aren't history at all. Most of what people want to read are  focused studies of recent current events written by journalists. This again reflects the popular understanding of history as found on the Amazon best-sellers page. No wonder teaching historical research methods is so difficult.   

Saturday, January 10, 2015

New Year's Academic Reading Challenge 2015

The first challenge I organized went well.  Some day I'll write a blog post about it, but most of the people who participated did all their reporting on Facebook.  Now I've learned this reading challenge idea is a "thing." I found another one at Book Riot That I like. However, if I keep doing so many reading challenges to keep myself limber and not over-specialized, I may wind up not actually doing all that reading for work that I have to do. With that, here's my......

Winter-Spring Reading Challenge 2015

Challenge Categories
Author,  Title,  date published;  pp. #
Date read
  any book for teaching/research 200 pp.

book written by someone you saw give a lecture or present at a conference

 book by a current colleague, coworker, or friend

 Academic book someone else recommended to you

 Book from a “Best of 2014” list

 book about the history or culture of a city, town or neighborhood in the United States

 academic book that’s considered a classic in your field (that you’ve never read) OR  Book that you always see cited but haven’t read.

 Book with a color in the title

Journalistic or popular book about any place outside the United States

 Special Issue of any academic journal

National Book Award Winner from before 1980

3 books related to science

 Science fiction book

 Non-fiction book about science written for general readers

Academic book about science or science fiction. (history or philosophy of science, lit crit of science fiction/utopia, cultural studies of science, or actual science for audience of scientists)

EXTRA CREDIT – Book in a genre you hate /or Double up in any category except the first “free” one.

The academic books must be at least 175 pages long
Novels must be at least 200 pages long
Books of poetry or special issues of journals must be at least 100 pp. long
Any book on the list, except where specified by category, can be a novel
Books can only count for one category, but you can switch them from one category to the other before you’re done if you like.
Only one book can be a re-read
Audiobooks are fine as long as they are unabridged and the print edition at least 200 pages long.

Books must be started no earlier than midnight Jan 1and finished no later than May 31, midnight.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Reading Challenge Update

So, my first ever reading challenge for academics has now begun. Post below to share with the group...what book are you starting with? I believe I'll be starting with the June 2014 issue of American Quarterly....

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Reading Challenge for Academics

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so with a doff of the professor's  tam and my apologies to Megan C. Troup, I am stealing her reading challenge idea to start one of my own. Troup runs book challenges over at her blog Semi-Charmed Kind of Life. I like the way she does her challenges because they're not just a number, but not so prescriptive as to require everyone to read and discuss the same book. 
Instead, she creates a set of categories designed to get readers to try new things.  I did her summer reading challenge this year, and I may also try her winter challenge. However, since we academics read for a living, I thought we could use our own challenge that included space for more specialized literature, flexed our reading muscles with some interdisciplinary categories, and allowed some breaks for serious but “fun” reads.....all the while, structuring in a bit of promotional support for our friends and colleagues.This one goes for the length of the fall semester and winter break and includes 14 books total.

   Extra instructions for people who like to read academic books, but aren’t professors appear in italics

The academic books must be at least 175 pages long
Novels must be at least 200 pages long
Any book on the list, except where specified by category, can be a novel
Books can only count for one category, but you can switch them from one category to the other before you’re done if you like.
Only one book can be a re-read
Audiobooks are fine as long as they are unabridged and the print editions are at least 200 pages long. 
To fit the framework of the challenge, books must be started no earlier than midnight on Tuesday 9/2 and finished no later than Dec. 31 midnight. 

Note for non-professional academics: In any place where it says “academic book” look for any book published by a scholar with a university press.  Look for the publisher info and the “scholarly apparatus”: footnotes /or endnotes, appendices, acknowledgments mentioning colleagues, graduate students, dissertation committees, etc.

5 points: Read any book related to your research or teaching (at least 200 pages long) (Non-professors, read any academic book)

10 points: Read a book written by a friend, acquaintance or colleague

10 points: Read a book by a former student or former teacher

10 points: Read an entire academic journal issue including book reviews

15 points: Read a book reviewed in the journal issue above

15 points: Read an academic book about a country or region that isn’t part of your research or your current teaching.  (Non-academics, read an academic book about a country or region that you don’t usually read about)

15 points:  Read a book that you always meant to read but never got to or never finished  (Non-professors, read a book assigned for a course that you never read or never finished when you were a student)

20 points:  Read a novel that was nominated for the National Book Award in 2014. The long list will be published in September and the finalists will be announced Oct. 15th.

20 points: Read a book about current events written by a journalist

25 points: Read a Pulitzer Prize winning book from before 1970 (any category). Find a list here:

20 points: Read a book with “house”, “apartment” or “room” in the title.

35 points: Read three academic books on the same general subject, one from each category: history, literary criticism, ethnography.

*** As you make your preliminary lists, post them in the comments on this post. I'll do check-ins periodically.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Scholarly Panic: Thoughts about Teaching and the notion of "Originality"

One of the hardest things that scholarly writers face is the pressure to be original.  For graduate students, who may be making their first attempts at original work, this demand for original ideas, interpretations or discoveries can be especially anxiety producing. I’ve heard stories of graduate students hiding certain library books in the fear that others will stumble upon the same ideas. I’ve speculated about and heard others speculate about plagiarism when publications come out that seem to replicate conclusions and sources that were in unpublished manuscripts that had been sent out for review. Even for more seasoned scholars, the fear is there that we don’t know what we’re doing and that our work will be replicating something else.  Given the amount of scholarly production, it seems almost impossible to imagine that we can do original work unless it’s on a subject that’s so obscure no one else knows (or cares) about it.

I’m writing this little reflective story as a way to think about how to teach students what we mean by originality and how to reduce the anxiety associated with a seemingly impossible goal.

This morning I was reading news on Facebook and followed a link to this article by Kristoffer Smemo, a  graduate student at UC Santa Barbara who’s writing his dissertation on liberal Republicans:  

I was thrilled by his analysis of the band Black Flag’s conservative ideology, because he had so clearly articulated and formulated thoughts about the U.S. hardcore punk scene, about which I had been reading as part of my research for a chapter of my book on anti-fascism.  After my initial thrilled and excited reaction to reading this sharp analysis, I had the panicked reaction of “oh no, he figured it out first!  And now… all my work on this subject up to now is just superfluous. ”

My “oh no!” reaction while understandable given the competitive aspects of academic culture is also kind of ridiculous for a number of reasons.

The reason for this reaction is based in an understanding of scholarship as a competitive endeavor in which only one person can be “the smartest” or “the first” to the finish line.  Given the fact that it’s hard to be original perceiving scholarship this way can make the experience of research anxiety producing, miserable and alienating.  If we instead think of scholarship as a collaborative human enterprise in which people working in the same area can be helpfully viewed as friends or comrades, what originality means, and how we get there becomes much less lonely and other people’s work becomes less threatening.

Here is a set of things I might say to students in order to reduce the anxiety about what it means to be original and to take some of the competitive energy out of the research and writing process.

1) Someone else will almost always have already had the same idea as you, or an even better one that you haven’t thought of yet, but that when you read it, will cause you to think:  “yes, that’s exactly right.” And, then perhaps, “Damn it, why didn’t’ I think of that?”
 It’s almost impossible to have an idea that no one else has. We’re all living in the same historical moment, and many of us are trying to figure out answers to the same problems, reading many of the same books, and swimming in the same cultural soup. So, of course we’re going to think similar things.  It would be more shocking if no one had the same idea you did than if they didn’t. It’s often the case that someone else has come to a particular question before you did. To look at this from another perspective, isn’t it nice to know that there is someone else who has thought this thing or thought it better than you? Isn’t it in fact nice that someone is interested in the same subject as you?  You are not alone and you are not crazy.   In fact, it means you are addressing a subject that matters to other people. Now, you can see evidence in the fact of this other person’s work that your work is relevant.

2)  Even if this other person has thought the same thing, or figured out this problem in a better way than you, and has even been working on this problem or question a lot longer than you have, it’s unlikely that he or she is working on all of the exact same questions that you are and about the exact same texts, historical period, or topics.  You can carry on with your work.  If it is the case that this person’s research has done exactly what you were planning to do and essentially “got there before you” that is why we do literature reviews when we embark on new scholarly projects. Aren’t you glad you found this book/article/dissertation now instead of a year from now?

3)  You have a new comrade and helper. Discovering that someone else has already answered the question you started your project with does not mean abandoning your research on a particular subject or casting that person’s work as an enemy that has to be defeated in order to prove your own originality or superiority, or hoping that no one will notice and failing to cite a highly relevant work.  The fact that this other person had already started this work before, and has thought about it so intelligently means that their work is going to be tremendously helpful and will save you  from having to do the work that they have already done.

4)  Now that this intellectual comrade has answered the question you started with, you can learn from his or her work, acknowledge this other scholar's significant contribution,  and think about moving to a question that the work raises but does not answer. There will pretty much always be at least one. No work on a subject can say everything about it, and any really good piece of work will be applicable in other ways.   There are all kinds of ways to take inspiration from another work on your subject:  whether that means looking at how an idea or fact can be seen in a different context, applying an idea to a new subject, going broader and making comparisons, going into more depth about a single detail, getting into some unexplored, but possibly related area that the other author wasn’t interested in, and in fact, continuing to treat that person as a scholarly “friend” – someone who shares your passion and engagement, and with whom you are working to build new knowledge in related areas. It makes scholarship much less lonely. This is quite different from thinking about the goal of scholarship as being to come up with an original finding in which you are pitted competitively with everyone else who is working on the same subject.

5) This is different from being so indebted to someone else’s work that you are unable to think of different questions from the ones that they have already answered and just want to repeat their insights and preach about them to others, or even that you cannot be critical of works that they have done. The only reason to write anything is because you still think something is missing from what's out there. Benjamin puts it this way,  Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.”  
  Maybe another day I'll write about the value of  enemies or adversaries - they have a role too. As Orwell's famous essay on writing describes it, writing is an ordeal. Why bother if you are already satisfied with what had already been written?  So, while the quest for originality can be anxiety producing when the purpose of your research is all about proving that you’re smarter than other people, that pressure comes off if you remain driven by your passion for the subject and experience some kind of fellowship with others who share that passion and are writing and thinking in the same area, while recognizing that each of us has limited capacities. No one work will say all that is there is to be said, and part of being “original” is actually about engaging productively with other scholars’ work, even when the initial experience of reading it can induce a momentary panic.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Usable Pasts and Historians' Fights

  I just finished reading the edited collection, Forever in the Shadow of Hitler: Original Documents of the Historikerstreit and, with some irony, my friend J and I spent part of the morning commute comparing the conservative German historians' similarity to other conservative nationalists seeking to retain national pride in the face of horrific national histories in Japan and the United States.
    If you're not familiar with the Historikerstreit, it erupted over two significant events in the mid-1980s:  one the visit of Ronald Reagan to the Bitburg cemetery and two, the publication of an article by Ernst Nolte which said, among other things, that Chaim Weitzman's declaration in 1939 that the Jews of Palestine would fight on the side of England in a war against Hitler meant that Hitler was rational in targeting Jews as political enemies and putting them in camps. Jurgen Habermas made the bold move of connecting the Nolte article to several other recent publications by conservative Germans and all of these to the rightward shift in German politics, known as the Wende, and the indignant responses came next. Richard J. Evans, (who was more recently an expert witness against David Irving at his libel trial), wrote an excellent brief summary of the arguments that places them in the context of German post-war politics and the historiography of fascism. Particularly in reading Evans' summary of the work of Andreas Hillgruber on the German army on the Eastern front, my mind again ran to comparison.
    Evans points out the problems with Hillgruber's representation of the German army on the Eastern front, drawing on the work of Omer Bartov on the German invasion of Russia, which indicates that rather than behaving as simple patriots defending their country from fearsome Russian hordes, or acting with "realistic moral responsibility"(with greater realism than the members of the military who attempted to assassinate Hitler in the July Plot of 1944) as Hillgruber argued, that the German army in the East behaved "with extreme brutality and barbarism to the Red Army...also laid waste whole areas of territory...and massacred or otherwise caused the deaths of millions of civilians as a matter of policy." (Evans, 60)
  It was hard to read the conservative historians dubbing Hitler's aggressive war as a "preemptive attack" on Russia, without thinking of the rationalizations presented for the U.S.'s 2003 invasion of Iraq, in the name of preemption, complete with its own fascist terminology of "shock and awe." Reading about Germany's efforts to come to terms with its past, I began to wonder how history a hundred years from now will judge America and how my generation will fair, as we forwarded emails and updated our statuses on Facebook, but easily returned the focus to our personal lives or careers while our country went on committing horrors in in our names. Will the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan become, like the war in Vietnam, remembered as strategic blunders with American victims, rather than as shocking, horrific examples of military aggression and war crimes? Will any criticism of the war be diverted by a mythology of the anti-war movement's betrayal of the troops? Today, our award-winning films concentrate on the experiences of American troops, and try to show gritty realism, but often wind up justifying aggression and even war crimes, and fail, as Nick Turse points out, to show the other side of the U.S. war machine - the point of view of people whose countries are under attack. He writes,
Few Americans born after the Civil War know much about war.  Real war.  War that seeks you out.  War that arrives on your doorstep -- not once in a blue moon, but once a month or a week or a day.  The ever-present fear that just when you’re at the furthest point in your fields, just when you’re most exposed, most alone, most vulnerable, it will come roaring into your world.
Those Americans who have gone to war since the 1870s -- soldiers or civilians -- have been mostly combat tourists, even those who spent many tours under arms or with pen (or computer) in hand reporting from war zones.  The troops among them, even the draftees or not-so-volunteers of past wars, always had a choice -- be it fleeing the country or going to prison.  They never had to contemplate living out a significant part of their life in a basement bomb shelter or worry about scrambling out of it before a foreign soldier tossed in a grenade.  They never had to go through the daily dance with doom, the sense of fear and powerlessness that comes when foreign troops and foreign technology hold the power of life and death over your village, your home, each and every day.
The ordinary people whom U.S. troops have exposed to decades of war and occupation, death and destruction, uncertainty, fear, and suffering -- in places like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, and Afghanistan -- have had no such choice.  They had no place else to go and no way to get there, unless as exiles and refugees in their own land or neighboring ones.  They have instead been forced to live with the ever-present uncertainty that comes from having culturally strange, oddly attired, heavily armed American teenagers roaming their country, killing their countrymen, invading their homes, arresting their sons, and shouting incomprehensible commands laced with the word “fuck” or derivations thereof.

 So perhaps U.S. patriots are not so far from Hillgruber in insisting on national identification with the average soldiers at the front regardless of their actions. I do not write this to say that the U.S. troops behaved like the German forces on the Eastern Front; of course there are significant differences. My point has to do with the nationalist impulse that insists on justifying or rationalizing the history of war in the name of preserving pride in one's national identity. As those on the left in the Historikerstreit argued, the very fact of resistance even within the military itself indicates that there was more than one "German" point of view. Similarly in the U.S., soldiers and veterans continue to resist despite the cost to themselves. Rather than following the post-war Germans'call to rehabilitate the military's reputation and expunge national shame, it is long past time that we heed another German, Erich Fromm, who repudiated imperialist nationalism as an affliction crippling human consciousness:
The average man today obtains his sense of identity from his belonging to a nation rather than his being a 'son of man'. His objectivity, his reason is warped by this fixation. He judges a stranger with different crieteria than the members of his own our idolatry, is our insanity. Patriotism is its cult....that attitude which puts the own nation above humanity....Only when man succeeds in developing his reason and love further than he has done so far, only when he can build a world based on human solidarity and justice, only when he can feel rooted in the experience of universal brotherliness, will he have found a new, human form of rootedness, will he have transformed his world into a truly human home (from The Sane Society, 59-60)

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Our Times and Contemporary Literature

   Being an academic has made me less inclined to read serious literary fiction. After hours of poring through microfilm reels in search of the occasional relevant fact, stumbling through a work of difficult theory with pen in hand, or doing a mandatory 6 hour stint in a library with two recent books in my field fact-checking over and over again, it's hard to want to come home, as I tried to do my first year in graduate school to Fielding's Tom Jones. In the age of VHS, I followed the advice of one dear friend and finished off each day of prelim-exam reading by watching a movie and drinking a glass of wine.  I did something similar when revising my book on a tight deadline one summer, knocking off at the end of the day with DVDs of Homicide.
  Before that, I was what was recently called a book girl. I always read promiscuously:  conspicuously carrying Kafka's essays with me to punk rock shows at fifteen but delighting equally in Agatha Christie mysteries read one after another during winter and summer vacations. I also recall the greatly satisfying experiences of reading what I knew was serious literature:  Pride and Prejudice and Catcher in the Rye both read during the summer in Texas; one summer in college, working in a university library and dragging home piles of things from the PQ section...Latin American and French literature in translation by the backpack load.  One year in college, when the wealthier students took off from the private New England school I went to for their expensive spring-break holidays, I decided to stay on campus reading novels (A Hundred Years of Solitude at the time)  rather than going home or to New York to visit family. "Novels?" an ex-boyfriend said, "YOU read novels?" Not a pleasure-reader, he thought I meant Jackie Collins, which is what his mother and her friends read. (No, I have never enjoyed that particular swath of bad books)
    Now, I feel very nostalgic about my pre-professional days, in high school, before graduate school, and some points in my adjunct days of riding trains between Brighton Beach and NYU, before I was working on a book and could read without being strategic about the use of my time. I often think back fondly to that 6 month period when I worked in the Hamptons, made regular trips to Canio's bookstore and read Toni Morrison, Phillip Roth, Herman Melville, and Umberto Eco either before or after going off to work in a restaurant, and those months after finishing my dissertation involving weeks spent with Heinrich Boll, Katherine Anne Porter,  Robert Graves, and William Faulkner. If I were to read this way today, however, I would need an excuse of "reading it for my book" or I would always feel like I should be using that valuable time to read some half-baked Deluezian meditation or a highly specialized book about this topic of mine. My anxiety mounts with each inch added to the "to-read" pile. By contrast, there is always time to read a detective novel, especially if it's an audiobook that can be listened to on an elliptical trainer, while driving, or doing chores around the house. These novels are absorbing and can be settled into, some deliberately cozy, but all like a familiar favorite meal, and they are not without insight into human character or social problems, and are not always so inattentive to language as you might expect.
     I'm thinking about this now having just finished reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and then reading some of the good and bad reviews. I could not deny that I liked it. I read it quickly and enjoyed it, but it didn't seem to me as weighty or deeply insightful or as linguistically delightful as what I think of when I say something is "great literature."  But what is that quality?  Is it just about the use of language?  That's what Francine Prose's negative review suggests. She attacks the prose at the sentence level and faults the sentimental ending, generalizes it to the larger problem, "Doesn't anyone care how something is written anymore?"  Similarly, Jonah Seigel wonders, if the cliche-ridden but gripping Goldfinch is a literary novel, then what makes any novel literary?  Has this category become just another genre, he wonders - "quality fiction?"  I agree that there is a problem for serious literature. I know this from friends who are writers - it's difficult to sell difficult books and find readers unless you are a star. Will Self 's  recent essay bemoaning the hostility to difficult novels and complacent philistinism traces the problem to the distracted minds called away from reading by the internet.  But before highspeed internet, changes in publishing and bookselling, as well as the middle-brow reviewing industries (Oprah, NPR) were problems as well. Too many of the criticisms of this middlebrow reading, which often come from rightly frustrated writers, attack the good-book-starved readers who have eschewed difficult literature for the ease and entertainment of the high-middle brow or the unapologetically "low" zones of commercial fiction.
     Judging from my own limited experience - of mostly American academics, who read difficult and serious work constantly, but unless they are literature professors, rarely read serious fiction - the problem is that the members of the social class for whom such difficult novels are generally written no longer feel that they have the time  to invest in reading them.