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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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J.D. Vance: Hillbilly for Congress

I’ve always identified as a Democrat. Maybe it’s because of my mother. Maybe it’s because I was raised to love my progressive hometown suburb: Shaker Heights, Ohio. Maybe it’s because I just like the color blue.

Therefore, when I set out to read J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” the 2016 memoir of the now Republican nominee for the 2022 U.S. Senate election in Ohio, I thought I’d hate the book.

The story dazzled me.

Vance is a descendant of Scots-Irish immigrants who settled in Jackson, Kentucky, a tiny Appalachian town where Vance spent his summers growing up.

At the age of 14 and 17, Vance’s maternal grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, moved to southwestern Ohio to avoid the stigma of an inadvertent pregnancy.

Vance’s Papaw earned a middle-class living and a good pension working for Armco Steel in Middletown, Ohio, a Midwestern mill town located directly between Dayton and Cincinnati.

The northward migration out of Appalachia in which the Vance family became caught up had come about thanks to the growth of the manufacturing sector in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Indiana and Michigan since the turn of the 20th century.

My own maternal grandfather, the son of an Italian immigrant who ended up in the West Virginia coal mines by way of Ellis Island, made it up out of Fairmont, West Virginia, to the University of Cincinnati through the G.I. Bill.

Vance came of age in a dysfunctional household of a drug addict and violent mother who retained a revolving door of father figures for a young Vance and his older half-sister.

America’s most famous hillbilly struggled with weight gain and brawled his way through adolescence due in part to the honor-bound and defiant Appalachian values instilled in him by his family of working-class white Americans without a college degree.

Finally moving in with his Mamaw toward the end of high school, Vance began to find success under a woman who provided him with a safe space to do homework. The reader cannot help but be struck by the potency of Mamaw’s acts of love. I never could have imagined what the purchase of a TI-89 calculator could mean for a family in Vance’s circumstances.

Still recovering from a 2.1 first-year-of-high-school GPA and nervous to take out student loans, Vance joined the Marines for four years right after high school. He served in Iraq and worked as a military journalist.

Vance went on to graduate with an undergraduate degree from Ohio State in less than two years, continued on to Yale Law School where he met his wife and finally settled down in Cincinnati to start his legal career.

According to published reviews of the memoir, the reason for the book’s popularity is tied to its role in explaining Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency in 2016. This association is deeply troublesome to me.

The book does a superb job of shining a spotlight on the forgotten and downtrodden Americans of the Appalachian region. But J.D. Vance is the outlier and his ambitious rise to the top of American society does little to change the continual plight of descents of Scots-Irish and coal miners in Appalachia.

This is the story of a man leaving the hills, owing to generations of familial hard work, to become an elite. The reason why Vance sought Trump’s endorsement for his 2022 Senate campaign has nothing to do with why the white working-class voter wanted to vote for Trump in 2016.

I loved the memoir and may even vote for the man in November despite keeping up very little with the news and the polls pitting Vance up against his Democrat opponent Tim Ryan.

I will wish Vance success in office if he is elected, but I sincerely hope he doesn’t forget about the words that soothed me within the pages of his book.

Title: “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”

Author: James David Vance

If you like: Autobiography, memoir, non-fiction

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

Contact Peter Breen at pbreen2@nd.edu

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Viewpoint

On the banning of books

Virginia court case brought against Barnes & Noble attempted to restrict the sale of Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” and Sarah Maas’ “A Court of Mist and Fury.” Local legislators argued based on a poorly-worded Virginia law that the books would be “obscene” for readers under the age of 18. The case was recently dismissed. This comes at a time of much political discussion centered around which books are appropriate to read in the classroom. 

Equally disturbing is the removal of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a novel famous for highlighting oppression and injustice, from a few Texas and Kansas public schools for “review.” “The Handmaid’s Tale” is an influential work that is extremely well-written. It’s relevant today and will continue to be. Removing this book is an affront to a proper education. The book is so well-known and influential that it is hard to believe school officials are unaware of its content. What is there to review that they wouldn’t already know of?  

Restricting access to books is an obstacle to a well-informed public. Having healthy debates and access to information are crucial aspects of any democracy. Reading books about difficult subjects, like racism, leads to discussion of those subjects, especially in the classroom.  

On this, the author Laurie Halse Anderson said: “’By attacking these books, by attacking the authors, by attacking the subject matter, what they are doing is removing the possibility for conversation. You are laying the groundwork for increasing bullying, disrespect, violence and attacks.’”

Historically, many books of great literary merit have been challenged in the United States, including J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” “Ulysses” was burned in serialized form in the United States. The road to getting it published in the U.S. was long and arduous due to its “obscene” content. In England, the book was mass burned before it was legally banned. Yet, it is also regarded as a literary masterpiece. “The Catcher in the Rye” was challenged and banned in multiple US classrooms, mostly for profanity, despite its status as one of the greatest works in the American literary canon. It’s difficult to argue nowadays with the sheer amount of praise and literary analysis both works have received that access to them should be restricted or banned, as people have tried in the past. 

In trying to ban books like “Gender Queer” for its “obscene” content, a similar mistake is made. Books of great literary merit, which are a joy to read and foster intellectual discussion, could be wholly removed from the classroom. This decreases the quality of literary education. Going further by restricting access to books at booksellers like Barnes & Noble is devastating and begs the question: What is worth more, quality education or censoring books certain readers may find “obscene?” 

Deborah Caldwell Stone, the American Library Association’s director of office for intellectual freedom, sums it up perfectly: “If you focus on five passages, you’ve got obscenity. If you broaden your view and read the work as a whole, you’ve got Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’”

It’s so important to have a diverse selection of books to read because the real world is just as diverse. Regardless of whether a book is set in a fantasy world or is pure nonfiction, there are many life lessons to be gained from books. They are a resource for people of all ages to learn more about the world, oftentimes from the point of view of characters they can relate to rather than simply learning information from a textbook. This connection draws the reader into what they’re learning about. For example, “Gender Queer,” a memoir of Kobabe’s life, explores sexuality and gender identity. “Beloved,” another book that has historically been challenged, highlights the pain and devastation of slavery. These books can educate readers about serious material. Trying to censor these books, through removing them from classrooms or otherwise, does not erase the books’ subjects from reality. Students will eventually have to confront these topics. 

Specifically in classrooms, there exists an argument that certain material isn’t age-appropriate for students. There are certainly books that would not be appropriate for elementary school students and as such aren’t taught to them; the issue is trying to remove books from high school curriculums. For example, in a campaign ad for governor of Virginia Glenn Youngkin, a mother declares that she would like “Beloved” to be optional instead of part of her son’s required high school curriculum, as a result of its “explicit content.” Some content in “Beloved” is difficult for very young children to read, but this book is widely recommended for the high school-age reader and for good reason. Censoring this book does not mean that its historical content disappears — the issues the novel confronts must be addressed eventually. Teachers can help students understand the difficult topics in these books and productively learn from them. Students will become more informed and better equipped to discuss difficult issues, an important life skill.   

To ban a book from a school, a library or a bookseller is to cut off the public’s access to information and quality literature. Books are important for the development of the mind. Censoring books is not okay. We cannot ignore real world problems by trying to silence books that discuss them.

Caitlin Brannigan is a sophomore from New Jersey studying psychology and theology. She will forever defend her favorite young adult novels and is overjoyed to have a platform to rant. She can be reached for comment at cbrannig@nd.edu or @CaitlinBrannig on Twitter.

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

Caitlin Brannigan

Contact Caitlin at cbrannig@nd.edu

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Don’t ban books, celebrate their uniqueness

Let’s face it: nobody wants to hear that their book has been banned because of “controversial topics.” But the reality is that many of the classic novels that we were either forced to read in school or that we chose to read actually turned out to be either a challenged or banned book because of questionable content. 

Banned or challenged books are a fascinating topic when it comes to literature. In fact, banned/challenged books are so fascinating that there is an entire week in September dedicated to these books. This year, Banned Book Week will be occurring during the week of Sept. 18 and will conclude on Sept. 24. Now, this is not a national holiday. But I wish it was declared a national holiday because most of these books are classics that should be adored, but apparently the school system has to try to keep their students pure. They do not want to expose their students to sensitive topics. 

It may surprise you that many books that we all know and love are actually a part of the banned/challenged book list. Some well-known books that have been challenged and/or banned include J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and many more. According to the American Library Association’s website, there is a long list of books that have been banned and/or challenged, and most of the books have a laundry list of reasons why the book should be banned or challenged throughout the United States and in foreign countries. 

The idea of banned or challenged books really poses the question: why learn about these books in the school system? We all know many schools have strict curriculums where they have to teach certain books in an English classroom. Many of the books we are forced to read may have some of the most crude language that I cannot even say in this article, but we are still having to read them. When a teacher asks students about the language, the school is just asking for a lawsuit.

Many parents of high school and middle school students will also find some sort of excuse to say, “Well, this book has content that goes against my religious beliefs, so teachers cannot teach this material in the classroom,” or something to that effect. Take, for instance, the “Harry Potter” series. Say what you want about J.K. Rowling, but she created a truly magical (no pun intended) story for younger generations to enjoy. Some parents have gone on to challenge this book because it promotes witchcraft. This series’ main storyline is at a school of witchcraft and wizardry; it’s in the name of the school. Yet parents still want to make a big deal about how a young adult series such as “Harry Potter” is promoting witchcraft when it is an essential part of the story. 

Do I personally think that banning books is ethical? Absolutely not! If schools are banning books because most of the topics that are within the plot are very raunchy, that is extremely restrictive of not only what readers are exposed to but to the authors themselves. Sure, schools are entitled to their own opinion, whether it be a religious or an ethical reason. But that still does not detract from the fact that the author may feel discouraged to write another book because their work is considered to be controversial. 

In conclusion, banning books is highly unethical. If anyone wants to challenge a book over its contents, that’s fine. But don’t ban books because the contents are controversial. Celebrate the controversy!

Nicole Bilyak

Contact Nicole at nbilyak01@saintmarys.edu.