The Coronavirus Novel

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The Simpsons “predicted” the 2016 election results and medium Laurie Garrett foresaw the 90’s AIDS epidemic. Whether this is truth or coincidence, Ling Ma’s telling of a devastating pandemic in her novel Severance is uncanny. 

Written in 2012, the apocalyptic-fiction novel has resurfaced since the pandemic began. Severance tells the story of a New York Bible publisher, Candace Chen, who wakes up and the world as she knows it has shut down. 

This turn of events happens after Shen Fever, an airborne fungal infection, emerges from a production facility in Shenzhen, China. No one knows how the infection reached the United States, but it is not long until it reaches the rest of the world. Citizens become “fevered,” experiencing cold and flu-like symptoms, tiredness, dizziness, vomiting, and ultimately a loss of consciousness. 

Reading Severance in the pandemic, with cases increasing yet again, is a surreal experience. There is desperate talk of a vaccine. Infection rates climb, as does the death toll. Everyone is fleeing New York. The United States implements a travel ban. Working in-person shifts to working from home. For jobs deemed “essential,” each employer is mandated to provide its workers with sanitation supplies. Ma even depicts mask wearing, such as the safety and discomforts a hot, N-95 mask can bring. In one exchange, a character nastily asks Candace “Where’s your mask?” when she forgets hers.

Even the naturalism seen in the pandemic appears in the novel. While we saw deer and wild boar freely roam cities, and South African lions napping in the street, Candace too experiences a similar return to nature. She finds and photographs a horse in Times Square running, “purposefully, cheerfully, unhurried, down Broadway.” It is as if a horse had perfect business being in midtown, making the sight all the more strange. 

The monotony of living through a shutdown also comes through in the novel, as characters pass the time trying on clothes and rearranging furniture. Most of the characters look to the media for guidance and answers, as The New York Times keeps a tally of those who become fevered. Candace starts a blog aimed to capture the post-apocalyptic feel of New York City — empty streets, still subway tunnels, and abandoned food carts are all shared online with her followers. 

After closing Severance, I wondered, how could someone capture this situation years before it happened? Was this coincidence no different than a TV sitcom, predicting a presidential candidate? Or is Ling Ma a prophet? 

I settled on an imaginative and thoughtful composer.

-Charleigh

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5 Tips to Celebrate Thanksgiving 2020

“We are all ready and eager for life to return to normal. But 2020 is still nowhere near normal,” says Rachel Lynn, M.D. “So, this holiday season is an opportunity to create new traditions, rather than returning to ways of old.”

Although holiday festivities approach, the risk of COVID-19 infection is not going anywhere. To help you and your loved ones stay safe while remaining thankful, here are 5 key tips for celebrating Thanksgiving during 2020:

  1. Find new activities to (temporarily) replace long-standing traditions

    Turkey trots, fun runs, and Thanksgiving parades are popular seasonal activities. Not participating in traditions like these can dampen the thankful spirit that comes with this time of year, but a great way to combat feeling as though you’re missing out is to find new ways to spend time with friends and family.

    Instead of going out to have fun, try staying in and virtually visiting with loved ones. There are many games you can play remotely with others to break up the monotony of FaceTime calls, like Scrabble, Mario Kart Tour, Uno, and Monopoly. If games aren’t your forte, you can also watch movies simultaneously with others through Netflix Party.
  1. Opt for intimate online gatherings over in-person shindigs

    Infectious disease and infection control expert Roy Chemaly, M.D. said, “The best way to stay safe this Thanksgiving is to have a small family gathering with only the people in your immediate household. Everything — airports, airplanes, gas stations and hotels — tends to be more crowded at this time of year, but you can minimize your exposure to crowds by celebrating at home.”

    Not celebrating with a large group may feel isolating, but there are many innovative ways to stay physically distanced without feeling socially distant. To mimic the feel of cooking and eating with others, try hosting a virtual dinner party. Whether it’s a friendsgiving or a remote family gathering, a virtual dinner party can involve good food and company.

    To make the event feel special, consider taking turns screen-sharing PowerPoint presentations. It may sound odd to suggest creating a slideshow for fun instead of work, but as this article shows, PowerPoint can be a creative and entertaining medium for sharing with friends and family. Whether the PowerPoint is full of funny gifs, bulleted lists updating others on your life, or video montages from what you’ve binge-watched this year, slideshows can turn Zoom conferences into something great.
  1. Not your family’s best cook? Check out food delivery options

    “Sharing a meal is a powerful bonding experience that many people crave,” said Catherine Powers-James, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in the Integrative Medicine Center. Not only do we want time with others, but we also crave the obvious benefit of gathering for Thanksgiving: good food.

    If missing your relative’s signature Thanksgiving sides or desserts is getting you down but you’re not confident in your own skills in the kitchen, you have other options besides settling for the same old meal you’ve made on repeat during quarantine. Make your Thanksgiving Day special by giving back and supporting local restaurants.

    By ordering from local businesses, you can feed you or your household without spending hours in the kitchen while contributing to keeping restaurants afloat during these turbulent times. Boston residents can check out this article to browse a list of restaurants offering Thanksgiving deals for two people or families, which are available for pickup or delivery.
  1. Focus on being thankful for what is possible instead of resentful for what isn’t

    Giving thanks is — quite literally — the point of this upcoming holiday. Though it may seem obvious, making an effort to only speak positively and show gratitude is a simple yet effective way to avoid having a bad holiday.

    Instead of “doom scrolling” through social media, consider taking a break from tweets and posts for several hours. If others comment on your choices to protect your health and the health of those you love, here’s a piece of advice: you don’t have to attend every debate you’re invited to. Instead of engaging in what could be a fruitless and stressful undertaking, try only engaging in conversations or encouraging topics that lift you and others up.

    This holiday season, protecting your well-being can involve more than following health and safety protocols. For more tips to keep mental health in check, view this CDC article.

  2. Continue wearing masks and stay 6 feet apart

    If possible, test for COVID before traveling. “A week or a long weekend is not enough time to self-quarantine effectively,” says Roy Chemaly, M.D. “So, it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

    Although there is no mandate for wearing face coverings after being picked up from the airport, consider leaving the mask on and keeping physical contact to an absolute minimum until you are certain you’ve only brought home your suitcases and luggage. 

    Masks are common sense and for the common good.  With a negative test result, you can more confidently enjoy time with your close family.

It can be tempting to throw caution to the wind when returning home from a long stint away, but our goal is to spread holiday joy, not germs.

Although it can be tempting to cut corners and spend this Thanksgiving with friends and family, it’s more important to think of next Thanksgiving. Taking steps to stay safe and keep others healthy means you protect your odds of enjoying future holidays with all of your loved ones.

Now more than ever, the holidays are a time to — metaphorically — come together. For more safety tips, view MDAnderson.org’s Thanksgiving article here.

– Cassidy

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Remembering Alex Trebek

George Alexander Trebek
July 22, 1940–November 8, 2020

Legendary Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek passed away at the age of 80 on November 8th, 2020 after a long-fought battle with pancreatic cancer. Executive producer Mike Richards shared a warming tribute on the television show’s following episode, which you can view here.

“This is an enormous loss, for our staff, crew for his family, for his millions of fans,” said Richards. “[Trebek] taped his final episodes less than two weeks ago. He will forever be an inspiration for his constant desire to learn, his kindness and for his love of his family.”

Richards announced that the final 35 episodes of Jeopardy! will be aired as scheduled, as Trebek would have intended.

In the wake of Trebek’s passing, The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has reported a 450% rise in the cancer nonprofit organization’s web traffic. Additionally, over $55,000 in donations have been contributed after November 8. You can contribute here and find other ways to give here.

Outpourings of support and comforting words followed the announcement of Trebek’s passing, and lighthearted moments were quick to be shared on social media platforms like Twitter.

Once such instance of this is a contestant speaking of her love of “nerdcore hip-hop,” to which Trebek replied, “Doesn’t sound like fun.” Susan defended the genre of music: “It’s people who identify as nerdy rapping about the things they love: video games, science fiction, having a hard time meeting romantic partners.” Immediately, Trebek jokingly replied, “Losers, in other words.”

One of the winningest contestants, James Holzhauer, shared he saw Trebek as “an impartial arbiter of truth and facts in a world that needed exactly that,” and called Trebek “an underrated rapper” with this video of Trebek reciting rhymes as proof.

Saturday Night Live also had a sketch, “Celebrity Jeopardy!” that starred Will Ferrell as Trebek, which can be watched here. Trebek himself made an appearance at the end of the skit, which also starred Sean Connery, who passed on October 31st, 2020.

Another Jeopardy! moment that went viral was champion Burt Thakur sharing with Trebek, “You know, here’s a true story, man. I grew up, I learned English because of you.” Follow this link to see the full interaction.

Shortly after the host announced Trebek would be resuming chemotherapy, a contestant wrote “We ❤ you, Alex!” as his final Jeopardy! answer. An emotional Trebek replied, “That’s very kind, thank you.”

Trebek himself wrote, “One thing they’re not going to say at my funeral as part of the eulogy is, ‘He was taken from us too soon… I’ve lived a good, full life, and I’m nearing the end of it. I know that.”

On the topic of his legacy, Trebek shared, “I’d like to be remembered first of all as a good and loving husband and father, and also as a decent man who did his best to help perform at their best. If that’s the way I’m remembered, I’m perfectly happy with that.”

-Cassidy

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Eye strain? Here Are Some Tips to Make Reading in The Digital World Easier

10 tips for computer eye strain relief

As the digital age continues to grow, chronic eye irritation grows along with it. I’ve had friends make optometrist appointments, thinking it’s time for glasses, only to learn blurred vision, eye strain, and pain can all come from too much staring at screens.  

Here are some tips to prevent eye strain. 

1.) Invest in blue light filtering glasses 

Blue light is a high-energy form of light that comes from computer screens. In fact, blue light is all around us (it even makes up sunlight). Though it is not detrimental to our health, the amount of time spent looking at sources of blue light can negatively impact our eyes. 

Blue light filter glasses are lenses designed to block this light. You can add them to a prescriptive lens, or if you don’t need a prescription, you can buy an inexpensive and stylish pair online, like these. 

2.) Change your phone and desktop settings to night mode 

Many digital devices offer a setting to reduce eye strain, reduce brightness and balance contrast for your eye health. This setting is usually referred to as “night mode,” and can be enabled by accessing your device settings. 

Some devices, such as the Apple iPhone, let you customize this setting according to what time of day it is. If you know you’re working on your desktop from 9-5, you can automatically set nightmode as the default during this time. 

3.) Take breaks (if you can) 

If you can space out the amount of time you need to look at a computer screen, your eyes will be able to recover from the strain in less time. This may be difficult to do with a work-from-home schedule, but these breaks do not need to be lengthy. 

A great guideline to remember this is the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look at something that’s 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Sometimes a short break is all your eyes need to adjust. 

4.) Adjust the lighting in the room you work in

We have addressed the importance of your screen’s brightness, but what about the brightness of your workspace? 

Ensuring there is enough light in the room allows for contrast between your computer screen and your background field of vision. Sunlight and overhead light is best, while having light behind you and directly in your field of vision tends to increase eye strain. 

5.) Try audiobooks and read from paper texts 

Audiobooks are a great way to keep up with reading when your eyes don’t feel up to the task. In fact, while physical branches remain closed, many online library databases are offering free audiobook access. 

Whenever you are able, opt to read paper copies of novels, and get your news from the paper instead of the news app. The more ways you can find to reduce your screen time, the more your eyes will thank you. 

-Charleigh 

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In Need of a New Read? Check Out These Titles

“Books shed light unto the darkness. Darkness retreats one letter, one line, one page at a time,” said writer Kiyoko Yoshimura. Remembering that books hold the incredible power to enrich and educate can be a lifeline, especially during turbulent times like these.

If you’re craving a deep-dive into a title that makes you think, critique, and reflect, check out these 8 well-reviewed books:

NONFICTION

1. Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now by Evan Osnos is a “fast-paced biography that draws on extensive interviews with his subject, as well as with Obama and a host of Democratic party heavyweights. In pursuit of brevity it races through the many personal dramas of a tumultuous life and deals only perfunctorily with Biden’s surviving son … This book suggests Biden has the capacity for self-reinvention,” according to Julian Borger, of The Guardian.

2. Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark is an “incandescent, richly researched biography … Red Comet takes us on a literary picaresque, drawing on untapped archives, Plath’s complete correspondence, interviews with surviving members of the couple’s social and professional circles, and, most crucially, on Hughes’ journals and letters… A bravura performance, Red Comet is the one we’ve waited for,” The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Hamilton Cain stated.

3. Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes “explains in splendidly engaging prose why this fact is cause for wonder and celebration … What Wragg Sykes has produced in Kindred, after eight years of labor, is masterful,” says NPR writer Barbara King. “Synthesizing over a century and a half of research, [Wragg Skyes] gives us a vivid feel for a past in which we weren’t the only smart, feeling bipedal primate alive. That feel comes across sometimes in startlingly fresh ways.”

4. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson includes “vivid stories about the mistreatment of Black Americans by government and law and in everyday social life—from the violence of the slave plantation to the terror of lynchings to the routines of discourtesy and worse that are still a common experience for so many—retain their ability to appall and unsettle, to prompt flashes of indignation and moments of sorrow,” as stated by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a writer of The New York Times Book Review. “The result is a book that is at once beautifully written and painful to read.”

5. After the Last Border: Two Families and the Story of Refuge in America by Jessica Goudeau is considered required reading for anyone looking to understand the United States in the Trump era, according to Mimi Swartz in The New York Times Book Review: “Goudeau understands the metaphorical power of a beloved courtyard where family gatherings will never occur again, and the fear inspired by the sideways glance of a newly minted government soldier who may or may not be a friend on any given day … Reading After the Last Border will make you wish that more Americans would take a critical look at themselves and ask whether we are who we want to be, or whether we have lost our allegiance to the dreams that still inspire so many to try to reach our shores.”

FICTION

6. Memorial by Bryan Washington, author of Lot, is “a new and nuanced rom-com, and what truly makes Memorial extraordinary—especially the final section—is Washington’s uncanny ability to capture the elusive essence of love on nearly every page… if there’s one book you should go out of your way to read in 2020, it should be this one,” as Alexis Burling from The San Francisco Chronicle said in her review.

7. The Weekend by Charlotte Wood is a work described as being “more Big Chill than Handmaid’s Tale, with a dash of Big Little Lies and an echo of Atwood’s The Robber Bride. Wood uses the classic theatrical set-up of a house party to concentrate tension in a tight space. If she were Agatha Christie this would lead to murder, but her characters’ emotional blow-ups are closer to those in David Williamson’s Don’s Party or Rachel Ward’s recent film Palm Beach… Behind the laughs there is deep humanity, intellect and spirituality, qualities that mark The Weekend as much more than old-chook lit … The Weekend is a novel about decluttering and real estate, about the geometry of friendship, about sexual politics, and about how we change, survive and ultimately die,” as said by The Guardian’s Susan Wyndham.8.

8. The Cold Millions by Jess Walter is “a tremendous work, a vivid, propulsive, historical novel with a politically explosive backdrop that reverberates through our own… Walter is a Spokane native, and he captures both the depth and breadth of this moment in his hometown’s history … gives us the grand tour, with a bounty of crime and intrigue and adventure anchored by an unforgettable ensemble cast … About half of the novel is narrated in the third person from Rye’s point of view, but Walter brings in a multitude of first-person voices to bring the world roaring to life,” according to Steph Cha, from USA Today.

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Meat Symbolism in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

That red juice oozing out of your steak isn't blood

If you’re looking for a terrific and horrific read this Halloween season, look no further than Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. (Please Note: The Vegetarian is a psychological horror/thriller novel and may not be suited for all readers. The book depicts violence/sexual violence, mental illness, and abuse, so please be advised before reading). 

The Vegetarian is written in three parts with three narrators. Part one follows protagonist Yeong-he and is narrated by her husband, Mr. Cheong. As a psychological thriller, this novel focuses on the psychological trauma Yeong-he experiences, and the mental anguish of those around her.

Mr. Cheong isn’t the best husband: he opens the novel by saying his wife is average. His narrative tone is that of a superior partner in a relationship, and the way in which he speaks to his wife indicates mistreatment. 

We learn Yeong-he is undergoing a significant change. After waking up from a nightmare, she vows to never eat meat again. Meanwhile, Yeong-he’s personality is becoming muted. She turns socially withdrawn and quiet, as if she is experiencing depressive symptoms. 

Yeong-he’s repulsion toward meat could speak to a greater symbolic meaning: the repulsion toward her own husband. Psychoanalytic theorist and philosopher Julia Kristeva writes about this very topic of abjection, or the feeling of horror that causes the subconscious and unconscious mind to confuse the self with the other. Regarding food as an example, Kristeva writes: 

“‘I’ want none of that element, sign of their desire; ‘I’ do not want to listen, ‘I’ do not assimilate it, ‘I’ expel it. But since the food is not an ‘other’ for ‘me,’ who am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which ‘I’ claim to establish myself.” 

When considering the text from a feminist lens, the symbolic implications of meat are hard to ignore.  From a physical standpoint, meat is flesh and body, and often contains blood. It’s a common trope in art for meat to represent masculinity.

Yeong-he’s disgust towards meat could be because she unconsciously likened it to something primal. Meat could be the threat she is misinterpreting to harm her own reality. Not eating meat goes against her husband’s wishes, and is an exercise in control. 

This reading would suggest Mr. Cheong and masculinity itself is Yeong-he’s real problem, not her unwillingness to eat meat. Ironically, Mr. Cheong becomes more domineering to try to combat this eating issue, and Yeong-he’s mental state only worsens. 

If you’re curious like to learn what happens to Yeong-he and want to curl up with a page-turning thriller,  I recommend The Vegetarian.

-Charleigh 

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Reading Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments in Late 2020

Like many others in my age demographic, I was first introduced to Margaret Atwood through the television series adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. After watching a thrilling season finale during 2018, I went to a local bookstore and bought the book for myself.

I was in Oxford at the time, so I paid for my copy in pounds instead of dollars. Either my accent, my pace counting coins, or a combination of the two made me instantly recognizable as American. In Atwood’s signature work, the United States is no more.

The storekeeper who handed back my change told me, “I used to think highly of your country. Now I pray for it.”

The Handmaid’s Tale paints a grim picture of a worst-case scenario, but the patriarchal society in the book did not emerge fully-formed or without warning. Gilead was built one brick at a time, just like any other country. Atwood’s work encourages readers to avoid making a critical misconception: “Something that bad could never happen here.”

Atwood only included events and crimes against humanity in her imagined dystopia that have occurred in our reality. Although The Testaments came out in 2019, Atwood’s sequel is eerily similar to the state of the U.S. in late 2020.

Separation of church and state is threatened, far-right groups are emboldened, and democracy itself is endangered. Comparisons are made even more unsettling by newly sworn-in Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett having ties to People of Praise, where she served as a “handmaid.” In 1986, Atwood stated she pulled inspiration from a “Catholic charismatic spinoff sect,” that labeled women “handmaids.” Although Atwood has yet to confirm or deny People of Praise influencing Gilead’s radicalized society, the connection still — and should — raise concern.

The Testaments speak to the slow and steady process of becoming morally compromised. The sequel begins 16 years after The Handmaid’s Tale concludes and is told by three narrators, one being the notorious Aunt Lydia. Lydia describes the order of Aunts, where women vie for power through oppressing other women and continually choosing the lesser evil. Aunt Lydia is a compelling force in the sequel, just as complex as she is detestable.

But there are two other narrators in The Testaments: Agnes and Daisy, two young, brave women. Atwood’s later witnesses are constrained by circumstances and aren’t unstoppable heroines. Their goal is more small-scale than leading a revolution, as is the objective of protagonists in other dystopian books. Simply put, Agnes and Daisy want to survive.

The Handmaid’s Tale came out in 1985, and its sequel shows small marks of its creation during the 21st century. News is referred to as “fake,” and insults like “slut” make their appearance known. Such subtle nuances embedded in Atwood’s work remind the reader that although Gilead is fictional, the comparisons between the country and the United States ring as startlingly familiar.

The Testaments does not place the reader in a comfortable position. Instead, the book challenges its audience. Aunt Lydia says, “How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? you will ask. You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself never have had to.”

In this sequel, Atwood takes back the world she created and demands introspection and critical thinking, whereas the television show risks leaning into entertainment value and escapism.

Atwood’s The Testaments calls readers to bear witness to events, to speak out against oppressors, and not take anything at face value. The timing of such a work being readily available in paperback form could not have been better.

Read Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments here.
-Cassidy 

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7 Ways to Support Independent Bookstores

The American Booksellers Association reported Amazon doubled its net profit during 2020. During this same year, an average of 1 independent bookstore went out of business each week since the country shut down due to COVID-19.

Where we shop matters. Here are 7 ways you can use your purchasing power and voice to support bookstores.

1. Buy tote bags, mugs, clothing, and other merchandise

Although it may seem counter-intuitive to buy something other than books from independent bookstores, an easy way to spread the word about your favorite local shop without adding to the already massive pile of unread books on your shelf is to buy other merchandise. 

Fun sweatshirts, comfy t-shirts with an independent bookstore’s logo, mugs with quotes, and stylish tote bags are all popular options at local stores. Even buying small things like notebooks and stationary at indie stores instead of lumping the items in with your next Target run is a step in the right direction. 

2. Visit your bookstore’s online store

You don’t have to wait until it’s safe to go outside without wearing masks to browse bookshelves. COVID-19 has pushed the vast majority of small businesses to branch out into having online components, so the odds of your local independent bookstore having new services or a comprehensive website are at an all-time high.

Curbside pickup and browsing services are trending among indie bookstores. Check out this list from Publishers Lunch to see what stores near you are delivering.

3. Find new indie bookstores to support on IndieBound

If you want to support local bookstores but don’t already have a close tie to a business near you, there are quickly accessible resources to help you get connected.

IndieBound makes shopping at small businesses and finding new favorite places to support all too easy. You can search for bookstores near you here.

4. Buy gift cards

Whether you’re waiting for a special edition to be released or feeling iffy on making a purchase for yourself just yet, consider buying a gift card or two from a local bookstore.

When you buy gift cards, small businesses receive an immediate cash flow, and you or your loved ones have incentive to return to the store at a later point in time. Gift cards are great presents for upcoming holidays, and they can make any occasion special. Gift cards truly are the gift that keeps on giving.

5. Check out virtual events

One of the best — and free — ways to support independent bookstores is participating in virtual events hosted by bookstores. These events take the place of workshops, book clubs, author readings, and other in-store events.

Not only will participating help you stay connected with your local bookstore, but you may also receive a discount or benefit from a specific promotion tied with the event.

6. Use Libro.fm for audiobooks and Kobo for ebooks

Another way you can avoid supporting Amazon and instead back independent bookstores is by going to Libro.fm for your audiobook needs. A whopping 100% of your first month’s membership price will be donated to the independent bookstore of your choice. For every $50 you spend on Libro.fm, $14.99 out of the sale goes to your bookstore of choice. Check out Libro.fm here.

Instead of buying ebooks from Amazon, try out Kobo. Independent bookstores use Kobo to sell ebooks. When you set up an account through a link provided from your bookstore, the store receives part of the sale. You can visit Kobo’s website here.

7. Share their content on social media

An entirely free option to support your local bookstore is using your voice to boost small businesses’s visibility on social media. Whether you follow your bookstore on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, your recommendation to your social network has an impact.

Each opportunity we take to support local businesses adds up. If we want the future to have incredible independent bookstores, we have an obligation to take action now.

Have any questions about how you can make an impact? Drop a comment below.

– Cassidy

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Poets of Our Past: Jean Toomer

Harlem Renaissance Author Jean Toomer to Be Celebrated With Induction Into  the American Poets Corner - Greater Diversity News

The Harlem Renaissance marked the start of a period of rebirth, change, and activism that began in New York City and extended through the United States. When we think of the Harlem Renaissance, writers like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay come to mind. But what about Harlem Renaissance writers who didn’t align themselves with the movement? Have you heard of Jean Toomer? 

Jean Toomer was a poet who defied the notion of form for his time. His work incorporates prose and poetic verse in a hybrid style that was interpreted as unconventional. However, Toomer enjoyed his own rebellious nature. He spent his college years in New York City, where he published work in The Liberator and The Little Review, among other journals. 

As a biracial man, Toomer’s relationship to his race was complex. Toomer was said to be “white passing” and posed as white sometimes for his own safety. His marriage certificate from his first marriage with Margery Latimer, a white woman, indicated he was caucasian. Toomer likely passed as white in this scenario because interracial marriage was illegal.

Despite the fact that Toomer did not publicly advocate for the renaissance the same way Hughes did, his work speaks about racial identity. Consider excerpt from Toomer’s poem, “Harvest Song,” about an enslaved oat farmer:

“I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown. All my oats are

       cradled.

But I am too chilled, and too fatigued to bind them. And I

       Hunger.” 

(Read “Harvest Song” here)

From this excerpt alone the reader can notice the complex subject matter Toomer tackles in four short lines. While spending the day collecting grain, the speaker is ironically hungry. Hunger’s duality exists as Toomer’s central message throughout the poem: a biological need, and a need for internal fulfillment. This hunger, or a wanting, speaks to the desire for freedom, from both the literal imprisonment of slavery and the mental enslavement of racism. 

Activism advocates for a political cause or a side. Like “Harvest Song,” much of Toomer’s work speaks to literature’s ability to inspire this change. 

In a 2018 article discussing the origins of Black Lives Matter, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University Chris Lebron said renaissance poets borrowed and re-purposed the same driving ideas behind the Black Lives Matter Movement. Lebron states:

“Thinkers like Hughes and Hurston were involved in the Harlem Renaissance project of presenting a vision of black cultural vitality and worth that would rework the image of black Americans that whites typically relied upon. That stream of thought runs directly into the heart of Black Lives Matter.” 

Yet if you were to ask Toomer his thoughts on the renaissance, he wouldn’t call himself an activist. More likely, Toomer would deny fighting for a cause. He would say he is a poet, simply recounting the truth he sees. 

– Charleigh

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Books Through Bars Teams up with Indie Bookstore to Continue Operations

Books Through Bars has a goal to put themselves out of business.

BTB is a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization that distributes free books and educational materials to prisoners across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and West Virginia. BTB has a dream that one day incarcerated readers will have enough resources and materials on hand that the organization can cease operations.

We have all heard the phrase “books change lives.” However, this is more than a cliche. Studies show state prisoners who pursue educational opportunities while incarcerated are less likely to return to prison after their release.

BTB conducts innovative programs to promote personal growth, re-integration, and positive change through books. Unfortunately, the program was forced to shut down due to safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, W.W. Norton, publicity director and owner of Freebird Books Peter Miller, found out BTB needed a home base for its collection operations. Freebird’s basement is now serving as a rent-free center for BTB, and the program has been able to pick up where it left off.

To revive book donations, Miller began monthly book drives that led to thousands of donations. The monthly drives involved customers donating discounted three-book sets to inmates. In June, the drive centered on N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. In July, Fratz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Albert Woodfox’s Solitary, and Malcolm X: Selected Speeches were bundled. August’s monthly drive included a graphic nonfiction bundle featuring John Lewis’s March: Book One, George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy, and How to Draw Faces. Following monthly drives included titles on historical perspectives, LGBTQ+ materials, and voices from marginalized communities.

Since restarting in the late spring of 2020, BTB has distributed over 3,000 books to incarcerated readers. One of the most popular title requests sent to BTB are dictionaries. Letters from incarcerated readers show comic books and graphic novels remind inmates of their childhood, and these titles also act as entry points into the educational mission of BTB.

When asked about the impact of opening the basement of Freebird Books to the nonprofit, Miller said, “BTB has raised my awareness of what prisoners have to go through to get books to read. Working with them has transformed me. Books are how we can all escape.”

You can donate to Books Through Bars at their website here and read more about Freebird Books and BTB’s partnership here.

– Cassidy

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