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Bruce analyzes Americans' reading tastes

Barry McNamara
03/05/2010
Mary Bruce stands in front of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.
For years, Monmouth College English professor Mary Bruce has been an advocate for students taking part in study-abroad programs. As MC students increasingly seek to gain a global perspective, Bruce said her recent research suggests that the American public is also interested in broadening its horizons.

No stranger to off-campus academic opportunities herself, Bruce recently returned from Russia, where she was invited for the third consecutive year to speak at a conference hosted by the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH). The conference was titled “The American Cultural Scene,” and Bruce delivered a presentation on “The Shattering of the American Dream.”

“I spoke on contemporary American literature, as seen through what we read,” said Bruce, who examined the New York Times’ No. 1 bestsellers for the past decade. She said she observed “three shifts” in what Americans are reading.

Her first observation was that “Americans read more religious or spiritual books than any time since 1942.” Fears caused by World War II might have prompted that earlier boom, Bruce explained, and she believes 9/11 was the main influence behind the latest upswing.

“In previous American literature, you’d see heroes who are saving themselves. They weren’t looking to God to do it. Now, we’re reading more mystical literature. We’re scared. There’s a humility there.”

Bruce cited Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” as an example of the spiritual literature that has captured the attention of mainstream America.

A second trend she discovered is interest in and about the disabled, such as “The Curious Incident of the Dog at Midnight,” which is written from the point of view of a young autistic boy.

Finally, she said, more Americans are reading books about foreign places by foreign writers, including “The Kite Runner.”

“What we’re seeing is an opening of the American mind, and a broadening of perspective,” she said. “Ordinary people are buying these books and showing that they have more sophisticated tastes.”

Part of the credit for that, said Bruce, is that access has increased. “Trendy bookstores” no longer have a lock on cosmopolitan literature, as it can now be purchased at Wal-Mart and similar stores.

In reference to her talk’s title, Bruce said, “What has shattered is our absolute confidence in ‘our American way of life.’ The public seems to be questioning the hitherto unquestioned superiority of our culture. The literature of our last decade shows how we have lost our sense of invincibility and now seem willing to consider other viewpoints and other cultures as having value – perhaps even solutions.”

In 2006, Bruce received a Fulbright to teach and study in Russia. She said there’s now a different feeling about Americans than when she lived there four years ago.

“There’s a much more positive interest in America now,” she said. “I think a lot of that is because of our new president. There was a prejudice against Americans under the previous administration, but there’s a softening now.”

Although Bruce was speaking in general terms, she also offered a specific story about Monmouth’s influence on two recent Russian exchange students. One of them, Elena Reshetova, chose to stay on as a full-time student at Monmouth and graduated last May. Bruce said that RSUH officials passed along their appreciation to MC’s administration for the opportunities that Monmouth College offered the two students.