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Thursday, June 5, 2014

June 5, 2014: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: Amusing the Million

[For the last couple years I’ve featured a summertime series on some AmericanStudies books you can pack along with the sunscreen and cold beverages. As summer approaches, it feels right to share some more beach reads—please share your own favorite or future summer page-turners for a weekend post we can all bring with us to the shore or the pool!]

On the public scholarly work that’s as entertaining as its subject.
I’m not recommending John F. Kasson’s Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century (1978) as a great AmericanStudies beach read because it features on its cover an amazing 1897 photograph of five turn of the century young women baring their (I’m sure) fashionable bathing suits, although they certainly do reflect how longstanding the concept of summertime fun is. I’m not even featuring it because it offers one of the best historical and social analyses of one of America’s most famous beaches, although it’s true that I know of few if any AmericanStudies books that would feel more at home propped on your towel. No, I’m sharing Kasson’s book as part of this series because it’s that rare scholarly work that is just plain fun and engaging to read.
Obviously Kasson’s topic helps with those effects—it would be both ridiculous and insensitive to expect a scholarly work about historical traumas or tragedies (for example) to be fun, after all. Similarly, a great deal of the pleasure of Kasson’s book comes from his well-chosen and evocative photographs and images of material culture artifacts, another feature of his particular subject matter. But it would be wrong not to credit Kasson’s voice and style with a significant role in his book’s readability and engagingness, just as it would be wrong not to admit that many scholarly writers (whatever their subjects) don’t consider those effects as nearly important enough (a function in part of the dissertation process and what it teaches, in part of the nature of academic peer review, and in part of in the insularity of any community’s particular language and jargon, among other factors).
One way for our writing to get more readable is to read more great writing, and so if you’re an academic (like me, and this advice is meant for me for sure), you could do a lot worse for your beach reading than Kasson’s book. But whatever your profession, Amusing the Million is a pitch-perfect beach read—for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, and for many more, including its ability to help us understand our own new century’s society and popular culture, our own sites and mediums of entertainment and amusement, play and consumerism, spectacle and performance. In many ways we’re still living in the world Kasson lays out so evocatively and engagingly—and his book is so much fun that taking in those lessons about then and now won’t hurt a bit.
Last beach read tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What would you recommend for a good beach read? What are you hoping to get to by the pool this summer?

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