A FEELING FOR BOOKS by Janice A. Radway


The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire
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 A virtual self-parody of obfuscation and solipsism in cultural studies. Radway (Literature/Duke Univ.) writes that she has spent much of her career mulling ``the distance I had travelled between a small tract house in suburban New Jersey . . . and a lectern in front of a literature class.'' Radway takes this self-indulgent vision of scholarship as her license to inflate a sentimental interest in the Book-of-the-Month Club into a needlessly mystified ``ethnography'' of it. Her history of the club's creation of a middle-brow reading appetite is relatively informative if, like everything else here, overlong. But because her contemporary ``fieldwork'' approaches the club as an arcane text or exotic tribe, rather than a perfectly intelligible business enterprise, she endlessly worries the relationship between its literary and commercial goals into equivocal blather, such as, ``Decisions about books at the club were always pegged to a highly elaborated conception of book buying and book reading.'' That is to say, ``multiple planes of the literary field . . . were structured according to . . . a planar logic that foregrounded the discreteness and particularity of domains and forms of expertise.'' It will be clear to anyone but Radway that the club is just a marketing scheme with a pretty simple taste-mongering shtick, run, to judge even by her flattering portrayal, by people who sell books, not literature. But Radway is lost in breathless close readings of editorial memos, and cut-and-paste applications of cultural theory--not to mention her affection for the staff and misty memories of young book-loving. More intriguing than any book club's mail-order stratagems is the question of how books like this get sold--to Ivy League departments in the form of dissertations, grant-makers (the Guggenheim in this case), and university presses. (9 illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Oct. 27th, 1997
ISBN: 0-8078-2357-0
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Univ. of North Carolina
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1997