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Avidly Reads

Avidly Reads is a series of short books about how culture makes us feel. Founded in 2012 by Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle, Avidly—an online magazine supported by the Los Angeles Review of Books—specializes in short-form critical essays devoted to thinking and feeling.  Avidly Reads is an exciting new series featuring books that are part personal reflection, part cultural criticism, each bringing to life the author’s emotional relationship to a cultural artifact or experience. Avidly Reads invites us to explore the surprising pleasures and obstacles of everyday life.

“It is a truth too rarely acknowledged that there is nothing better than being both smart and fun: how lucky for us, then, that Avidly Reads books are both. To delve into them is to engage new ideas without having to sacrifice pleasure for knowledge, or feeling for thinking.”—Naomi Fry, staff writer at the New Yorker


Avidly Reads Screen Time
byPhillip Maciak

What happens when screen time is all the time?

In the early 1990s, the phrase “screen time” emerged to scare parents about the dangers of too much TV for kids. Screen time was something to fret over, police, and judge in a low-grade moral panic. Now, “screen time” has become a metric not only for good parenting, but for our adult lives as well. There’s even an app for it! In the streaming era—and with streaming made nearly ubiquitous during COVID-19—almost every aspect of our day is mediated by these bright surfaces. Whether it was ever the real villain in the first place, or merely a convenient proxy for unaddressed familial, social, and institutional failures, screen time is now all the time.

Avidly Reads Screen Timeis a funny, insightful work of cultural criticism and history about how we define screens, and how they now define us. FromMad MenٴiCarly, Vine to FaceTime, binge-watching to doom-scrolling, Phillip Maciak leads us on a sometimes heartwarming, sometimes harrowing tour of the media that brings us together and tears us apart.

Avidly Reads Poetry
by Jacquelyn Ardam

Poetry is everywhere. From Amanda Gorman performing “The Hill We Climb” before the nation at Joe Biden’s Presidential inauguration, to poems regularly going viral on Instagram and Twitter, more Americans are reading and interacting with poetry than ever before.Avidly Reads Poetryis an ode to poetry and the worlds that come into play around the different ways it is written and shared.

Mixing literary and cultural criticism with the author’s personal and often intimate relationship with poetry,Avidly Reads Poetrybreathes life into poems of every genre—from alphabet poems and Shakespeare’s sonnets to Claudia Rankine’sCitizenand Rupi Kaur’s Instapoetry—and asks: How do poems come to us? How do they make us feel and think and act when they do? Who and what is poetry for? Who does poetry include and exclude, and what can we learn from it?

Each section links a reason why we might read poetry with a type of poem to help us think about how poems are embedded in our lives, in our loves, our educations, our politics, and our social media, sometimes in spite of, and sometimes very much because of, the nation we live in.

Part of the Avidly Reads series, this slim book gives us a new way of looking at American culture. With the singular blend of personal reflection and cultural criticism featured in the series,Avidly Reads Poetryshatters the wall between poetry and “the rest of us.”

Avidly Reads Opera

by Alison Kinney

All art exists to make life more bearable. For Alison Kinney, it was the wild, fantastical world of opera that transformed her listening and her life. Whether we’re listening for the first time or revisiting the arias that first stole our hearts, Avidly Reads Opera welcomes readers and listeners to a community full of friendship, passion, critique—and, always, beautiful music.

In times of delirious, madcap fun and political turmoil, opera fans have expressed their passion by dispatching records into the cosmos, building fairy-tale castles, and singing together through the arduous work of social activism. Avidly Reads Opera is a love letter to the music and those who love it, complete with playlists, a crowdsourced tip sheet from ultra-fans to newbies, and stories of the turbulent, genre-busting, and often hilarious history of opera and its audiences.

Across five acts—and the requisite intermission—Alison Kinney takes us everywhere opera’s rich melodies are heard, from the cozy bedrooms of listeners at home, to exclusive music festivals, to protests, and even prisons.

Avidly Reads Guilty Pleasures

by Arielle Zibrak

What is it about ribald romance novels, luxurious interior design, and frothy wedding dresses that often make women feel their desires come with a shadow of shame? InAvidly Reads Guilty Pleasures, Arielle Zibrak considers the specifically pleasurable forms of feminine guilt and desire stimulated by supposedly “lowbrow” aesthetic tendencies. She takes up the overwhelming preoccupation with the experience of being humiliated, dominated, or even abused that has pervaded the stories that make up women’s culture—from eighteenth-century epistolary novels to popular twentieth-century teen magazine features to present-day romantic comedies.

In three chapters—“Rough Sex,” “Expensive Sheets,” and “Saying Yes to the Dress”—that mirror the plot structures of feminine fictions themselves, this book tells the story of the desires that only the guiltiest of pleasures evoke. Zibrak reexamines documents of femme culture long dismissed as “trash” to reveal the surprisingly cathartic experiences produced by tales of domination, privilege, and the material trappings of the heteropatriarchy.

Avidly Reads Passages

by Michelle D. Commander

Avidly Reads Passages, Michelle D. Commander plies four freighted modes of travel—the slave ship, train, automobile, and bus—to map the mobility of her ancestors over the past five centuries. In the process, she refreshes the conventional American travel narrative by telling an urgent story about how history shapes what moves us, as well as what prevents so many Black Americans from moving or being moved. Anchored in her maternal kin’s long history on and alongside plantations in rural South Carolina, Commander explores her family members’ ability and inability to navigate safely through space, time, and emotion, detailing how Black lives were shaped by the actual vehicles that promised an escape from the confines of American racism, yet nearly always failed to deliver on those promises. Using personal and public archives, Avidly Reads Passages unfolds distinct histories of transatlantic slavery ships, the possibilities presented by rail lines in the Reconstruction South, the fateful legacies of school busing, and the ways that Black Americans attempted to negotiate their automobility, including through the use of road and travel compendiums such as Travelguide and The Negro Motorist Green Book.

In order to understand the intricacies of slavery and its aftermath, Commander began her exploration with the hope of engaging with the difficult evidences and stubborn gaps in her family’s genealogy; what she produced is a biting and elegiac reflection on working-class life in the Black South. Commander demonstrates that the forms of intimidation, brutality, surveillance, and restriction used to control Black mobility have merely evolved since slavery, marking Black life writ large in America, with neither the passage of time nor the passage of laws assuring true and adequate racial progress. Despite this bleak observation, Commander catalogs and celebrates, through affecting stories about her beloved South Carolina community, the compelling strivings of Southern Black people to survive by holding on firmly to family, and their faith that new worlds could be imagined, created, and traveled to someday.


Avidly Reads Board Games


by Eric Thurm

Writer and critic Eric Thurm digs deep into his own experience as a board game enthusiast to explore the emotional and social rules that games create and reveal, telling a series of stories about a pastime that is also about relationships. From the outdated gender roles in Life and Mystery Date to the cutthroat, capitalist priorities of Monopoly and its socialist counterpart, Class Struggle, Thurm thinks through his ongoing rivalries with his siblings and ponders the ways games both upset and enforce hierarchies and relationships—from the familial to the geopolitical. Like sitting down at the table for family game night, Board Games is an engaging book of twists and turns, trivia, and nostalgia.


Avidly Reads Making Out

by Kathryn Bond Stockton

Mid-kiss, do you ever wonder who you are, who you’re kissing, and where it’s leading?  It can feel luscious, libidinal, friendly, but are we trying to make out something through our kissing?  For Kathryn Bond Stockton, making out is a prism through which to look at the cultural and political forces of our world:  race, economics, childhood, books, movies.  Making Out is Stockton’s memoir about a non-binary childhood before that idea existed in her world.  We think about kissing as we accompany Stockton to the bedroom, to the closet, to the playground, to the movies, and to solitary moments with a book, the ultimate source of pleasure.


Avidly Reads Theory

by Jordan Alexander Stein

As an avowed “theory head,” Jordan Alexander Stein confronts a contradiction: that the abstract, and often frustrating rigors of theory also produced a sense of pride and identity for him and his friends: an idea of how to be and a way to live. Although Stein explains what theory is, this is not an introduction or a how-to.  Organized around five ways that theory makes us feel—silly, stupid, sexy, seething and stuck—Stein travels back to the late nineties to tell a story of coming of age at a particular moment and to measure how that moment lives on now.

SERIES EDITORS

Sarah Mesle, University of Southern California

FOUNDING EDITORS

Sarah Mesle, University of Southern California
Sarah Blackwood, Pace University

PRAISE FOR AVIDLY READS

“It is a truth too rarely acknowledged that there is nothing better than being both smart and fun: how lucky for us, then, that Avidly Reads books are both. To delve into them is to engage new ideas without having to sacrifice pleasure for knowledge, or feeling for thinking.”—Naomi Fry, staff writer at the New Yorker

“It’s exciting to come upon a new series of titles that work as hybrid memoirs and cultural criticism about their given topic. . . . [These books] carefully distill a brief history of their topic, each with the writers’ distinct sensibilities. It’s a pleasure to explore how effectively each writer balances personal memoir with subject analysis in this series.”—Christopher John Stephens, PopMatters

“[T]his is one of the charms of Avidly Reads: where a nonfiction author who is enthusiastic about their subject matter strives to maintain an even tone, here, their devotion…shines through.”—Linda Levitt, PopMatters

AVIDLY READS IN THE MEDIA

  • Avidly Reads in 
  • Avidly Reads in the 
  • Book review: Making Out on 
  • Book review: Guilty Pleasures on
  • Book excerpt: Board Games on 
  • Book excerpt: Board Games in 
  • Book excerpt: Guilty Pleasures on
  • Book excerpt: Passages on
  • Interview: Arielle Zibrak in the
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