Why you should raise the kids on crime fiction.Jun 15, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 38 • By STEFAN BECK
A character in Elmore Leonard’s 1976 novel Swag devises and swears by “ten rules for success and happiness.” He carries them on his person, scrawled “in blue ink on ten different cocktail napkins from the Club Bouzouki, the Lafayette Bar, Edjo’s, and a place called The Lindell AC.” This budding Dale Carnegie is keen on success and happiness in a very specific context: armed robbery. Is his system foolproof? We wouldn’t have much of a story if it were. We sure as hell wouldn’t have a Leonard novel, with poor choices and their nasty results piling up faster than a Detroit snowfall.
Twenty-five years after Swag’s publication, and perhaps in homage to that book, Leonard offered 10 rules of his own—for writing, that is, not knocking over liquor stores—to the New York Times. Most were standard fare about avoiding adverbs and exclamation points, but the final rule is interesting: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Makes sense, but it also raises the question: Who skips ahead? Most grown-up readers either slog through a book’s slower sections, like the sewer history in Les Misérables, or take their impatience or boredom as a cue to read something else.
Who skips ahead? Kids do.
They do this, I suspect, in two situations. One is when they are tasked with reading a grown-up book that they find utterly unendurable. I recall the anguish with which my high school self read Ethan Frome before having the bright idea that I could still pass the quiz if I just read every third page. (It didn’t work.) The other situation is when kids are reading for plot in a book whose language is not captivating enough to keep their eyes from dancing ahead over tone-deaf dialogue, adverbs proliferating like some invasive species, and long passages of unnecessary description.
You know what I mean: a young adult (YA) novel.
I have no desire to enter the perennial and presumably click-driven debate over whether adults should read YA. Adults should read whatever they want, whether that means YA or Dummies manuals or Tijuana Bibles or even Thomas L. Friedman. But kids are a different story. The literature they are exposed to will influence not only their adult reading habits but their personalities and inner lives. Today’s parents are likely correct to assume that little Jason or Chloe will not be taught to love reading by Ethan Frome. But there is plenty on the spectrum between Edith Wharton and Divergent, and it is going unnoticed.
Crime fiction—noir, detective novels, police procedurals, and madcap adventures in the Carl Hiaasen vein—may be the perfect thing to whet a young person’s appetite for reading. At first glance, it is an odd candidate for this task: Isn’t it violent, frightening, and perhaps even a corrupting influence? Isn’t it laced with profanity and, in some cases, sexually explicit?
Yes, but the same is true of so much of the music, television, film, and even network news that parents are helpless to keep from their children. The same is true, for that matter, of many YA novels with far less literary merit than the best crime writing.
Parents have always fretted about the moral content of what their kids read. Andrew Levy’s Huck Finn’s America (2014) details the 19th-century panic over dime novels about pirates and banditry. David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague (2008) details the furor over horror comic books in the 1950s. However one is inclined to regard the sensitivities of those eras, the fact remains that their scandalous productions are seldom revered as art. Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and Elmore Leonard have, by contrast, all been enshrined in the Library of America.
These men wrote violent, lurid trash, yet they are now as canonical as Irving, Hawthorne, and Twain. And you can give said trash to your kids without a pang of conscience, knowing that they will encounter in it something of the American literary tradition. That is not, on its own, reason enough to choose crime fiction over either classic literature or YA, and a balanced diet should probably include all of the above. Still, crime fiction combines the best of both the classics and modern YA, while adding some nourishing ingredients of its own.
The American vision of Bernard BailynFeb 23, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 23 • By GORDON S. WOOD
Although Bernard Bailyn is one of the most distinguished historians in the Western world, he is not as well known as he should be. He rarely appears in the popular media, and he has never published a book that has sold millions of copies. But all those who are seriously interested in the history of early America know his work. He has authored a baker’s dozen of major books, edited at least a half-dozen more, and written numerous important articles.
The art of the Victorian vision of historyJan 26, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 19 • By HENRIK BERING
As Charles Dickens’s Child’s History of England makes plain, Charles II was not an upstanding individual: “Whenever you see his portrait, with his swarthy, ill-looking face and great nose, you may fancy him at his court in Whitehall surrounded by the worst vagabonds in the kingdom (though they were lords and ladies), drinking, gambling, indulging in vicious conversation and committing every kind of profligate excess.”
An unexpected key to understanding cultureDec 22, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 15 • By PAUL A. CANTOR
Is there any subject more esoteric than esoteric writing? Turn to the groundbreaking book on the subject, Leo Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), and you’ll find such chapter headings as “The Law of Reason in the Kuzari” and “How to Study Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise”—topics seemingly of interest only to the most scholarly of scholars.
A century commanding the show business heightsDec 8, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 13 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
This book is something of a Rube Goldberg machine. Its author, Time theater critic Richard Zoglin, makes enormous claims about the cultural importance of his subject: He calls Bob Hope “the entertainer of the century,” the first person to be a star in every medium, the man seen by more people in person than anyone else in history, even the inventor of stand-up comedy. But the book that contains these claims is so turgid it belies them.
How the Cold War was fought in the salons and on the sidewalksNov 24, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 11 • By MALCOLM FORBES
In 2012, The Columnist, a play based on the life of Joseph Alsop, opened on Broadway. In their reviews, critics felt compelled to explain to readers who the main character was. One described him as “a once-feared political pundit,” another as “the most powerful journalist that everyone’s forgotten.”
The Republican road to 2016? Nov 24, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 11 • By MAX EDEN
After Barack Obama’s reelection, the Republicans went through the familiar soul-searching motions. If they had only been true to their conservative principles, they would have won the argument, and thus the election. Or maybe if they had moderated here and there, they would have swayed more independents. Maybe their policy platform was too radical. Maybe it was too stale.
What Shakespeare saw in Montaigne’s reflectionsOct 27, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 07 • By DANNY HEITMAN
Although he’s revered as a great classic writer, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592) is an author we read because we want to, not because we have to. He’s intimate, erudite, chatty, and expansive—qualities well suited to the peculiar genre he essentially created. While puttering around his tower library in 16th-century France, Montaigne crafted conversational observations into familiar prose, inventing the personal essay as a new literary form.
What, if anything, can be done to save the family? Oct 27, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 07 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
You can tell a lot about a society by its taboos. Several weeks ago, America reeled when Adrian Peterson—the great NFL running back of his generation—was indicted on charges of “reckless or negligent injury to a child.” Peterson is alleged to have disciplined his son by “whooping” him—these are Peterson’s words, not mine—with a “switch.” The child, a 4-year-old boy, suffered cuts on his backside and thighs.
The second act in the drama of Clare Boothe LuceOct 13, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 05 • By AMY HENDERSON
With this second, and concluding, volume of her biography of Clare Boothe Luce, Sylvia Jukes Morris completes the tantalizing saga of a woman who helped define the “pushy broad” in a century when men made the rules and women made the coffee. The result is an impeccably researched and thoughtfully written epic that crackles with the energy that defined her subject.
Exploring moral dilemmas on the good ship McEwanOct 13, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 05 • By GRAHAM HILLARD
In his brief and fascinating essay “Subversion: Teaching a Blue Novel in a Red State” (2006), Professor Jesse Kavadlo identifies a shift in our cultural attitude toward the subversive—particularly among those stationed in the academy. In the 1950s, Kavadlo writes,
Winning and losing, and whether to play the gameOct 13, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 05 • By MICHAEL NELSON
Concussions that lead to degenerative brain disease. Domestic violence committed by oversized men against women and young children. Rampant use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Bullying of the crudest sort.
When it comes to error, machines are only human.Sep 29, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 03 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
On a cold February night in 2009, a turboprop commuter plane out of Newark was only a few miles from Buffalo when the “stick shaker” suddenly triggered. The plane had slowed to 135 knots after the crew had lowered the landing gear and extended the flaps, and the plane threatened to enter an aerodynamic stall. (That’s not when engines stop working, but when the wings cannot maintain lift.)
The unintended consequences of reading George EliotSep 22, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 02 • By JAMES BOWMAN
Let’s face it. Should Rebecca Mead, a New Yorker staff writer, offer us her mere, unadorned autobiography as something to pack along with our pail and shovel as a good beach read, she might risk the odd sarcastic comment from a friend or accusations of presumption or arrogance from those less well-disposed toward her. And yet, she’s proud of her life and has the professional writer’s urge to share.
Doth this ex-Ivy Leaguer protest too much?Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
It's polemical title leaves us in no doubt of what to expect from this book. William Deresiewicz has written a passionate attack on everything that’s wrong with today’s elite universities and colleges and the credentialed students who attend them. He terms it “a letter to my twenty-year-old self,” who would have benefited from hearing about such matters.