Outstanding Academic Titles 2023: Language and Literature

Enjoy these five selections from the Choice Reviews 2023 Outstanding Academic Titles list. This week we highlight, Outstanding Academic Titles from the past year about language and literature. A hearty congratulations to the winning authors, editors and publishers!

1. Genre worlds: popular fiction and twenty-first-century book culture
Wilkins, Kim. by Kim Wilkins, Beth Driscoll, and Lisa Fletcher Massachusetts, 2022

Contemporary genre fiction—particularly crime, romance, and fantasy—is popular and pervasive, “a source of enjoyment” (to quote the publisher’s website) all the more compelling because of its relationships to transmedia and culture and its influence on the production and distribution of texts. In this book, the authors (all based in Australia) explore the production and circulation of genre fiction. They introduce the concept of “genre worlds” to describe genre fiction’s interdependence on “industrial, social, and textual practices,” such as its relationship to self-publishing, its connection to fan culture, and its particular craft techniques, including the use of high-concept genre tropes and the technique of world building. Genre Worlds investigates many facets of genre worlds, including the impact of transnational and transmedia cultural properties, which allow readers to engage with a story world without interacting with a published text; the impact of fan culture, conventions, and genre conferences on the production and promotion of texts; and hierarchies within genre worlds. In the process, the authors highlight ways of reading, writing, and critiquing genre texts.

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2. Writing with pleasure
Sword, Helen. Princeton, 2023

Focusing on pleasure in the context of academic writing, Sword (Univ. of Auckland, NZ) sets out “to recuperate pleasure as a legitimate, indeed crucial, writing-related emotion” (p. 3). Based on Sword’s study of 590 handwritten narratives gathered from a diverse set of academics over a two-year period, the book identifies five characteristics of pleasurable writing—it should be socially balanced, physically engaged, aesthetically nourishing, creatively challenging, and emotionally uplifting—for which she uses the acronym SPACE. Sword divides the book into two parts, “The SPACE of Writing” and “The SPACE of Pleasure,” each comprising five chapters devoted to the above characteristics. In addition to discussing the results of her research, Sword shows readers how to employ SPACE in their own writing through 18 “pleasure prompts,” and in each section she includes multimodal callouts that represent the product of her own pleasurable collaboration with visual artist Selina Tusitala Marsh. This book will be valuable for any writers—not only academics—who wish to experience more pleasure in their writing.

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3. The secret life of literature
Zunshine, Lisa. MIT, 2022

Zunshine (Univ. of Kentucky) tackles the topic of embedments in literature in an engaging and lighthearted way, taking an inception-esque complex topic, breaking it down into component parts, and then applying it to ample examples from across the broad spectrum of the written word. Embedment, as Zunshine explains, is a metaphorical term for what cognitive psychologists refer to as “mental states,” or “capacity to see … behavior as caused by mental states, such as thoughts, desires, feelings, and intentions” (p. 2). Zunshine demonstrates and explains this close-reading practice, which derives information about the perceived mental states of characters through levels of embedments. She practices this complex but rewarding exercise with a varied and multitudinous selection of sample passages from classical and popular literature. The third chapter in particular dives deep into the cognitive science behind embedments, and other chapters focus on specific contexts for reading embedments, including social status, cultural history, and children’s literature.

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4. Inventing the alphabet: the origins of letters from antiquity to the present
Drucker, Johanna. Chicago, 2022

his latest book by Drucker (bibliographical studies, UCLA) is not primarily a new history of the alphabet, although it provides this history, but a historiographical work that traces the ways beliefs in Western thought shaped the discourse around the alphabet’s origins. The author asks who knew what when and how people conceptualized the evidence available to them, from the earliest classical and biblical accounts to contemporary archaeological, epigraphical, and paleographical syntheses. This is a scholarly work of intellectual history and does not present a direct path to ever-increasing knowledge. Seminal works and scholars are identified, but so too are works now largely forgotten as the dominant approaches of their centuries were superseded. The organization is roughly chronological. Illustrations reproduce the scripts or fragments available in each period. The final chapter, on the politicization of the alphabet, brings readers to the present. The author explores racial and cultural bias in alphabet studies and points out that new discoveries are still being made and frameworks will shift, extending the history of the alphabet.
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5A Movement in every direction: legacies of the Great Migration
ed. by Jessica Bell Brown and Ryan N. Dennis Yale, 2022

Lavishly illustrated, this first collaborative work of two curators at the Baltimore and the Mississippi Museums of Art combines vintage materials and photographs of newly commissioned art works by 12 practitioners, interspersed with reflective essays by six authors explaining the ongoing influence of the Great Migration (1915–70). During this period six million African Americans left the South for the North, Midwest, and West to escape the racism and violence of Jim Crow and gain greater economic and educational opportunities. The volume challenges the traditional notion that the movement was linear—often it was serial or circular—and finite—it still takes place today, especially in flight from environmental dangers caused by climate change. In addition to geographical migration, the movement is also occupational, social, ideological, and attitudinal. This voluntary population transfer without defined leaders was the largest of any group in the 20th century in the US; it propelled the Harlem Renaissance, the spread of blues and jazz, and civil rights campaigns, and resulted in more extensive Black political engagement at all levels.
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