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April 2018

The Essay Project: 2018 Schedule

Okay. So in addition to our Nobody Puts Nonfiction in a Corner posts, the consensus seemed to be that we could all benefit from reading and discussing a few more essays. I am very excited about this. I love essays.

Here's what I'm thinking: For the rest of the year, I'm throwing out reading suggestions by the month. When that month arrives, I'll try and do some posts in which I share some thoughts on the essayists and their work, and ask you to share yours. The idea is not only to have a good discussion (which we always seem to do no matter what) but to also start compiling a list of essayists and their works and what readers might particularly enjoy about them.

Are you game? I'm open to suggestions, but here were my thoughts for the rest of 2018.*

May: Nick Hornby's 2004 collection of essays about books and reading, The Polysyllabic Spree. I know, Hornby is not really an essayist. But that book was fun and I thought it would get us in the mood for more reading.

June and July: A twofer, with a triumvirate of essayists named David. David Rakoff's Fraud, David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day. I'm trying to pick either the essayists' best-known works, or works from earlier in their careers, by the way. Does this seem like a solid idea? I thought that tactic would give us the best sense of an essayist's true style.

August: Joan Didion's The White Album. I know, heavy. But come on. It's only 222 pages long and it's a MUST-READ if you want to know your essayists.

September: My favorite month, and it is open for you, dear readers, to pick the essayist and book. Comment below please, and feel free to comment on the comments, we can do that now!

October: Wendell Berry's Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. Not his earliest, or his best known. I just want to read it again.

November: Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist: Essays, because I really should read it.

December: We'll pause on essayists to have a book group month, discussing Garret Keizer's book Privacy.

So that's what I've got. Not sure how the posting schedule will play out, but we'll play it by ear. I'm also open to guest posts if you'd like to write longer responses to anything you're reading in response to our Nonfiction and Essay posts; send them along to me at sarah.cords@gmail.com and I'll post, along with links to anything else you might be writing or want to highlight.

I am BEYOND excited for this. To quote one of the CRjrs' favorite PBS shows ("Bob the Builder"): Can we build it? YES WE CAN!

*I'll put a printable schedule in the sidebar too.


Looking for a name for our "Best of" Nonfiction list.

I thought long and hard about what to title these new types of posts:

1. The Citizen Reader Worldview in 52 Books (Or, Become a Bitter Middle-Aged Midwestern Woman in Only 52 Weeks!)

2. 100 Game-Changing Nonfiction Books

3. Nonfiction for a Twenty-first Century Citizen Reader

4. 100 Nonfiction Books Deemed "Too Depressing" by Mr. CR

5. Great Nonfiction to Read While Watching Two Preschoolers Who Can't Stop Pushing Each Other Down On the Cement Driveway

But all of those seemed a little personal (well, not the second one, the second one just seems boring), and I would like this list of Nonfiction Greatest Hits to be more broadly useful to a wide variety of readers.

So what to call it?

...

First maybe I'll tell you a little story about how I really started thinking that it is time to change Citizen Reader, or perhaps just to start to go out with a bang. In the month of March I slowly read an investigative nonfiction/business history book titled Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town,* by journalist Brian Alexander. It was a great book. It was not the best book I've ever read, and in some ways it was a very run-of-the-mill example of the type of nonfiction I favor (namely, "depressing" investigative nonfiction on current economic and cultural trends in America), but it was a great book. It was a book I found on another list, elsewhere, and I was intrigued by the title, so I brought it home, and it sat around my house for a while. And then I took a little break from reading, but shortly before this book was due, I thought, "No, even if my eyes are tired, I want to read this book."

So I did.

I read it more slowly than I usually read these books, and I never really felt like I couldn't put it down, but all the same I kept being drawn back to it. It is the story, basically, of the city of Lancaster, Ohio, and how its main manufacturer and employer, Anchor Hocking Glass, began and (pretty much) ended. It is a story of community history, the business environment of America in the twentieth century through 2016, it is the story of individuals struggling to find meaning in their work and a living wage, it is the story of an insular town mentality, it is an individual business history, and it is also a story of opiate abuse and other crime (mainly petty, but also huge glaring financial crimes perpetrated by the 1% of the title).

It's got a lot going on.

I would like for you to read this book, but I know that a lot of readers would be turned off by the level of business details in it. Trying to understand the financial shenanigans of leveraged buyouts and corporate takeovers (many of which have been going on since at least the 1980s) is ridiculous; I have to give Alexander credit that he could describe most of it as clearly as he could. Where the rubber really meets the road is in one of the final chapters, when he discusses the trend of pundits telling Midwesterners to leave their smallish cities and towns and rural areas if they want to avoid drugs and find better-paying work:

"For decades, politicians--Republicans and Democrats both--and pundits had all been spewing empty platitudes of praise for 'the heartland,' 'real America,' and 'small-town values.' Then, with shameless hypocrisy, they supported the very policies that helped destroy thriving small towns.

Corporate elites said they needed free-trade agreements, so they got them. Manufacturers said they needed tax breaks and public-money incentives in order to keep their plants operating in the United States, so they got them. Banks and financiers needed looser regulations, so they got them. Employers said they needed weaker unions--or no unions at all--so they got them. Private equity firms said they needed carried interest and secrecy, so they got them. Everyone, including Lancastrians themselves, said they needed lower taxes, so they got them. What did Lancaster and a hundred other towns like it get? Job losses, slashed wages, poor civic leadership, social dysfunction, drugs...

Telling Lancaster to surrender and call U-Haul made it easy for America to ignore its Lancasters. Sure, there was a lot of talk about such places and the people in them, but few wanted to spend much time learning about how they'd been left behind by the financialization and digitalization of American life. Silicon Valley kept promising nirvana but delivering new ways to gossip, even while disconnecting people from each other and their real communities. Politicians soothed the blows of globalization with promises to retrain and educate, but none of that happened for Lancaster's working class.

To so blithely dismiss the value of community was to pretend there was no loss. But there was, and the effects of that loss continued to ripple throughout the town." (pp. 291-294.)

So here's where my little story ends. I read this book, and I read that, and somewhat sharply it struck me that yes, that is a culmination of most of the nonfiction I've been reading since 2000. In my brain I could feel all sorts of threads coming together, and I felt for a moment like I had a clear picture of the time and place I live in. I have read A LOT of books to get to this place. And for the first time in a long time I thought, I don't need to read any more.**

I want to do something else.

So, in light of our discussions a few weeks back, here's what we're going to do. Citizen Reader is going to place of action. Mine, and yours. We're also going to take things seriously enough to have a schedule; I'll post it soon. We're going to read some essays, and one month we're going to have an online book club, and in the middle of all that I'm going to write posts that list books I've read and helped me get to this moment of clarity, and this is what I'm going to call that list, because I am a Gen Xer and although I want to take things seriously, I also can't resist a pop culture reference:

Nobody Puts Nonfiction In a Corner (or, 100 Nonfiction Books I Couldn't Live Without)***

And #100 on that list is Brian Alexander's excellent Glass House. This list will not really be in order, but I'm calling this book #100 because I don't think you can start there. I want to tell you about the best, clearest, most helpful nonfiction books that I've read about living in this place and time. Won't you join me?

Oh, and don't worry. I'm still going to read. I'll still need something else to look at besides my little CRs pushing each other down in the driveway.

*This link goes to an excellent review of this book at Slate; concise, well-written, even very good about explaining briefly the financial mishaps wreaked on the Anchor Hocking company.

**I actually had this thought in quote form: in Anne Tyler's novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, elderly Pearl Tully is being read to by her son Ezra, out of her own childhood diary. At one point he reads to her an entry about a happy moment she had: "...'I saw that I was kneeling on such a beautiful green little planet. I don't care what else might come about, I have had this moment, it belongs to me.'

That was the end of the entry. He fell silent.

'Thank you, Ezra,' his mother said. 'There's no need to read any more.'" (p. 277.)

That's exactly the way I felt. Thank you, Ezra. There's no need to read any more.

***With full props to the film Dirty Dancing, for giving us one of the most truly ridiculous lines of dialogue ever.