Allusions to Other Books: How Much Is Too Much?

Can There Be Too Many Allusions in a Book_

Many readers seem excited to find characters who are bookworms or to notice allusions to other texts in the books they read.  I’ve seen people squeal on social media about the fact that a novel mentioned Harry Potter or (much more rarely) another favorite book, as if the allusion alone were a recommendation for the novel.  The author or the character or both like the same book that the reader does, so there’s some sort of connection.  The entire novel is better for it.  Yet I find myself on the other end of the spectrum.  I often don’t like allusions to other books because they feel forced or overwhelming.

A well-placed allusion that adds something to the novel and does not distract from the main story is fine.  However, many allusions seem like throw-away lines that are simply there, and if a book has too many, they overwhelm the main narrative, and I start wondering if the author is making a weird effort to look well-read themselves.  This is particularly true if the “allusion” is mainly a name drop of a litany of titles, rather than a thoughtful working-in of a quote or other more subtle reference.

In other cases, I frequently feel (perhaps unjustly) that the allusion is there to make a quick connection with the reader without any real work on the part of the author.  Shouting “We’re all Harry Potter fans here!” seems like a short-cut to make readers like the book or the character—and that short-cut rests on the fact that Harry Potter is good, regardless of whether the book alluding to it is also good.  This struck me most recently as I was reading Blastaway by Melissa Landers (a book that has other strong qualities, to be fair).  The story is set 500 years in the future in space, but the protagonist frequently waxes poetic about how the twenty-first century on Earth was a golden age of literature, and he mentions Harry Potter throughout the book.  Furthermore, he has a full conversation with another character about Harry Potter, what Houses they’re in, etc.  Far from immersing me in the story or making me identify with the protagonist as a fellow HP fan, I felt ripped out of it.  Was I reading a story set in space or an ode to Harry Potter?  Worse, the novel then dedicated a lengthy paragraph to a discussion of Percy Jackson, as if the author wanted to be sure she hit two of the biggest fandoms in middle grade.

A couple pages of characters in a book geeking out about other books does not contribute much in my opinion, particularly if the point is simply that the characters like the book and, hey!, you the reader probably do, too!  If the books alluded to were relevant to the plot, or if there were some overlap in themes between the two stories that merited being commented upon, I think a lengthy allusion could be valuable. (Although probably rare in contemporary literature. I wouldn’t blink an eye at characters in a classic novel discussing, say, Wordsworth for reasons that became clear over the course of the story.  Such a thing just generally doesn’t happen in books written today.)

I might be overreacting to such allusions.  Likely the authors are genuine fans of the books and simply think that mentioning them is fun, but I find it distracting, and the allusions are poor substitutes for making me like or care about the characters or the story in other ways.

What do you think? Do you like allusions in books?  Are some allusions better done than others?



Do You Read Backlist Titles?

Do You Read Backlist Titles

Book bloggers often seem to focus on new releases, working hard to get advanced reader copies (ARCs) for review or blogging primarily about books being published that same year, or the next.  However, the worth of a book cannot be measured by its release date alone.  Plenty of “older” titles (an adjective that can apply to a book released maybe even only three years ago) are still vibrant and compelling stories–ones worth reading.

Reading every book published every year simply is not possible, even for those who read incessantly. Even if readers limit themselves only to categories like “middle-grade books” or “fantasy YA,” they still will not be able to read every book published in a given year.  This means that, every year, there are plenty of exciting stories that I fail to read.  But they still have intriguing summaries, glowing reviews, or provocative premises.  I still want to read them.

I regularly read backlist titles because a good story remains a good story, even after time has passed.  It is not the newness of a book that makes it moving or gripping or memorable.  Rather, it is the characters, the plot, and the prose that combine to make a book the type of story that nestles deep into your heart, that makes you think, that maybe changes your life forever.  I would hate to miss out on something wonderful simply because it is no longer new.

But reading backlist titles has benefits–namely, that I am more likely to find others who have read the book, too.  Discussions of books is difficult when reviewing ARCs or even when reviewing a book only a few weeks old, because not many others have  read or finished the story.  In these cases, comments on reviews are often confined to statements like, “Great review!” or “I’m looking forward to reading this!” In-depth comments on the story and readers’ reactions to it are not yet possible.  But I love hearing what others thought of the book, whether that means they are sharing my enthusiasm or pointing out aspects of the book I may have overlooked or interpreted differently.  Talking about books is half the fun of reading.

Reading backlist titles gives me the opportunity to find gems I may have missed and the opportunity to talk about my new finds with others who have already read and loved them.  I would never want to miss out on a good book simply because it was not published this  year.

Do you read backlist titles?


Are There More “Nurturing” Women Than Men in Books, And Does It Matter?

Why We Need More Nurturing Fathers in Books

Recently I’ve been reading a number of books and articles about domestic inequality and how women (in particular mothers) do significantly more housework and caregiving than men. All the Rage by Darcy Lockman explores some of the larger societal reasons that this might be the case, and the idea that women are often considered to be “better” or “more natural” caregivers and, therefore, either are given or take on more carework themselves struck me an interesting idea—because I see it often in literature.  I did post in May (around US Mother’s Day) about how a large percentage of mothers in young adult novels are actually dead, so clearly they are not providing any caregiving, but now I am wondering how many characters in books that do include parents or parental figures are women vs. men.

I have yet to make a large-scale survey of my reading (and if someone wants to do their own and post about it, feel free), but I was struck by the absence of involved fathers in the book I happened to read right after All the Rage, which was the middle grade fantasy Briar and Rose and Jack by Katherine Coville.  The book contains three prominent characters who fill the role of caregiver—and all of them are women.

It is worth noting that Briar and Rose and Jack is a fairy tale retelling set in a fantasy world clearly inspired by medieval Europe.  In that sense, it seems fair to me that there are some historically-inspired stereotypical gender roles in the book when it comes to labor: men are soldiers, men do the farming, women run the household, etc.  Protagonists Briar and Rose are independent individuals and take charge of their lives, so it isn’t as if women are passive nobodies, but in terms of actual jobs, the book tends to stick to gender divisions that decently reflect what one might expect from medieval Europe (or a place like it).

However, I found I was bothered by the idea that all the caregivers in the book are women because that is not a distinction about tasks or chores; it’s a perpetuation of the idea that women are the caring, nurturing ones, while men are distant.  The people who care for children, literally and emotionally, in the book are Briar and Rose’s mother, the nurse/fairy godmother, and Jack’s mother.  Jack’s father is dead (we have no idea what he would have been like if alive), and Briar and Rose’s father is so horrid he disowns Briar entirely and then values Rose only for her beauty and political value.  The other prominent adult in the story is the bishop, who tutors the children and seems to despise children in general, though Briar in particular.  There are several examples of nurturing, comforting, actively involved women in the book, but no men.

Is this a problem?  For an individual book, I’d say no, but I am very interested in taking note as I continue to read other books this year of how many female characters in them are “good” parents or parental stand-ins and how many men are.  If books do the work of both reflecting and imparting values of our society, it would be a worthwhile goal to see active, nurturing father characters to help upend the stereotype that women are “better” at caregiving work.

What do you think? Are caring mothers more common the books you read, or are there caring fathers, too?


I Don’t Think Required Reading Is That Terrible

Required reading in schools is getting an increasingly bad reputation as the proponents of allowing children to choose their own books insist that asking any class to read the same book together is tantamount to destroying a child’s love of reading for life.  However, while I agree that children should have plenty of opportunities to read books that they choose, I don’t really think a class read-along is necessarily a traumatic event in the life of a budding reader.  Indeed, I think reading a book together actually shows students how avid readers read, and that the arguments against required reading are often about how required reading is taught–and not about the required reading element itself.

Required reading gives a class the opportunity to share a book by reading it at the same time and discussing their reactions–an experience that lifelong readers tend to seek out actively.  Although the opponents of required reading insist that everyone ought to be reading a book of their own choice, so everyone (theoretically) is always guaranteed a book they love, lifelong readers usually tend to stretch their reading boundaries a little more than this.  They may choose to join a book club or do a buddy read, so they can discuss a book in real time with other people.  In such cases, they may indeed sometimes be asked to read a book they end up not liking (or that they suspect from the start they will not like).  But lifelong readers understand that not every book will be the best book they have ever read.  Instead, they learn to use these experiences to listen to other viewpoints, to try to find interesting or valuable parts in texts they do not particularly like, and to articulate to themselves what it is they do like in books, helping them choose their next read.  All these are skills that students with required reading can learn, as well.

I do not believe that simply being asked to read a book not of one’s own choosing is enough to destroy a love of reading for life because lifelong readers are likely to experience this, too.  I think, rather, that the arguments against required reading in school are really about how students are asked to approach a text.  Avid readers likely simply read the book, they show up to their book club or their friend’s house ready to talk about what they noticed, what they liked, and what they did not like.  They may compare the book to other books they have read and even have recommendations for their fellow readers based on elements of the book they enjoyed.  But students are not always prepared to do this. They do not necessarily know how to read a book, absorb it, remember it, and then talk about it.  So teachers burden them with a list of ways to read–to annotate, to fill out a worksheet, to summarize, and so forth.  It is this experience, that of being asked to “prove” that one has read the book, that can make the experience of reading so disagreeable.

Of course, teachers are typically using such methods as a way to help their students, to get them to read actively and to learn how they can pick out things to notice and to talk about.  They are probably using scaffolding, starting out with prompting students to summarize, then make connections, then make arguments.  But the way they do these things can sometimes take priority over the actual experience of reading, making “reading” seem boring and onerous.  So what teachers need to do, then, is to find ways to scaffold without reducing a story to filling out a worksheet “proving” reading comprehension.

Making reading exciting, however, is best done by teachers who are excited about reading themselves–yet more and more reading activists are questioning the number of English/literature teachers who do actually read in their free time.  If teachers are not enthusiastic readers themselves, it seems more likely that they will rely on worksheets and multiple choice tests to measure reading comprehension, instead of leading book club-like discussions about the book itself.  Teaching required skill sets at the cost of conveying excitement could happen without any real intent for this to occur.

I see nothing particularly onerous about asking students to read a book along together, to experience reading a story together as a class.  I do think, however, that required reading should try to mirror how avid readers really read, and that teachers should try to convey a sense of wonder and excitement about reading.

This Is Why Your Library Doesn’t Own That E-book You Want

Shrinking or stagnant library budgets in the United States have made it increasingly difficult for libraries to purchase e-books, even as demand for them increases among patrons.  The average consumer pays less for perpetual access to an e-book than a library system pays for what is typically metered access– an agreement that the e-book purchase expires after one or two years or a certain number of loans.  This model is meant to ensure that publishers and authors continue to make money, the rationale being that libraries have to pay to replace physical copies due to wear-and-tear, and so should have to pay to replace e-books.  Yet it seems obvious that the average library is hardly replacing each physical book after a year or two and that this model hurts libraries in the long run, as they cannot afford to replace e-books at such a rate.  With new pricing and lending models being announced by several of the Big Five publishers, however, libraries will find themselves even more hard-pressed to purchase e-books for their patrons.

High prices and metered access already make it difficult for libraries to build and maintain e-book collections.  In October 2018, Penguin Random House changed from a perpetual access model to a metered model in which libraries can keep a copy of an e-book for two years.  In the process, they also slightly lowered e-book prices (for an adult title) from $65 to $55 according to American Libraries Magazine; YA titles were priced at $45 and children’s books at $35.  The move was appreciated by some libraries who feel demand for titles decreases over time, but was met with more hesitation from other libraries who worry about having to pay repeatedly for a popular book.  Meanwhile, Hachette, according to a July 2019 article in The Washington Post, now charges $65 for most adult titles, also for a two-year period.  And Simon & Schuster announced that they will change from one-year metered access to a two-year model with prices ranging from $38.99 to $52.99 starting August 1, 2019.  Additionally, Simon & Schuster will end perpetual access to audiobooks in favor of two-year access.  In each of these cases, libraries typically pay far more than the average consumer for a title that ultimately expires, making it a challenge for them to provide all the e-books their patrons might wish.

However, it is the recent announcement by Macmillan that they will place a two-month embargo on libraries purchasing new e-book titles that is really concerning librarians.  Last year, Macmillan experimented with a four-month ban on titles with its Tor imprint, saying libraries were hurting the company’s consumer sales.   Macmillan CEO John Sargent says that the embargo led to increased sales for Tor e-books.  So now Macmillan is repeating the claim that libraries decrease author payments.  As a result, they are changing their lending model to encourage the public to buy titles they will not be able to borrow from their libraries.

Starting November 1, 2019, Macmillan will offer libraries one perpetual access copy of new titles for half price ($30) during the first two months after release.  Once two months have passed, libraries can buy additional copies at full price ($60) for two years or 52 lends, whichever occurs first.  Librarians have responded by arguing that demand for hot titles often decreases after time, making the opportunity to buy new titles two months after release of little use to their patrons.  They also worry about being unable to provide enough copies for their patrons, and they question how Macmillan has come to the conclusion that libraries are negatively impacting e-book sales.

The American Library Association has spoken out against Macmillan’s embargo, urging library patrons to write to the publisher to request that they support the mission of libraries to provide equal access to all.  For now, however, the future looks bleak for libraries and their patrons as publishers seems to view libraries as an opponent.  But libraries are not opposed to publishers.  They are the places where readers are created, where patrons discover new authors, where people learn to love and support reading.  They are even, sometimes, places that create future buyers of books.

Can the Minimalist Trend Help Libraries Thrive?

Libraries and Minimalism

Consumerism in the book blogosphere can often feel rampant, with some bloggers admitting to feeling inadequate because they cannot purchase enough books to keep up with all the new releases, or to make rainbow shelves for nothing else than to take photos for Instagram.  With an emphasis on book hauls, box subscriptions, and the latest hyped titles, the book blogosphere can make using the library seem, well, lackluster.  But minimalism seems to be making a comeback and this just  might be the time for the library to shine.

Marie Kondo’s methods for creating a minimalist home were so popular earlier this year that some news outlets reported thrift stores receiving an overwhelming number of donations.  Perhaps the trend for downsizing has ended since Kondo’s Netflix show first aired.  But perhaps her methods could have staying power that have people constantly reassessing how many purchases they really need to make.  If so, the library could be perfectly poised to take advantage of people’s new desire to keep things simple.

Books can quickly take up plenty of space, and they can prove difficult to dust, difficult to pack, and difficult to move.  So there is something to be said for choosing only the books that mean the most and donating the rest so someone else can enjoy them.  The wonderful thing about libraries, though, is that they mean that no book is ever really gone.  A person can simply go to the library and check out a book whenever they like (or use interlibrary loan if their home library does not have a copy).  And there is no worry of books creeping over the floor, across the table, and down the stairs as the purchases pile up, because the books have to go back.

Of course, many people like living in homes where books are stacked up in every corner.  (I donate a large number of my books, but still currently have a stack next to the bed, a stack on the floor, a bunch in the closet where clothes should be, and some more “artistically” scattered around.)  But if minimalism becomes the next hot trend, perhaps libraries could experience a surge in patronage.  And maybe book bloggers will be at the front of the movement.

How Does Your Library Market Its Programs? (Discussion)

How does your library market its programs_

Krysta writes a lot about libraries, resources, and accessibility on the blog, but lately my own struggles with my new local library got me thinking about marketing and outreach to the local community.  Those who follow me on Twitter might have noticed me recording my saga in attempting to find out about the Summer Reading Program—basic information like the dates it’s being run and what ages it’s open to.  (For instance, some libraries have a minimum age for kids; some don’t.  Some have an adult Summer Reading Program; some don’t.)  I looked in vain on the library’s website and social media for information about what is one of the biggest programs of the year for any library in the US.  I then asked on their Facebook page for more information and was met with silence.  I finally emailed my queries, only to be answered by someone who said they didn’t know and I should check the library website—the website that does not have any information.  The saga ended somewhat happily with someone finally giving me the email address of the children’s librarian—who subsequently told me there is no adult Summer Reading Program anyway—but the whole experience had me questioning how this particular library markets their events and gets people to come, and then I wondered what libraries in general are doing and what seems most effective.

I was actually seeking and asking for information about a program I assumed the library had, and I could not find the answer.  This library’s Twitter account has not been updated since 2018.  Their Facebook page has scheduled posts about some events, but the posts lack any real information.  One might read something like, “Come July 14 to see Pete the Rabbit!”  After reading this, I have no idea who Pete the Rabbit is, what ages this is suggested for, or why anyone might want to see him.  If I cared enough, I could try asking, but my experience demonstrates I might not get an answer, or it might take me so long to get an answer I just get frustrated and decide I’ve had it with Pete entirely.  The library has no other social media (such as an Instagram), and their website has sporadic, ill-formatted information that ranges in quality.  Imagine a page listing programs that’s in Comic Sans and also includes general info like “Science stories, June 3 from  9-10 am, ages 4-10.”  What is the “science stories” program?  I have no idea.  Incomplete information that’s distributed only very locally—on the library’s own website and on the library’s own Facebook page—means I really have no idea what’s happening at the library, and I have to rather intentionally look for the information to find out.  There is little chance I will find out about any programs or offerings if I am not already someone who routinely visits the library or frequently checks the website for updates.

I’ve belonged to better-funded, friendlier libraries.  (I don’t think I would have gotten an email response that amounted to “Dunno. Ask someone else,” from my previous library if I asked for information about a program.)  However, this local marketing seems fairly common.  If you want to know what’s going on, you have to check the library website (other libraries do have more informative sites than my current one), or you have to go in the library building and see some flyers hanging around.  Krysta talked about how more local media coverage would benefit libraries and help them inform a wider audience about programs and services.  But now I want to know:

How does your library market their programs?  What social media do they use?  Is the information they post vague or actually informative?  Are they active or fairly absent?  Do they advertise outside of their own channels?  What works, and what do you think libraries can do better?