By The Book

Janice Radway
A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire
University of North Carolina Press

It's perfect, really. Janice Radway has written a book about a people's difficulty in looking past the frame of their class sensibility; just as she--though not without a struggle--fails to see her way beyond the assumptions of her own middle-class upbringing. As a reader similarly schooled, I find her earnest struggle moving, if also irritating and, sorry to say, dated. Like its ostensible subjects, those raw suburbanites reaching for high-culture status a book at a time, A Feeling for Books wants to display ambition and learning, but then fails to ask for enough.

A professor of English at Duke, and the author of the influential title Reading the Romance, Radway claims in her introduction to be a "self-divided narrator," trying on various theoretical perspectives, or voices, to recount her stories, past and present. The first voice, as presented in Part One, is that of a conflicted and alarmingly tentative ethnographer, who has come in 1985 to the faux old-money New York offices of the Book-of-the-Month Club to inspect the modern-day construction of "middlebrow" taste. The conflict, this academic reports in first-person, arises from her identification with the editors responsible for choosing the club selections; they talk about books with the passion and energy she used to, before academia taught her a reasoned distance.

In analyzing the editors' pleasure in "immersion" reading, which is also (Radway theorizes) that of the BOMC members they serve, she tries to communicate her own pleasure at being immersed in this seemingly enchanted booklovers' world. Her sentences often begin "I adored..." and "I cheered..."--sentiments so banal that I, often, yawned. Meanwhile, our so-subjective observer continually second-guesses her conclusions, emphasizing that all are dependent on a developing and incomplete comprehension. Radway even admits that she did not push impolitely for business information--such as sales figures and procurement fees--because she didn't want to endanger her access. This particular revelation leaves me trusting her scrutiny still less.

Radway apparently felt the same. Part One ends with some wonderfully probing questions: Why does an advanced literary education teach disdain of the "embodied sentimentalism" and "warm-blooded" humanism of middlebrow culture? Why are middle-class children taught that middlebrow books can pleasurably "transport" them, and from what and to where? Part Two begins to furnish answers, but only by leaning on secondary sources, as the "I" Radway retreats to sample from the opinions of other cultural critics.

A social history of the BOMC since its start in 1926, this section wraps itself in the authority of academic lingoese. Within this prickly, awkward carapace, Radway does draw an intriguing parallel between the success of advertising man Harry Scherman's bookselling scheme and the growth of the middle class as a managerial buffer zone between capital and labor. Just as the BOMC's selections created a fluid space between high culture's "pure" forms and debased commercialism, so did the new middle class negotiate an identity between the traditional norm--rich white men--and the colored, poor, gendered other.

Radway's story is concerned with the contradictions of living and working between opposites: mind (capital) and body (labor), "male" reason and "female" sentiment, individuality and dumb mass. The middle class threatens "high" culture because it proves that educated taste (and upper-class identity) was not born, but could instead be bought--and its value diminished--by popular distribution. Yet middlebrow also upholds highbrow, because it teaches a longing for expertise, and the power that accompanies it. Within the play of such incongruities, Radway argues, lurks the possibility of slippage, the chance that, through impassioned reading, individuals might momentarily fall out of society's machinery and imagine a future beyond their proscribed roles.

It's funny, though, to watch Radway applaud one such slippage--the middlebrow desire for emotional communion and connection--in a voice as convoluted and dry as that of any high-culture priest. She's not risking much. When she returns to her autobiographical "I" in Part Three and reviews the BOMC books that provided her own teenage sentimental education, she clearly means to "interpenetrate" her high- and middlebrow selves, the so-called objective and subjective. Yet the resulting prose is by turns cloying and disdainful, as Radway attempts to protect both her "embodied" sentiment and her intellectual authority.

Given the fiery, vivid analysis turned out by sister academicians Donna Haraway and Sadie Plant, Radway's overheated difficulties here seem rather unnecessary, even sad. Then again, cyber souls Haraway and Plant have deliberately stepped outside the sort of traditional dualisms Radway still clings to in interpreting the world. In the end, what Radway has perfectly described in this tale of Lit Cult versus Popular Taste are the bars of her own cage.

 
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