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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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Viewpoint

The addictive aspects of ‘Lord of the Rings’

When people brought up “The Lord of the Rings” in the past, I used to laugh at the series. Why would I want to watch a bunch of tiny hobbits, dwarves and elves go on a journey over some fuss about a gold ring? It all sounded far too mythical and fantasy-like for me. In other words, I thought it was too nerdy.

However, this summer I decided to give the trilogy a go after hearing about the wisdom brought to life by the hobbits, dwarves, elves, orcs and other creatures in the series. Admittedly, it took me a little while to adjust to the oddities of the characters in the movies and especially long to not be creeped out by Frodo’s eyes, but with time, I became enamored with the series and its prequel, “The Hobbit.”

The first aspect of the movie that made me curious was the choice of Frodo as the ringbearer. Frodo was immature and had next to no life experience. He lived in the comfort of the Shire and knew very little about the violent history of Middle Earth and the sacrifices made to maintain the peace. Instead of giving the ring to a highly capable individual like Aragorn or Gandalf, a god-like figure, the future of Middle Earth hinged on a child-like hobbit. To highlight Frodo’s underdeveloped mind and will, the writers literally made him exceptionally small. Not only was he a mental-midget of sorts, but he was also physically tiny. As the four hobbits embarked on their journey to destroy the ring, Frodo showed his flaws after multiple near-death experiences which could have been avoided with better judgment. Luckily, with Aragorn at his side, Frodo and the hobbits survive and he grows from the experiences. 

At the Council in Rivendell, Frodo’s growth becomes evident. When the One Ring is put up for grabs, fighting breaks out over the best solution. Although Sauron is the only person that could unlock the power of the ring, the leaders of many races of Middle Earth wanted to use it to fight back against him and empower their people. This showed how ignorance, arrogance and greed can become oversights for the most talented and capable individuals. Simply put, superior ability does not translate directly to mental fortitude or wisdom.

After witnessing how the ring impacted these powerful people, Frodo took the lead and decided the bear the great burden of the ring. Frodo had questioned time and time again why he should hold the ring, but now he could see why he was as good as anyone else. Without aspirations for great power or wealth, Frodo did not want to use the ring for anything. He just wanted peace and tranquility back in his life and those he loved. Even though many of these great men and women wanting to bear the ring had positive intentions, as Gandalf said in the first movie, the power of the ring would be too strong. No man or woman was meant to have power that great, and corruption of the mind and ensuing actions are inevitable.

So with the ring in hand, Frodo and the fellowship of the ring began the trek to Mordor with seemingly insurmountable challenges in the way. Even with knowledge of the ring’s effect and Gollum as a physical symbol of where it could lead him, Frodo could not overcome the temptations it presented. After seeing countless friends and allies die in the hope of destroying the ring, Frodo is finally given the opportunity to end it once and for all on top of Mount Doom.

Then came the moment that frustrates me to no end every time I see it. In a moment of immense weakness, Frodo places the ring on his finger. After all the suffering he and Middle Earth endured, Frodo could not throw the ring in the fire. He could not think even slightly outside of his immediate desire, and just drop it. Luckily, Gollum’s obsession with the ring saved the day, but that ending always leaves me so disappointed. After Boromir’s death, Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog, Sam’s loyalty through Frodo’s insanity and the deaths of so many in war, Frodo still cannot muster up the courage to close his eyes and chuck that ring in the fire.

Over time, I have come to appreciate how poetic that scene is and determined it’s a main driver for why I continue to rewatch the series. Even though Frodo had grown tremendously from his time in the Shire, he still makes the fatal mistake he knows he absolutely cannot do at the very end. He had every reason in the world not to give in, and he still did it. As a third-party observer, I was most frustrated by his giving in out of all scenes of the movie. However, this is also when I started to see Frodo as the perfect ringbearer.

Frodo was not some crazy, mystical creature with unreal powers. He was just like any other human. He was a small blimp in the universe with the same weaknesses we are all susceptible to. Even though you would never expect it, the decisions of this little, immature hobbit were crucially important. It goes to show you that the choices we make everyday matter. It may be difficult to see on a grand scale, but every action we take means something.

Every time we hold onto the ring, we fail. We fail ourselves and all those around us. Now we don’t hold some powerful ring of sorts, but we all have flaws and harmful habits that hold us back from doing what we know is right. Every time we choose to give in to temptation, we choose an immediate desire without giving mind to the ramifications of the action. Ultimately, we all strive to live up to our highest respective ends. In order to move towards those ends, we must identify our habits and decisions that represent the ring and push back against them. In other words, develop key virtues and set clear objectives as Frodo did over time, then bear down and chuck the ring in the fire when familiar temptations do their best to veer you off your path.

Mikey Colgan is a sophomore from Boston majoring in finance and ACMS. He can be reached at mcolgan2@nd.edu.

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

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Viewpoint

Red flag reading

Social media is full of comments on what books are acceptable to read. There are warnings plastered all across online platforms declaring that it is a red flag if someone likes “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger or “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, maybe even “The Stranger” by Albert Camus. At the same time, romance novels such as the ones by Colleen Hoover can not be recommended enough. I must confess, I would much rather engage in the “red flag reading” than force myself to read a sappy love story. 

I am aware romance is by far the most popular reading genre, however, I could never find myself enjoying it. To me, these romance novels are boring and unrealistic. Of course, I am sure there are some realistic love stories in literature, but it would still not be my preferred pick. Most of these novels have characters that are stuck in a trope to appease a certain kind of reader. They are predictable and sometimes even nauseating. For a vast majority of these novels, the reader is only left to wonder whether or not the couple will end up together and in most cases I simply do not care enough. This question alone is not enough to keep me entertained. 

This does not mean I am against all romance within literature. Clearly, my claim excludes the subplot of love stories within the “Percy Jackson” series, the “Hunger Games” series and “The Book Thief.” When it comes to the main characters involved in these romantic subplots, I do not mind the scenes in which they enter. Most of them are wholesome and interesting enough that it is worth the read. 

To clarify my point, not all romance in literature is bad. Despite the fact that two of my examples have to do with Greek Mythology and a dystopian universe, I feel as though these are more realistic. Romance should be a subplot of all life and that should be reflected in literature. I do not think that love should be the sole center of anyone’s life, which means I do not want to read a story where that seems to be the case. 

The reason I prefer books that are considered to be “red flags” is because they often include more complexity. The characters are not people who someone can easily adore and I think that brings some realism to literature. In life, personalities may not be as exaggerated as in these characters, however, they will have their own hidden secrets that you will not know until you foster a relationship. This idea of an imperfect character is interesting to me, it is fully up to the reader to decide what is forgivable or not. It is intriguing to see what other flaws readers will be able to look past, assuming there is no excuse for racism, sexism, abuse or anything within that sort of ideology. It is clear that many characters within this genre should not be idolized, making it a “red flag” when they are, however, they can be used to think critically about psychology and point of view.

The plots are also able to fall further away from set tropes. There can still be some sort of a category such as “Good for Her” novels, but it is not as predictable as when one hears of an enemies-to-lovers story. In my own personal reading, these novels have had more twists and turns to keep me more engaged than I  have been when trying to read romance novels. 

All of that being said, people should read what they want! If romance is what makes you happy, then I am happy as well and I would love to hear recommendations for romance novels that do not fall into the same categories I said I dislike. This reflection is just based on the books I have read so far in my life. I highly suggest pushing away the perceived notion and giving “red flag reading” a try.

You can contact Emma at eduffy5@nd.edu.

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

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News

Book club, cultural clubs explore global-themed reads

This year, Notre Dame’s book club is striving to go global by picking a book with an international connection each month. To maximize their multiculturalism, the officers plan to collaborate with Notre Dame’s cultural clubs that correspond with their monthly read.

“We are choosing books based on different cultures,” said book club president and graduate student Mayesha Sahir Mim. 

It is the first year the club has taken on a theme with their book choice. Sahir Mim said the club wants to “make things more fun and interesting” through a theme since it was inactive last semester, and meetings have been held over Zoom since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each month, the club will pick a book that fits the theme, purchase it for interested members and then meet on a Thursday evening at the end of the month for an informal discussion about their thoughts on the book. September’s book was “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian author. At September’s meeting, the Brazilian Students Association gave a presentation on Brazil and Coelho’s life.

“We thought the theme would be just for the semester, but there’s so many countries. And when we collaborated with the Brazilian club, we had a lot of fun with it,” Sahir Mim said. “We thought three months won’t be enough time, so we’ll just continue with it even over the spring semester.”

This month, the club is reading “The Girl with the Louding Voice” by Abi Daré, a book about a Nigerian girl and written by a Nigerian author. For its Oct. 27 meeting, Sahir Mim said the African club plans to give a presentation on Nigeria and share African food while discussing the book.

“I love our global theme this year. I think it’s really important to seek out stories from all types of people and am happy to be learning about different parts of the world from it,” social chair Sarah Nano said in an email.

Sahir Mim also mentioned the book club is planning to collaborate with Notre Dame’s Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS), diversity council and international student and scholars affairs in their upcoming meetings.

Sahir Mim said she is hoping that establishing a theme and holding more engaging meetings will encourage current members to become more active and attract new ones.

“We definitely want more people to be aware of our club and join,” she said.

Currently, the club mostly consists of graduate students, but Sahir Mim said the group is open to undergraduates as well. 

“You will make some friends, and you get to discuss your ideas about a book that you’re reading,” she said of the club. 

Nano seconded that idea, saying she has enjoyed meeting new people as part of the club.

“I’ve already met so many great people who’d I’d love to get to know more about. I also like that book club pushes me to broaden my reading choices,” she said in an email.

Interested students can contact Sahir Mim at mmim@nd.edu or direct message the Instagram account, @bookclub_nd.

Contact Kendelle Hung-Ino at khungino@nd.edu

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Hanif Abdurraqib: Someone we can all learn from

The difficulty in discussing Hanif Abdurraqib’s work lies in the fact that I cannot describe his artistic mission as eloquently as he can. He is the type of writer that I think everybody strives to be: ambitious but not pretentious, emotional but objective, disarming but doesn’t leave too much of himself on the page, etc. He writes about the “emotional impulse” behind works of art, stemming from his obsession with certain cultural phenomena (i.e. anything and everything from music, basketball, sneakers and his dog Wendy).

I fell in love with his work by chance. I was scrolling through my almost infinite list of to-be-read books on Goodreads when I stopped on an intriguing cover. Striking with a wolf in a tracksuit and gold chain, the cover read “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.” It was Abdurraqib’s second book. It’s a collection of essays and poems that cover virtually everything from the virtues of Carly Rae Jepsen’s music to “Boyz n the Hood” to the fear of getting pulled over to Fall Out Boy’s early years in Chicago. As a music reviewer, it completely changed how I think about writing pieces for The Observer. As a white person, it completely opened my eyes to the everyday experiences of Black people. As a person in general, it also brought me on a beautiful journey regarding community, art and love. In short, I couldn’t put it down.

So, when a friend in the English department told me Abdurraqib was doing a reading at Notre Dame, I marked my calendar a month early and told all my friends. I couldn’t shut up about it. When the day finally came, I was a few minutes late (in my excitement, I had written down the wrong location) and had a terrible cough but I would not be deterred from seeing one of my favorite authors.

At first, I did not see Abdurraqib until I spotted him hiding behind his chair. As assistant professor in English Sara Marcus introduced him to the audience, he was nervously staring up at the ceiling and mumbling to himself. He later clarified that this is a mindfulness practice he does before performing, asserting that if he can “hold the anxiety in the palm of [his] hand, then [he] can turn it off.”

Despite his performance anxiety, everybody in the audience was glad for him to be there. The crowd was virtually impossible to disappoint. Since Abdurraqib has built up enough goodwill with his published work, everybody just felt lucky to be in his presence. It’s a total joy to see him perform his poetry live. You can totally see he got his career started with Button Poetry, a publishing company that has a history in spoken word. His voice is gentle, rising and falling like waves of the ocean, all the pauses are in exactly the right places. You get the sense that he has done this many times before, and, he has. 

Last Thursday night, he read four pieces: two from his most recent book “The Little Devil In America” and two from his upcoming work “There’s Always This Year.” The crowd favorite was Abdurraqib’s commentary on Whitney Huston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” performance at the 1988 Grammy Awards. Lines like “a font that can best be described as Miami Vice Cursive” and bad dancing is “one of those lies that is easy to tell ourselves, because we are often not on the receiving end of the disaster” had me and my neighbors laughing out loud. The piece on Whitney Huston is not meant to razz her though. Ultimately, it was about finding somebody to dance with. It was about devotion. 

Abdurraqib’s work often turns on its head. In “There’s Always This Year,” Abdurraqib has a very heavy poem about “No Scrubs” by TLC and a poem “about flexing” that actually is about not wanting to leave the place you grew up. He balances a lot of complex emotions in a way that lifts you up, instead of tearing you down. You come away from his art feeling something more, something we can all learn from.

Contact Claire Lyons at clyons3@nd.edu