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Friday, June 19, 2015

June 19, 2015: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: A Tragic, Compelling Life



[Each of the last few years, I’ve helped kick off summer with a series on AmericanStudies Beach Reads. If it ain’t broke and all, so here’s this year’s edition! Please share your responses and beach read nominees for a weekend post that’ll put its toes in the sand!]
On why it’s important to get serious on the beach, and a book that helps us do that.
As part of my BlockbusterStudying series last month, I addressed the argument that “It’s not Shakespeare”—the perspective, that is, that some popular art isn’t meant to be deep or thought-provoking, and shouldn’t be analyzed as such. The same argument could be made for beach reads as for blockbuster films, of course—that we can’t analyze or study a John Grisham legal thriller the same way we would To Kill a Mockingbird, not without acknowledging their overtly different intended audiences and effects at least. While I agree that we can and must consider the individual circumstances, goals, and genre of each particular work, however, I don’t at all agree that we can’t also analyze any and every work of art, including if not indeed especially the most popular. After all, every work both tells us something about its world and contributes something to ours—and that’s just as true if we’re engaging with them on a beach as when we encounter them in a classroom.
Moreover, closing that perceived gap between the beach and the classroom has another important effect: it can help us think about the benefit of bringing to the beach books that we might not consider beach reads, works that feel more “serious” than the category generally implies. For one thing, many of those so-called serious books are just as readable, engaging, page-turning as the kinds of thrillers I’ve addressed earlier in this series (a goal for which all writers, including the most scholarly or academic, should strive). And for another, even more important thing, neither the world nor our place and role in it go away when we’re on vacation, in more relaxed spaces and situations—and so it seems to me that finding ways to continue engaging with complex social, cultural, historical, and identity questions as part of our beach reading is a great metaphor for bringing a piece of that world with us. It was for that reason that I featured my third book in last year’s Beach Reads series, and it’s for that reason that I’m ending this year’s series with Jeff Hobbs’s The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (2014).
Hobbs’ book tells the story of one compelling American life, that of Hobbs’s college roommate Robert Peace. Peace, an African American young man, made his way from the inner city of Newark to Yale University, only to end up drawn back into the violence of that hometown neighborhood and killed by it at far too young an age. Peace’s story is thus profoundly illuminating of many of the social and cultural issues that remain so vexing and vital into 2015: race and community, the state of America’s cities, violence and guns, education and its opportunities and limitations, and many more. But it’s also and just as importantly a compelling story, compellingly told, capturing first and foremost the identity and perspective of this individual young man. Hobbs’s book reminds us on every page that great storytelling and analysis aren’t necessarily opposed, that indeed they can work hand in hand to impact both our emotions and our thoughts, our reading and our reflecting. That’s a pretty potent combination, for the beach and beyond.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So one more time: Responses to the week’s posts? Other Beach Reads you’d share? You know what to do!

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