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For Elaine Castillo, Reading Is Politics



HOW TO READ NOW: Essays, by Elaine Castillo

“White supremacy makes for terrible readers,” Elaine Castillo writes in her essay collection, “How to Read Now.” The sentence, like the book’s title, is both a dig and a dare, which blooms into an urgent plea: “We need to change how we read.” For Castillo, born in California to Filipino immigrants, this “we” is “generally American”; her book is directed toward the marginalized communities that make up a large part of this country.

Castillo’s debut novel, “America Is Not the Heart,” depicted the everyday lives of Filipina migrant laborers (nurses, maids, sex workers) who are too rarely foregrounded in American literature. The book acknowledged its literary debt — to Carlos Bulosan’s foundational 1943 novel “America Is in the Heart,” about Filipino farmers in Depression-era California — while also expanding its relevance for contemporary readers.

“How to Read Now” is an even more explicit meditation on questions of inheritance, working through Castillo’s responsibilities not as a writer, but as a reader. Its eight chapters engage the readers who have most informed her own practice, beginning with her father: an otherwise unassuming “old Pinoy security guard at a computer chip company” who “was making me read Plato’s ‘Symposium’ when I was in middle school, a fact that none of my white teachers believed.”

This is a book on readership that is itself a series of readings. Castillo leads by example, offering exegeses on texts from Henry James to Wong Kar-wai, Jane Austen to “X-Men.” Reading, for Castillo, is hardly limited to books, encompassing popular television, a colonial treaty and a statue.

Despite its searching quality, “How to Read Now” approaches reading as a political act that implicates everyone. To be a good reader, Castillo suggests, means being open to the different readings of other people, perhaps especially those you disagree with. “None of this work is meant to be done alone,” she writes. “Critical reading is not meant to be work performed solely by readers and writers of color.” Here, Castillo reminds us that her “we” contains multitudes — a Whitmanian collective that is necessarily porous and shifting.

Castillo’s nonfiction carries the same animated verve as her novel. At times the prose veers toward the polemical, but only to unsettle our pieties: that reading teaches us empathy, that white artists, unlike artists of color, can be separated from their art and from identity politics. Instead, Castillo writes for the author’s “unexpected reader”: “someone who was not remotely imagined — maybe not even imaginable — by the creator of that artwork.”

In “Main Character Syndrome” Castillo pulls off a masterly takedown of the cult of Joan Didion, who has become “shorthand for a certain strain of bourgeois intellectual white feminism so beloved by luxury capitalism for the veneer of authenticity and depth it provides.” In “Autobiography in Asian Film,” she explains why the “representation matters” discourse around centering more Asian American characters in mainstream media will always fail to account for the true heterogeneity of Asian American experience.

Despite its declarative title, “How to Read Now” is not so much an instruction manual as an earnest invitation — “a question, open-ended,” she writes. “I, too, want to know how to read now.” What emerges is an engaging and provocative conversation with a playful interlocutor who wanted me, her reader, to talk back.

There is a breathless earnestness to Castillo’s writing, which unfurls in long sentences laced with extended parentheticals and subordinate clauses. The chatty prose and its rhetorical flourishes are distinctly millennial: “but go off”; “u ok boomer?”; “T.L.D.R.” When I started reading the book, I (another Asian American living in the Bay Area) frequently found myself in ambivalent or even direct disagreement with Castillo. It gradually became clear that that was the point: for me to become her “unexpected reader,” and thus feel the full weight of her argument. “How to Read Now” is a book that doesn’t seek to shut down the current literary discourse so much as shake it up. And on this I agree with Castillo: It so desperately needs to change.

Jane Hu is a critic whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Bookforum and elsewhere.

HOW TO READ NOW: Essays, by Elaine Castillo | 340 pp. | Viking | $26


Victor LaValle Likes to Stare Directly at His Deepest Fears



“People sometimes ask why I want to read horror at all, let alone write it,” says the horror novelist, whose new book is “Lone Women.” “So much writing glances off the hardest and worst experiences, but horror confronts the worst that happens. … A good horror novel doesn’t lie to you.”

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Hoover Biographer Wins American History Book Prize



Beverly Gage, the author of “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century,” has been named the winner of the New-York Historical Society’s 2023 Barbara and David Zalaznick Book Prize, which is awarded annually for the best work of American history or biography.

The first major biography of Hoover written in three decades, “G-Man” draws on a wealth of previously unseen or uncensored documents, including many obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Over 837 pages, Gage, a professor at Yale University, takes a panoramic view of Hoover’s 48 years as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, looking not just at his infamous harassment campaigns against civil rights leaders in the 1960s but also his central role in the modernization of the bureau, which often won him the admiration of liberals.

Reviewing the book last year in The New York Times, Jennifer Szalai called it a “revelatory” portrait that shows Hoover “for who he really was — less an outsider to the so-called postwar consensus than an integral part of it.”

Gage’s book, published by Viking, was also a winner of this year’s Bancroft Prize, awarded by Columbia University and considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history, as well as a bellwether of trends among academic historians.

The historical society’s prize, which will be awarded at a private event in April, rewards books that are accessible to a general audience. It often focuses on political history, and books that keep founders, presidents and other major figures, and their great deeds (or misdeeds), at the center of the story. Past winners of the prize, which comes with a cash award of $50,000, have included Alan Taylor, Jill Lepore, Jane Kamensky and Gordon S. Wood.

In a news release, Agnes Hsu-Tang, the chair of the historical society’s board of trustees, said that Gage “deftly illuminates one of the most complicated personalities in modern American history through descriptive gradations of light and shadow.”

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Attempts to Ban Books Doubled in 2022



Efforts to ban books nearly doubled in 2022 over the previous year, according to a report published Thursday by the American Library Association. The organization tracked 1,269 attempts to ban books and other resources in libraries and schools, the highest number of complaints since the association began studying censorship efforts more than 20 years ago.

The analysis offers a snapshot of the spike in censorship, but most likely fails to capture the magnitude of bans. The report is compiled from book challenges that library professionals reported to the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, and it also relies on information gathered from news reports.

Book removals have exploded in recent years, and have become a galvanizing issue for conservative groups and elected officials. Fights over what books belong on library shelves have caused bitter rifts on school boards and in communities, and have been amplified by social media and political campaigns.

With the increasingly organized campaigns to remove titles on certain topics, books have become a proxy in a broader culture war over issues like L.G.B.T.Q. rights, gender identity and racial inequality.

Of the 2,571 unique titles that drew complaints in 2022 — up from 1,858 books in 2021 — a vast majority were books by or about L.G.B.T.Q. people, or books by or about people of color, the association found. Many of the same books are targeted for removal in schools and libraries around the country — among them classics like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and newer works like Juno Dawson’s “This Book is Gay” and Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer.”

Book bans have affected public libraries as well as schools: In 2022, some 60 percent of complaints that the association tracked were directed at books and materials in school libraries and classrooms, while around 40 percent of challenges were aimed at material in public libraries.

The development is worrisome for educators and librarians, who have increasingly come under fire for the books in their collections. Some librarians have been accused of peddling obscenity or promoting pedophilia; others have been harassed online by people calling for them to be fired or even arrested. Some libraries have been threatened with a loss of public funding over their refusal to remove books.

Efforts to remove books began to rise during the pandemic, often spreading from one community or school district to another through social media, as lists of books flagged as inappropriate circulated online. The movement has been supercharged by a network of conservative groups — including organizations like Moms for Liberty and Utah Parents United — that have pushed for book removals and have lobbied for new policies that change the way library collections are formed and book complaints are handled.

“Overwhelmingly, we’re seeing these challenges come from organized censorship groups that target local library board meetings to demand removal of a long list of books they share on social media,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said in a news release about the report.

Increasingly, challenges are being filed against multiple books, whereas in the past, libraries more frequently received complaints about a single title, the group said.

Some librarians and free speech advocates are also alarmed by new legislation that aims to regulate the content of libraries, or the way librarians do their jobs. Last year, laws that impose restrictions on libraries were passed in seven states, including Tennessee, Oklahoma, Florida and Utah, according to analysis done by EveryLibrary, a political action committee for libraries.

Recently, Republicans in the House introduced a “Parents Bill of Rights,” proposed legislation that some educational advocacy organizations worry could lead to a rise in book bans. The bill, which was sponsored by Representative Julia Letlow, a Republican from Louisiana, requires that parents have access to “a list of the books and other reading materials available in the library of their child’s school.”

Some librarians and teachers who are concerned by the spike in book bans argue that the notion of parental rights should not enable a small group of parents to decide what books all other students and families can access.

“Each attempt to ban a book by one of these groups represents a direct attack on every person’s constitutionally protected right to freely choose what books to read and what ideas to explore,” Caldwell-Stone said in a statement. “The choice of what to read must be left to the reader or, in the case of children, to parents. That choice does not belong to self-appointed book police.”

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