NaRMo is here! For those of you that missed my last post, NaRMo is National (Book) Reviewing Month – a month-long celebration of reviewing hosted by SUNY Geneseo every February where anyone can submit reviews of their favorite reads to the NaRMO website here. I managed to get a few minutes of time from Dr. Lytton Smith, the founder of NaRMo, for an interview about the project – check it out, below!
Me: Hi Dr. Smith – thanks for agreeing to do an interview with me about this great project. Let’s get started with our questions – How did NaRMo get started – what was the impetus?
Dr. Smith: Friends and relatives are always asking how to find great new books. And beyond the bestseller charts, that can be hard; review space has been trimmed to cut costs in newspapers, and even online ventures struggle. There’s attention and space for generating work, but we can only generate work if we first read it, and the literary world is well aware that we need more readers of what we’re producing, not least because there are amazing viewpoints, ideas, and stories that will enrich us when they’re heard. I felt that it’s time we signaled as a culture our commitment to shared reading – to reading and talking about books – not just by the wonderful book groups that run all around the country, but by devoting a month to the endeavor – with the hoped-for aim that it will leads to year-long habits of reviewing!
Me:How do you see Geneseo and NaRMo (as a project) benefiting each other? Does the academic ‘host’ for the project provide it with something unique?
Dr. Smith: I think Geneseo students provide something unique. I had the idea over a decade ago and I’ve mentioned it to a few people along the way without much uptake. At Geneseo I found myself surrounded by students whose ethical commitment to the world includes the kind of generosity that book reviewing requires: taking your time, generally without any form of compensation except maybe books, to tell others about someone else’s book. The reviewer largely fades away. Geneseo students recognize the value of doing something that enriches the community first, and the self as a result, so this is an ideal place for it. Plus, I found that Geneseo students were already reading contemporary writing – that my students were introducing me to books I’d not found. I wanted to help create a space for them to share that.
Me:What is the importance of the project? Of book reviews?
Dr. Smith: Whatever one’s political persuasion, we live in a time of great doubt, of people willing to discount someone else’s truth. That move gets a lot, lot harder when you read a book that shares their experience. Research shows that fast broadband internet access makes us more polarized in our political views, that it encourages a cognitive dissonance. I think literature is a crucial way to dispel that, but you can only have that happen if you have the swarm of book reviewers helping people find those books. The social realism of Dickens is still relevant today, but we also need to hear the social realism of a book like Alena Hairston’s poetry collection The Logan Topographies, about African-American coal miners in West Virginia. There are some books that get all the attention, some authors who get hundreds of reviews for anything they write, and often those voices are white and male. If National Book Review Month can draw attention to the fact that there’s a lot more going on, I do think it can elevate political discourse and help us all understand one another a little more.
Me: What kinds of books/reviews does NaRMo accept/prefer?
Dr. Smith: Anything contemporary. It’s important that we reflect what people are reading and want to read. We want books that you, as readers, are passionate about. The poet and critic Craig Dworkin once made the point, a point that’s stuck with me a long time, that in a world where so many books are published, where we can’t possibly read everything, we need to become better at sharing what we are reading, even in brief reviews, so that everyone can have a sense of what’s going on, even if they can’t read everything.
Me: What does the future look like for NaRMo?
Dr. Smith: Right now, Geneseo is the main hub of activity, and New York state more broadly. I hope within the next three years we’ll see more parts of the country come on board, so that it begins to feel truly national, so that we can start making comparisons across place, having conversations that extend beyond Geneseo itself. We’re starting a student club, Geneseo Reads, to foster that year-round, extra-curricular reading and discussion, and I hope that model might extend beyond Geneseo: to other public liberal arts colleges, to other New York schools, to reading groups, to high schools, to places of work. What are auto workers in Detroit reading and what do they want to tell us about it? What about the people of Green Bank, WV, “the town without wifi”? This project exists at Geneseo less because we’re a university and more because we’re committed to the public good, to citizenship in all its dimensions, including literary citizenship. I think the future of NaRMo needs to assert that by creating more links with a public outside of the university – again, something I think Geneseo does very well, and why this feels like a great home for it.
A huge thanks to Dr. Smith for his time, and for starting this great project. Even if you’ve never written a book review before, NaRMo offers easy guidelines for writing quick, helpful book reviews and the official month of reviewing starts today! Get out there and share the writing you love!