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‘Red flag’ literature: On not judging a book by its cover

“Catcher in the Rye.” “The Prince.” “Norwegian Wood.” These are all some of the books that are commonly cited as “red flags” when a person indicates them as one of their favorites. There is something unsettling about nominating these texts, amongst others, as “one of the greats.” 

A lot of these books concern controversial topics and feature authoritarian leaders or morally gray, coming-of-age figures. They sometimes struggle with mental health, acceptance in society and may depict others in an unfavorable light.

However, there is a sense of awareness in the controversy towards liking this kind of literature. One Twitter user tweeted in 2021 “the one red flag about me is that Murakami is one of my favorite authors.” I can recall the reluctancy of one of my friends telling me that they loved reading MachiavelliThe admiration of these titles is followed by apologetic tones by the self-aware and met with a tsk tsk towards the unknowing. 

However, the appreciation of these kinds of books doesn’t necessarily need to glorify these thematic ideas. Complicity in a fractured system is not the result of reading literature that depicts its rawness. Many books that make these “red flag” lists are enjoyed by a manifold of people who do not condone the acts or thoughts of the characters. In fact, many books that commonly make these lists, such as this viral Buzzfeed article, are often prescribed in reading lists for middle schools and high schools. While general popularity of something is by no means an indication that is acceptable and good, the heuristic wariness towards these novels is not entirely substantive. 

How can we pardon the grievances and mistakes of these classic characters and narrators, but simultaneously look down upon those that sympathize and grapple with the complexities of these texts? Why are we attempting to deter people from reading and judging their reading preferences based on some arbitrary standard?

Psychologically, people are drawn to antiheros and flawed characters. In an interview published by Psychology Today, researcher Dara Greenwood shared that people exhibited high affinity for characters that are defined as such, particularly if they share any traits, such as Machiavellianism. These characters are seen as more dynamic, and relatable as they are exhibit some of the unfavorable traits that many people are afraid to show. 

There is nothing inherently wrong about reading and appreciating these texts, particularly because experiencing various backgrounds and perspectives develops critical thinking and analysis. In addition, these texts aren’t monolithic, but rather, can be interpreted a myriad of ways. 

On face value, while some of these texts may evoke strong reactions and contain negative connotations, the real harm comes from connecting such associations to the reader themself. Suddenly, someone who is holding a Murakami novel, perhaps wishing to expand their translated fiction reading selection, is judged against the discourse surrounding the author’s depiction of women in literature. The reader then begins to take responsibility for the word choice and thematic imagery of the author and assumes a nonreciprocal, martyr-like role.

Reading is supposed to be a place where one can assume many identities and experience multiple lifetimes. There is no need to be stratified or placed into a box based on reading preferences that are ultimately meant to expand discourse towards new ideas and concepts. A reader’s engagement with a text should not automatically be assumed as an apology towards an author’s claims. 

When we talk about judging a book by its cover, it is typically used to mean that the aesthetic appearance of a text shouldn’t be the substance of our opinion of the book. It requires us to expand upon our initial biases and disregard any facade to glean its “true meaning.” However, this judgment isn’t isolated to the physical appearance of the book but can extend to its ownership. This is an unnecessary and unfair judgment, placing personal perceptions and interpretations upon a separated individual.

It’s easy to stereotype these texts, and subsequently people who outwardly admire them, but doing so with no discourse or further discussion just enables unfair biases in the literary world. There may be books that are downright disagreeable, but in most cases, one is able to access a new viewpoint through this kind of literature, even if one doesn’t completely sympathize with the plights of these characters. 

While this may not seem like an explicit, pervasive issue, it connects to the degradation of other book genres, and othering of forms of literature that are deemed as less thought-provoking and intellectual. “Airport books” are deemed as subservient, and thus, met with quick presuppositions. The problem festers when such judgments are correlated to the attitudes of the authors themselves, and their loyal readers. A book doesn’t need to be covered in accolade seals or venerated by one’s friends to be valuable. If a work of art has the power to move, it has value. Refraining from conflating this value to the individuals who interact with the work is the true definition of abstaining from unwarranted judgment in the literary world. 

Elizabeth Prater is a junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and the Program of Liberal Studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics and literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Slices of life: The world of literary fiction

When you dedicate a whole column to writing about literature, you may find yourself responding to the ultimate question: “What is your favorite book?”

While I certainly have several, I always find the need to add a qualifying statement, as if these works are not substantive on their own.  

“It takes a while to get into it,” is a go to of mine. And when they ask, “What is it about?” I also find myself fumbling for a concise explanation. “Well, it’s hard to put into words.” 

I love books that are about nothing. 

Plot-wise, the literature I read doesn’t consist of much. There is no one-sentence summary that can define the book, or act as an enticing logline. The commerciality of these works is meager to none.  

Literary fiction is often defined as following “non-conventional plot structures” and being character-driven. These novels aren’t typically able to fit neatly into a specific genre, and they are most notable in the ambiguity of their endings.  

One of my top-of-mind examples is Julie Otsuka’s “The Swimmers.” The novel follows the lives of a group of recreational swimmers who visit the same pool. Throughout the book, the reader jumps in and out of their perspectives and experiences through free, indirect discourse. However, nothing significant happens. If anything, the crack that forms at the bottom of the concrete pool, one of the only fundamental events which occurs in the novel, is more metaphorical than physical. The incident causes rifts and strains within the relationships of the swimmers. 

“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath is another book where when I recall reading it, I remember more about the way it made me feel, rather than specific scenes or instances that take place. The premise is that a college student (Esther Greenwood) goes to New York City for a summer internship to pursue journalism. However, declaring that the setup is what the book is “about” would be a disservice. Most of the scenes are vignettes about her interactions with the people she meets, and most importantly, her dissent into mental illness. You experience Esther’s disillusionment with the world as she grapples her loss of adolescence. You encounter her dissatisfaction with the grievances of the world.  

I am often left curious and unsatisfied when I read these kinds of literary fiction novels. There is always something slightly vague and incomplete in the endings, as we never truly experience a true resolution, since there often wasn’t an explicit conflict in the first place. The formulaic relief that we experience when reading or watching our favorite genre-specific media doesn’t hold true for the world of “plotless” literary fiction. It’s indecisive, confusing and messy.  

After reading all of this, you may wonder how I am a marketing major, as I don’t seem to be doing a very good job “selling” this kind of literature. And you would be correct. However, I think there’s something more realistic and contemplative about these kinds of books. 

In contrast, classic storybook endings are more idealistic than truthful. But more than that, in the bustle of routine, we don’t always get to see the full range of a person’s life. Even with people we are close to, we often see slices of their experiences. The rest is up to speculation, interpretation or is disregarded.  

Many “slice-of-life” books may seem to be dull upon hearing about its contents. Some follow a person’s day doing seemingly trivial tasks (“The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro). Others contain stream-of-consciousness descriptions that make up the bulk of the word count (“To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf). However, I find that they are the most accurate in depicting the scope of our observation of people’s lives. 

In all honesty, we only get to be with those around us for a brief amount of time. Conversations are snippets into a person’s livelihood, and we often don’t get to see every facet of them. I think this honesty and limitation of human connection is exactly what literary fiction thrives on. A part of us wishes we could see more, but we must be content with the glimpse we are provided of another’s world.  

In the same way, the atmosphere of college life is like peering into vignettes. We only get to see scenes and selected fragments of strangers, and even friends, as we ebb and flow through the quotidian patterns demanded of us. Class. Dining Hall. Library. Dorm. These are the spaces in which we get a glance of what the day looks like for the people around us. It’s not always the most exciting or glamorous, but it’s raw, and it’s real. And I think that candidness is what makes literary fiction worthwhile.  

So, what’s this column about? Perhaps a synopsis would not suffice. But then again, this is no piece of literary fiction.

Elizabeth Prater is a junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and the Program of Liberal Studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics and literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

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The remains of the workday: Conflation of occupation and identity

The fall of junior year brings a certain air of anxiousness to campus, particularly with students attempting to break into industry-specific work. Color-coded spreadsheets fill the screens of eager students, and computers are full of bookmarked pages of top firms and Fortune 500 lists.

Handshake no longer refers to an interpersonal, physical connection, but rather, an online platform that gives access to “exclusive opportunities.” Just submit your life’s work in a few clicks, and you may or may not receive a response back. Whispers of return offers, life-long relationships and networking opportunities echo across hallways. 

I think the most noticeable part of the “application frenzy” I’ve witnessed is that it’s all encompassing. There is a lack of distinction between personal, class and application time. Instead, they all start to agglomerate. Friends fill out cover letters during lectures, and emails are checked during dinner for scheduling interviews.

I only began to fully comprehend this troubling phenomenon when I recently read “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro. The novel follows an English butler, Stevens, who reminisces about his experiences with his former employer. He reflects on his past decisions as he visits Miss Kenton on a road trip, as she also served at his estate of employment. Stevens claims the objective of the trip is to reemploy her to help run Darlington Hall, but it becomes revealed that perhaps there were some regrets in not preventing her from leaving in the first place. 

When Stevens is asked what dignity is about by a superior, he responds, “I suspect it comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public.” While this may seem like a humorous response to a rather serious question, Steven’s response gets to the heart of his life philosophy. His clothes represent his occupation, and even when he is outside of working hours, he fails to remove this designation from his personhood. Instead, being a butler is what defines Steven’s identity. It isn’t merely a facet or aspect of himself. 

While Stevens attributes his stoicism and unwavering commitment to his occupation as “dignity” and, ultimately “greatness,” it is also the very thing that separates him from higher desires. He is unable to express his affection for Miss Kenton, and she grows frustrated at his inability to detach himself from his professionalism. At one climatic part of the novel, the tension rises between Miss Kenton and Stevens, and she exclaims to him, “Why Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?”

Instead of following his own path, and forging personal beliefs, Stevens assumes that his value comes from his duty and the alignment of his values with that of his employer’s. Throughout the novel, Stevens doesn’t engage in moral reasoning, but rather, blindly follows the thoughts and actions of his employer — even when the actions themselves are corrupt and endangering. When reflecting on the shortcomings of his boss, Stevens laments that even though his employer made mistakes and chose misguided paths, he at least chose it for himself. “As for myself, I cannot even claim that,” Stevens says. “All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really — one has to ask oneself — what dignity is there in that?” 

Stevens’ trip alters the way he defines dignity. He recognizes the dignity that comes with agency and acting upon one’s own reasoning and emotions. At the end of the novel, Stevens sits on a bench by the beach to wait for the pier lights to turn on and watches a group of strangers bonding over the future light display. While Stevens initially views skills such as “bantering” as trivial and extraneous to his duties, he reflects that “it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in — particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.” 

This human connection is ultimately what Stevens was missing in his daily life. Through his conflation of work and identity, he was unable to form this “human warmth.” His mask of professionalism and lack of personal conviction posed a true occupational hazard. It is only in moments of downtime, during “the remains of the day,” in which he can finally make these revelations and prioritize the significance of human connection. 

As I consider the application season, I see similar patterns of correlating one’s work with personal identity. Not only do rejections correlate with feelings of unworthiness, but days can become oversaturated with the application obligations. While this phenomenon has been addressed in terms of workplace productivity through ideology such as the “4-hour work week,” I think the implications of such normalized attitudes can be even more detrimental for budding professionals.

Instead of finding companies whose values and objectives truly align with our goals, accolades can become distracting. Confirmation bias can play a large role in the way we view our own sets of core values and beliefs. In lieu of looking for the best fit in potential positions, many students may find themselves bending to fit the molds of what the “big names” are looking for. But to what extent does this altering permanently change our own attitudes and our capacities for intrinsic reasoning?

Ishiguro writes that we should “at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy.” Whether that’s deciding on a summer internship, or determining how to budget one’s time, the decisions we make shape us in significant ways. Ultimately, if there’s anything I’ve learned from Ishiguro, it’s that the things we do lead to the people we become. While that may be a daunting thought for a 20-something to consider, it’s also sort of exciting in a way. Submitting applications can be a difficult process, but the act of vetting potential roles and positions demonstrates the self-direction and autonomy we possess. 

But even more than that, I think Ishiguro is calling for an intrinsic sense of dignity that isn’t polluted by external authority, such as our workplace roles. Even though it’s easy to inflate the significance of these positions, it’s a helpful reminder that this is not all there is. It’s only when we begin to look toward the others also waiting on the pier, bonding over anticipation and repose during the remains of the day, that we can find something “true and worthy.”

Elizabeth Prater is a junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and the Program of Liberal Studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics and literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Yellow journalism, read all over

I made a pact with myself this year to read actively and more widely about the news. This may be surprising for someone who has both written and worked for The Observer since my freshman year at Notre Dame. However, I found myself barely being able to keep up with my seminar readings, rooted in the classical world, and failed to acquaint myself with contemporary and global issues.

I think my reluctance to engage in current events wasn’t a matter of apathy or a jaded reception to political reporting, but rather, fatigue from the saturation of varying media content. Headlines and infographics with attention-grabbing statistics filled my news feeds and social media. Instead of viewing articles as an informational resource, I found myself gauging the calculated colors, fonts and word choice that enticed readers to click. As a marketing major, I understand that marketing is all about changing the perception of a concept or idea. But to what extent can the perceptions change before it alters the integrity of the content?

Lindsay Juarez is the Director of Irrational Labs, an organization that uses behavioral science insights to drive innovation and growth. She presented her research to my Consumer and Organizational Buyer Behavior class, demonstrating how behavioral science was used to reduce the spread of misinformation on TikTok.

TikTok came to the lab believing it had a responsibility to reduce the spread of misinformation. Prompts were placed on content that was not able to be verified by fact-checkers, and they were flagged as “unsubstantiated content.” As such, users would be given three seconds of the pop-up to move forward with sharing the content even though it was unverified. The implementation of prompts “reduced shares by 24% when compared to a control group.” 

They explained the behavioral science behind the phenomenon, using layman’s terms exploring humans’ “hot” and “cold” states. Media platforms such as TikTok play a role in activating users’ hot states, in which they are overwhelmed by the “power of emotion” and quickly interpret and share content. By placing prompts that indicated that content was unverifiable, TikTok was able to slow down this “hot state” and allow people to become more logical and deliberate with reposting content.

The phenomenon of inciting emotions and “hot states” in behavioral science reminds me of the yellow journalism movement, noted for its emphasis on sensationalism and exaggeration. It is particularly notable in its instrumental use of inciting public sentiment against the Spanish right before the start of the Spanish-American War.

Newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst used this style of journalism by “accentuating the harshness of Spanish rule” or even printing false stories that drove adversarial attitudes. The result was an increase in sales of the papers and a furthering of the combative climate surrounding U.S. expansion.

The peak of this phenomenon was in 1898 when the USS Maine, a battleship sunk in the Havana harbor. While the origins of the explosion were unknown, newspapers in the U.S. published rumors that enemies had plotted to sink the ship.

Although yellow journalism did not create anti-Spanish sentiment, it certainly fanned the flames of international tension. Though the term is most associated with political movements in the late 19th century, sensationalism in journalism and media is still prevalent.

The Observer’s mantra is “to uncover the truth, and report it accurately.” The commitment to accuracy in reporting is essential to the world of journalism, but, at the same time, media channels are businesses. And attractive headlines and enticing titles sell.

Sensationalism in journalism in modern times may not always be as extreme as it was previously, due to more rigorous fact-checking and more credibility within certain publishers. But the implicit biases that sway our perceptions of certain issues remain. I don’t think these biases are inherently bad; they are a part of human nature and simply reveal our inclinations and desires. However, it’s important to recognize and analyze the origins of the pieces with which we interact, acknowledging the crucial human thought that creates differences in the perceptions and reporting of a single event. These variations can be presented in a two-fold manner: the content itself, and the way we market and present the content to readers.

Instant gratification is ever-present in public media channels that are targeted toward younger demographics, such as social media. However, research by Irrational Labs and other behavioral scientists encourages me to consider the importance of the content and media that I consume and share. Sensationalism is not merely spread by bad intentions, but rather, built upon biases or quick inferences that may not be supported. Taking a step back when evaluating a resource, particularly when not attached to an accredited site, requires effort and time, but makes us better-informed consumers of information.

I think it’s easy to dismiss our posts and retweets as a lack of personal significance. We think that the words we share and the things we declare have little-to-no weight. However, if I’ve learned anything from having a column, it’s that we implicitly share a responsibility to secure accuracy and intentionality in the things we publish and reshare.

From the comments and emails that I’ve received from professors and students alike, I’ve realized that my reach is far greater than my inner circle. It encompasses an invisible thread of connections I could have never predicted. While this is an exciting byproduct of the nomadic nature of words, at the same time, it means I have a further responsibility to make sure the things I share represent both honest intentions and truthful findings.

I’m not trying to inflate my role in democratic discourse. I know that there’s very little chance that people are hanging on to my words by an invisible thread. However, I believe that intentionality and attentiveness, no matter the grandeur or impact, is integral to this discussion. If every time we post, we pause beforehand and take a moment to reflect, maybe we’ll foster an environment for better-informed citizens. Maybe if we examine the content we consume and share a little deeper, we’ll learn more about the world, and inevitability, about ourselves.

Elizabeth Prater is a junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and the Program of Liberal Studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics and literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out to eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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A not-so-secret history: prestige and elitism in academia

September 12 — an annual article is published by U.S. News & World Report: “Best National University Rankings.” There’s a buzz on Notre Dame’s campus.

“Can you believe it,” a student whispers to a friend, as they scroll on their phone down to the bottom of the T20. “Notre Dame is tied with Columbia.”

For the next couple of days, I would overhear conversations in the dining hall and classes, in which students discussed the scandal that surrounded Columbia University’s former misrepresentation of its statistics which were factored into its ranking decision. Columbia math professor Michael Thaddeus challenged the school’s data submission and claimed it was “dubious or highly misleading.” While Columbia was initially ranked No. 2 by U.S. News & World Report, it dropped to No. 18 after further investigation — landing a tie with the University of Notre Dame.

This isn’t the first time that inaccuracies in the ranking have occurred — both undiscovered and exposed inaccuracies. But given Columbia’s academic prestige among the Ivy League titans, as well as being on Notre Dame’s campus during this ranking publication, it seemed like this was a much larger deal than past whistleblowing and auditing of university reports.

I found myself disappointed by the general fervor of excitement that occurred after this incident. While not indicative of the entire Notre Dame campus, I did hear rhetoric that seemed to commend Notre Dame’s stature and declaration of equivalence to Columbia during the revision of the rankings this year.

We wear our tied ranking like a badge of honor, yet do we want to celebrate being considered the same caliber as an institute that got caught fudging the numbers? Columbia is not alone; it is just the canary in a coal mine; a buzz-worthy casualty that exposes the fault lines of higher education in the United States.

However, I would be lying if I completely denied that prestige and rankings were at least a part of my college decision process. They provided some tangible way for me to compare the offerings and opportunities at numerous different universities — many of which I did not get the chance to visit in person due to COVID-19.

As much as I want to cast aside these evaluations made by third parties and declare them to be a mere trifle, most candidates for admission at Notre Dame and other “top institutions” are often enticed to apply based on these very appraisals. The reality is many students rely on these ideals and reports — hoping that acceptance to an institution of high caliber will somehow reflect credibility and worthiness onto themselves.

Prestige and elitism within higher education are no strangers to the world of literature either. There’s an entire genre dedicated to this ever-increasing concept, mostly attributed to Donna Tartt’s novel “The Secret History.” Published in 1992, “The Secret History” follows an ensemble of college students at a renowned liberal arts college in New England whose intellectual pursuits get muddled with the hubris of adolescence and emulation of the classical world. This novel is claimed to beget the “dark academia” genre.

While dark academia is ill-defined, most describe the genre as novels that take place in private institutions and elite universities — many featuring liberal arts disciplines. In addition, there is usually a darker element at play, such as betrayal and even murder. The competitive strife that these characters experience, while exaggerated for dramatic effect, is still encouraged in the real world by the ranking and classification system of universities.

To suggest abolishing the ranking system is not my aim in identifying these issues or commenting on the way we perceive higher education. However, perhaps we should reframe our mindset to remind ourselves that the fickleness of such systems should reduce our reliance on them. Rankings are commonly used as a sounding board for our intrinsic principles and value. But when rankings can drastically change and are contingent upon the candor and validity of their unaudited reporters, why are we basing our sense of worth on these transient elements?

When I think of the allure of the dark academia genre, I think of the pull toward the aestheticism of higher education. Peacoats, spires and wire-rimmed glasses all make the cut for the visual imagery I conjure in this realm. However, to claim that aestheticism and the appeal of appearances don’t exist to the same degree in actuality is false. The rankings with which we concern ourselves, the crests we associate with certain elite institutions — these are all charms that divert our attention from the big picture.

What does it mean to think and to reason? How do the interpersonal connections and relationships we form in college influence the people we become? These are the things that can’t be addressed in a simple ranking or a statistical report.

Chapter One of “The Secret History” begins with Richard Papen’s retrospective reflection of his character’s downfall. It commences with the inquiry, “Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

When I consider the Best National University Rankings, I think about the strive for the picturesque — an unrealistic ideal that we believe will transcend our current circumstances. But at what point does this become a “morbid longing?” At what cost will we listen to the rankings and prestige above our own necessities and judgments?

Elizabeth Prater is a Junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and program of liberal studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics & literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter

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What’s the cost? Banned Books and Free Little Libraries

This summer, I became fascinated with Free Little Libraries. For those unfamiliar, this is the official organization that encourages residential neighborhoods to create and install community libraries. They operate under the implicit regulation of taking a book and leaving one in return.

This fascination started as I decided to sort through my bookshelf and purge some books I realized I would never reread (I’m looking at you, young adult dystopian trilogies). My local library stopped taking donations, and I knew that the books weren’t worth much to sell them back to a second-hand, independent bookstore. Thus, I turned toward the Free Little Libraries which I have grown up driving past but hadn’t given much of a second thought.

I soon found out that Free Little Libraries has an app with geographic pinpoints of where to locate them in your local areas. Owners of these share the names of their libraries and occasionally the rationale for why they decided to build one. Some in my area were strategically placed near elementary schools, and the owners’ donations centered around children’s literature to foster literacy to young readers. Others included memorials which were named after a loved one who inspired their love for literature.

Some Free Little Libraries had “Alice in Wonderland” quotes inscribed in the sides, faux roof paneling and even benches installed so that neighbors could even enjoy the library’s offerings en plein air.

I took some time exploring neighborhoods while carrying around a box of my own books to share. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of things people placed in the Free Little Libraries, and even found books that I would consider purchasing at a bookstore.

After this experience, I contemplated the importance and implications of Free Little Libraries. The concept of intellectual freedom, even in a literary sense, is not always a guarantee. The most compelling indication of this restriction is the presence of “Banned Books Week.”

Launched in 1982, Banned Books Week was created in response to the increasing number of challenges of books within libraries, schools and even bookstores. This year, the awareness week takes place from September 18-24 with the theme “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.”

There was a lull in book challenges during the pandemic, but in the past year, as schools have been reopening since Fall 2021 after closures due to COVID-19, volumes of objections have increased rapidly. The American Library Association, who tracks book bans and challenges, typically faces 300-350 complaints annually. However, just in 2021, they reached approximately 730 complaints against over 1500 books.

Books have been banned on many accounts, protests ranging from books said to include explicit language, sexual references, themes involving racism, gender identity, violence, etc. Some commonly banned books include many classics such as “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and an increasing number of contemporary novels.

Even though many of these challenges toward books are meant to inhibit the dissemination of its contents, they often do the exact opposite. Publicity surrounding banned books often increases, and sales get an extra boost.

Many bookstores even hold displays and list challenges for commonly challenged books. Powell’s Bookstore, the “world’s largest independent bookstore,” hands out bookmarks year-round with reading recommendations with titles selected from the Banned Books list.

I spoke to Philip Schatz, the owner of South Bend’s “Erasmus Books,” over the phone to get the perspective of an independent bookstore in the South Bend area on Banned Books Week.

“There’s a hope on the part of some people that if they really structure a collection, like in a library, that they can protect people from unpleasant experiences and from growing up,” Philip shared. “And I think that’s a very natural desire. But a fatal one.” 

While many complaints are filed, sometimes the main decision-makers aren’t the librarians themselves, who are versed with the knowledge of their personal collections and offerings. Instead, much of the debate is fueled by parents and even legislators, who may be fueled by the implications of book bans in the two-party system.

“Let the librarians have their say, and really let them be the deciding factors about the books that are in their collection because it’s in their best interest to promote readership,” Philip said. “They’re doing it in ways that are more informed than legislators have time to do.”

There have been many punitive consequences for establishments that continue to support books that have received controversy. Some organizations have had their funding slashed, and librarians have even lost their jobs. Brooky Parks, a librarian at Erie Community Library in Colorado, was terminated because she selected book titles for the teen book club that discussed pressing issues involving race in America. The violation was filed by the library’s district and claimed that the meetings were an attempt to “persuade participants to a particular point of view” and that they were “intentionally inflammatory.”

While libraries are meant to be a place to engage in diverse experiences and engage in open dialogues, they are constantly being delimited by an abundance of regulations. Many of these restrictions are rooted in public outcry based on hot topics or unsettling realities, rather than actual concern for the reader’s development.

While there is no clear-cut solution to the censorship of literature, I am drawn to the Free Little Libraries I found myself perusing throughout the summer. I revisited some week after week to find that most of the titles were completely different and that they were always in constant use. With such a free and open resource, I expected a “tragedy of the commons” kind of situation. But what is otherwise a box with one or two shelves became a welcoming place of intellectual curiosity and freedom.

I was surprised at how much care these Free Little Libraries were treated with, as the books were always in great condition, and there seemed to be a buzz of excitement whenever a fellow neighbor would make a weekly visit. I only wish we could emulate this regard for openness and interest in our conversations surrounding the censorship of books.

Maybe Free Little Libraries aren’t the solution, but they offer some hope toward a future where friends and families can find hidden gems and books they might not otherwise have selected themselves. The world could benefit from listening to the differing opinions and voices of not only our neighbors but people we might not encounter in our daily lives.

I think I have always been drawn to libraries and second-hand bookstores because of the knowledge that so many people have physically held those same pages. It makes what is otherwise a solitary experience feel both collaborative and compassionate. Perhaps reading is the first part, but the dialogue which follows can feel just as powerful. This point of interconnectedness can only happen if one decides to turn the page.

Elizabeth Prater is a Junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and program of liberal studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics & literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends, and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter

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Claiming an Education

The year 2022 marks 50 years of undergraduate women enrollment at Notre Dame (although female students such as religious sisters have earned degrees at the university before this time). While it’s something worth commemorating, at the same time, it’s an occurrence that warrants great reflection. On one hand, the inclusion of women in the Notre Dame curriculum made large strides in encouraging women’s right to education. But at the same time, 50 years wasn’t that long ago and have we truly made coed universities a place of equal opportunity?

The poet Adrienne Rich gave a speech at Douglass College in 1977 titled “Claiming an Education” which inspired the title and essence of this column. In the speech, she formulates a lot of her argument around an ethical and intellectual contract formed between student and teacher. Students cannot afford to think of receiving an education, but rather, claiming it as their own. A true student cannot take the leftovers or “predigested books and ideas,” but must challenge oneself and seek criticism, not avoiding conflict nor confrontation. 

The differentiation between claiming an education and merely receiving one is all the difference in Rich’s commencement address. The distinction is not semantic nor trivial but can be the difference between feeling at home in a university and being an imposter.

However, claiming an education requires activation energy on behalf of all female students. It doesn’t mean accepting what’s provided, swallowing empty platitudes and pretending that merely an acceptance into university is enough to placate one’s dreams and ambitions. Rich specifically states that it means “rejecting attitudes of ‘take-it-easy,’ ‘why-be-so-serious,’ ‘why-worry-you’ll-probably-get-married-anyway.’”

In addition, claiming an education isn’t a singular act conducted on a woman’s behalf. Instead, the contract is a pledge of “mutual seriousness about women, about language, ideas, methods and values,” which extends to all people. Today, children and women are continuously denied access to education, whether it be coercion into marriage, a lack of investment in the minds of women through gender bias, poverty, and many other pervasive issues. While Notre Dame celebrates our 50 years of women, worldwide, 129 million girls are out of school.

Mutual seriousness for women’s education is a growing battle. Even women who have access to education may not be treated with the same pardons and considerations as their counterparts. As I read Chanel Miller’s powerful memoir “Know My Name” this summer, I was moved by the author’s trials in keeping her head above water. Through external pressures, she attempted to maintain an air of normality and safety, while she treaded harsh calamity beneath the surface. She was forced to defend her choice of clothing attire, dance moves and her relationship with her boyfriend before the defendant, a member of the Stanford swim team, was forced to deal with the consequences of his actions to commit sexual assault. 

The cover of one of the editions of her memoir is representative of Kintsugi, a Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by gluing the fragments and filling the faulty parts with gold. The goal is to not merely hide the defects of the pottery, but rather, to show that even in its brokenness, it is beautiful. In fact, it is in its highlight of its brokenness that makes it more unique, stronger and more whole. 

When I was contemplating what to write about in commemoration of the celebration of 50 years of coeducation at Notre Dame, I didn’t want to focus on the negative aspects of the continual journey to equal education. I truly love Notre Dame and the amount of progress that has been made globally to encourage equal access to education.

However, I was mesmerized by the art of Kintsugi, and the notion that by restructuring brokenness, something stronger and more beautiful is created. By encouraging transparency and dialogue about the past, I believe we create space for more women and students in the future to claim an education. 

When I consider the commemoration of 50 years of coeducation at Notre Dame, I think not only the victories, but the fortitude of those — present and past — who continuously provide all students the environment to grow their intellectual curiosities and capabilities. The only way celebrate growth is to recognize the trials and the starting pieces of upward movement. It is when these pieces come together, each fragment strengthening one another, in which unification and progress can truly occur.

Elizabeth Prater is a Junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and program of liberal studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics & literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the fiddle, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

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An apology for majoring in both business and liberal studies

This past summer, my friends and I made a joint goal to finish reading the colossus that is “Anna Karenina.” At over 800 pages, this piece of Russian literature is one Leo Tolstoy’s most famous works, second only to “War and Peace.” My friend group and I all started this book at different points of our lives but failed to finish the work. This time, our joint mission and incentive was to watch the film version (directed by Joe Wright, featuring Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Anna and Count Vronsky respectively).  

 It took me nearly a month to complete the text, and I couldn’t help but feel like “Anna Karenina” followed me everywhere. I was consumed by the work and found it popping up in my daily life (more specifically, my summer course that I was taking — managerial economics). To accommodate my study abroad schedule in junior spring, I decided to get ahead and take a class required for all business majors in Mendoza. I supposed with the extra time summer brought, I would focus better on the partial derivatives and game theory necessary for a successful completion of the course. 

 However, I was surprised at how much I connected managerial economics with “Anna Karenina.” For example, I was looking at my assigned reading and, in the article, “Competition Is for Losers” by Peter Thiel, he ends the piece by doing a spin-off of Tolstoy’s famous opening, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Instead, Thiel offers that business is the opposite, and that “All failed companies are the same: They failed to escape competition.” It is the monopolies (happy families) who solve unique problems and differentiate themselves who are successful. 

 To provide some context about the text, “Anna Karenina” follows the scandalizing story of the eponymous character’s affair with Count Vronksy, and the social dilemmas that surround the circumstance. This is a very condensed one-sentence summary that doesn’t nearly begin to cover the layers and intricacies of the book. However, when one of my friends and I discussed our thoughts on it, we were both struck with the question “Why was it named ‘Anna Karenina’?”

 For most of the text, other characters besides Anna Karenina were the subject of Tolstoy’s prose. For almost 100 pages, we read about Levin’s accordance with the plight of the peasants, as he takes to the field with his scythe. We read about political hearings and listen to Kitty’s qualms. But we very rarely get much time with Anna Karenina herself. As I considered this question more and more, I realized that perhaps that was the beauty of the text, and that it could be answered using the concept I revisited in managerial economics that summer.

 According to the law of diminishing marginal utility, when the quantity of something increases, its marginal utility decreases and vice versa. This inverse relationship put in layman’s terms shows that the less of something we have (the presence of scarcity), the more valuable it becomes, and the more it is revered. In the same way, I considered Tolstoy’s careful placement of Anna Karenina in the text. Whenever I started to get wrapped up in her storyline, wanting to read on and on about her dissent into dejection and frustration, Tolstoy would simply switch the storyline to another character, and I was left wanting more. Anna Karenina throughout the text is very much unavailable to the other characters; she has an air of elusiveness that makes her all-the-more attractive and alluring. In the same way, as readers, we feel the intangibility of her character, and it is almost as Tolstoy transports her illusory but captivating presence to his audience. I only began to articulate this thought one night as I was in the middle of a practice set for managerial econ.

 A lot of people question my choice to study both business (marketing) and the program of liberal studies (great books). Many see them as antithetical to one another. While this claim is based on very valid concerns and points, I argue that the two majors can be interdisciplinary. The term interdisciplinary may seem like a lazy term to describe things that one can’t neatly wrap with a bow, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. I’ve learned about the nature of storytelling in unique ways, through my experience in marketing classes, to reading Aristotle’s “Poetics” in my second great books seminar. I’ve discussed Hannah Arendt in my business ethics class and my political theory tutorial. I believe in a lot of ways, business and the program of liberal studies (and liberal arts in general) can supplement one another, build on one another, and create a foundation for a lifetime of discovery and learning.

 While undergraduate school is typically only four years, I feel as though I’ve lived an extra lifetime in my two majors. I have done coding and research in the Mendoza basement, presented with Student International Business Council and have gotten beverages thrown in my vicinity in Ackerman’s finance class. But I also have read poetry, participated in symposiums and have fallen in love with philosophy and political theory in the best student lounge on campus. The duality of my two majors has been the highlight of my Notre Dame experience thus far. Although I may have complained incessantly throughout my two accounting courses, or lamented a difficult oral exam, I hold both Mendoza and Arts and Letters in high regard. I wouldn’t be the student — or person — I am today without my two majors. Perhaps people would think of business and liberal studies as representing “War and Peace,” but I think “Anna Karenina” has shown me that they are much more compatible than most think.

Elizabeth Prater

Elizabeth Prater is a junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and program of liberal studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics & literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the fiddle, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends, and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.