Book Club News

NPR’s “I Will If You Will Book Club” is activating again and looking for suggestions about what to read next.

If you love book clubs, have been looking for a book club, or have always wondered what being in a book club entails, the IWIYW Book Club is a great, low-commitment place to start – especially when you have input into the reading material.

For those who want to understand the premise behind IWIYW, check out this post.

Want to suggest a book? Visit the NPR Monkey See blog, check out what others have recommended, and share your ideas in their comments section.

NPR Hosts Book Club for Younger Readers

Hot on the heels of Teen Read Week and just in time for Halloween, NPR presents a book club for kids age 9 – 14 and, right off the bat, members will be reading Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

A couple of extra-cool features about this club and its first selection: You can watch this video on Mouse Circus, Gaiman’s website for young readers, of the author reading his book. This offers young readers the opportunity to gauge their own impressions, then see how the author interprets his writing. And, on Halloween (Monday, Oct. 31), NPR’s afternoon news program, “All Things Considered,” will chat with Gaiman about The Graveyard Book and answer listener questions.

Full details are here, including a link to submit your questions and thoughts about The Graveyard Book.

I Will If You Will

I started reading a graphic novel called The Sandman: Dream Country today. It’s only the second time I’ve ever attempted to read a graphic novel, and the first time I’ve stuck with it.

Hmmm, you say, not really my cup of chai. Normally, I would’ve said so too.

My first foray was the Batman reboot The Dark Knight. Despite being a big fan of the ‘60s TV show, this gothic vision of the Caped Crusader just didn’t pack the same POW! I was also an avid “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” watcher, but somehow never was tempted to pick up Joss Whedon’s Fray series.

So, why now? Why Sandman? It’s the next selection in the I Will If You Will Book Club, a side project of NPR’s “Monkey See” blog (see fawning rave for this culture blog in previous post). I’ll let blog editor Linda Holmes explain the concept:

“For those of you who don’t know, the I Will If You Will Book Club began here at ‘Monkey See’ as a way to read books we might otherwise not choose to tackle, whether because of their reputations or because they’re a different style than we typically prefer, or whatever. We have gone both lowbrow (Twilight) and highbrow (Moby-Dick). I have personally been really glad that I read both of those books, even though they were both difficult in their own unique, vampy, whale-anatomy-intensive ways.”

You’ll have picked up that the whole thing started as a sort of Twilight dare. A lot of people who love good books and films and who generally support reading have piled on the Twilight-hatin’ bandwagon. And a lot of those same haters have never read the book that ignited the flame that became the series and later the movies. It was a bit like the whole Harry Potter sensation, but with many, many more dementors.

The premise of I Will If You Will is that one might be a bit hasty with the criticism prior to the actual reading of the book (and, to be fair, seeing the movie is not the same thing, as any Harry Potter fan will take pains to tell you in groaning detail – far, far too much detail). Reading the book gives you a foundation from which to detract or change your mind. It seems to me that this is the difference between thinking critically and just being critical.

It’s why I’ve read Twilight and The DaVinci Code and other novels that capture the attention of the masses, and I don’t mean “masses” in any kind of insulting sense. That is what popular culture is all about, and it’s why I’m a consuming member of the masses myself.

As writers, and as consumers (“devourers” might be the better word, in Sandman context) of writing, exploring new territory is imperative. It expands our vocabulary, literally, and the creative centers of our brains to boot, granting us access to new options (for example, storytelling that’s fully embedded in a visual medium – yet relies on the imagination in deeper ways than films or TV shows do).

Reading this graphic novel today reminded me (as a corporate communicator) that I’ve seen both health and safety information conveyed in comic-book-esque form, and the uniqueness of the medium – in our seemingly all-online world of communications these days – may be just what a particular, targeted audience is looking for.

I’d have serious reservations about recommending this volume to anyone under the age of 20, but if you’re into the “we’ll all learn together” approach of I Will If You Will or you were curious about graphic novels or you were looking for a book club, maybe you’ll check it out here (there’s still time to get The Sandman: Dream Country and devour it before the first online chat starts).

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Maybe I wrote in invisible ink/Oh, I’ve tried to think/How I could’ve made it appear/But another illustration is wasted because the results are the same/I feel like a ghost/who’s trying to move your hands/over some Ouija board in the hopes/I can spell out my name.”
Aimee Mann, “Invisible Ink” from the album “Lost in Space”

“Monkey See,” Monkey Do

One of the writers I’ve learned a lot from recently is Linda Holmes, who helms NPR’s “Monkey See” blog and the “Pop Culture Happy Hour” podcast. I was not particularly into blogs or podcasts before reading some of Holmes’s posts on NPR’s website; now I’m a daily follower and weekly listener.

This blog is what sold me, and it really had nothing to do with popular culture, which I’m a fan of and would happily tune in just to consume that subsection of content. It was the strength of Holmes’s writing, the attitude she and others who write for “Monkey See” bring to the blog, and the vision she has for this medium.

Put simply, Holmes and Co. do not subscribe to what might be called the “King Me” view of many of the pop culturati. This worldview engenders the kind of exclusive club of insiders who know more than you ever will about the minute details of the plot of their favorite TV shows, the origin stories and bizarro world tales of superheroes, the alternate tracks that never made it onto the record of the bands they idolize, etc., etc. “Monkey See” gives away the secret password so that everyone can enter the clubhouse – and quite a fun clubhouse it is, thanks to their “all in” attitude.

One of the first pieces that really made me sit up and take notice was this one about Steve Martin’s engagement at the 92nd Street Y. Up until then, this venue had been considered something of a modern-day salon for artists and thinkers. The Y refunded the audience’s money the following morning, apparently claiming that the discussion covered in the Martin interview wasn’t comprehensive enough and that a number of attendees had expressed disappointment in the talk.

At the end of 2010, Holmes, like a lot of other columnists, prepared an end-of-year list. Instead of cutting down bad entertainment, she dashed off a list of 50 wonderful pop culture phenomena she was treated to during the year. “Honestly,” she wrote, “the hands-down best part of this job is coming in every day and being repeatedly delighted.”

Apparently, this piece of writing got Holmes to thinking because, at the beginning of 2011, she announced on the podcast that she was going to dedicate the year to sharing with her readers the high points, the best, the things that make people happy, the works of art and culture that uplift. If this sounds a bit too Up With People for you, note that the opposite of what she’s proposed is to sharpen her pencil and use it as a skewer. Change the secret password and effectively barricade the door to the clubhouse.

All this to say: Isn’t this what great writing is about? Helping people aspire, rather than tear down. Yes, satire has its place, and it can be a precision tool when addressing abuses of power. But, we’re talking about pop culture criticism here and, if we want our artists to take risks and share their best work with us, then we need to give them the space to create – and sneering and snark doesn’t promote that kind of environment.

If you work in another area of communications – say, employee communications – you can substitute the word “employees” for “artists” and come up with the same equation: Don’t we want to create an environment for employees where they feel comfortable bringing their best ideas to the table? How we write in our corporate communications vehicles can foster or it can dampen enthusiasm.

This is writing that can make a difference, and isn’t that why we became writers in the first place?

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Tolerating the ideas that classical music can be viscerally stirring and that ‘Survivor’ can be sociologically interesting allows much better balance — which benefits everyone — than an escalating and unnatural war between fun and art. Fun and art are natural allies (despite often appearing separately), and forcing them to do battle just divides us into tinier and tinier camps, where we can only talk to people who like precisely the same kinds of culture that we do. That benefits absolutely nobody — not artists, not audiences, and not the quality of discourse.”
Linda Holmes“Monkey See” blog