You see them in the back pages of the newspaper and on animal welfare websites serving your town or city. I’m talking about those snapshots of orphaned dogs and cats – all perfectly adorable and just needing one attentive soul to appreciate their value.
But if you’re an avid reader – and if you’re scanning “Chapter & Verse” right now, then no doubt you are – then you might have noticed that the literary world has its orphans, too.
The simple, cold truth is that thousands – perhaps millions – of books languish in libraries and bookstores for years, unopened, ungrasped, unloved.
Or so I’ve been reminded this winter while reading “Down from Troy,” Richard Selzer’s sublime 1992 memoir of his Depression-era childhood and its influence on his later medical career.
Although 2014 is still young, “Down from Troy” seems destined to rank among the best books I’ll read this year. Selzer writes like a poet, and his prose proves as precise as the scalpel he once wielded in the operating room.
It’s the kind of memoir everyone should read, but that no one has – at least not lately, in the public library down the street from my Baton Rouge home. I snatched it from a discard table and bought it from the library for a dime just before Christmas. The staff was selling it as a surplus item because demand for Selzer’s book was so low.
Just think of it: a good book so forgotten that people weren’t even willing to read it for free. The heart breaks at the thought of such neglect.
Through a similar library fire sale, I’ve gotten copies of Bob Greene’s “Be True to Your School,” the funny, tender diary of his high school experiences in 1964, as well as “Old Songs in a New Café,” a sterling collection of essays by Robert James Waller.
At a going-out-business sale for a local bookstore, I bought a copy of James Boswell’s “Life of Johnson.” The owner quickly discovered, through an identifying decal, that the volume had been part of the store’s stock for 20 years.
Two decades, in other words, in which a lonely book had waited for someone to take it home.
What’s our obligation to orphan books?
Author W.D. Wetherell addresses the question in “The Writing on the Wall,” his haunting 2012 novel about a young woman who speaks to us from the dawn of the 20th century. Wetherell’s protagonist, Beth, is a budding bibliophile who educates herself, almost entirely, on library volumes that everyone else has passed over.
Here, Beth describes her reading habits:
"Helen Hunt Jackson’s 'Ramona' I read again and again. Elizabeth Barret Browning I read because we shared first names, then because I loved her books more than anyone’s.... None of the books I read had been checked out in years. It was as if the books were deliberately left in the library to rot while everyone went off to the moving pictures and it was only me in the world who still cared for them. Sometimes when I took them off the shelves I imagined them sighing in happiness and relief, finding someone whose fingers and eyes would make them live."
But for every orphan book that finds a good home, scores of others rest on the shelf, forgotten. A reader’s job, in this year and any other year, is to rescue more of them from oblivion.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds; John James Audubon at Oakley House.”
Eager for a glimpse of Harry Potter’s wife?
Foremost is Ginny Weasley, now Harry’s wife referenced as Ginny Potter, and a Daily Prophet sports journalist and Quidditch Correspondent. In the Pottermore post, Ginny is reporting on a Quidditch World Cup fiasco in the Patagonian desert.
The Diagon Alley section of Pottermore currently includes two reports by Ginny and Rowling is expected to add more posts to the site featuring present-day versions of other characters from her popular series. As Hypable noted, this is no small matter for Potterphiles: it is the first time audiences have received present-day information about characters in the Harry Potter series.
Ginny’s reports on the Quidditch World Cup mention such Potter-rich details as magical creatures, team mascots, and matches between actual countries. (For muggles, Quidditch is the fictional sport students play on flying broomsticks in the Harry Potter books.)
The reports also feature news on a Quidditch disaster in which 300 spectators are left injured, according to Ginny’s (fictional) account.
"Not a single Quaffle thrown, not a single Snitch caught, but the 427th Quidditch World Cup is already mired in controversy," she writes. "Magizoologists have congregated in the desert to contain the mayhem and Healers have attended more than 300 crowd members suffering from shock, broken bones and bites."
Ginny elaborates with details new and familiar to Potter fans: shape-shifters Dukuwaqa and Selma, Magizoologist Rolf Scamander, references to Billywigs, and more.
Careful readers will be rewarded with juicy hints, says Pottermore.
"…knowledgeable Harry Potter fans will spot the link to the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts that JK Rowling is currently writing, the protagonist of which is Newt Scamander, Rolf's grandfather,” the website states.
One more dimension in the wide, wonderful, interwoven web that is the wizarding world of Harry Potter.
Sarah Churchwell, a professor of literature based in the U.K., specializes in uncovering the truth behind remarkable 20th-century Americans whose real selves are lost in the haze of mythology.
First, in her 2004 book "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe," Churchwell cuts through galaxies of gossip and restores the doomed movie star to full humanity. (You can read my interview with her about the book here.
Now, Churchwell has three more timeless characters on her mind. One, Jay Gatsby, is purely fictional, although you'd barely know it by how much he's become a part of American culture and memory. The other two are his creator, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his wife, Zelda.In the new stunning book Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, Churchwell takes readers on a trip through the early 1920s and beyond. "Careless People" is part biography, part Roaring Twenties visitor's guide, part fever dream and entirely captivating.
In an interview, I asked Churchwell to ponder what she'd learned about the Fitzgeralds, who were deeply aware of their own era's moral rot but couldn't stop themselves from living it up amid the decadence.
Q: You do a remarkable job of explaining how F. Scott Fitzgerald brilliantly exposed the deadly hollowness of the lifestyle he lived – yet was swept along almost helplessly. What do you make of the way he viewed the world that he embraced yet seemed to despise?
A: His ambivalence mirrors our own, it seems to me. "Gatsby" is a novel about a bust written from within a boom, and its ambivalence about materialism and aspiration certainly speaks to our society. We know that hankering for luxury and the good life is empty and toxic, and yet it doesn’t stop us from wanting it.
He had a fierce appetite for the gorgeous, an artist’s sensibility that meant he wanted everything to be beautiful, luxurious, sensual. Yet he was also a moralist, with a strong sense of right and wrong. He was in some ways far more straitlaced than people realize today.
So he was torn, as was Zelda. They loved the high life, and didn’t want to admit what it was costing them emotionally, psychically, physically. I don’t think that’s so hard to understand or to sympathize with.
Q: We know that both Fitzgeralds had amazing perceptive powers about their era. Looking back, what do you think they missed or purposefully ignored?
A: No one in their era sufficiently understood the perils of addiction: They didn’t realize the toll that the crazy amounts of drinking and partying they did would take on their lives.
Both Fitzgeralds were some of the worst casualties, but none of their circle escaped unscathed. Many of their friends died very young as did they, and those who survived were badly affected by alcoholism in particular.
Q: What surprised you about their era and their lives?
A: Literally every page of my book has something on it that surprised me.
For example, I discovered that women’s dresses in 1922 were ankle-length, not the knee-length spangled flapper dresses that we picture. It turns out that the Charleston is never mentioned in the novel for a good reason – America didn’t start dancing it until after Gatsby was published.
But I also found similarities and parallels that surprised me. I discovered that many words we may think of as contemporary to us actually originated in the jazz age – "post-feminist" was first used in 1919 – because sexual and gender roles were changing.
Merchant banks were invented at the time, and so you get the language of modern finance: "inflationary" and "deflationary" (1920), "merchant bank" (1921), "arbitrage" (1923). And our old friend “subprime" is first used in 1920.
Q: Many Americans still read "The Great Gatsby" in school. What advice would you give teachers about teaching it?
A: As a teacher, I’m a believer in giving students permission to like novels for their own reasons, rather than for mine.
That said, I try to get them to appreciate the language in a great novel, because that’s what makes it great. Getting them to see its humor and its irony is central, while truisms about “the American Dream” are of limited utility and interest for young people as a way to read the novel.
Is Jay Gatsby really great? Some will say yes – he has the soul of an artist. Others will say no – doesn’t it matter that he is a gangster and a thug?And I will say, You’re both right. He is and isn’t great: that’s the function of irony, both meanings are there.
Q: Where do the film versions, universally unloved – even an Alan Ladd movie that's nearly forgotten – fit in?
A: I like to use the film versions in the classroom because they are so wrong: getting the students to compare what they see on the screen with what Fitzgerald says on the page is a good way to get them paying attention to the words, and to feel like they’re outsmarting someone, which in my experience they enjoy!
For example, why do films always make Nick Carraway such a dopey loser? He’s cool enough that they all want to be friends with him. Jordan wants to date him, and she’s a celebrity for heaven’s sake! If you point that out to them they start to see the novel in a different way, and to – well, to own it.
Q: Did you grow to personally like the Fitzgeralds more after writing your book?
A: I started out loving them both, and I still love them both. If anything, I love them both more now that I understand better their courage and artistry, the way they salvaged a tattered dignity from the bouts of sophomoric behavior and raging self-pity.
Zelda was a much smarter and more interesting person than I think I’d appreciated before, and certainly a braver one. She was a woman of great talent and charm, but for many years her only purpose was frivolity and fun.Pleasure has its role, but it can’t be everything. Eventually she learned that the hard way. In the later decades of her life she became very serious about her writing, her painting, and then religion, but these were also bound up with her later struggles with mental illness in complicated ways.
Q: What about F. Scott himself?
A: I’ve gone from being a fan of Fitzgerald to knowing that he will be a part of my intellectual and creative life forever.
Donna Tartt's 'The Goldfinch' – a novel that has charmed critics and readers alike – wins the 2014 Pulitzer Prize
A bestselling favorite about an unlikely art heist took top honors in this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The 771-page novel follows the story of 13-year-old orphan Theo Decker, who steals a valuable painting titled “The Goldfinch,” after the Metropolitan Museum of Art is targeted in a terrorist bomb attack.
Judges described the book as a "beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy’s entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart."
Monitor reviewer Yvonne Zipp calls the book a “hefty delight,” part coming-of-age story, part reckoning, and part thriller “that a certain kind of reader … can happily get lost in.”
The book has enjoyed critical and commercial success. It was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and an Andrew Carnegie Medal and has been a bestseller since it was published.
The Pulitzer in General Nonfiction went to Dan Fagin’s “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation,” the story of a small New Jersey town and its residents whose lives were changed by decades of toxic dumping.
“Toms River” is “a book that deftly combines investigative reporting and historical research to probe a New Jersey seashore town’s cluster of childhood cancers linked to water and air pollution,” Pulitzer judges said in their statement.
One of the country’s foremost colonial historians, Alan Taylor’s “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia” took the prize in History, “a meticulous and insightful account of why runaway slaves in the colonial era were drawn to the British side as potential liberators.”
And Megan Marshall’s “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life” claimed the prize for Biography, “a richly researched book that tells the remarkable story of a 19th century author, journalist, critic and pioneering advocate of women’s rights who died in a shipwreck.”
Among the most prestigious prizes in the field, the Pulitzer awards prizes in journalism, books, drama, and music are announced each year by Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Pulitzer Prize winners receive a $10,000 award and a coveted distinction.
What do Dav Pilkey’s playful “Captain Underpants,” Toni Morrison’s poignant “The Bluest Eye,” and E.L. James’ erotic “Fifty Shades of Grey” have in common?
They are among the most vilified books of 2013.
These books, along with Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” and Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” all have the distinction of topping the American Library Association’s annual list of most challenged books.
The list provides interesting insight into which titles receive the most complaints from teachers, educators, or members of the public. The ALA defines a complaint, or challenge as a “formal, written complaint filed with a library or school requesting that a book or other material be restricted or removed because of its content or appropriateness.”
"The list shows the wide range of books that can get people rattled and touch upon their deepest fears and antagonisms," Barbara Jones, who directs the library association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, told NBC’s Today.
The good news: Challenges were down in 2013. The ALA counted 307 attempts to remove or restrict books from curricula and libraries, down from 464 in 2012.
What landed some of the top picks on the list?
For “Captain Underpants,” which topped the list for a second year in a row, it was potty humor. The series follows the adventures of a two students who hypnotize their heartless school principal, transforming him into Dr. Diaper, a kid-friendly superhero dressed only in a cape and underpants.
“The Bluest Eye,” tackles such difficult topics as rape and incest, was criticized for language, violence, and sexual content. And the prize-winning “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” a perennial on the ALA’s list, was criticized for drug references, sexual content, and racism.
Other books landed on the list for Satanism, religious viewpoint, nudity, and homosexuality.
"The list shows the wide range of books that can get people rattled and touch upon their deepest fears and antagonisms," said the ALA’s Jones.
Here’s a rundown of the top 10 most challenged books of 2013:
Captain Underpants (series) by Dav Pilkey
Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James
Reasons: Nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone
Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Reasons: Occult/Satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
Bone (series) by Jeff Smith
Reasons: Political viewpoint, racism, violence
From defending horses to protecting orcas: animal-rights historian Diane Beers on today's SeaWorld debate
Drop by the stunning Victorian-era Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and you'll find a moving memorial to Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
In front of his tomb sits a beautiful golden bas-relief sculpture of several animals and a horse being tended by a boy. Fans of the ASPCA unveiled the sculpture in 2006, more than a century after Bergh's death, on a day when pets were allowed into the cemetery to commemorate his legacy.
But it's the ASPCA's seal, pictured on the crypt itself, that best reflects Bergh's work. It shows an angel rushing to defend a horse that's being beaten by its master. The world's creatures, the 19th-century-era seal declares, deserve better.
For some 200 years, the animal-rights movement has evolved and expanded its mission, developing a radical wing – PETA – and gaining major victories.
What's different about today's animal-rights movement compared to the one that pushed against the abuse of pets and horses in the 19th century? And what binds the activists of the past to those of today?
For answers, I turned to Diane Beers, a history professor at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts. She explored the history of the movement in her 2006 book For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States.
We talked about what she calls "a big, diverse movement with a deep, rich history that includes many people with a spectrum of beliefs."
Q: How did the animal rights-movement begin in the US?
A: From its beginning, animal advocates see pervasive cruelty in society and go after pervasive cruelty in all forms using many strategies.
There certainly is evidence of concern regarding issues of cruelty before the Civil War, but an organized movement for animal advocacy only emerges just after the war.
The first official organization was the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City, which started in 1866, but other groups were brewing around the same time in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
There were many forces behind this, including industrialization. As people became more removed from nature, there's a growing nostalgia for connections with animals. And having pets becomes more common with the rise of the middle class.
Q: The theory of evolution and the abolition movement were both major players in the 19th century. Did they affect people's interest in animal rights?
A: Darwin knocks people off the proverbial pedestal of superior and separate. He shows humans as part of the tree of life, not separate from it, and shows we're not as removed from non-humans as we think.
As for slavery, many of the animal rights movement's founding advocates were involved in social justices issues generally including opposition to slavery, women's rights, penal reform, child welfare, and urban reform.
One of the most common myths about animal advocates – past and present– is that they are not concerned with human issues and are even anti-human. My research found this to be overwhelmingly false regardless of what time period of animal advocacy you are discussing.
Q: How has the animal-rights movement evolved over time?
A: Some campaigns were very successful but relevant to a specific time period.
An example would be one of the very first campaigns waged which was workhorse abuse in cities such as New York. Eventually, of course, workhorses were replaced by automobiles. But that does not diminish the victory.
Overall, the movement has an ability to evolve when cruelty evolves – such as when animals are used in film – as well an ability and determination to address a wide-range of cruelty issues.
Q: We all know about the in-your-face activism of PETA. Did early activists adopt that kind of protest?
A: ASPCA founder Henry Bergh argued that activists should not wait for the media’s attention but rather hijack it through provocative direct actions that highlighted their agenda.
He fast became famous (and infamous) for instigating daylong traffic jams on New York City's busiest thoroughfares as he ordered freight drivers to unhitch weary horses and passengers to dismount from overloaded omnibuses.
In another part of town, he arrested an entire ship's crew for the cruel transport of a shipment of sea turtles destined for New York restaurants.
The judge threw the case out on the grounds that turtles were fish, not animals, but Bergh never expected to win the case. Instead, he wanted to incite the media.
His plan worked. Nearly every city newspaper carried the story, and the New York Herald featured such an amusing satire of the case, complete with testimonials for the turtles from supportive animals, that it was reprinted throughout the country within days, reaching an estimated half million people.
ASPCA membership and donations soared.
Q: Do you see links between the SeaWorld debate and the earlier history of the animal rights movement?
A: Using multiple strategies on campaigns and going after a diverse agenda are hallmarks of this movement past and present.
What is different is that cruelty evolves too. But the public generally is more aware of cruelty issues and more inclined to be outraged by them today.
Animal advocacy has contributed significantly to shifting attitudes that favor ethical consideration of animals. For many people today, animals, at least many animals, are more than just property.
Q: Much of the SeaWorld debate centers on whether it's appropriate to use animals for our own entertainment. Has this been an issue before?
A: Henry Bergh campaigned actively against P.T. Barnum for both his treatment generally of animals and the methods of training those animals.
For example, circuses would get bears to dance by burning the pads of their feet and lions to sit on stools by whipping and pitchforking them.
Later on, in the early 20th century, author Jack London became equally outraged about making wild animals perform tricks for humans. According to London, animal acts represented “cold-blooded, conscious, deliberate cruelty.... Cruelty as a fine art has attained its perfect flower in the trained animal world.”
London wrote a couple of novels about this toward the end of his life. As a result, animal-rights groups organized the Jack London Clubs which achieved a notable membership of 750,000 and a notable victory in 1925 when major circuses ended animal acts.
The victory did not last, however, as circuses mounted their own public relations campaign, and the onset of the Great Depression generated an opportunity for circuses as the public wanted cheap, escapist entertainment.
Q: What's next for the animal-rights movement? Where do you see the entire animal rights movement going?
A: Over recent years, animal advocacy and other social movements generally seem to be trying to find ways to work together – different social justice movements forming alliances on issues where they find connection.
An example might be environmentalists, workers' rights groups, and animal advocates combining forces to address issues in slaughterhouses.
Oppression and exploitation of all kinds do share links. Can social justice movements effectively expose those links and undermine them together? We shall see.
But of course, there’s one field where women rule – children’s books. Right?
Audiences have long assumed that children’s books were the domain of women, a lone segment female authors could call their own in an industry often dominated by males. But new data released by literary organization VIDA show that though women authors do indeed outnumber men in the arena of children’s books, male authors continue to garner as much attention, awards, and accolades as their female counterparts.
In other words, men enjoy disproportionate representation and recognition even in one of the few segments women rule.
“[I]t's true that being female is not nearly the barrier to initial publication for us that it often is in the adult literary landscape, but as this year's pie charts demonstrate, being male still seems to carry some particular advantages when it comes to recognition, prestige, and awards for literary merit,” VIDA's Kekla Magoon writes in a blog post. She adds, “For a relatively small percentage of our authors, men are very well represented among our award winners and list-mentions.”
In order to consider gender parity/disparity, VIDA counted ten of the most prestigious awards in the industry going back five years, as well as seven of the most prestigious Best Books lists for 2013.
(The organization said it was unable to accurately count all children’s books titles published in the past year, and thereby tally all authors, male and female, for comparison’s sake.)
It found that most awards, like the Printz, National Book Award, and Schneider Family Book Award are at parity (though women did outnumber men for the Newbery).
Best Books of the Year stats fared similarly, with some booklists giving roughly proportional representation, while others, like Publisher’s Weekly and New York Times, choosing roughly equal amounts of male and female authors as Best Books – even though women vastly outnumber men in the industry.
(See exact counts at VIDA’s page.)
While at surface the results may not seem very dramatic, the impact is.
As FlavorWire’s Elisabeth Donnelly said, “[E]ven when men make up a tiny slice of the pie, the industry is paying more attention to their work than other authors.
“This could be a problem because awards mean attention; attention means booksellers, librarians, and parents know these books exist; these books get increased sales and prestige; and it gives authors a chance to have a career. It’s important to look at the gender disparities in the business and execution of children’s media, as these stories help shape how kids perceive the world.”
As Donnelly pointed out, it’s about more than book sales, recognition, and writers’ careers – all of which are significant advantages men are currently enjoying in the field.
But perhaps the greatest impact is that the folks who write books ultimately mold our perception of the world, a phenomenon that is magnified for children whose world often revolves around the stories they read.
When Kevin Young’s father was killed in a hunting accident a decade ago, Young’s grief took the form of verse – a natural response for a young poet who, with eight collections of verse to his name, is already a significant presence in contemporary poetry.
Young’s latest collection, Book of Hours, begins with his father’s death but then moves – as has Young’s life – to the joy surrounding his own son’s birth.
Pairing death and birth in this collection “wasn’t exactly a decision,” Young explains in a phone interview. “It’s more trying to write about the life that I was living.” Life is full of passages, says Young. “Poetry marks them better than anything.”
In the early pages of “Book of Hours,” Young’s loss feels universal, engulfing his father’s dogs and neighbors. The dogs’ grief is “colossal/ & forgetful./ Each day they wake/ seeking his voice,/ their names./ By dusk they seem to unremember everything....”
Yet at night, Young imagines, “I expect they pace/ as I do....”
By day Young tends to details, such as collecting his father’s “errant dry cleaning.” The dry cleaner refuses his money as a woman at the store tells him “how funny” his father was, how he “joked with her weekly.”
But now the newly cleaned clothes must go to Goodwill “to live on another/ body/ & day.”
It is poetry, Young believes, that offers solace. “It’s not about looking away or pretending everything is okay, but of saying, ‘this is what it was like,’ ” says Young. Poetry is “the hand outheld or outstretched to help you make that journey back from the dark.”
“Book of Hours” moves on to chronicle the arrival of Young’s son. In a poem called “Expecting” he listens to the baby in the womb: “like hearing/ hip-hop for the first time – power/ hijacked from a lamppost – all promise./ You couldn’t sound better, break-/ dancer, my favorite song bumping/ from a passing car.” Young’s earlier poems now have fresh purpose: “My son [can] know something of my father.”
For Young, poetry is essential. “It tells us something about ourselves that nothing else can,” he says. He sees it as “an utterance of the place we live, the changes, the music that is possible in human existence.”
Young first encountered poetry at the age of 13. “I didn’t know any poets growing up in Kansas,” he says, but he liked “the language and [its] strangeness.” But it was as a young adult that he discovered that poetry was “something in my own backyard, something I could make out of dirt and air.”
Today, as a professor of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Young helps other writers learn to shape raw elements into words. But for Young, writing is no mere intellectual exercise.
“Book of Hours” ends with the line: “Why not sing.” “I don’t want that to be a question,” explains Young. “It’s a kind of declaration of ... resilience, of survival, of joy” – and, just as emphatically, “of poetry’s place” in human life.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor books editor.
Cesar Chavez Day is a state holiday in California. His labor movement's trademark motto – "Sí, se puede!" – was repurposed for a presidential campaign. And he's perhaps the most famous Hispanic man in American history.
But there's a big gap in knowledge about Chavez. Few seem to know that his once-influential United Farm Workers union fell apart. Or that his management style could be vicious and dictatorial. Or that his inspirational powers were matched by tactical brilliance.
Journalist and historian Miriam Pawel understands Chavez's complexity. Her 2009 book "The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement" is a remarkable account of the union's rise and fall. Now, just as an unrelated film about Chavez hits theaters, she's out with a new book called The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography.
In an interview, Pawel talks about Chavez's internal blend of savvy, guts, and frustration.
Q: You've already written about the United Farm Workers movement. What made you decide to focus on Chavez specifically?
A: He's never been portrayed as the complex, multifaceted leader that he was. Nor in a way that takes into account his failures as well as his successes.
Q: Did he grow up in a farm worker family?
A: He grows up on a farm that his family owns. It's not a terrible existence, but they lose their house and their land in the Depression.
In 1939, when he's 12 years old, his family moves to California. They arrive about a month after the publication of "The Grapes of Wrath."
In many ways, the California that he first encounters is that of the Joad family. He begins to work full-time after he graduates from eighth grade. He's a farm worker in the fields with the exception of when he's in the Navy.
Q: Workers gained many protections in the first decades of the last century. Why were farm workers left behind?
A: Farm workers were not covered by the labor, health, and safety laws that most of the workers took for granted.
The one constant was that there was almost always a surplus of workers. Wages were very low. There were no bathrooms in the field – a particular problem for women. There was no clean water to drink, no overtime provisions, no protection from pesticides.
Farm worker housing, and this is still a real issue, was pretty dreadful. And in addition to all the physical deprivations and difficulties, there was a sense that the workers were interchangeable, as replaceable as tractors.
There was a real inhumanity about it.
Q: Were farm workers often forced to move frequently?
A: You followed the crops. As a result, to this day, farm workers are really hard to organize.
It's not like you can go to the plant and wait for everybody to walk out the doors. You don't necessarily know where they are. And a lot of people who are imported to do farm work don't speak English.
These were a lot of issues for unions to overcome and the supply-and-demand issues made it very difficult to convince workers that they should risk their jobs in order to support a union.
The other major problem is that farm workers are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act, which provides a mechanism for elections and, in theory, protections for union activity. Farm workers have none of that.
Q: What made Chavez such a force against such odds?
A: He had this indomitable will, incredible determination, and single-minded focus. He wanted people who were fanatics, who didn't let anything take precedence over their work.
Q: You write about his "organizational jujitsu" – his ability to turn an opponent's strengths into weaknesses. How did that play out when he launched the famous grape boycott?
A: Farm workers are exempt from the National Relations Labor Act, and that's seen as an advantage for the growers. But because they're not covered, they're not subject to any of the accompanying restrictions, such as not conducting what's known a secondary boycott.
This allows his movement to push for a boycott of not just grapes but of the supermarkets that sell the grapes. They were able to boycott entire supermarket chains and they focused on Safeway, Jewel, and Stop and Shop.
The supermarkets didn't need this hassle and lost business. It's their executives who turn back to the growers and say, "You need to solve your labor problems, or we'll stop carrying your produce."
Chavez understood that he didn't need to stop the sales of all grapes but instead make one of those shots in pool where you hit the ball and it hits another ball and makes the shot work.
Q: You write about Chavez's horrific management style, which included "encounter groups" in which workers brutally criticized each other. What else sets him apart in terms of how he ran his movement?
A: He created the union, and he is always the leader. In some ways it becomes a cult of personality.
It's a familiar theme: A charismatic leader who does a great job of building something but isn't the best person to run it.
Q: He didn't want to just run a labor union, right?
A: He wants to find a cross between a movement and a union.
But he sees the problem, and he sees it very clearly.
You have these workers under contracts. The contracts have to be administered, and the medical plan has to be administered. By the virtue of their own success, they've created an organization with a bureaucracy and needs.
In theory, that could exist with a grander movement of organizing a poor people's union. But the visions begin to collide more and more. They didn't have the staff to do both.
Q: What was his vision for the poor?
A: When you follow him from his younger years, you see how important it is to him to teach the value of sacrifice and how much disdain he has for middle-class values.
There's an inherent problem with a labor leader who's trying to convince workers they should support the union but also trying to make sure they don't become middle-class.
In fact, many workers wanted to be middle-class.
Q: What's the legacy of work as a manager of a movement?
A: A lot of people can identify with his frustration with democracy. These are important conversations for people to have: How do you run an organization democratically yet still get things done?
Q: What about his larger legacy?
A: He's a tremendously important historic figure, especially for the generation of farm workers who were touched by the union.
For 20 years, there were farm workers whose lives were significantly altered by the way he empowered people and gave them a sense of their own dignity. There's some of that left today.
But his ultimate legacy is not in the field.
Farm workers today have no idea who he is and much of what he fought for is no longer there. But there's a generation of organizers who learned how to do what they do in the United Farm Workers and there are still many of them working toward social justice causes in a whole variety of spheres.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
How do you find the world’s best novel?
Ask librarians – in 39 countries around the world.
That’s the essence behind the IMPAC Dublin Award, a Dublin-based literary award that seeks to find the best new works of fiction from around the globe.
An initiative of the Dublin City Council, the project asks 110 library systems from 39 countries around the world to nominate best new works of fiction. The prize: €100,000 (around $138,000) and, of course, a good helping of prestige and attention.
The list has been whittled down to 10 finalists, about half of which are books translated from another language. The winner will be announced on June 12, but from our perspective, we already have our prize – a superlative roundup of some of the world’s best titles culled from experts (a.k.a. librarians) around the globe, ripe for the reading.
“This is a list of high quality literature that includes five novels in translation – that is the beauty of this award – readers around the world will find authors both familiar and new on what is a truly international shortlist,” Dublin's Deputy Lord Mayor Councilor Henry Upton, said in an announcement.
The shortlist includes five novels in translation, from Argentina, Colombia, France, Norway, and the Netherlands. Also on the list are English-language titles from the US, Australia, Ireland, and Malaysia.
“This is a truly global shortlist," said Dublin city librarian Margaret Hayes, "stories imagined and inspired by authors and themes from countries as far apart as Australia and Malaysia, on the one side of the globe, and Argentina, Colombia and the USA on the other, with an eclectic selection of European titles in the middle.”
Consider the shortlist, below, a list of guaranteed good reads perfect for evenings of literary globe-trotting:
The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker (Dutch), translated by David Colmer
Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Sri Lankan / Australian)
Absolution by Patrick Flanery (American)
A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norwegian), translated by Don Bartlett
Three Strong Woman by Marie NDiaye (French), translated by John Fletcher
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman (Argentinian), translated from the original Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia
The Light of Amsterdam by David Park (Northern Irish)
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (Irish)
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Malaysian)
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombian), translated from the original Spanish by Anne McLean
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.