12 classic books that got horrible reviews when they first came out.
Reviewers are tasked with the daunting challenge of critically assessing a work's artistic merit, and determining whether a book is worth readers' valuable time. They are often also expected to predict -- or influence -- a novel's future, an assignment that may be impossible to fulfill with complete accuracy. Which is one reason why the art of the negative review has been called into question recently -- not only do writers need our support, there's also often a dissonance between critical reception and, say, Goodreads' crowd-sourced opinions. The Goldfinch is just one recent example of a title that failed to garner the support of top reviewers, but charmed book lovers (not to mention the 2014 Pulitzer judges) nevertheless.
Donna Tartt was preceded by a slew of talented writers whose works were initially snubbed by critics. Fitzgerald's Gatsby (y'know -- the Great one?) was originally panned as "obviously unimportant," and Brave New World was once said to be "heavy-handed propaganda." Yikes! Below are 12 classic books that once received bad reviews:
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15 bestselling books that readers love but critics hate
- Just because a book is beloved by the masses, doesn't mean it's a hit for critics.
- Novels that became Hollywood franchises like "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games," didn't recieve much love from critics.
- Even classics like "The Catcher in the Rye" and "The Great Gatsby" didn't impress critics when they were first released.
- Visit INSIDER's home page for more stories.
Critics and audiences don't always see eye-to-eye — and it's especially true for books .
Although some of these novels may have taken up residence on The New York Times Bestseller list and others have inspired multi-million dollar movie franchises, they still surprisingly failed to impress critics.
These critics don't hold back either, calling some of the most beloved books "boring," "improbable," "ordinary," "dull," and "unoriginal." One novel was even compared to Kraft macaroni and cheese for its inability to inspire.
Keep scrolling to see what critics had to say about some of your favorite books.
"Twilight" series by Stephenie Meyer
The "Fifty Shades of Grey" books were actually first written as fan fiction to another popular —but controversial series: "Twilight. " The YA series follows a clumsy girl named Bella as she falls in love with a dangerous but charming vampire named Edward. The book became a bestseller and created a successful franchise, but the critics didn't give it any love.
One Guardian critic called the protagonist a "nincompoop with the charisma of a boiled potato," while The Washington Post said it was like "reading a young teenage girl's diary boosted with enough of Meyer's made-up vampire lore to give it some mild narrative and sexual tension." The New York Times described the book's style as "overearnest, amateurish writing."
"Fifty Shades of Grey" series by E L James
When E.L. James' novel " Fifty Shades of Grey " hit shelves, it became a cultural phenomenon. Women everywhere were enticed by the dark and brooding Christian Grey as he preyed on clumsy Anna, luring her into his titillating world of BDSM.
But critics weren't so captivated. One critic at The Telegraph said, "creepy doesn't even begin to cover it," describing the writing as " bad throughout." The reviews didn't get any better as the series progressed. Business Insider said the last book turned Christian Grey into a pig. "Not even 20 pages in you get the sense Christian is an egotistical, obsessive-compulsive, creepy stalker lusting after a college-aged girl," per BI.
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's' Stone" by J.K. Rowling
In 1997, an unknown writer named Joanne Rowling published the first novel in a seven-part series: "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's' Stone." Twenty years later, the series has sold 500 million copies and become one of the most profitable franchises in history. While the beloved character Harry Potter is widely embraced today, critics weren't that impressed with the world Rowling created.
The Guardian said that the first book has a "pedestrian, ungrammatical prose style, which has left me with a headache and a sense of a wasted opportunity." The review goes on to to read, "Her characters, unlike life's, are all black-and-white. Her story-lines are predictable, the suspense minimal, the sentimentality cloying every page."
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled "Can 35 million book buyers be wrong? Yes." In it, the critic describes the book as "not well written" and writes, "One can reasonably doubt that 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' is going to prove a classic of children's literature."
"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch" is a bestseller that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, yet was poorly received by some critics . The story follows a 13-year-old boy whose entire world changes when his mother is killed in a terrorist attack during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
New Yorker critic James Wood said the book's "tone, language, and story belongs to children's literature." Meanwhile, The Paris Review said that the book consists of overused clichés, writing that "nowadays, even The New York Times Book Review is afraid to say when a popular book is crap."
"Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger
" Catcher in The Rye " by J.D. Salinger is one of the most beloved novels among high schoolers because it accurately portrays teen angst and rebellion. When the book was first released in the '50s though, critics weren't as interested in the novel as youngsters are today.
At the time of its release, The New Republic wrote that the book is "disappointing," drawing specific problems with the protagonist, Holden Caufield, writing, "there is too much of him." The review goes on to read, " And the reader at least suffered from an irritated feeling that Holden was not quite so sensitive and perceptive as he, and his creator, thought he was."
In fact, the book was banned at certain schools due to concerns of profanity, obscenity, and the fact that some felt the plot is " centered around negative activity ."
"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
When " The Great Gatsby " was released in 1925, the book was perceived as anything but great. F. Scott Fitzgerald's now-famous novel tells the story of a man who will do just about anything to earn the attention of a former lover. With a dazzling backdrop of the roaring '20s, "The Great Gatsby" has been considered a work of great American literature and even sparked a recent Hollywood movie of the same name, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
But critics weren't impressed when it was first published. The Chicago Tribune called the book "unimportant," and said it should be cast out of the famous Fitzgerald canon. The Evening World said it was "painfully forced" and "a valiant effort to be ironical."
"On the Road" by Jack Kerouac
With " On the Road ," Jack Kerouac was able to capture the beatnik generation and tell one of the most popular road trip stories in literature. Not only is the book a classic, but it's still popular amongst Americans 60 years later.
It wasn't so popular, however, with critics. For instance, The New York Times wrote : "It is not so much a novel as a long affectionate lark inspired by the so-called 'beat' generation, and an example of the degree to which some of the most original work being done in this country has come to depend upon the bizarre and the offbeat for its creative stimulus."
"Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn
" Gone Girl " helped put Gillian Flynn on the map after the novel became a bestseller and successful Hollywood movie starring Ben Affleck. Audiences gravitated towards the seemingly simple plot about a husband who is dealing with his wife's disappearance while all fingers are pointed at him. But nothing is as it seems in this suspenseful thriller.
However, critics don't love the book as much as most readers do. For example, Book Forum's Mary Gaitskill said she was repulsed by the title itself. "I found it as irritating as imagined, populated by snarky-cute, pop-culturally twisted voices coming out of characters who seem constructed entirely of 'referents' and 'signifies," she wrote. On the other hand, The Guardian wrote a kinder review but still said that they weren't "blown away."
"The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown
Dan Brown's breakthrough novel " The Da Vinci Code " was not only a bestseller, but it also became a cultural juggernaut. The story follows Brown's famous protagonist, Robert Langdon, as he unravels a mystery centuries in the making. The book became extremely controversial as it challenges the Catholic church and the story of Jesus Christ. The Vatican even called for a boycott .
Critics weren't kind to the novel either, taking issue mostly with Brown's conversational writing style. The BBC wrote that the novel was "the literary equivalent of painting by numbers, by an artist who can't even stay within the lines." The Guardian said it was "450 pages of irritatingly griping tosh."
Stephen King said the novel was the "mental equivalent of Kraft macaroni and cheese." Novelist Salman Rushdie said it was a "novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name."
The Washington Post took most issue with Brown's latest novel, "Origin," which also stars Robert Langdon. The critic wrote that the novel is "so moronic you can feel your IQ points flaking away like dandruff."
"A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara
While some are hailing "A Little Life" as the "the great gay novel" and a literary achievement , others are questioning the book as a piece of literature. The book follows a group of boys who meet in college and grow up to be struggling adults. The lengthy novel tackles subjects of race, sexual abuse, sexual orientation, and friendship.
One critic at the New York Review of Books wrote , "t he abuse that Yanagihara heaps on her protagonist is neither just from a human point of view nor necessary from an artistic one," and that "Yanagihara’s novel has duped many into confusing anguish and ecstasy, pleasure and pain." Most critique that the devastating nature of the novel exists solely to be devastating.
"Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen's " Freedom " is a mammoth of a novel that tackles the notions of love, marriage, and middle age in our modern world. The book — along with his other successful novel, "The Corrections" — made him the next "Great American Novelist" according to Time magazine.
Not everyone agrees.
"A 576-page monument to insignificance,” one critic from The Atlantic wrote . They even go on to call the writing "juvenile" and "directionless." The review even goes as far as to say, "The result is boredom."
"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood
Although " The Handmaid's Tale " was released in 1986, the past couple of years have revived a new interest in the novel after Hulu turned it into an Emmy-award winning TV show. Set in a world where women have no power or say in politics, the novel acts as a cautionary tale and a fearful symbol for what could happen under the wrong leadership.
Critics originally didn't see the same importance in the novel as readers do today. The New York Times wrote that the book "is powerless to scare." The review goes on to accuse the book of being "ordinary" and "unpardonable." Likewise, Time Magazine wrote , " Atwood's novel lacks the direct, chilling plausibility of ' Nineteen Eighty-Four' and 'Brave New World.'"
"Slaughterhouse-Five" by Kurt Vonnegut
" Slaughterhouse-Five " is widely considered one of Kurt Vonnegut's best and most successful works. Known for turning the American novel on its head, Vonnegut focused this sci-fi story on an alien/soldier's journey through war. While readers devour the novel for its irony and sarcasm, critics don't love its brashness.
The New Yorker wrote that the book had "short, flat sentences," that the "deliberate simplicity is as hazardous as the grand style," and that "Vonnegut occasionally skids into fatuousness." The New Republic took a stab at the author , writing, "Vonnegut is too cute, Vonnegut is precious, Vonnegut is silly."
"The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins
Suzanne Collins' YA series " The Hunger Games " is a favorite among teenagers and even skyrocketed as a successful film franchise starring Jennifer Lawrence. But it didn't receive the best critical reviews. One Guardian critic wrote , "I found it predictable, dull, unoriginal, and riddled with errors. Unfortunately, I cannot think of a single reason to recommend it."
The plot — which is described as "very weak and monotonous" — follows a girl growing up in a dystopian society that pits children against each other for entertainment.
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson
Although Stieg Larsson's novel " The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo " skyrocketed to the bestseller's list and inspired a mildly successful movie of the same name, critics weren't so receptive to the crime and action novel.
The New York Times called the book "improbable," and said it will not " win any awards for characterization," despite the iconic, lawless protagonist Lisbeth Salander. Likewise, one critic named Susan Cohen said , "This is easily one of the worst books I've ever read."
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Behind the book review’s best books list.
A conversation with the editors about the painstaking process of selecting the 10 Best Books of the year.
By Melissa Kirsch
This past week, The New York Times Book Review published its list of 100 Notable Books of 2023 . On Tuesday, a handful of those titles will be named the Review’s 10 Best Books of the year. The list is a closely guarded secret, the product of many months of passionate closed-door debate presided over by Gilbert Cruz, the editor of the Book Review, and Tina Jordan, his deputy.
Because I cannot bear to be in close proximity to a secret that I am not in on, I have, in a nonchalant — some might say devastatingly subtle — fashion tried my damnedest to get Gilbert and Tina to slip and tell me the five books of fiction and five of nonfiction their team has chosen.
They’re not easily entrapped, these two, and who can blame them for keeping the fruits of their painstaking labor secret? The nominating process begins in October of the previous year, when Review editors begin reading the books slated for publication the following January.
Come March, the staff starts meeting monthly to discuss potential titles. The books discussed in these meetings must be nominated by a staffer and have at least one other reader seconding that nomination.
Some people come with prepared speeches in support of the book they’re nominating. Others speak extemporaneously. The debate is spirited. By the conclusion of each meeting, it’s clear which books are garnering support and which are losing steam. “What you’re trying to do at that early stage,” Gilbert said, “is nominate books, but then also weed out books and keep the strongest ones so that they keep moving through the process.”
The meetings ramp up to once a week when fall arrives. Sometimes the discussions last as long as two hours. Other weeks, everyone in the room seems to quickly agree that the book up for discussion is, or is not, going to make the cut. Gilbert and Tina take anonymous straw polls of the assembled staffers: “If you had to pick three of these five books, which would you choose?”
By early October, they stop adding new books and start looking closely at the selections in relation to one another. The goal is to arrive at a list that reflects the year and is balanced — so it doesn’t have, say, two histories that cover the same time period.
“There’s sometimes an assumption that we are trying to send a statement with the list,” Gilbert said. But both he and Tina were adamant that the list is not political, and the only statement they’re making is “these are the best books of the year and you should read them.”
“We’re not engineering the list in any way,” Tina clarified. “We’re not saying, ‘Oh, gosh, at least three of the books on the fiction list need to be by women.’”
A recent study found that less than half of adults had read one or more books for pleasure in the previous year, which Gilbert called “depressingly low.” He hopes that when the Book Review’s list is published on Tuesday at 10 a.m. Eastern, people will find something they’re excited to read. “If The New York Times can be a guide to anyone who cares about books, about the one or two books that they should be reading out of any given year,” he said, “that is a smashing success.”
The 10 Best Books from each year since 2004 .
In 2021, The Book Review asked readers to choose the best book of the previous 125 years .
Nine new books our editors recommend this week. (These titles were published too late in the year for Tuesday’s list; they’ll be eligible for the 10 Best list for 2024.)
THE WEEK IN CULTURE
Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” opened this week. Here’s what to read, listen to, eat, watch and visit before — or after — you watch the movie . ( French critics have panned it .)
Aardman Animations, the studio behind “Wallace and Gromit,” dispelled the rumors that it was running out of clay for its stop-motion films.
Shakira settled a tax evasion case in Spain on Monday before it went to trial, agreeing to pay a fine of over $7 million.
The N.F.L. star (and world-famous boyfriend) Travis Kelce explained how he and Taylor Swift met in an interview with The Wall Street Journal .
Suki Waterhouse and Robert Pattinson announced they are expecting their first child , NBC News reports.
The comedian Matt Rife faced criticism for a joke about domestic violence in his recent Netflix special, Variety reports.
BMI, the licensing agency that represents songwriters including Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar, sold itself to a private equity firm .
The TV series “Fargo” returned for a fifth season. Here’s a refresher on the previous four seasons.
The rapper ASAP Rocky will stand trial for shooting a former friend in 2021. He faces up to 24 years in prison, Pitchfork reports.
Jamie Foxx was accused of sexual assault in a new lawsuit, CNN reports.
THE LATEST NEWS
Hamas freed 13 Israelis, 10 Thais and one Filipino who had been held hostage in Gaza in exchange for 39 Palestinian prisoners on the cease-fire’s first day. More than 130 aid trucks reached Gaza.
“It’s only a start, but so far it’s gone well,” President Biden said of the cease-fire, adding that “the chances are real” that the two sides will extend it further .
Derek Chauvin, the former police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd, was said to have been stabbed in an Arizona prison .
A growing number of Chinese citizens, frustrated with harsh Covid restrictions and Xi Jinping’s government, are entering the U.S. from Mexico .
An advertiser backlash after Elon Musk endorsed a post accusing Jews of “hatred against whites” could cost X $75 million .
By Andrew LaVallee
📺 “Faraway Downs” (Sunday): Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman star in this six-episode series about an Englishwoman struggling to protect her ranch in the Australian outback with the help of a rugged cattleman. If this reminds you of the 2008 movie “Australia,” there’s a reason: Baz Luhrmann created this new show from footage shot for the nearly three-hour maximalist original, which our chief film critic Manohla Dargis once described as “a testament to movie love at its most devout, cinematic spectacle at its most extreme, and kitsch as an act of aesthetic communion.”
🎬 “May December” (Friday): This movie is loosely based on the life of Mary Kay Letourneau, a woman convicted in 1997 of raping a 13-year-old boy, whom she later married and had children with. Julianne Moore plays Gracie, a woman in a seemingly tranquil marriage. Natalie Portman, playing an actress hired to portray Gracie in a new film, comes to study her. The film is sometimes disturbing and sometimes unexpectedly hilarious. Our pop culture reporter Kyle Buchanan called it the most fun movie at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
RECIPE OF THE WEEK
By Melissa Clark
Peanut Butter Blossoms
Now that Thanksgiving is over and December’s upon us, it’s time to shift our thoughts away from turkeys and cranberry sauce and toward cookie season in all its sweet glory. Baking a batch of peanut butter blossoms is a fine way to kick it all off. A classic recipe first popularized by a 1957 Pillsbury Bake-Off, these are simple enough to make with pantry staples and a bag of chocolate kisses, and even easier to devour, one chewy blossom at a time. You can substitute other nut butters for the peanut butter: Almond butter mixed with a few drops of almond extract makes for a delightfully fragrant variation.
Storybook endings: How a Hallmark channel screenwriter secured her dream house.
What you get for $550,000: A midcentury-modern home in Sheffield, Ma.; a two-bed, two-bath condo in Chicago; or an Italianate townhouse in Richmond, Va.
The hunt: Rather than accept a rent increase, a sales representative decided to buy a studio apartment. With a budget of less than $450,000, which one did he choose? Play our game .
Christmas in September: A week after the first day of fall, the new holiday shop from the retailer John Derian started coming together.
“A gateway flaw”: Stretch marks are becoming ubiquitous in lingerie marketing . Some find the strategy disingenuous.
Don’t be that tourist: Learn from these readers’ travel mistakes .
A different kind of proposal: Brides and grooms are asking friends and family to be part of their wedding party with gifts.
ADVICE FROM WIRECUTTER
We’re in the midst of the biggest gift-shopping weekend of the year. As senior editor of Wirecutter’s gift coverage, I can attest that the only thing better than scoring the perfect present for someone on your list is getting it at a discount. Wirecutter has already done some of the legwork for you: Our editors have spent the year vetting sweet, silly and sentimental gifts, and many of our picks are on sale right now . And if gifts aren’t on your mind quite yet, we’ve got you covered with the best early Cyber Monday deals to browse for yourself. — Jennifer Hunter
For vetted deals sent straight to your inbox, sign up for Wirecutter’s daily newsletter , The Recommendation.
GAME OF THE WEEKEND
No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Michigan, college football: Apart from the national championship, this is the biggest game of the season. The rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State is as ancient and fierce as any in college football, and it’s even better when the teams are undefeated, as they both are this year. These are two of the country’s best defenses — Ohio State allows the fewest passing yards of any team, and Michigan gives up the fewest points — so one big play could decide this one. 12 p.m. Eastern on Fox
Michigan’s head coach, Jim Harbaugh, won’t be on the sidelines today as he finishes a three-game suspension over his team’s sign-stealing scandal .
NOW TIME TO PLAY
Here is today’s Spelling Bee . Yesterday’s pangram was factotum .
And here are today’s Mini Crossword , Wordle , Sudoku and Connections .
Thanks for spending part of your weekend with The Times. — Melissa
Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox . Reach our team at [email protected] .
Melissa Kirsch is the deputy editor of Culture and Lifestyle at The Times and writes The Morning newsletter on Saturdays. More about Melissa Kirsch
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Issue 7: Post45 x Journal of Cultural Analytics
The goodreads “classics”: a computational study of readers, amazon, and crowdsourced amateur criticism, melanie walsh and maria antoniak.
What is a classic? This is "not a new question," as T.S. Eliot acknowledged more than seventy-five years ago. 1 More than simply "not new," this question now feels decidedly old, hashed out, and even passé. Perhaps most glaringly outdated is the word "classic." Literary scholars don't often use the term anymore, at least not as a serious label for literature "of the highest rank or importance." 2 In 1991, John Guillory declared that the term classic was "all but retired." 3 The label, according to Guillory, signified not only a "relatively uncritical regard for the great works of Western literature" but the "precritical era of criticism itself." 4 Instead, in academic conversations, the ardent language of the "classics" has largely been displaced by the more critical vocabulary of the "canon," which frames literary significance more carefully as a product of cultural selection.
Yet the question — what is a classic? — remains surprisingly powerful in the twenty-first century because the classics are alive and thriving on the internet, in the marketplace, and among readers, even if not in universities or among academics. Contemporary readers not only use the term "classic," they use it a lot and often have strong feelings about it. "* To all the snobs on goodreads*: I read a CLASSIC," one reader heralded in a Goodreads review of George Orwell's 1984 , brandishing the term six more times before concluding: " I read a CLASSIC. wohooooooo. " Another Goodreads user, Bren, rated Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita two out of five stars and explained: "I get that this a classic and book snobs who read this will sig[h] in indignation but I do not care...Lolita is a classic but it just is not MY classic." 5 Yet another disgruntled reader panned J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and ventured that "anybody who tells me this is a classic or that I 'don't understand it' can kiss the whitest, fattest part of my ass." Why do contemporary readers use the term "classic" so frequently and so passionately? The classics, it turns out, are at the heart of some of the most significant developments in contemporary literary history, including the rise of digital literary culture, online amateur criticism, and internet corporations with bookish investments like Goodreads and Amazon. There are few places more instructive for understanding these developments and the contemporary classics than Goodreads, the focal point of this essay.
With more than 120 million members, Goodreads is the largest social networking site for readers on the internet and a subsidiary of Amazon, one of the wealthiest and most influential corporations in the world. On Goodreads, internet users can categorize any book as a "classic" and publish their own responses to it — gushing praise, mean takedowns, critical analyses, snarky parodies, personal narratives, and more. Among thousands of literary categories on Goodreads, "classics" is one of the top ten most popular and includes some of the most rated and reviewed books across the entire site. The frequently tagged "classic" To Kill a Mockingbird (1969), for example, has been rated by Goodreads users more than 4 million times, a level of engagement only surpassed by three other books: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1997), Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games (2008), and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight (2005).
This flood of Goodreads classics content represents an excitingly large archive of amateur criticism and reader responses, an opportunity for scholars to hear nonacademic readers' voices in ways that were difficult if not impossible before the internet. For example, understanding how readers felt about classics in the Victorian period is difficult because there is little first-hand evidence from Victorian readers, as Richard D. Altick once explained: "The great majority of the boys and girls and men and women into whose hands fell copies of cheap classic reprints did not leave any printed record of their pleasure. Only occasionally did the mute, inglorious common reader take pen in hand." 6 Far from this "mute, inglorious" Victorian common reader, the twenty-first-century readers of Goodreads regularly publish records of their readerly pleasure and displeasure on the internet. Beyond providing a rich archive of reader responses, Goodreads also raises questions about whether its social network might enable a democratization of the classics. The classics, after all, have historically been defined by those in power and excluded "the interests and accomplishments of minorities, popular and demotic culture, or non-European civilizations," as Ankhi Mukherjee describes. 7 To what extent are millions of Goodreads users from around the globe now remedying or replicating such historical exclusions?
Though Goodreads data is a boon for literary criticism and a potentially transformative development for literary culture, it is also a boon for corporations. Amazon's looming shadow over Goodreads data helps bring into focus a more financially minded definition of a classic, perhaps best summarized by poet and literary critic Mark Van Doren. A classic, Van Doren said, is simply "a book that remains in print." 8 For the twenty-first century, we might update Van Doren's definition and say that a classic is simply a book that continues to make money in whatever form it takes, whether as a print book, audiobook, e-book, screen adaptation, or as the subject of millions of online book reviews. In fact, it is clear, based on the Goodreads reviews that we analyze in this essay, that industries such as film, television, publishing, e-commerce, and tech not only profit from the classics but profit from each other in a circular loop, benefiting from the reinforcement of works as classics in other mediums and domains. Considered together, this classics industry , as we call it — a formulation inspired by and indebted to Simone Murray's "adaptation industry" as well as Pierre Bourdieu's theories of cultural production 9 — proves to be one of the strongest influences on Goodreads users' perception of the classics.
The tensions between democratic potential and corporate exploitation that we observe in the Goodreads classics are characteristic of many social networks and Web 2.0 platforms, which fundamentally rely on user-created content. These dynamics have been studied extensively by scholars of fandom, new media, and digital culture, among other fields. 10 Yet how social network dynamics and the internet economy are reshaping literary culture, in particular, is still a relatively new conversation, led by critics such as Murray, Aarthi Vadde, Lisa Nakamura, and Mark McGurl. 11 By examining Goodreads reviews in this essay, we hope to contribute to this emerging conversation. We also hope to add a quantitative, data-driven perspective to the discussion by curating a collection of more than 120,000 Goodreads reviews and by using computational methods to study some of the most salient trends. We believe that digital literary culture is an area that especially rewards the convergence of digital humanities methods and contemporary literary criticism. The massive number of Goodreads ratings and reviews is part of what makes the platform worthy of study and financially lucrative, but also what makes Goodreads difficult to understand in broad strokes. Digital humanities and cultural analytics scholars have demonstrated, however, that computational methods can help us better understand cultural phenomena at scale. By employing these methods on Goodreads data in particular, we build on previous Goodreads-related DH research by Karen Bourrier and Mike Thelwall, J.D. Porter, Alexander Manshel, and Laura McGrath, James F. English, Scott Enderle, and Rahul Dhakecha, Allison Hegel, and Andrew Piper and Richard So, among others. 12
Scale is not our only motivation for using computational methods. The contemporary book world, including but not limited to Goodreads and Amazon, is increasingly governed by algorithms and data, which presents a number of challenges for contemporary literary scholars. "Clearly the leviathan that is Amazon exerts immense influence on the global book trade," as Simone Murray contends, "but how are scholars to document, much less critique, algorithmic culture's self-reinforcing effects on cultural selection if denied access to the workings of the algorithm's engine-room?" 13 To provide one answer to Murray's urgent question, we believe that computational methods can supply a way of documenting, understanding, and critiquing algorithmic culture and its effects. By collecting and analyzing Goodreads data with computational methods, we are able to see, for example, that Goodreads only publicly displays a small fraction of its data. We are also able to detail some of the specific social effects of the platform's default sorting algorithm, which prioritizes the most liked and most commented on reviews. This digital infrastructure produces a feedback loop among Goodreads reviews, in which reviews that receive attention continue to receive more attention ad nauseam.
This feedback loop is a fitting metaphor for the consecration of the classics on Goodreads more broadly. Though Goodreads users technically define the classics for themselves, their definitions are clearly shaped by a reciprocal system of reinforcing influences — old institutions like high schools, universities, and publishing houses as well as new institutions like Amazon. The result is a reader-produced vision of the classics that is surprisingly less diverse, in terms of authors' race and ethnicity, than those represented by U.S. literature syllabi, though more diverse in terms of genre, including more genre fiction, young adult fiction, and adapted fiction. Though Goodreads users seem strongly influenced by traditional institutions and the capitalist marketplace, they nevertheless demonstrate enormous creativity in finding ways to make this critical conversation their own — parodying and panning different literary styles, reliving and reimagining high school English classes, pushing back against the perceived arbiters of literary authority, and publicly changing their minds.
To close this introduction, we foreground our own approach to Goodreads data, since the exploitation of user data is a central subject of this essay. We have chosen not to publicly share our dataset of Goodreads reviews, though we have shared the code that we used to collect data from the Goodreads website, and we have obtained explicit permission from each Goodreads user who is directly quoted in this essay. 14 We believe that ethical approaches to user data will continue to be one of the most important conversations for digital humanities and cultural analytics research, and we expand on our choices further in the Appendix.
The Classics "Shelf": Genre, Hashtag, Advertising Keyword
This essay understands Goodreads users to be readers as well as "amateur critics," a framing that we draw from Aarthi Vadde, Melanie Micir, and Saikat Majumdar, among others. 15 As Vadde explains, "The ease and ubiquity of digital publishing have enabled the 'mass amateurization' of the critical, creative, and communicative arts, allowing amateurs to bypass the gatekeeping practices of specific institutions...and to perform acts of photography, journalism, or authorship without necessarily identifying with a specialized guild or benefitting from its resources." 16 The digital platform of Goodreads similarly allows amateurs to perform acts of literary criticism, to publish their own analyses and judgements of literature, without formal training and without access to traditional publishing venues. The three main ways that Goodreads users act as amateur critics are by rating books between one and five stars, by reviewing books in 15,000 characters or less, and by "shelving" books into categories. We begin with an extended discussion of Goodreads "shelves" because they are one of the primary ways that users define the classics and that Amazon profits from the classics.
The first telling clue about these shelves is that the Goodreads website fluidly refers to them as "shelves," "genres," and "tags." This slippery relationship points to a significant evolution of genre among readers and amateur critics in the twenty-first century: genre is being subsumed and reshaped by tagging . Tagging is a common system for classifying and organizing content on the internet, in which users tag digital content with their own free-form descriptions, keywords, and metadata (think hashtags on Twitter). The shelf system on Goodreads is a social or collaborative tagging system because users can apply different tags to the same content, essentially crowdsourcing book categorization. Prior computational social science and natural language processing research has explored how these collaborative tagging systems produce "folk taxonomies" or folksonomies , classification systems built by communities from the ground up. 17 Literary genre, in the hands of internet users equipped with tagging systems, has similarly blossomed into a grassroots taxonomy that incorporates conventional genres but also splinters into new genres, microgenres, publishing industry categories, reception metadata, hashtags, and more. 18 For example, a Goodreads user named Candace tagged Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) as "classics" and six other distinct categories ( figure 1 ): "wtf-did-i-just-read," "kindle-unlimited," "dark-themes," "favorites," "listened-to-audio-version," and "age-difference." 19 Fellow Goodreads users tagged The Handmaid's Tale as "science-fiction," "fantasy-sf," "man-booker-shortlist-longlist," "tv-series," "re-read," and "feminism," among many other tags. As these examples demonstrate, Goodreads users mold conventional genre to better represent their tastes, values, and cataloguing needs. Allison Hegel argues that Goodreads shelves may also help readers "articulate their identities to others and connect with larger communities." 20 According to Jeremy Rosen, most literary critics today understand genre "not as a rigid category that texts 'belong to' or a set of rules that one must abide by, but as a flexible set of techniques that can be adapted according to the needs of its users ." 21 While Rosen's "users" are mostly authors, who mold genre to create their own literary works, the ambiguous term suggests that others can use genre, too, including readers and amateur critics. Thus, "classics" emerges as an important contemporary genre for readers in addition to a label of literary value and publishing category.
Though "classics" is just one Goodreads shelf among thousands, it is one of the most important and foundational. In the website's earliest days, the company used "classics" as their first anchoring example to introduce and explain the shelving system: "You can create your own personal bookshelves. From classics to canadabooks, to childrenslit and geek, you can create any category that suits your personal taste." 22 Ten years later, the classics remained Goodreads go-to example: "Shelf names range from classics and coffee-table-books to childrens-lit and sci-fi — you can create any category that suits your personal taste." 23 Because "classics" supposedly represents the oldest and most traditional literary category, it serves as an effective foil for any unconventional literary category a Goodreads user might dream up, and it also invites a mass of readers and amateur critics to participate in a seemingly elite conversation. The classics thus make the entire shelf system legible and appealing.
Shelves are also financially lucrative for Goodreads and Amazon, the classics shelf particularly so. Each time a Goodreads user shelves a book in their personal library, that user simultaneously shelves the same book in the platform's massive library of more than two billion books. 24 "Goodreads turns the reader into a worker," as Lisa Nakamura observes, and through shelves, the company crowdsources the enormous work of organizing two billion books to the masses. 25 By shelving books, Goodreads users also (more unsettlingly) organize themselves into coherent audience categories that can be effectively targeted by advertisers. The same shelves that Goodreads users invent are sold as advertising target keywords, as Goodreads' informational material for advertisers shows in figure 2 . These shelves represent not only books but also people : the Goodreads users who form communities around genres and subject areas, who read and discuss the books shelved into these categories. Browsing through the list of advertising "target values" reveals that some of these shelves are fascinatingly niche like space-opera , mermaids , and reformation-history . Yet other target values like mental-illness and abuse seem more serious and sensitive, raising the concerning possibility that vulnerable groups might be targeted by advertisers. Goodreads flags the "classics" as one of their top 10 most "prominent" genres for advertisers, putting it in the same company as "contemporary," "historical-fiction," "fantasy," "fiction," "manga," "mystery," "romance," "non-fiction," and "young-adult." Looking at the top 10 most rated books across the entire Goodreads website offers one clear picture of this prominence: five of the top 10 are classics (Table 1).
To fully grasp the significance of Goodreads users' shelving labor, it is helpful to compare Goodreads to Netflix, the world's largest video streaming service. Like Goodreads, Netflix has a massive microgenre system for its video content, featuring hyper-specific genres like "Deep Sea Horror Movies" and "Romantic Dramas Based on Classic Literature." To assemble these 70,000+ "altgenres," Netflix "paid people to watch films and tag them with all kinds of metadata," as Alexis Madrigal reported in 2014. 26 "When these tags are combined with millions of users' viewing habits, they become Netflix's competitive advantage," Madrigal argues. "The data can't tell them how to make a TV show, but it can tell them what they should be making." 27 By tagging books with their own extremely detailed metadata, Goodreads' 120 million users perform a similar service for Goodreads and Amazon, but they do it for free. 28
The Classics According to Goodreads Users
When Goodreads users shelve books, they supposedly classify books on their own terms without direct intervention from the academy, the publishing industry, or Amazon. Technically, any of the two billion books in the Goodreads library could become a classic in users' hands. Yet when we collate the books that Goodreads users have collaboratively consecrated as classics, we find the strong influence of school curricula and what we call the classics industry , the interrelated network of businesses that generate and profit from the classics — such as publishing, film and television, and internet corporations like Goodreads itself. To identify this list of Goodreads classics, we first selected the top 100 literary works tagged as a classic the greatest number of times by Goodreads users throughout the site's history (2006-2019). We then added the top 100 literary works that were tagged as a classic and most read by Goodreads users in the first week of September 2019 (the week when we collected our data). The homepage for popular shelves like the classics prominently features books that were "Most Read This Week," displaying them even above the most tagged books in the genre. We decided to include this second group of books because they are conspicuously promoted by Goodreads and provide a slightly different perspective on the Goodreads classics — not only what users have tagged as classics but also which classics users actually seem to be reading. Many of the 100 most read classics overlap with the 100 most shelved classics, and in total the list includes 144 unique titles. 29
The makeup of the Goodreads classics (figure 3) confirms what Lisa Nakamura observes about the platform: "Reader tastes reflect the traditional literary canon more closely than one might expect." 30 These Goodreads classics include canonical mainstays such as Homer's The Odyssey (~700 BC) and Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603), Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1926) and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925), J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1955). Their publication dates noticeably skew toward the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. More than a third were published after 1945. While the dominant form of literature in these Goodreads classics is fiction, there is also a small amount of poetry, drama, and non-fiction, such as Kahlil Gibran's book of prose poetry, The Prophet (1923), Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), and Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl (1947).
Many texts labeled as classics by Goodreads users seem to overlap with English literature curricula from U.S. grade schools, high schools, and colleges. Though the Goodreads platform has an increasingly global audience — with notable emerging userbases in India and the UK — most of its users have historically hailed from the U.S. and still make up an estimated 40% of sitewide traffic. 31 For two rough estimates of how much the Goodreads classics overlap with school syllabi, we consulted a recommended reading list from the Advanced Placement (AP) English program — a common literature curricula in U.S. high schools — as well as a compilation of college-level English literature syllabi from the Open Syllabus Project, which draws on syllabi from many countries but predominantly from the U.S. 32 More than a third of the Goodreads classics authors are specifically recommended by the AP English program, and about half rank within the top 200 most assigned college-level authors.
Yet the Goodreads classics depart from these school-sanctioned lists in two particularly striking ways. First, the Goodreads classics are considerably less diverse in terms of the race and ethnicity of their authors. Race is extremely complex and difficult to reduce to data, especially because racial categories differ across different societies. However, if we acknowledge this reduction and use racial categories from the U.S. to reflect the perspective of the majority of Goodreads users, 33 then almost 94% of the Goodreads classics authors are white, which makes them whiter than both the AP recommended authors (70%) and the Open Syllabus authors (86%). The Goodreads classics include works by six Black writers: Alexandre Dumas, Frederick Douglass, Chinua Achebe, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. There are also works by Laura Esquivel and Gabriel García Márquez, who would likely be read as Latinx from the perspective of U.S. racial logics, and Kahlil Gibran, who would likely be read as Middle Eastern or North African from the same perspective. There are no works by Asian, Asian American, or Indigenous authors. Further, there are few texts written by authors beyond North America and Europe, with notable exceptions including Achebe's Things Fall Apart , Gibran's The Prophet , and Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude . This lack of racial and geographic diversity in the Goodreads classics is not entirely surprising when one considers the user demographics of Goodreads. Beyond the platform's U.S.-centrism, the racial demographics of its user base skew overwhelmingly white — at least according to Quantcast, one of the ad industry's leaders for measuring online traffic and user demographics. As of June 2020, according to Quantcast, Goodreads users were 77% Caucasian, 9% Hispanic, 7% African American, 6% Asian, and 1% other. 34 It is crucial to note, however, that Quantcast uses statistical modeling techniques to predict demographic characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity, and income, and, as sociologist Ruha Benjamin argues, companies that "create racial-ethnic data to be sold to others" deserve intense scrutiny. 35 Quantcast data is nevertheless used by many companies, including Goodreads, which makes it important to consider. 36 With these purported user demographics in mind, the predominantly white Western makeup of these reader-produced classics is not shocking but it is nevertheless startling, and it cautions any outsized faith in crowdsourced technologies as necessarily or predictably democratizing tools.
The second significant departure from school curricula is the presence of genre fiction, young adult fiction, and film- and television-adapted fiction. For example, among the Goodreads classics, we find science fiction and mystery in Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) and Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939); children's novels in E.B. White's Charlotte's Web (1952) and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911); and the source material for iconic film adaptations in L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), and Stephen King's The Shining (1977). Because most of this genre fiction entered our Goodreads classics list from the "Most Read This Week" list, it perhaps points to readers' actual, or at least more typical, reading habits and tastes. 37
The Goodreads Algorithmic Echo Chamber
Goodreads users have not, on the whole, disrupted or remade the traditional canon of classics in any clearly radical ways via their crowdsourced shelving practices — save perhaps for the incorporation of genre fiction. From the perspective of race and ethnicity, Goodreads users in fact seem to be reinforcing an even whiter and less diverse canon of classics than one would find in a typical high school or college classroom today. By analyzing Goodreads reviews in addition to shelf classifications, we hoped to better understand the forces and influences shaping this perception of the "classics" — who and what "is responsible for maintaining them in their preeminent position," as Jane Tompkins once put it. 38 When we turned to collect and analyze Goodreads users' reviews, we recognized one clear answer: Goodreads and Amazon. In this section, we briefly discuss the challenges that we faced while collecting Goodreads reviews, which we hope will be informative for others who wish to work with Goodreads reviews in the future. But more importantly these challenges reveal key insights about Goodreads/Amazon's proprietary algorithms and management of user data.
The first key insight is that Goodreads purposely conceals and obfuscates its data from the public. The company does not provide programmatic (API) access to the full text of its reviews, as some websites and social media platforms do. To collect reviews, we thus needed to use a technique called "web scraping," where one extracts data from the web, specifically from the part of a web page that users can see, as opposed to retrieving it from an internal source. 39 The Goodreads web interface makes it difficult to scrape large amounts of review data, however. It's not just difficult for researchers to collect Goodreads reviews. It's difficult for anyone to interact with Goodreads reviews. Though more than 90 million reviews have been published on Goodreads in the site's history, one can only view 300 reviews for any given book in any given sort setting, a restriction that was implemented in 2016. Previously, Goodreads users could read through thousands of reviews for any given book. Because there are a handful of ways to sort Goodreads reviews (e.g., by publication date or by language), it is technically possible to read through 300 reviews in each of these sort settings. But even when accounting for all possible sort setting permutations, the number of visible and accessible Goodreads reviews is still only a tiny fraction of total Goodreads reviews. This throttling has been a source of frustration both for Goodreads users and for researchers.
Working within these constraints, we collected approximately 900 unique reviews for each classic book — 300 default sorted reviews, 300 newest reviews, and 300 oldest reviews — for a total of 127,855 Goodreads reviews. We collected these reviews regardless of whether the user explicitly shelved the book as a "classic" or not. We also explicitly filtered for English language reviews. Despite this filtering, a small number of non-English and multi-language reviews are included in the dataset, and they show up as outliers in some of our later results. Compared to the archives of most readership and reception studies, this dataset is large and presents exciting possibilities for studying reception at scale. But it is important to note that this dataset is not large or random enough to be a statistically representative sample of the "true" distribution of classics reviews on Goodreads. We believe our results provide valuable insight into Goodreads and the classics nonetheless.
Though the constraints of the Goodreads platform distort our dataset in certain ways, we tried to use this distortion to better scrutinize the influence of the web interface on Goodreads users. For example, the company never makes clear how it sorts reviews by default, but we found that reviews with a combination of more likes and more comments almost always appear above those with fewer — except in certain cases when there is, perhaps, another invisible social engagement metric such as the number of clicks, views, or shares that a review has received. Since we collected data in multiple sort settings, we are able to go further than this basic observation and investigate how exactly this default sorting algorithm shapes Goodreads users' behavior, social interactions, and perceptions of the classics. Based on our analysis, we found that the first 300 default visible reviews for any given book develop into an echo chamber. Once a Goodreads review appears in the default sorting, in other words, it is more likely to be liked and commented on, and more likely to stay there ( figure 6 ). Meanwhile the majority of reviews quickly age beyond "newest" status and become hidden from public view. These liking patterns reveal that Goodreads users reinforce certain kinds of reviews, such as longer reviews ( figure 7 ), reviews that include a "spoiler alert" ( figure 9 ), and reviews written by a small set of Goodreads users who likely have many followers (Table 2). If a review is prominently displayed by the default sorting algorithm, its author may be more likely to go back and modify this review. More default-sorted reviews included the words "update" or "updated" than oldest or newest reviews ( figure 8 ). In one especially interesting updated review, a Goodreads user raised her rating of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and apologized for the way that her original, more negative review offended others and reflected her white privilege, which other Goodreads users had pointed out.
Topic Modeling Goodreads Reviews
Looking at the list of most popular Goodreads classics and analyzing liking patterns can only tell us so much about how Goodreads users perceive, define, and discuss the classics. To know more, we needed to listen to readers' own critical voices. To understand the most consistent conversations and overarching themes in Goodreads classics reviews, we analyzed the reviews with topic modeling, specifically a latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA) topic model: an unsupervised machine learning algorithm that essentially tries to guess the main themes of a collection of texts. 40 We pre-processed our reviews with Laure Thompson and David Mimno's "Authorless Topic Model" package to capture the most cross-cutting themes. 41 This package helps to remedy a common problem that occurs when topic modeling a collection of texts by multiple authors — or, in our case, a collection of reviews about texts by multiple authors — which is that the resulting topics often pick up on language specific to individual authors, such as words unique to Shakespeare plays or to Jane Austen novels. Author-specific topics can be desirable in some cases, but we wanted to reduce the signal of individual authors in order to amplify readers' collective voices across the reviews. The final 30 topics produced by the topic model help us pull out some of the major threads in the Goodreads classics reviews, which we manually labeled and split into four categories: "The Classics Industry," "Literary Themes," "Literary Qualities," and "Linguistic Styles." "The Classics Industry" includes topics such as "Adaptations & Audiobooks" and "Editions & Translations" ( figure 10 ). The "Literary Themes" and "Literary Qualities" categories point to thematic or stylistic elements that readers' commonly discuss in their reviews, including topics such as "War & Adventure" or "Length & Pace" ( figure 11 , figure 12 ) Finally, the "Linguistic Styles" category captures both Goodreads users' writing styles and literary authors' writing styles, which commonly appear in the form of quotations. Sometimes the topics even pick up on a fascinating blend of readers' and authors' styles combined. For example, the "Conversational & Slangy" topic sometimes identifies the quoted voice of Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye 's angsty protagonist, but other times it identifies Goodreads users writing in a satirical Holden Caulfield-style voice ( figure 13 ).
Before fully diving into these topics, we want to briefly elaborate on the topic model to clarify this method and provoke a thought experiment. How might Goodreads and Amazon be extracting value from this data using computational methods? By demonstrating the kinds of patterns that our topic model can detect, we might better understand what's happening in Amazon's "engine-room," as Simone Murray puts it. 42 Because the topic model algorithm is "unsupervised," we do not specify in advance which topics to look for, only the number of topics to return. The number of topics that we decided on was a significant and subjective decision. The topic model is not an objective magic wand but an interpretive tool. We chose 30 topics because we experimented with different numbers and ultimately found that 30 topics produced the most coherent and compelling results.
Each topic consists of all the words in every recorded Goodreads review, ranked by their likelihood of appearing in a Goodreads review assigned to a particular topic. The most probable words for each topic typically represent a common theme, discourse, or linguistic style across the Goodreads reviews, such as "women," "men," "woman," "would," and "society," the five most probable words for the topic that we eventually hand labeled "Gender & Sexuality" (all topics were similarly hand labeled by us). These topic words may seem, at first glance, simplistic (e.g., "men" and "women") or even arbitrary (e.g., "eyes," "upon," and "long"). Yet when we read through the individual Goodreads reviews that rank highly for each topic, we can start to understand their significance and critical utility. Simple words, it turns out, can help detect complex discussions of gender and race, and seemingly random groups of words can be the unexpected trademarks of particular linguistic styles. The topic containing the words "eyes," "upon," "long," "light," "man," "heart," and "world," for example, ranks highly in Goodreads reviews that include a quotation from the book being reviewed ( figure 13 ). These basic words indeed identify the presence of literary language in a Goodreads review with remarkable regularity and accuracy, even across a wide range of source texts — from Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby ("And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world , I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light ") to Morrison's The Bluest Eye ("God was a nice old white man , with long white hair, flowing white beard, and little blue eyes ") to Shakespeare's Macbeth ("cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon her heart "). These results bolster our confidence that the model is picking up on significant threads even when the assemblages of topic words do not seem immediately coherent. This ability to find significant threads playing out in individual Goodreads reviews is one of the major assets of the topic model for humanistic interpretation. We use the topic model not only to identify broad patterns in the collection but also to draw specific and noteworthy examples to the surface and to our critical attention.
By aggregating all ~900 reviews for each classic book, we can also identify the topics most associated with every book and, conversely, the books most associated with every topic. The classics that rank highest for the topic we have labeled "Gender & Sexuality" — which includes words like "women," "men," woman," and "society" — are literary works that explore subjects related to women's writing, feminism, misogyny, reproductive rights, and lesbian desire: Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" (1929), Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892), Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963), Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982), and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1984) ( figure 11 ). The classics that rank highest for the topic we have labeled "Race" — which includes words like "white," "black," "society," and "racism" — revolve around issues such as American slavery, the effects of anti-Black racism, and the colonization of Africa: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958), Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970), and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) ( figure 11 ). These coherent clusters of literary works, grouped from within the broader 144 classic titles, are surprisingly intuitive classifications for an unsupervised algorithm trained on readers' responses alone, with no access to the texts themselves or to any external metadata about author, publication, or reception. Further, these clusters paint impressionistic pictures of the collective reader response to each book. For the hand-selected group of texts in figure 14 , we can see which books generated more discussion of classrooms and school and which books generated more discussion of life and death, which books were more likely to be quoted from and which books were more likely to inspire gushing declarations of love. By incorporating rating information, we can also identify which topics corresponded to more positive ratings, like "Beautiful Writing," and which to more negative ratings, like "Unlikeable Characters" ( figure 15 ). Using computational methods on Goodreads data, it is thus possible to learn a lot of information about readers — the kind of information that is ironically valuable both to literary critics and to corporations like Amazon.
The Classics Industry
The rest of this essay focuses on the category that we have labeled "The Classics Industry," the set of topics that help point to some of the institutions and phenomena most responsible for reinforcing the classics in the twenty-first century. This formulation is partly inspired by Murray's sociological account of the "adaptation industry," in which she maps "the industrial structures, interdependent networks of agents, commercial contexts, and legal and policy regimes within which adaptations come to be," mostly focusing on book-to-screen adaptations. 43 Though Goodreads users often allude to the academy and professional literary critics in their reviews, the prevalence of the term "classic" itself points to the shaping influence of forces beyond the academy. To put this prevalence in concrete numbers, more than 15,000 Goodreads reviews explicitly mentioned the words "classic" or "classics," while just under 400 reviews mentioned the words "canon" or "canonical." This simple metric reveals a clear fault line in literary critical discourse between scholars and readers. It also indexes the power of the classics as a marketing brand. We detail how this brand functions in the sections below, and we also call attention to the ways that Amazon specifically influences and profits from this branding.
The Classics Industry: School
Though Goodreads users rarely discuss the canon and scholars today rarely discuss the classics, the academy remains an important engine for the classics industry. The topic that we have labeled "School, "which includes words like "school," "high," "time," "class," "first," "remember," "years," and "english," identifies the clear influence of school systems on Goodreads users' conceptions of the classics, aligning with theories of cultural production and canon formation proposed by scholars like John Guillory and Pierre Bourdieu. 44 The Goodreads reviews that rank highly for this topic reveal a few key patterns. While some Goodreads users talk about recent experiences in English literature classes, many more discuss literature classroom experiences from the past or refer to more generalized conceptions of "required reading." "This was the first Toni Morrison I read for 10th grade English while I was in high school," one Goodreads user reflected about Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970), which she shelved under "classics." "I couldn't get into [it] at the time - and I think a good chunk of that had to do with how the story and it[s] difficult subjects were handled in a classroom setting. Now that I can say I've read it again for Book Riot's 2018 Read Harder Challenge (an assigned book you hated or never finished), I could definitely appreciate it more." 45 When users catalogue their reading histories, high school and college reading often figures as an essential part of a fully comprehensive account. Classics consumed from one's school days serve as something like a starter pack for a Goodreads catalogue, providing an easy way to rate and review a number of books immediately. Even Goodreads users who have wildly disparate genre inclinations will likely share these schoolbooks in common if they share common backgrounds. Because of these common shared experiences, schoolbooks foster social interactions between users, and communities commonly form around and through them — whether to read a classic for the first time or to reread a previously hated classic á la Book Riot's Read Harder Challenge . Popular conceptions of school syllabi and required reading shape readers' habits long after their school days, and readers even self-assign books in order to belatedly join these communities. "Somehow I was never assigned to read this in high school, so I'm reading it now!" Goodreads user Edward Rathke exclaimed about The Grapes of Wrath . 46 "I had been planning to read '1984' for a long time," explained another Goodreads user named Andrew. "It's one of those books that you are supposed to read in high school. My high school AP Lit teacher had us read Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' instead." 47 These reviews may also explain why the Goodreads classics are less racially diverse than contemporary literary syllabi, since readers are clearly influenced by historical and imagined literary curricula more than contemporary literary curricula.
The Classics Industry: Publishing
School syllabi feed the classics industry. They are undoubtedly one of the reasons, if not the primary reason, that the classics are a prominent advertising target value on Goodreads. But they also feed another major node in the classics industry: the publishing industry. High school and college syllabi, as Rebecca Rego Barry writes, "are profitable to the classics publisher because they have a known market. These titles are thus doubly promoted for entrance to the canon, in classrooms and bookstores, and it is interesting to note that professors and publishers are symbiotic in this respect." 48 The topic that we labeled "Editions & Translations," which includes words like "translation," "edition," "original," and "version," picks up on discussions about which edition or version of a particular classic Goodreads users have read, purchased, or borrowed. These are the Penguin Classics, the Signet Classics, and the Modern Library Classics, which make up a significant part of the literary market. "The classics market is huge," The Guardian reported in 2016. "There's been a noticeable upswing in the number of publishers doing the classics." 49 Though comprehensive book sales data is hard to come by, according to Publishers Weekly and NPD BookScan, the "classics" sold almost 3.6 million units in the first half of 2018 — making it the fifth-best selling literary category behind "General Fiction," "Suspense/Thrillers," "Romance," and "Mystery/Detective," and ahead of genre fiction heavyweights like "Fantasy" and "Science Fiction." 50 Even Amazon has now developed its own line of classics: AmazonClassics . In fact, almost every Goodreads classic currently in the public domain now has an AmazonClassics Kindle e-book for sale. As the series title AmazonClassics confirms, the publishing industry is one of the major forces that contributes to the gulf between "classic" and "canon" in readers' critical vocabularies. 51
The Classics Industry: Adaptation & Audiobooks
Various classics editions from disparate publishers reestablish the classics in concert. They are solidified, as Barry puts it, not through any one edition but "through the continuous promotion of a given title in more than one imprint, certified by more than one set of arbiters over a longer period of time." 52 This "continuous promotion" is not limited to print publishing. The proliferation of literary texts into other mediums further reinscribes certain books as classics, as Sarah Cardwell argues and as our analysis confirms. 53 The topic that we have labeled "Audiobooks & Adaptations," which includes words like "movie," "audio," "version," "seen," and "listened," captures how Goodreads users' sense of the classics is shaped by adaptations. The cluster of classics that rank highest for this topic — Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's , L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz , Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol , and Stephen King's The Shining — all have major decades-old Hollywood film adaptations. But many of the high-ranking Goodreads reviews in this topic also discuss audiobooks, which share a surprisingly strong relationship with film and television adaptations and with Amazon. Audible, the world's largest producer of audiobooks, is yet another subsidiary of Amazon. In the last 10 years, Audible has invested in a series of classic literature audiobooks, "Audible Signature Classics," narrated by famous film and television actors. Most of these classics are the same popular Goodreads classics that we have already identified, paired with a performance by a high profile celebrity: The Great Gatsby narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal (2013), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland narrated by Scarlett Johansson (2016), The Things They Carried narrated by Bryan Cranston (2013), Anne of Green Gables narrated by Rachel McAdams (2016). 54 This catalogue represents what Cardwell refers to as "circular affirmation," when a certain selection of books are reinforced as classics by being adapted and confirmed "across various areas of the public sphere" — confirmed, in this case, not only through audiobook adaptation but also through association with Hollywood celebrities. 55 Based on our collection of Goodreads reviews, we find that this circle of affirmation sometimes marginalizes the print text itself. For example, in one review of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's , a Goodreads user named Jennifer Masterson shelved the novella under "classics" and gushed:
3 delicious hours of audio read by Mr. Michael C. Hall aka Dexter!!! What a wonderful performance of Truman Capote's novella! I saw the movie years ago but I've never read the book! I'm so happy to have listened to this edition of the audio! 5+++++Stars for the narrator! 5 Stars for the story! Highly highly recommended!!! 56
This review of an Audible Original audiobook, narrated by a television star, Dexter 's Michael C. Hall, was inspired by watching a Hollywood film. And though this Hollywood film was originally based on a novella, Jennifer, this particular Goodreads user, never read the novella and did not need to in order to review the book on Goodreads and perpetuate the classics industry. This review also demonstrates that Amazon-affiliated audiobooks inspire users to visit and rate books on Goodreads, to bounce from one Amazon subsidiary to another. We speculate that Amazon may also use Goodreads data to help determine which audiobooks, television shows, and films to invest in. One of the earliest Amazon Studios television series was an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), a popular Goodreads classic, and one of Amazon Studios' biggest investments is a television series based on the Goodreads classics with the highest average ratings in our dataset, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the rights for which Amazon purchased for $200 million. 57 We are not claiming that Goodreads reviews and ratings directly motivated this decision. But it is important to recognize that Goodreads data is controlled by Amazon, a corporation that is making some of the most expensive and high profile literary investments of our time.
The Classics Industry: Goodreads Users
The classics are clearly perpetuated by many powerful institutions as well as the market economy. When Goodreads users shelve, rate, and review classics, they contribute to this system and help sustain it. Making this point forcefully, Murray argues:
The [Goodreads] website's beguiling abundance of actual reader responses to books has obscured for scholars the limited extent to which users either understand or can influence its algorithmic operations, leading to overblown claims of readerly empowerment. Compelling evidence of reading's contemporary resilience and freely available research archive though it may be, Goodreads is above all else a node in platform capitalism. 58
Goodreads is indeed "a node in platform capitalism," but we believe it is important to engage with how "beguiling" Goodreads reviews are and how empowering the platform can feel for some Goodreads users. In Aarthi Vadde's study of "amateur creativity" on the internet, she argues that it is not possible to "make a blanket case for or against the emancipatory potential of participatory culture on the Internet." 59 Instead Vadde suggests thinking of the public sphere as "an always already commercialized, industrialized, and pluralized space." 60 We believe this framing is helpful for teasing out how Goodreads users sometimes explicitly resist Goodreads and produce remarkably interesting amateur criticism all while being exploited by Goodreads.
One of the most fitting metaphorical representations of this ironic tension manifests when Goodreads users bash the classics, because, in doing so, they simultaneously reject and reinforce books as classics in the same stroke. The topic that we have labeled "Goodreads User Criticism," which includes words like "stars," "give," and "rating," picks up on a common rhetorical trope — the justification of a user's rating for a given text — and it includes a significant amount of classics bashing. We find that Goodreads reviews that rank highly for this topic are, overall, more likely to rate a text negatively ( figure 15 ). Negative ratings seem to demand lengthy, reflexive justifications in their accompanying reviews. For example, a Goodreads user named Bren, mentioned in the introduction of this essay, shelved Nabokov's Lolita as a classic but rated the novel only three out of five stars. Though three stars was already a low rating (particularly within the Goodreads community), she later returned to the review and lowered the rating still further. In her updated review, Bren explained that she originally gave Lolita a higher rating "in deference of its classic status." 61 But as she watched other Goodreads users openly panning books, including Lolita , she gained new confidence to dissent from Lolita 's perceived reputation and from its imagined community of fans, whom she dubbed "book snobs." This retroactive rating is a triumphant moment that Bren jokingly compares to winning an Academy Award:
This review is inspired by some of my GR [Goodreads] friends whose fearlessness about giving low stars to books they do not like has inspired me to change my rating of Lolita from three stars to two stars as that is what I really feel . . . I get that this a classic and book snobs who read this will sig[h] in indignation but I do not care. I just did not get it and still don't. I'd like to thank anti book snobs everywhere for giving me the courage to rate Lolita two stars. I will never forget you. Wow..is this what an Oscar speech feels like? 62
Many Goodreads users like Bren seem to feel liberated when they reject the classics and express honest negative opinions about exalted books. When we reached out to Bren to seek her permission to publish this review, she further elaborated about what the Goodreads community means to her and even alluded to its special significance during the COVID-19 pandemic: "There is something about speaking against a Classic that can be very intimidating. People on here are fearless and, at least for me, I never feel judged . . . When I first joined I was too shy to talk to people but years later, I have connected with wonderful people and it has become a wonderful source of comfort to me, especially in trying times like these." 63 For Bren, the Goodreads community is sincerely meaningful, and the ability to speak out against a classic is genuinely empowering.
Another Goodreads user, Peter Derk, reflected about the joys of publishing "really nasty review[s]" of the classics, but his joy, unlike Bren's, was premised on the perceived powerlessness of his Goodreads review in the face of a classic:
Every so often I'll get into a classic. I guess because I feel like writing a really nasty review. Classics are great fodder for nasty reviews because 1. The people who made them are LONG dead . . . Saying bad stuff about a classic novel doesn't hurt the creator's feelings . . . 2. Classics have such a pedestal in the literary world already that the opinion of one lone weirdo . . . is pretty irrelevant. It's not like bashing on this book is suddenly going to render it a Not A Classic or affect its sales. Frankly, I think that about everything I read, but with classics, it's a pretty rock solid premise. 64
Rather than an emboldened community taking on Lolita 's classic reputation, as Bren framed herself and her "GR friends," Derk describes himself as "one lone weirdo" who couldn't possibly make a dent in a classic book's reputation. Far from being able to hurt a classic's sales, as Derk acknowledges, his colorful, vehement 2000-word takedown of The Phantom of the Opera likely only contributes to its contemporary value by contributing to its continued discussion. This paradox is one of the reasons that the classics remain so powerful. Love them or hate them, the classics sustain themselves by staying in print, remaining a topic of conversation, and enduring as a commodity.
So what is a "classic" in the twenty-first century? Based on our analysis of 144 Goodreads classics and 120,000 accompanying reviews, there are at least a few clear answers. For Goodreads and Amazon, a classic is a prominent advertising target value, a marketing tool, and a source of lucrative adaptation material. For Goodreads users, a classic is a book read in high school, a book that inspired a TV show, or a book that other Goodreads users have tagged as a classic. As we have shown, the classics industry — the collaborative forces of publishing, film, television, Amazon, and more — defines the status of popular classics to a large extent. Yet for Goodreads users, a classic is also an invitation to become amateur critics and creative writers, a chance to reflect on their lives and relationships to power, a conduit for connecting to others, and an opportunity to enter a critical conversation that has long excluded them. Literary history lives both profitably and vibrantly in the world under the moniker of the classics. To recognize the significance of the term is to recognize some of the places where literary criticism is most alive, relevant, and valuable.
Beyond the classics, this essay also points to major trends in contemporary literary culture that pose data-related challenges for literary critics — trends such as the rise of reader social networks, online amateur criticism, and Amazon. We believe that computational methods like the ones used in this essay can play a significant role in facing these challenges. When combined, computational methods and internet data can help literary critics simultaneously capture the creative explosion of reader responses as well as critique algorithmic culture.
Like professional book reviewers, many Goodreads users take pride in their reviews and craft them carefully. If we think of Goodreads reviewers as creative artists or amateur critics, as the authors themselves seem to do do, then anonymizing their reviews (removing their names and/or paraphrasing the review text) would deprive them of proper creative credit. 65 However, prior work has shown that even when internet users post on public platforms, they have an expectation of privacy. 66 For these reasons, we have chosen not to publicly share our dataset, though we have shared the code that we used to collect data from the Goodreads website: https://github.com/maria-antoniak/goodreads-scraper . For Goodreads reviews directly quoted in this essay, we have obtained explicit permission from each reviewer. We messaged each of these selected reviewers on Goodreads, disclosed our affiliations and the project goals and structure, and asked for consent to publish parts of their review in this article. We offered users the option of being quoted in this essay and attributed by their Goodreads username or the option of being quoted in this essay but remaining anonymous. The Goodreads users who chose to be quoted but remain anonymous are simply referred to as "Goodreads user" throughout the essay.
The Goodreads Classics
This table includes the 144 Goodreads "classics" examined in this essay as well as Goodreads reception statistics from 2019. You can also explore a searchable, sortable version of this table with up-to-date Goodreads statistics.
We would like to thank the participants of the "DH Approaches to the Arts of the Present" seminar at ASAP 2019 for early feedback on this research. We are also grateful to our reviewers and to Richard So for their guidance. We thank Arthur Wang and Kristen Carlson for editorial work, which made this essay clearer and better. Lastly, we would like to thank the Goodreads users who are featured in our research, particularly those who agreed to be quoted in this essay. Thank you for sharing your voices.
- T. S. Eliot, What Is a Classic?: An Address Delivered Before the Virgil Society on the 16th of October, 1944 (London: Faber & Faber, 1945). [ ⤒ ]
- "Classic, Adj. And N." in OED Online (Oxford University Press), accessed May 19, 2020. [ ⤒ ]
- John Guillory, "Canon, Syllabus, List: A Note on the Pedagogic Imaginary," Transition no. 52 (1991): 36-54. See also Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 6 . [ ⤒ ]
- Ibid. [ ⤒ ]
- Bren, "Bren's Review of Lolita," Goodreads, April 11, 2018. [ ⤒ ]
- Richard D. Altick, "From Aldine to Everyman: Cheap Reprint Series of the English Classics 1830-1906," Studies in Bibliography 11 (1958): 23. [ ⤒ ]
- Ankhi Mukherjee, What Is a Classic?: Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 9. [ ⤒ ]
- Quoted in Robert Giroux, "Introduction," in Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998), xviii. [ ⤒ ]
- Simone Murray, The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation , (New York: Routledge, 2013); Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production , ed. Randal Johnson, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). [ ⤒ ]
- See Mel Stanfill, Exploiting Fandom: How the Media Industry Seeks to Manipulate Fans , (Iowa City: University Of Iowa Press, 2019); José van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media , (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Jodi Dean, "Why the Net Is Not a Public Sphere," Constellations 10, no. 1 (2003): 95-112. [ ⤒ ]
- Aarthi Vadde, "Amateur Creativity: Contemporary Literature and the Digital Publishing Scene," New Literary History 48, no. 1 (2017): 27-51; Simone Murray, "Secret Agents: Algorithmic Culture, Goodreads and Datafication of the Contemporary Book World," European Journal of Cultural Studies , December 5, 2019; Lisa Nakamura, "'Words with Friends': Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads," PMLA 128, no. 1 (January 1, 2013): 238-43; Mark McGurl, "Everything and Less: Fiction in the Age of Amazon," Modern Language Quarterly 77, no. 3 (September 1, 2016): 447-71. [ ⤒ ]
- Karen Bourrier and Mike Thelwall, "The Social Lives of Books: Reading Victorian Literature on Goodreads," Journal of Cultural Analytics (February 20, 2020): 1-34; J. D. Porter, " Popularity/Prestige ," Stanford Literary Lab Pamphlet 17 (2018); Alexander Manshel, Laura McGrath, and J.D. Porter, "Who Cares about Literary Prizes?," Public Books , September 3, 2019; James F. English, Scott Enderle, and Rahul Dhakecha, "Mining Goodreads: Literary Reception Studies at Scale," accessed March 5, 2019; Allison Hegel, "Social Reading in the Digital Age" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 2018); Andrew Piper and Richard Jean So, "Study Shows Books Can Bring Republicans and Democrats Together," The Guardian , October 12, 2016. [ ⤒ ]
- Murray, "Secret Agents," 7. [ ⤒ ]
- Maria Antoniak and Melanie Walsh, Goodreads Scraper , Python, 2020. [ ⤒ ]
- Vadde, "Amateur Creativity"; Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde, "Obliterature: Toward an Amateur Criticism," Modernism/Modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 517-49; Saikat Majumdar and Aarthi Vadde, eds., The Critic as Amateur (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019). [ ⤒ ]
- Vadde, "Amateur Creativity," 27. [ ⤒ ]
- Thomas Vander Wal, "Folksonomy," February 2, 2007; Arkaitz Zubiaga, Christian Körner, and Markus Strohmaier, "Tags Vs Shelves: From Social Tagging to Social Classification," in Proceedings of the 22nd ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia - HT '11 (the 22nd ACM conference, Eindhoven, The Netherlands: ACM Press, 2011), 93; Shilad Sen et al., "Tagging, Communities, Vocabulary, Evolution," in Proceedings of the 2006 20th Anniversary Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work , CSCW '06 (Banff, Alberta, Canada: Association for Computing Machinery, 2006), 181-90. [ ⤒ ]
- Allison Hegel writes illuminatingly about the evolution of genre on Goodreads in her dissertation, "Social Reading in the Digital Age." [ ⤒ ]
- Candace, "Candace's Review of The Handmaid's Tale," Goodreads, April 17, 2017. [ ⤒ ]
- Hegel, "Social Reading," 36. [ ⤒ ]
- Jeremy Rosen, "Literary Fiction and the Genres of Genre Fiction," Post45 , August 9, 2018, our emphasis. [ ⤒ ]
- "How It Works," Goodreads, February 4, 2007. [ ⤒ ]
- "How It Works," Goodreads, July 24, 2017. [ ⤒ ]
- "About Goodreads," Goodreads, May 2020. [ ⤒ ]
- Nakamura, "'Words with Friends'," 241. [ ⤒ ]
- Alexis C. Madrigal, "How Netflix Reverse-Engineered Hollywood," The Atlantic , January 2, 2014. [ ⤒ ]
- According to Lisa Nakamura, Goodreads users may in fact be the ones paying: "We pay with our attention and our readerly capital, our LOLs, rankings, conversations, and insights into narrative, character, and literary tradition." Nakamura, "'Words with Friends,'" 241. [ ⤒ ]
- See Porter, "Popularity/Prestige" for other uses of Goodreads reception data. See Mark Algee-Hewitt and Mark McGurl, "Between Canon and Corpus: Six Perspectives on 20th-Century Novels," January 1, 2015 for other reader-produced definitions of the canon. [ ⤒ ]
- Nakamura, "'Words with Friends,'" 240. [ ⤒ ]
- "Audience Insights - Goodreads," Quantcast, accessed May 27, 2020. [ ⤒ ]
- We compiled data on AP English recommended authors from The Princeton Review's Cracking the AP English Literature & Composition Exam, 2020 Edition: Practice Tests & Prep for the NEW 2020 Exam (New York: The Princeton Review, 2019). We compiled data on college syllabi by scraping The Open Syllabus Project 's top texts and authors for English Literature. [ ⤒ ]
- We use a slightly expanded version of the racial categories presented in the U.S. census: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Latinx, and Middle Eastern or North African (MENA). While the U.S. census currently treats Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin as a question of ethnicity and not race, and it currently considers the MENA population as white, we include them as separate racial categories based on advocacy from groups such as the Arab American Institute and research from the U.S. Census Bureau that suggests that incorporating Latinx and MENA might lead to more reflective racial representation. We recognize, however, that racial categories from the U.S. census, even in an expanded form, are flawed and subject to criticism. For more on Latinx and MENA as expanded racial categories, as well as the flaws and history of racial categories in the U.S. census, see Hephzibah V. Strmic-Pawl, Brandon A. Jackson, and Steve Garner, "Race Counts: Racial and Ethnic Data on the U.S. Census and the Implications for Tracking Inequality," Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 4, no. 1 (2018): 1-13. See also The United States Census Bureau, "About Race" ; "2015 National Content Test: Race and Ethnicity Analysis Report." [ ⤒ ]
- "Audience Insights - Goodreads." [ ⤒ ]
- Quantcast, "Understanding Digital Audience Measurement," February 2, 2019, 15-16; Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code , (Medford: Polity, 2019), 91. [ ⤒ ]
- In promotional materials for advertisers, such as the "Book Discovery Information Kit" sent to potential advertisers upon request , Goodreads draws on Quantcast data to offer demographic percentages related to users' gender, age, income, and education. [ ⤒ ]
- In constructing the Stanford Lit Lab's Twentieth-20th-Century Corpus, Algee-Hewitt and McGurl similarly found that best-of lists voted on by readers included more genre fiction than their elite counterparts — a finding corroborated by Porter in his work on Goodreads as well. Algee-Hewitt and McGurl, "Between Canon and Corpus," 6; Porter, "Popularity/Prestige." [ ⤒ ]
- Jane Tompkins, " Masterpiece Theater: The Politics of Hawthorne's Literary Reputation ," American Quarterly 36, no. 5 (1984): 618. [ ⤒ ]
- Antoniak and Walsh, Goodreads Scraper . [ ⤒ ]
- Andrew Kachites McCallum, " Mallet: A Machine Learning for Language Toolkit ," 2002; David M. Blei, Andrew Y. Ng, and Michael I. Jordan, "Latent Dirichlet Allocation," Journal of Machine Learning Research 3 (January 2003): 993-1022. [ ⤒ ]
- Laure Thompson and David Mimno, "Authorless Topic Models: Biasing Models Away from Known Structure," in Proceedings of the 27th International Conference on Computational Linguistics (COLING 2018, Santa Fe: Association for Computational Linguistics, 2018), 3903-14. [ ⤒ ]
- Murray, The Adaption Industry , 6. [ ⤒ ]
- As John Guillory writes, "It is only by understanding the social function and institutional protocols of the school that we will understand how works are preserved, reproduced, and disseminated over successive generations and centuries," Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (University of Chicago Press, 2013), vii. [ ⤒ ]
- Goodreads User, "Goodreads Review of The Bluest Eye," Goodreads, August 26, 2012. [ ⤒ ]
- Edward Rathke, "Edward Rathke's Review of The Grapes of Wrath," Goodreads, December 13, 2018. [ ⤒ ]
- Andrew, "Andrew's Review of 1984," Goodreads, May 2, 2007. [ ⤒ ]
- Rebecca Rego Barry, "The Neo-Classics: (Re)Publishing the 'Great Books' in the United States in the 1990s," Book History 6, no. 1 (2003): 264. [ ⤒ ]
- John Walsh, "Old Book, New Look: Why the Classics Are Flying Off the Shelves," The Guardian , September 17, 2016, sec. Books. [ ⤒ ]
- "Cooking and Sci-Fi Are the Hot Print Segments This Year so Far," PublishersWeekly.com, accessed June 7, 2020. [ ⤒ ]
- Rebecca Barry reports that the "avoidance of that incendiary word" — canon — "has become a theme, especially in modern classics publishing," in "The Neo-Classics," 259. [ ⤒ ]
- Ibid., 262. [ ⤒ ]
- Sarah Cardwell, Adaptation Revisited: Television and the Classic Novel (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002); Simone Murray observes a similar reinforcement of symbolic capital with book-to-screen adaptions, though she purposely excludes "classic" film and television adaptations from her study because "the much longer cultural histories of such texts cause them to enter the contemporary economy already freighted with approbation and/or notoriety," The Adaptation Industry , 21. [ ⤒ ]
- For more Audible classics narrated by celebrities, see https://www.audible.com/ep/BucketListListens . [ ⤒ ]
- Sarah Cardwell, Adaptation Revisited , 2. [ ⤒ ]
- Jennifer Masterson, "Jennifer Masterson's Review of Breakfast at Tiffany's," July 8, 2016. [ ⤒ ]
- As of September 2019, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Return of the King (1955) and The Two Towers (1954) had the two highest average Goodreads ratings in the dataset with scores of 4.52/5 and 4.44/5 stars, respectively. The Fellowship of the Ring (1954) takes fourth place with a score of 4.35/5 stars. Nellie Andreeva, "Amazon Sets 'the Lord of the Rings' TV Series in Mega Deal with Multi-Season Commitment," Deadline (blog), November 13, 2017. [ ⤒ ]
- Murray, "Secret Agents," 3. [ ⤒ ]
- Vadde, "Amateur Creativity," 28. [ ⤒ ]
- Ibid., 29. [ ⤒ ]
- Melanie Walsh and Bren, "Goodreads Direct Message," May 9, 2020. [ ⤒ ]
- Peter Derk, "Peter Derk's Review of The Phantom of the Opera," accessed October 28, 2019. [ ⤒ ]
- Amy Bruckman, "Studying the Amateur Artist: A Perspective on Disguising Data Collected in Human Subjects Research on the Internet," Ethics and Information Technology 4, no. 3 (September 1, 2002): 217-31. [ ⤒ ]
- Casey Fiesler Proferes Nicholas, "'Participant' Perceptions of Twitter Research Ethics," Social Media + Society , March 10, 2018. [ ⤒ ]
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10 Classic Albums Rolling Stone Originally Panned
By Andy Greene
Being a music critic is not always easy. Sometimes you have a matter of hours to listen to a new record, digest it and produce a review that will live forever. But some albums take many, many listens to truly reveal themselves. Imagine hearing a group like AC/DC or the Ramones for the first time without any context: The music might seem ridiculous and childish, and even if you grow to revere the group in question, your first impression is the only thing anyone will remember. We’ve been running reviews in Rolling Stone since the very first issue in 1967. That’s thousands and thousands of reviews, and more than a few times, we have panned an album that went on to become a beloved classic. Here are 10 of the most infamous instances – along with our revised takes, by different writers, that appeared later.
Jimi Hendrix, ‘Are You Experienced’ (1967)
In the very first issue of Rolling Stone , Jon Landau expressed his deep dissatisfaction with the new album by a young band called the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
"Everything else is insane and simply a matter of either you dig it or you don't. Basically I don't for several reasons. Despite Jimi's musical brilliance and the group's total precision, the poor quality of the songs and the inanity of the lyrics too often get in the way. Jimi is very much into state-of-mind type lyrics, but even so, lines like 'Manic depression is a frustrating mess,' just don't make it. It is one thing for Jimi to talk arrogantly and without any pretense at artistry; it's another to write lyrics in that fashion. In this context 'I Don't Live Today' can be seen as both the best and worst cut on the album. The best because it is performed with such exquisite precision and control, and the worst because what Jimi is trying to get across is such a drag: 'There's no life nowhere … Dig it if you can, but as for me, I'd rather hear Jimi play the blues.'" – Jon Landau
Second take: Five Stars (2004 Rolling Stone Album Guide )
"Are You Experienced? was the summer of love, debut, and it sounded like divine madness – 'Purple Haze,' I Don't Live Today,' 'Manic Depression' and 'Fire' we all feedback finesse and arrogant virtuosity wrapped around lyrics sprung from primal wondering, lust and fear." – Paul Evans
Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin’ (1969)
Led Zeppelin were a brand new blues-rock band opening for the likes of Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly when Rolling Stone ran such a scathing review of their debut LP that the group held a grudge for decades.
"The latest of the British blues groups so conceived offers little that its twin, the Jeff Beck Group, didn't say as well or better three months ago, and the excesses of the Beck group's Truth album (most notably its self-indulgence and restrictedness), are fully in evidence on Led Zeppelin's debut album. Jimmy Page, around whom the Zeppelin revolves, is, admittedly, an extraordinarily proficient blues guitarist and explorer of his instrument's electronic capabilities. Unfortunately, he is also a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs, and the Zeppelin album suffers from his having both produced it and written most of it (alone or in combination with his accomplices in the group)." – John Mendelsohn
Second take: Five Stars (2001 Rolling Stone )
"Talk about telegraphing your punch: The cover of Led Zeppelin, the British quartet's seismic 1969 debut, shows the Hindenburg airship, in all its phallic glory, going down in flames. The image did a pretty good job of encapsulating the music inside: sex, catastrophe and things blowing up. The swagger is there from the get-go, on "Good Times Bad Times": Jimmy Page's guitar pounces from the speakers, fat with menace; John Bonham's kick drum swings with anvil force; Robert Plant rambles on about the perils of manhood. Hard rock would never be the same. There may be better, more refined Zep albums than Led Zeppelin – a.k.a. Led Zeppelin I – but none sounds quite as gratifyingly raw or is as comprehensive in defining the band's intentions." – Greg Kot
Black Sabbath, ‘Black Sabbath’ (1970)
Lester Bangs is one of the most esteemed rock writers in history, but even he didn't quite get Black Sabbath when he heard their first record back in 1970.
"Over across the tracks in the industrial side of Cream country lie unskilled laborers like Black Sabbath, which was hyped as a rockin' ritual celebration of the Satanic mass or some such claptrap, something like England's answer to Coven. Well, they're not that bad, but that's about all the credit you can give them. The whole album is a shuck – despite the murky song titles and some inane lyrics that sound like Vanilla Fudge paying doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley, the album has nothing to do with spiritualism, the occult, or anything much except stiff recitations of Cream clichés that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book, grinding on and on with dogged persistence. Vocals are sparse, most of the album being filled with plodding bass lines over which the lead guitar dribbles wooden Claptonisms from the master's tiredest Cream days. They even have discordant jams with bass and guitar reeling like velocitized speedfreaks all over each other's musical perimeters yet never quite finding synch — just like Cream! But worse." – Lester Bangs
"They took the blues out of blues-rock and replaced it with Wagner, creating epic battle rhythms filled with a tension and release that any adolescent boy would know about firsthand. Thanks to Rodger Bain's production, Black Sabbath sounds really big and really unhealthy. It's an album that eats hippies for breakfast; also, it has even been statistically determined that if a brain cell were the size of a grain of sand, the amount lost while listening to this record upon its first year of release could easily fill the Grand Canyon. What people forget about Black Sabbath – and it's understandable given their demonic imagery and All Hallow's Eve vibe – was that it was one of the most God-driven, puritanical, wet-blanket rock bands in history. Its 'mankind is evil and must repent for its wicked ways' thesis would influence almost all the future bards of the metallic arts." –Scott Seward.
Neil Young, ‘Harvest’ (1972)
Three years after ripping apart Led Zeppelin's first two albums, John Mendelsohn unleashed his venom on Neil Young's Harvest .
" Harvest , a painfully long year-plus in the making (or, seemingly more aptly, assembling), finds Neil Young invoking most of the L.A. variety of superstardom's weariest cliches in an attempt to obscure his inability to do a good imitation of his earlier self. … Truth be told, I listened to the entirety of Harvest no less than a dozen times before touching typewriter to paper, ultimately managing to come with only one happy thing to say about it: Neil Young still sings awful pretty, and often even touchingly. For the most part, though, he's seemingly lost sight of what once made his music uniquely compelling and evocative and become just another pretty-singing solo superstar. Which can't help but bring me down." – John Mendelsohn
Second take: In 2003, Rolling Stone named it the 82nd best album of all time.
" Harvest yielded Neil Young's only Number One hit, 'Heart of Gold,' and helped set the stage for the Seventies soft-rock explosion – both James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt sing on the album. Along with Young, they were in Nashville to appear on Johnny Cash's ABC-TV variety show the first weekend that Harvest was being cut with an odd group of accomplished session musicians that included bassist Tim Drummond, who had played with James Brown (Young's bandmates Crosby, Stills and Nash also appeared on the album). The sound, on tracks like 'Old Man' and 'The Needle and the Damage Done,' was Americana (steel guitar, slide guitar, banjo) stripped down and rebuilt with every jagged edge exposed."
The Rolling Stones, ‘Exile on Main Street’ (1972)
Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye is a brilliant writer and the genius behind Nuggets , and he likely has come to gain more respect for Exile on Main Street than he did back in 1972 when he filed this review.
" Exile on Main Street appears to take up where Sticky Fingers left off, with the Stones attempting to deal with their problems and once again slightly missing the mark. They've progressed to the other side of the extreme, wiping out one set of solutions only to be confronted with another. With few exceptions, this has meant that they've stuck close to home, doing the sort of things that come naturally, not stepping out of the realm in which they feel most comfortable. Undeniably it makes for some fine music, and it surely is a good sign to see them recording so prolifically again; but I still think that the great Stones album of their mature period is yet to come. Hopefully, Exile on Main Street will give them the solid footing they need to open up, and with a little horizon-expanding (perhaps honed by two months on the road), they might even deliver it to us the next time around." – Lenny Kaye
"It’s their most physically jolting album and, ultimately, their most emotionally inspiring. Mick’s vocals are just another instrument in a glorious rush of high-velocity electric noise, his lyrics barely perceptible in all the guitar, sax, and harmonica; whatever he’s saying, he just wants to plug in and flush out and fight and fuck and feed. Keith channels all his nasty habits and internal chaos into the guitars, from the convulsive opener, 'Rocks Off,' to the weary acoustic stomp of 'Sweet Virginia.' Charlie Watts’ understated performance in 'Shake Your Hips' demands some sort of Nobel Prize." –Rob Sheffield
Bob Dylan, ‘Blood on the Tracks’ (1975)
Right around the same time he began working with Bruce Springsteen, labeled by many the "new Dylan," Jon Landau took a listen to the newest album by the old Dylan and didn't like what he heard. Sometimes the magazine took decades to revise a questionable review, but in this case they ran an opposing viewpoint on the very same page. Jonathan Cott's take on the album was significantly more positive.
"If in Dylan's world of extremes there's room for a middle ground, that's where I place Blood on the Tracks . It's his best album since Blonde on Blonde , but not nearly as good. If it contains nothing so bad as the second version of 'Forever Young,' only 'Tangled Up in Blue' comes even close to 'One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)'" To compare the new album to Blonde on Blonde at all is to imply that people will treasure it as deeply and for as long. They won't." – Jon Landau
Second take: (Again, this ran in the same issue as the last one.)
"Rarely has Dylan's presence seemed so full and moving as on Blood on the Tracks . No matter what the mood, Dylan's voice sounds as alternately rich, gentle, haunted or exacerbated as each song demands. …Their clean, gleaming, impersonal sound is perfectly suited as a functional support for Dylan's candent and wonderfully phrased harmonica, mandolin and guitar work and for his beautifully articulated and glowing lyrics – whose strengths are much like those of the 13th century poem whose book of verse he reads in 'Tangled Up in Blue' ('And every one of them words rang true/And glowed like burnin' coal/Pourin' off of every page/Like it was written in my soul/From me to you/Tangled up in blue')." – Jonathan Cott
AC/DC, ‘High Voltage’ (1976)
Imagine it's 1976 and you get a new album thrown on your desk featuring songs like "She's Got Balls" by a bunch of brash Australians, one of whom dresses up like a demented schoolboy. You probably wouldn't guess they'd become one of the biggest hard-rock acts of all time, still capable of packing stadiums even after losing two iconic lead singers. You might even write a review like this.
"Those concerned with the future of hard rock may take solace in knowing that with the release of the first U.S. album by these Australian gross-out champions, the genre has unquestionably hit its all-time low. Things can only get better (at least I hope so). A band whose live act features a lead guitarist (Angus Young) leering menacingly while dressed in schoolboy beanie and knickers, AC/DC has nothing to say musically (two guitars, bass and drums all goose-stepping together in mindless three-chord formations). Lyrically, their universe begins and ends with the words 'I,' 'me' and 'mine.' Lead singer Bon Scott spits out his vocals with a truly annoying aggression which, I suppose, is the only way to do it when all you seem to care about is being a star so that you can get laid every night. And that, friends, comprises the sum total of themes discussed on this record. Stupidity bothers me. Calculated stupidity offends me." – Billy Altman
Second take: Two Stars (1983 Rolling Stone Record Guide )
"Scathing, often libelous reviews have been a way of life for this Australian molten boogie band ever since they debuted in this country with High Voltage (a compilation of two earlier Aussie LP's). But what the critics don't know, the heavy-metal kids understand. Led by the tenacious axe-wielding Scots-born Young brothers Angus and Malcolm, AC/DC are nothing more or less than rock & roll party thunder, 110-decibel escapism fired up by panzer division riffs 'n' rhythms, Angus' mad-dog stare romps in sweaty schoolboy uniform, and the lecherous growl of original singer Bon Scott." –David Fricke
Queen, ‘Jazz’ (1979)
Sometimes a reviewer just seems to have a really, really low opinion of a band, which seems to be the case with Dave Marsh and Queen. Years later, their album Jazz only got a marginally better review in the Album Guide , though this time around they weren't labeled "fascists."
"There's no Jazz on Queen's new record, in case fans of either were worried about the defilement of an icon. Queen hasn't the imagination to play jazz – Queen hasn't the imagination, for that matter, to play rock & roll. Jazz is just more of the same dull pastiche that's dominated all of this British supergroup's work: tight guitar/bass/drums heavy-metal clichés, light-classical pianistics, four-part harmonies that make the Four Freshmen sound funky and Freddie Mercury's throat-scratching lead vocals. … Whatever its claims, Queen isn't here just to entertain. This group has come to make it clear exactly who is superior and who is inferior. Its anthem, 'We Will Rock You'" is a marching order: you will not rock us, we will rock you. Indeed, Queen may be the first truly fascist rock band. The whole thing makes me wonder why anyone would indulge these creeps and their polluting ideas." – Dave Marsh
Second take: Two Stars (2004 Rolling Stone Album Guide )
"The decline starts with Jazz , which has the quickie operetta 'Bicycle Race' but it's otherwise utter jive." –Mark Coleman
Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’ (1991)
Ira Robbins' three-star review of Nevermind is perhaps the most notorious Rolling Stone review of the 1990s, but reading through it now it's clear that Robbins really enjoyed the album. It almost reads like a four-star review. He truly understood their influences and placed it within the context of its time. How was he supposed to know this little album was going to change the world?
"A dynamic mix of sizzling power chords, manic energy and sonic restraint, Nirvana erects sturdy melodic structures – sing-along hard rock as defined by groups like the Replacements, Pixies and Sonic Youth — but then attacks them with frenzied screaming and guitar havoc. … Too often, underground bands squander their spunk on records they're not ready to make, then burn out their energy and inspiration with uphill touring. Nevermind finds Nirvana at the crossroads – scrappy garageland warriors setting their sights on a land of giants." – Ira Robbins
"The killer hook is a stuttering chord progression similar to the stuttering chord progression in Boston's "More Than a Feeling," a hit 15 years earlier, utterly transformed through Nirvana's trademark loud/soft dynamic and dark, surreal mood. Following Ezra Pound's call to arms, Cobain made it new. Following the Talking Heads' dictum, he stopped making sense. And he stopped making it in a way that made total sense to those who shared his alienation. It was like the James Dean of Rebel Without a Cause, the Bob Dylan of 'Subterranean Homesick Blues,' the Eddie Cochran of 'Summertime Blues,' and the Johnny Rotten of 'Pretty Vacant" had been rolled into one shy kid with beautiful eyes and unwashed blond hair. And if there was any doubt about the meaning of the mulatto/albino/mosquito/libido nonsense, there was the video, the most riveting three minutes in the history of MTV. At last, high school portrayed as the pep rally in hell that it is. Millions of pos-deducation-stress-disorder survivors immediately identified. The rest of the album is a relentless run of monster riffs and monstrous imagery, all punched along by arguably the greatest rock rhythm section since Led Zeppelin." –Charles M. Young
Weezer, ‘Pinkerton’ (1996)
The 1996 Rolling Stone Critics Poll labelled Pinkerton one of the worst albums of the year, though the original review by Rob O'Connor was significantly less vitriolic.
"Weezer over-rely on catchy tunes to heal all of Cuomo's wounds. In 'El Scorcho,' the song's infectious chorus proves to be slim reward. 'Tired of Sex,' a look at a brooding stud's empty sex life, is as aimless as the subject's nightly routine. But 'Butterfly' is a real treat, a gentle acoustic number that recalls the vintage, heartbreaking beauty of Big Star. Cuomo's voice cracks as he unintentionally bludgeons the fragile creature in the lyric, suggesting that underneath the geeky teenager pose is an artist well on his way to maturity." – Rob O'Connor
Second take: Five Stars (2004 Rolling Stone Hall of Fame )
"The self-produced album sounds as raw as Cuomo's lyrics, without any of the sheen that Ric Ocasek provided on the band's debut. But what makes Pinkerton more than a blog entry is Cuomo's unfailing gift for power pop. 'Across the Sea' – which quoted so much of that Japanese fan's letter that Cuomo gave her a slice of the songwriting money – is the masterpiece, building to ever-greater intensity as Cuomo wails about the most distant of all his unattainable girls. At the end, the chorus swells: 'I've got your letter/You've got my song.' Unrealized fantasy is enough happiness for anyone, Cuomo is saying – and he sings it with enough passion to make you believe it too." –Gavin Edwards
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A Neuroscientist’s Poignant Study of How We Forget Most Things in Life
By David Kortava
March 30, 2021
Any study of memory is, in the main, a study of its frailty. In “ Remember ,” an engrossing survey of the latest research, Lisa Genova explains that a healthy brain quickly forgets most of what passes into conscious awareness. The fragments of experience that do get encoded into long-term memory are then subject to “creative editing.” To remember an event is to reimagine it; in the reimagining, we inadvertently introduce new information, often colored by our current emotional state. A dream, a suggestion, and even the mere passage of time can warp a memory. It is sobering to realize that three out of four prisoners who are later exonerated through DNA evidence were initially convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony. “You can be 100 percent confident in your vivid memory,” Genova writes, “and still be 100 percent wrong.”
Forgetfulness is our “default setting,” and that’s a good thing. The sixty or so members of our species whose brains are not sieves have their own diagnosis: highly superior autobiographical memory, or hyperthymesia. While the average person can list no more than ten events for any given year of life, people living with H.S.A.M. “remember in excruciatingly vivid detail the very worst, most painful days of their lives.” The most studied case concerns Solomon Shereshevsky, an early-twentieth-century Russian journalist who, like Borges’s Funes the Memorious, “felt burdened by excessive and often irrelevant information and had enormous difficulty filtering, prioritizing, and forgetting what he didn’t want or need.” Desperate to empty his mind, Shereshevsky practiced, with some success, various visualization exercises: he’d imagine setting fire to his memories or picture them scrawled on a giant chalkboard and then erased. (He also turned to the comforts of the bottle and died of complications from alcoholism , although Genova doesn’t mention this.)
An efficient memory system, Genova writes, involves “a finely orchestrated balancing act between data storage and data disposal.” To retain an encounter, deliberate attention alone will get you most of the way there. “If you don’t have Alzheimer’s and you pay attention to what your partner is saying, you’re going to remember what they said.” (Distracted spouses, take note.) Also, get enough sleep. (An exhausted Yo-Yo Ma once left his eighteenth-century Venetian cello, worth $2.5 million, in the trunk of a New York City yellow cab.) Other strategies include leaning on external cues, such as checklists—every year, U.S. surgeons collectively leave hundreds of surgical instruments inside their patients’ bodies—chunking information into meaningful units, and the method of loci, or visualizing information in a familiar environment. Joshua Foer employed the latter device, also known as a “memory palace,” to win the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship.
The business of “motivated forgetting” is more complicated. Genova advises aspiring amnesiacs to avoid anything that might trigger an unwanted memory. “The more you’re able to leave it alone, the more it will weaken and be forgotten,” she writes. Easier said than done, especially with respect to the recurring, sticky memories that characterize conditions such as P.T.S.D. Here, Genova points to promising therapies that take advantage of the brain’s natural tendency to edit episodic memories with every retrieval. In the safe keeping of a psychiatrist’s office (and sometimes with the benefit of MDMA), a patient deliberately revisits the painful memory “with the intention of introducing changes,” revising and gradually overwriting the panic-inducing memory with a “gentler, emotionally neutral version of what happened.” Not quite “Eternal Sunshine,” but if it works, it works.
Genova, a neuroscientist by training, has spent most of her working life writing fiction about characters with various neurological maladies. Her novel “ Still Alice ,” from 2007, centered on a Harvard psychology professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. In “Remember,” her first nonfiction work, Genova assures her readers that only two per cent of Alzheimer’s cases are of the strictly inherited, early-onset kind. For most of us, our chances of developing the disease are highly amenable to interventions, as it takes fifteen to twenty years for the amyloid plaque that is mounting in our brains to reach a tipping point, “triggering a molecular cascade that causes tangles, neuroinflammation, cell death, and pathological forgetting.” What do those interventions look like? Genova’s guidance is backed by current science, but is mostly just parental: exercise, avoid chronic stress, adopt a Mediterranean diet, and enjoy your morning coffee—but not so much as to compromise deep sleep, which is when “your glial cells flush away any metabolic debris that has accumulated in your synapses.”
One of the more interesting studies that Genova cites followed six hundred and seventy-eight elderly nuns over two decades, subjecting them to all manner of physical and cognitive tests. When a nun died, her brain was collected for autopsy. Curiously, a number of the nuns whose brains showed plaques, tangles, and shrinkage exhibited “no behavioral signs” of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers theorized that these nuns had a high degree of “cognitive reserve”; they tended to have more years of formal education, active social lives, and mentally stimulating hobbies. Even as many old neural pathways collapsed, they were paving “new neural roads” and taking detours along as-yet undamaged connections, thereby masking, if not postponing, the onset of the disease. All pretty straightforward. Now all we have to do is build a society in which everyone has the time and resources for adequate sleep, exercise, nutrition, self-care, and a few good hobbies.
A Cocktail Book That Brings Flair to Life in Lockdown
By Julia Bush
February 27, 2021
Mixing tiki drinks may seem like a warm-weather endeavor, but shaking and stirring my way through Shannon Mustipher’s beautiful, inventive “ Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails ” has supplied a much-needed serotonin boost in this extremely indoor winter. “Tiki,” which came out in 2019, is one of very few cocktail books by an African-American bartender. In it, Mustipher weaves her knowledge through a lavishly photographed guide, presenting the recipes for her layered, balanced drinks and—for those with the confidence to improvise—outlining principles for concocting your own.
It’s immediately obvious that Mustipher knows her rum. She was the beverage director at Gladys Caribbean, a rum bar in Brooklyn, before it closed under pandemic-related pressure in June, and her book is committed to imparting at least a bit of tiki history to its readers. In the first recipe, for a predecessor to the Old-Fashioned called the Bombo, Mustipher suggests a Navy-style rum or an extra-aged or blackstrap rum—spirits that were used when the drink was invented, she writes. Before the world shut down, I would likely pull out the Bacardi Superior and call it a day. Now, without dinner plans, or travel plans, or any plans at all, I obsessively hunt for Mustipher’s suggested bottles: an aged white rum for a variation on the Daiquiri, a rhum agricole blanc for a drink called the Royal Peacock, a pot-still Jamaican rum for a spin on a Mai Tai.
Mustipher takes the presentation of her drinks just as seriously as the spirits she mixes into them. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, she threw speakeasy -themed parties complete with “installation pieces,” including beer fridges stacked with forties and champagne chilled in bathtubs. Her penchant for flair seeps into “Tiki.” A garnish “is never an afterthought or arbitrary decoration,” Mustipher writes. “Garnishes fulfill an essential function, engaging all five senses to complete the drink.” To present the Flaneuse, a cocktail that calls for rhum agricole , sherry, and coconut syrup, she suggests an edible flower, a dehydrated pineapple wedge, and a banana leaf. For the S.O.S. Mai Tai, Mustipher explains how to D.I.Y. a flaming lime shell using a sugar cube soaked in 151-proof rum. “Sprinkling ground cinnamon over the flame will create impressive, if brief, sparks,” she writes, before a bolded paragraph of safety tips.
A year into a global pandemic , I’ll take any thrill I can get. So, on a recent thirty-seven-degree school night, I perched a sugar cube on a Mai Tai, lit it until it glowed blue, and shook a jar of cinnamon over the top. An orange flare shot about four inches above the glass, lighting up the kitchen in my tiny studio apartment for less than a second. By the time I gasped, the fire was gone and my counter was coated in cinnamon. The drink, though, was sublime.
A Pioneering Video-Art Curator Chronicles the Medium in “Video/Art: The First Fifty Years”
By Andrea K. Scott
February 14, 2020
Don’t be fooled by the straightforward title of the lively new book “ Video/Art: The First Fifty Years .” A better description of Barbara London’s indispensable and enticingly personal history arrives two pages in, when she writes, “This book describes the madcap trajectory of a pliable medium.” Few guides are more qualified to lead readers through the rapid rise of the once renegade art form, which is now so ubiquitous that screens and paintings share walls in museums—London was the very first curator to introduce video to the Museum of Modern Art, where she championed tech-based experiments for forty-three years. (She retired in 2013.) What makes her book such a fun read is that it’s not exactly the comprehensive survey its title implies. Instead, it’s as much memoir as exegesis, an idiosyncratic front-line report from a deeply informed, intrepid, and passionate pioneer who is still in the trenches. (London now teaches graduate students at Yale, and her exhibition on sound art is about to commence a five-year tour.) Even her curatorial path was unconventional: the native New Yorker was pursuing a graduate degree in Islamic art when she traded the classroom for downtown haunts, like Max’s Kansas City, which was the Cedar Tavern of the electronic avant-garde—or “scenester intermedia mavericks,” in London’s words.
So, although readers won’t learn about, say, Christian Marclay’s iconic twenty-four-hour video installation “ The Clock ,” from 2010 (the artist merits a mention, but not regarding his most famous work), they will travel with London to meet Chinese artists in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Guangzhou, in 1997. (Full disclosure: I was part of a team in New York that produced London’s daily online diary of that visit for MOMA , a blog before the word existed.) Any history of video must begin with the wizardly Korean innovator Nam June Paik (1932-2006), who is widely acknowledged as the medium’s founding father. Paik plays a major role in London’s story, but, in addition to contextualizing him as a towering historical figure, she shares personal anecdotes, including this vivid description of his studio: “I would crawl over and through a maze of electrical wire, tubes, and old circuitry to find Paik often standing in rubber boots, so as not to be electrocuted.”
Similarly, an in-depth account of the work of the influential New York artist Joan Jonas—who has been combining performance with technology since the late sixties and whose bewitching room-sized installation “Mirage” (conceived in 1976), a six-part game of drawing and erasure, is a highlight of the new MOMA —includes the astrological tidbit that both the curator and the artist are Cancers. (London writes, of this cosmic affinity, “Once we met, I identified with her tenaciousness, imagination, and loyalty as a sympathetic friend.”) One special merit of London’s perspective is her emphasis on the role of women in the medium’s evolution, from familiar names like the pop-culture crossover artist Laurie Anderson to equally important but lesser-known figures like Dara Birnbaum, whose deliriously feminist spin on a DC superhero is also now on view at MOMA, in the five-minute video “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman.” Not a bad label for the pathbreaking insights of London herself.
Rona Jaffe’s “The Best of Everything” Is Still One of Our Sharpest Portraits of Female Desire
By Michele Moses
February 10, 2020
“ The Best of Everything ,” Rona Jaffe’s best-seller from 1958, is what you would get if you took “Sex and the City” and set it inside “Mad Men” ’s universe. A novel about three young women who meet while working in the typing pool of a publishing house, it has the white-gloved, Scotch-swilling aesthetic of the fifties but also an unflinching frankness about women’s lives and desires—a combination that makes it feel radical, prescient. In order to write it, Jaffe interviewed fifty women about “the things nobody spoke about in polite company”: losing their virginities, getting abortions, being sexually harassed. “I thought that if I could help one young woman sitting in her tiny apartment thinking she was all alone and a bad girl, then the book would be worthwhile,” Jaffe wrote, in the foreword to the 2005 reissue of her novel. Put simply, she wanted it to say, “Me, too.”
“The Best of Everything” centers on Caroline Bender, April Morrison, and Gregg Adams. Caroline is a self-possessed Radcliffe graduate who was engaged until her fiancé took a six-week trip to Europe and left her for the first familiar girl he ran into on the ship. She has professional aspirations, which immediately earns her suspicion from her bosses. April is a starry-eyed girl from Colorado who just wants to meet a nice boy but instead falls in with a handsome upper-crust cad who works at Merrill Lynch. And Gregg is an actress who becomes infatuated with an emotionally unavailable theatre director. “Some people are made to be hurt,” Caroline says at one point. “Gregg is that type.” The three become close, search for love, and navigate the indignities of being a woman in the workplace.
Chief among them is Mr. Shalimar, the editor-in-chief of one of the imprints at Fabian Publications and a serial abuser who would fit right in at Leslie Wexner’s Victoria’s Secret. He asks April, on a night when he requested she work late, “Tell me, what kinds of things do the young boys do when they make love?” and later tries to kiss her in his office. He teases Caroline with the possibility of a promotion and then puts his hand on her knee at after-work drinks. And, most memorably, at the office Christmas party, Mr. Shalimar asks Barbara Lemont, an assistant editor at one of the publisher’s magazines, whether she has nice legs, and, when she doesn’t answer, he crawls under the table to appraise them. “You have beau-ti-ful legs,” he concludes. When he reëmerges, he leans in to kiss her, but she dodges him. “What did you think I wanted to do, rape you?” he cries. “You’re fired. Don’t you dare come into this office on Monday.”
Refreshingly, Jaffe doesn’t treat this episode with cheerful permissiveness, doesn’t present it as having a kind of louche glamour. Instead, she stays close to Barbara. “For the first time that evening her feelings were revealed completely on her face—resolution, fury, and desperation. ‘I need this job,’ she said. ‘He’s not going to take it away from me if I have to go to Mr. Fabian himself.’ ”
It’s no better outside of work, either. On dates, which Barbara describes as “hand-to-hand combat,” men force themselves on the women. At a wedding, the bride’s drunk uncle pinches their cheeks and squeezes their waists as they try to politely signal that they’d rather be left alone.
Yet “The Best of Everything” imparts this vision with sly humor, top-notch banter, and a sudsy plot that made me gasp out loud. The book still reads like a romance, still gets its propulsiveness from the question of whether the characters will find the love they desire and happiness therein. Will Caroline’s fiancé come back to her? Will April’s socialite boyfriend commit to her? Will the married man whom Barbara Lemont is in love with leave his wife for her? And do we even want them to? Or are they all bad news? In fact, Jaffe uses the badness of men to raise the stakes for finding a good one; love becomes a heroic quest rather than a doomed endeavor. In this sense, “The Best of Everything” cunningly enacts a tragic irony: the worse men behave, the more fervently the characters turn to men to find exceptions to the rule.
The Bleak Antarctic Saga of “The Impossible First”
January 30, 2020.
If you’re going to traverse Antarctica on cross-country skis, it’s advisable to go in a group, ideally with psychologically sturdy comrades in preternaturally good shape. You might bring kites, to harness the propulsive power of the wind, or arrange to have caches of food deposited along your route. The continent has seen sixteen such successful crossings. Four years ago, Henry Worsley, a retired lieutenant-colonel in the British Army, made the first attempt at an unassisted solo expedition, dragging a sled of provisions weighing more than three hundred pounds at the journey’s start. (Worsley died; David Grann wrote about his endeavor for this magazine.) Not long after, Ben Saunders, another British polar explorer, set out on the ice, but he misjudged how much food he’d require and was forced to abandon his mission at the South Pole. Finally, in late 2018, a thirty-three-year-old American endurance athlete named Colin O’Brady pulled it off: an unsupported, nearly thousand-mile hike across one of the most unforgiving landscapes on the planet.
In O’Brady’s new memoir, “ The Impossible First: From Fire to Ice—Crossing Antarctica Alone ,” he describes the undertaking less as a matter of grit than as a “brutal math problem,” the main variables being “miles, calories, hours, days.” Pack as much nutrient-dense food as you can carry—enough to sustain you but not so much that it’s impossible to haul—and make it to the other side before the twenty-four-hour sunshine of Antarctic summer gives way to the unbroken darkness of winter. O’Brady had budgeted for a daily intake of seven thousand calories, but he ended up burning more than ten thousand a day—a starvation diet, unsustainable for much longer than the two months he had planned for the trek. Even the pace at which energy is expended in subzero temperatures is a careful balancing act: too little exertion and hypothermia sets in, but too much will result in sweat-dampened clothes, which can rapidly freeze against the body. One veteran explorer advised O’Brady on how to use plastic bags to keep the insides of his footwear dry. “A frozen boot never thaws in the deep cold,” he warned. “That’s it. Frostbite. Toes goodbye.”
Beyond the physical perils lies an even greater danger. Marching twelve or thirteen hours a day, often in a sensory void, O’Brady felt “the quiet erosion of judgment and reason and sanity.” His thoughts would race, descending into “that place of obsessive what-if fears.” He contemplated the probable outcome should a freak squall send his tent flying: “I’d die alone, in the cold, my body temperature falling. I’d grow sleepy, then increasingly irrational, and finally I’d just lie down.” At times, he’d stare absently at his compass and feel as though he were falling into it, relinquishing “the sense that it was separate from me.” One night, while he was setting up camp, everything went blank. He stood there, shovel in hand, unsure of what he was doing or why, “as though my mind had just sort of walked off the field.”
The obvious question is: Why do this to yourself? A charitable reading would credit O’Brady for testing the limits of human potential and furnishing us with a rich metaphor for chasing our dreams. A cynic might see naked ambition and a competitiveness verging on the colonial. (Louis Rudd, the second person to complete the crossing, along a parallel route, two days after O’Brady, had told the Telegraph : “It’s really important it’s a Brit that cracks this journey first.”) For the last seventy-seven miles, O’Brady gave up on sleep entirely and trudged on for thirty-two straight hours. “I was a reduced man, stripped to his essence,” he writes. “Everything unnecessary in the universe was gone.” After fifty-four days of severe cold and isolation, and having lost twenty-five pounds, he reached a solitary wooden post, set into the frozen ground by the United States Geological Survey, marking the end of the continent and the beginning of the Ross Ice Shelf. In itself, O’Brady’s story is neither cautionary nor inspirational; it’s a Rorschach test for one’s own character and aspirations. To what extremes would you go, and how much punishment would you endure, in the service of a single goal? If there is a lesson, it’s that the path of the reduced man can lead to triumph, or madness, or both.
The Tender Stories of Juan Carlos Onetti, a Lost Giant of Latin-American Literature
By Jonathan Blitzer
December 20, 2019
A friend of the late Uruguayan writer Juan Carlos Onetti once said that he had muy buena salud frágil —excellent fragile health. Mainly, it was a reference to the last twenty years of Onetti’s life, when he lived in Madrid and spent much of his time in bed. In photos from the period, he’s propped on pillows, reading, next to piles of books, a bottle of whiskey, and an ashtray the size of an overturned umbrella. This life style made his death, in 1994, at the age of eighty-four, seem like a special feat of longevity. Yet Onetti’s “excellent fragile health” made even more sense in relation to his work. One of the greatest Latin-American writers of the twentieth century, he published six novels and dozens of stories and novellas, most of which are set in a fictional town called Santa María, which is populated with jaded eccentrics, castaways, and addled dreamers. In Onetti’s fiction, characters are forever in limbo, between the world they actually inhabit and the one they’d prefer to imagine for themselves.
Onetti never received the international recognition of his peers, such as Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, who all admired him. Some of that was the result of his inscrutable personality. Onetti was taciturn and recessive, and he avoided political causes. But there was a literary reason for his obscurity, too. His novels can be hard to read, and harder still to translate. The sentences are dense and layered, evoking comparisons to Faulkner; his characters routinely drift into existential reveries. His most famous novels—a trilogy published in the fifties and sixties—are entrancing, but not especially inviting to the uninitiated. The first one, “ A Brief Life ,” tells the story of Juan María Brausen, who glumly dreams up the alternate reality that becomes Santa María, where the next two novels (“ Bodysnatchers ,” “ The Shipyard ”), about a grizzled pimp named Larsen, take place.
Onetti thrived in shorter forms, and the first major English translation of his collected stories, “ A Dream Come True ,” brings the author’s talents into full view. The book, which was published, in November, by Archipelago, and translated by Katherine Silver, shows Onetti’s usual darkness brightened by a hint of tenderness for his characters, who are lost but still trying to find their way. The volume’s title comes from one of Onetti’s trademark stories, in which a sardonic theatre impresario is approached by a woman who wants to pay him to stage a mysterious dream that she’s had. The director acts like money is his primary motivation, but something else impels him to take the job, an understanding he comes to grasp “as clearly as if it were one of those things one learns forever as a child and words are later useless to explain.” Another classic—and a personal favorite—is “Welcome, Bob,” a character study of an aging lover wracked by guilt about who he’s become. He grows obsessed with his younger girlfriend’s judgmental brother, Bob. The story is devoted to him, like a deranged love letter, and the narrator counts the days until Bob, too, will get older, fall short of his own expectations, and spend his hours nursing the continual ache of disappointment.
Onetti published sporadically in his later years, and the stories in this volume span roughly six decades of his writing, from his early published fiction to the final years before his death. Aging and senescence are frequent themes, as they let Onetti explore the world of frustrated dreams. You’d think this would make the stories slow and meditative, but the effect is the opposite. Some of them have a special power of suspense; you’re never sure whether a person’s interior or exterior life will win out. (In fact, it’s often not clear what divides them.) “Presencia,” which was published in 1978, a few years after Onetti arrived in Madrid as a political exile, is a case study in this suspense, and one of the sharpest pieces of fiction ever written about the disappearances of the seventies and eighties. In it, a man hires a private investigator to locate his former lover, who was arrested in a military crackdown. But the investigator is a drunk and a scam artist. The man knows this, and pays him anyway, clinging to the hope that his lover can be found. By the end, he’s commissioning the investigator to invent stories he can believe in, and even be bothered by, as long as they come up short of the more painful truth. “On my world map,” he says, at one point, “there were twenty centimeters between Santa María and Madrid.”
Alison Roman’s “Nothing Fancy” and the Art of the Unpretentious Dinner Party
November 28, 2019.
“ Nothing Fancy ,” the new book by the food writer Alison Roman, makes the case that nobody should be too daunted by etiquette to have people over for a meal. “For anyone looking for tips on how to fold linen napkins or create floral arrangements, I am not your girl,” she writes. Instead, Roman teaches her readers to make “unfussy food”: homey meals that can be thrown together and snacks to hold you over when the throwing runs long. Roman gives cooks “permission to be imperfect.” It doesn’t matter if you don’t own wine glasses and your guests drink out of mugs, or if some people have to sit on the floor. What matters—and this is the core of Roman’s vision—is that a roomful of people can share food without pretense.
Roman is no ordinary food writer. Given the viral success of #TheStew and the popularity of her book “ Dining In ,” from 2017, she’s more like a phenomenon. When “Nothing Fancy” came out, it jumped to the top of the Times best-seller list, and, when Roman announced a book tour, she sold out events in all thirteen cities. Like high-waisted pants or Sally Rooney novels, she’s now a style signifier for the creative class—a part of a shared vocabulary. Part of the appeal is her grasp of her audience: the financially unsteady millennial generation, which has turned “nothing fancy” into an aesthetic choice. Her cooking also mirrors a shift in thinking about nutrition. The culture has reëmbraced fat, and Roman uses it with gusto: butter, chicken fat, ricotta, labneh, coconut milk. She flavors her food with tastes from across the spectrum—earthy turmeric and tahini, bright citrus and fresh herbs—and then adorns everything with flaky Maldon salt. But her signature is accent ingredients, such as anchovies and preserved lemon, that are briny, tangy, funky, and polarizing. Without prohibitive costs or cook times, Roman makes food more interesting.
“Nothing Fancy” has served me as Roman intended. At a Sunday dinner that started two hours later than planned, I put out her labneh dip with sizzled scallions and chili, and everyone declared it “bomb.” On a weeknight, I made her “Casual Apple Tart with Caramelized Buttermilk” for my roommates (the people I’m always “having over”), and they called it the best apple pie they’d ever had. But my favorite discovery is her “Perfect Herby Salad”: half lettuce and half herbs (parsley, cilantro, tarragon, mint), drizzled with lemon, olive oil, and, of course, Maldon. Like many of her best ideas, it has a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that simplicity.
The accessibility of Roman’s food is matched by the accessibility of her persona. On her Instagram Stories, she answers questions from her followers (What if I don’t have this ingredient? Is it O.K. if I skip this step?), and in “Nothing Fancy” she writes with chatty informality and self-deprecating humor. But her friendliness toward her readers is less convincing—and less interesting—than her annoyance at her guests, which she cloaks in recipe tips. About her D.I.Y. Martini bar, she writes, “Since making individual ’tinis for everyone who walks through the door is not on my agenda for any evening, I like to make one giant batch.” Or, on “Smashed Eggs and Fancy Fish on Crackers,” she writes, “Not to be rude but if you’re coming over, I am already doing a lot of work and I don’t feel like I need to assemble a cracker for you.” These moments lend her a queen-bee charisma. Whereas Ina Garten and Martha Stewart are prim and gracious, Roman, with her crackling chicken skin and red lips and nails, is libidinous and a little bit mean. Lots of cookbooks promise to help you entertain with ease, but “Nothing Fancy” makes that idea briny, tangy, funky, and a little polarizing: Why play hostess when you can be the life of the party?
“Mobituaries,” Mo Rocca’s Curious, Endearing Collection of Lives Forgotten
By Michael Schulman
November 12, 2019
Some years ago, I was seated at a play next to Mo Rocca, the television and radio personality known for “The Daily Show” and, more recently, “CBS Sunday Morning.” Out of nowhere, he turned to me and asked, in his unmistakable voice, “Do you know anything about Venus flytraps?” I’ve forgotten the tidbit about Venus flytraps that followed, or the reason they came up at all—what I remember is Rocca’s enthusiasm for knowing things for the sake of knowing them. That enthusiasm courses through his new book, “ Mobituaries ” (written with Jonathan Greenberg), an offshoot of his podcast of the same name. A Mobituary, as Rocca defines it, is “an appreciation for someone who didn’t get the love she or he deserved the first time around.” Some chapters are dedicated to “Forgotten Forerunners,” such as Elizabeth Jennings (1827-1901), a black woman who boarded a whites-only streetcar in Manhattan, a century before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Jennings sued the Third Avenue Railroad, and Rocca, who has a thing for obscure nineteenth-century Presidents, notes that her lawyer was the twenty-four-year-old Chester A. Arthur.
Obituaries tell us about lives lived, but also about whom we value. The Times’ project Overlooked has tried to right historical wrongs by giving obituaries to figures the paper previously ignored. Rocca isn’t as ideological as that—he’s driven by the desire to absorb great facts and pass them on. The quirks of history delight and vex him. He seems genuinely aggrieved that Audrey Hepburn died on the same day as Bill Clinton’s Inauguration and didn’t get her proper due. Same goes for Farrah Fawcett, who died on the same day as Michael Jackson. (One of the book’s many humorous sidebars lists other notable people who died on the same day, in case you were wondering what Margaret Thatcher had in common with Annette Funicello.) There’s even a chapter on historic figures memorialized by rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike—a motley bunch that includes Walt Whitman, Vince Lombardi, and Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. Mobituaries are not reserved only for people; Rocca also revisits the “deaths” of fashion trends (R.I.P., the codpiece), sitcom characters (pour one out for Judy Winslow, of “Family Matters”), and the country of Prussia.
The final Mobituary in the book is for Rocca’s father, Marcel (1929-2004), told through his love of the trumpet, a teen-age hobby that Marcel resumed at the age of fifty, practicing in the cellar of their family home, in Bethesda, Maryland. Rocca credits Marcel with his love of long car rides, the music of Jerome Kern, and obituaries—curiosity paid forward. Also, Rocca notes, would you believe that the famous trumpet player Lee Morgan was shot onstage at Slugs’ Saloon, by his common-law wife? In our fact-challenged times, Rocca’s joyful tour through the “didja know”s of history is an unexpected antidote.
“Love and Capital,” an Ode to the Relationship That Saved Karl Marx
By Sheelah Kolhatkar
November 6, 2019
With populist movements surging around the world, there is no better moment to reacquaint oneself with the work of Karl Marx, who predicted our current economic condition back in the eighteen-hundreds. Fortunately, we have Mary Gabriel’s book “ Love and Capital ,” which tells the story of Marx’s life and work through the prism of his marriage. The book, from 2011, reads like a Flaubert novel; it humanizes Marx, and shows him as a flawed family man who likely never would have produced his world-changing writings if it weren’t for his long-suffering wife, Jenny. Although Jenny was born to an aristocratic Prussian family, she remained devoted to Marx through enormous hardship, often collaborating with him to get his ideas on paper.
Marx’s theories were inspired by events that bear some similarities to ones seen today. In the Silesian region of Prussia, for example, the thriving textile industry went into severe decline after demand for handspun cloth plummeted. The industrial revolution had created a glut of machine-produced textiles, which depressed prices; meanwhile, the Prussian government refused to supply anti-poverty benefits to aid the newly unemployed. The factory owners responded to the decline in demand by cutting workers’ pay, driving them to desperation. In June, 1844, thousands of workers rebelled and destroyed the mansions of textile barons and industrialists. (The uprising was put down by force.) A few years later, during a debate on free trade, Marx disputed the idea that such trade would benefit workers, describing it as “freedom of Capital to crush the worker.” He publicly supported the policy, though, because he felt that it would cause so much suffering among the working class that it would hasten their eagerness for revolution.
Gabriel’s book lends a sense of texture and intimacy to this history, giving us a ground-level view of how Marx’s ideas took shape. But it also reveals the relationship that enabled those theories. Marx spent more than a decade struggling to complete his masterwork, “ Capital ,” in which he hoped to show the world that capitalism existed primarily to exploit workers. He and Jenny lived during those years in worsening poverty, moving between London, Paris, and Brussels and trying to keep their children out of starvation. The first installment of “Capital” received little acclaim when it was published, in 1867; today, it stands as one of the most influential texts ever written. Without Jenny, Gabriel suggests, it never would have seen the light of day.
“The Grammarians” Gives Voice to the Laws of Language
By Lauren Leibowitz
October 18, 2019
There are plenty of misconceptions about the discipline of copy editing—not to mention the temperament of the copy editor. Foremost among them is the idea that the laws of language are cold, hard, and immutable, and that a copy editor ought to guard against the perversion of the texting, tweeting masses. In practice, though, the principles that govern usage are ever-changing and open to interpretation; the trick is knowing when, and how, they should be broken.
Cathleen Schine’s new novel, “ The Grammarians ,” is a rich study of the factions that attempt to define how language should be used. Schine, a former copy editor herself, gives voice and backstory to the opposing teams: the prescriptivist, who, pun intended, follows rules to the letter, and the descriptivist, who, rules be damned, strives to make the written word more closely match its meaning. “The Grammarians” personifies this conflict with a set of twins, Laurel and Daphne. When they’re five years old, the girls’ father inherits an old copy of Webster’s Second, and places it on a literal altar for their perusal; they collect and play with the quirkier words they find like other children would play with paper dolls. We follow Laurel and Daphne into adulthood, in New York City, in the nineteen-eighties. They move in together and get jobs: Laurel starts as a kindergarten teacher in a private school on the Upper West Side, and Daphne answers phones for a downtown alt-weekly. As twins in fiction are wont to do, the two switch places one day, and Laurel, as Daphne, stumbles her way onto the paper’s copy desk. When the real Daphne returns to work, she excels as a copy editor; in the ensuing chapters and years, she goes on to become the copy chief and a renowned language columnist. Under the guise of “The People’s Pedant,” Daphne writes screeds about grammar and usage—much like The New Yorker’s Comma Queen , if she were more concerned with correcting speakers’ conversational tics. “I am a professional scold, and I like it,” Daphne realizes, after she’s gained notoriety.
As Daphne’s prescriptivism becomes more pronounced, it seeps into her relationship with her sister, who has discovered the wonders of Fowler’s Modern English . “He saw language as if it were living and breathing and muddling through like everyone else,” Laurel remarks, of Fowler. The book leads her to seek out more historical examples of language in its natural habitat, including letters collected by the Department of War. “The misspellings strike her as painfully eloquent, not mistakes at all, but cries of the heart, documentation of upheaval in a family, in a social order,” Schine writes. Laurel turns the letters into poetry, and breathless critics liken her creations to the revelatory samplings of a hip-hop artist. But, as Laurel awakens to the raw beauty of idiomatic writing, Daphne clings harder to the regulations that she sees her sister as flouting. The rift that’s been developing since the girls moved out on their own deepens into a full-on split.
I’ve been copy-editing professionally for six years now, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t guilty of some of Daphne’s judgment when I’m off the clock. But, as I watched Laurel exhort the vitality and depth of imperfect grammar, I kept thinking about how she was the one who had awakened the People’s Pedant in the first place. While Schine’s twin grammarians advance distinct philosophies, the rest of us must reconcile the two, and consider each writer’s words on their own merit. “Copyediting is helping the words survive the misconceptions of their authors,” Daphne says early on, before occupational hazards wreak havoc on what drew her to the job in the first place. But sometimes those misconceptions stem from the tools at the author’s disposal. Mediating between the Laurels and the Daphnes can be agonizing, but, at its finest, copy-editing ought to be an exercise in empathy—to serve the source text, the writer, and, above all, the reader, who should never sense that such deliberations occurred.
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The literary life of Michiko Kakutani: the book critic's best feuds and reviews
The New York Times writer is stepping down from her role, leaving behind a remarkable career characterized by razor-sharp reviews and intra-literary rows
M ichiko Kakutani, the New York Times’ revered chief book critic, announced she was stepping down from her post on Thursday after 38 years, marking the end of a career that inspired both admiration and fear in the hearts of the writers whose books she reviewed.
Kakutani was America’s most powerful literary critic, someone who, with the stroke of a pen, wielded immense influence over the careers of both budding and established novelists. Over the course of her tenure at the Times, Kakutani was remarkably guarded, making few appearances in public and allowing her reviews to speak for themselves. In honor of a critic so widely celebrated – the scribe behind pieces that launched the careers of David Foster-Wallace, George Saunders and Zadie Smith and angered quite a few others – here are her best feuds and reviews, broken down.
Kakutani v Franzen
Part of what so attracted readers to Kakutani’s work was her constant objectivity, a quality that was on display in her ability to write admiringly of an author and then, if underwhelmed by a later release, roast them over a fire. Kakutani praised Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections as a “devastating family portrait and a harrowing portrait of America in the late 1990s”, but was less intrigued by his 2006 memoir The Discomfort Zone, questioning “why anyone would be interested in pages and pages about this unhappy relationship or the self-important and self-promoting contents of Mr Franzen’s mind”. The novelist fired back in an interview with the Guardian , calling Kakutani “tone-deaf and humorless”. Then, two years later, at a discussion with James Wood at Harvard, he upped the ante by referring to the critic as “the stupidest person in New York City”.
Kakutani v Mailer
Kakutani reviewed Norman Mailer’s 2006 novel The Gospel According to the Sun, a first-person autobiographical retelling of the Bible from the perspective of Jesus himself. She called it “a silly, self-important and at times inadvertently comical book that reads like a combination of Godspell, Nikos Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ and one of those new, dumbed-down Bible translations”; Mailer, never one to shy away from a writerly squabble, called Kakutani a “one-woman kamikaze” in an interview with Rolling Stone. He then suggested the Times only retains Kakutani because she’s a woman of Asian descent: “She disdains white male authors, and I’m her number-one favorite target,” he said. “But the Times editors can’t fire her. They’re terrified of her. With discrimination rules and such, well, she’s a threefer, Asiatic, feminist, and ah, what’s the third? Well, let’s just call her a twofer. She is a token. And deep down, she probably knows it.”
Kakutani v Sontag
After Kakutani panned Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others, the late Susan Sontag was less than pleased. “Her criticisms of my books are stupid and shallow and not to the point,” she told the Independent . “It was a dumb, bad review as opposed to a smart, bad review. I expected better of her.” As for the review in question, Kakutani called the book, an extended essay in which Sontag probes war different 20th century visual representations of war, “ambivalent”, adding, “Is it really a revelation that a picture can sometimes be worth a thousand words?”
Kakutani v Updike
Fifteen years ago, Kakutani wrote that in John Updike’s Seek My Face , a roman à clef novel that drew inspiration from the lives of the artists Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner, “it’s impossible for the reader to find a single believable character”. For good measure, she added that the book seemed to be written “by a lazy, voyeuristic and reductive hand”. Updike returned the favor, telling a reporter that he’s largely unscathed by “professional reviewers like Michiko Kakutani, who handles so many books that there’s a secret hatred of all books that runs through, or a wish to dismiss”.
Kakutani v Foster-Wallace
In her 1996 review of David Foster-Wallace’s sprawling novel Infinite Jest, Kakutani sprinkled a bit of snark in an otherwise glowing review. While she wrote that the 1,096-page epic cemented Foster-Wallace as “one of the big talents of his generation, a writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything”, she also quoted Henry James in calling Jest a “loose, baggy monster”, adding that it read like a “vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr Wallace’s mind”. In his 2012 biography of the late Foster-Wallace, DT Max wrote that the writer “told a friend he hid in his room for two days and cried after reading yet another paragraph devoted to parallels between his first book and Pynchon’s most popular novel”. In public, though, Foster-Wallace seemed to lend little credence to Kakutani’s criticisms: in an interview with Laura Miller, he said: “If the length [of Infinite Jest] seems gratuitous, as it did to a very charming Japanese lady from the New York Times, then it arouses ire.”
The glowing reviews
On Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom
It took Jonathan Franzen nine years to follow up the literary sensation that was The Corrections. When the final product arrived, in the form of his expansive novel Freedom, Kakutani heaped praise upon the author for his expansive, post-modernist tale of the Berglund family:
“Writing in prose that is at once visceral and lapidary, Mr Franzen shows us how his characters strive to navigate a world of technological gadgetry and ever-shifting mores, how they struggle to balance the equation between their expectations of life and dull reality, their political ideals and mercenary personal urges. He proves himself as adept at adolescent comedy (what happens to Joey after he accidentally swallows his wedding ring right before a vacation with his dream girl) as he is at grown-up tragedy (what happens to Walter’s assistant and new beloved when she sets off alone on a trip to West Virginia coal country); as skilled at holding a mirror to the world his people inhabit day by dreary day as he is at limning their messy inner lives.”
On Zadie Smith’s 2005 novel On Beauty
Kakutani helped launched Zadie Smith’s career after reviewing her debut novel White Teeth, but it’s her assessment of Smith’s On Beauty that really puts in prose her greatest gifts as a critic:
“On Beauty opens out to provide the reader with a splashy, irreverent look at campus politics, political correctness and the ways different generations regard race and class, but its real focus is on personal relationships – what EM Forster regarded as ‘the real life, forever and ever’. Like Forster, Ms Smith possesses a captivating authorial voice – at once authoritative and nonchalant, and capacious enough to accommodate high moral seriousness, laid-back humor and virtually everything in between – and in these pages, she uses that voice to enormous effect, giving us that rare thing: a novel that is as affecting as it is entertaining, as provocative as it is humane.”
On Don Delillo’s 1997 novel Underworld
There were few critics who had bad things to say about Underworld when it first came out in 1997, Kakutani included. In her review , she commended Delillo and also seamlessly found a way to include the word “effluvia”.
“With his astonishing new novel, DeLillo has written that book, or at least a close approximation of it. Underworld is an amazing performance, a novel that encompasses some five decades of history, both the hard, bright world of public events and the more subterranean world of private emotions in which individuals are connected by a secret calculus of hope and loss. It is the story of one man, one family, but it is also the story of what happened to America in the second half of the 20th century ...
... The same might well be said of Mr DeLillo, who in this remarkable novel has taken the effluvia of modern life, all the detritus of our daily and political lives, and turned it into a dazzling, phosphorescent work of art.
On Toni Morrison’s 1984 novel Beloved
If the goal of a positive book review is to give the reader incentive to buy the book themselves, Kakutani was uniquely adept at taking a true work of art – Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for instance – and writing a review nearly as trenchant and skillful as the novels about which she opined:
“At the heart of Toni Morrison’s extraordinary new novel, ‘Beloved,’ there stands a horrifying event – an event so brutal and disturbing that it appears to warp time before and after into a single, unwavering line of fate. It will destroy one family’s dream of safety and freedom; it will haunt an entire community for generations, and, as related by Ms Morrison, it will reverberate in readers’ minds long after they have finished this book.”
On Juniot Diaz’s 2012 short story collection This is How You Lose Her
Kakutani was, like most, an admirer of Junot Diaz’s 2007 novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but her review of his collection of stories , This is How You Lose Her, provided smart insights into the ways his natural gifts for characterization translated to a smaller, less novelistic scale:
“The strongest tales are those fueled by the verbal energy and magpie language that made Brief Wondrous Life so memorable and that capture Yunior’s efforts to commute between two cultures, Dominican and American, while always remaining an outsider. Mr Díaz evocatively describes Yunior’s affection for Santo Domingo: how he loves ‘the plane landing, everybody clapping when the wheels kiss the runway’, loves ‘the redhead woman on her way to meet the daughter she hasn’t seen in 11 years’, holding gifts on her lap ‘like the bones of a saint’. He is equally adept at evoking the exotic world of New Jersey that Yunior and his handsome brother, Rafa, are introduced to as children, when their father moves the family to America: the startling spectacle of snow and snowmen, television as an English language teacher, trips to the Pathmark.”
The negative reviews
On Bill Clinton’s 2004 memoir My Life
Kakutani’s review of the former president’s 2004 memoir remains a crash-course in the art of the literary takedown and a living testament to the critic’s often-searing honesty.
“The book, which weighs in at more than 950 pages, is sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull – the sound of one man prattling away, not for the reader, but for himself and some distant recording angel of history. In many ways, the book is a mirror of Mr Clinton’s presidency: lack of discipline leading to squandered opportunities; high expectations, undermined by self-indulgence and scattered concentration.”
On Haruki Murakami’s 1984 novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Kakutani was quite consistently a Murakami skeptic, writing lukewarm reviews of his other books like After the Quake and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. But she was most unenthused by Wind-Up Bird Chronicle :
“For most of us, art is supposed to do something more than simply mirror the confusions of the world. Worse, Wind-Up Bird often seems so messy that its refusal of closure feels less like an artistic choice than simple laziness, a reluctance on the part of the author to run his manuscript through the typewriter (or computer) one last time.”
On Henry Kissinger’s 2011 history of Chinese politics, On China:
Kakutani reared her critical head on nonfiction books as incisively as she did toward fiction. Her review of Henry Kissinger’s On China , a collection of the former secretary of state’s musings on a country with which he was well-versed, displays Kakutani’s knack for cutting through politician-speak:
“Lurking beneath Mr. Kissinger’s musings on Chinese history is a not-so-subtle subtext. This volume, much like his 1994 book, Diplomacy, is also a sly attempt by a controversial figure to burnish his legacy as Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state. It is a book that promotes Mr. Kissinger’s own brand of realpolitik thinking, and that in doing so often soft-pedals the human costs of Mao’s ruthless decades-long reign and questions the consequences of more recent American efforts to press human-rights issues with the Chinese.”
On Jonathan Littel’s 2009 novel The Kindly Ones:
Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones, a work of historical fiction that looked at World War II through the eyes of an SS officer, was understandbly divisive when first translated form French to English in 2009. Kakutani reserved for the book some of her harshest criticisms :
“The novel’s gushing fans, however, seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness. Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, The Kindly Ones – the title is a reference to the Furies, otherwise known in Greek mythology as the Eumenides – is an overstuffed suitcase of a book, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrator’s incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies.”
- New York Times
- Jonathan Franzen
- Zadie Smith
- Don DeLillo
- David Foster Wallace
- Bill Clinton
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