Yes, I will read whatever the $%&# I want, thank you very much. Why? Because reading anything – from a literary classic like Moby Dick to a fashion magazine to a phone book – is a stimulating and engaging pastime that fires imagination, active thinking, creativity, problem solving, and emotional awareness.
Okay, what am I blathering on about now?
Well, I listened to yet another amazing episode of Books on the Nightstand a few days ago, and the two authors – Ann and Michael – were ranting (and I mean that in a positive way) about two articles that appeared recently in Slate and Vanity Fair respectively. The first was a general attack on adults reading YA literature. The second a look at the response to the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Goldfinch, which happens to feature a teenager protagonist.
The first article lambasts adults who dare read YA Lit, claiming they “should be embarrassed [they are reading] what … was written for children.” The author goes on to claim that “substituting maudlin teen drama for the complexity of great adult literature [means the readers] are missing something.” Apparently because “the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction – of the real world – is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.” In other words, YA literature is too simple and un-critical for the “mature reader.”
Now, let me preface by saying that we are all, obviously, entitled to our opinions. Ms. Graham here can feel anyway she wants about YA Lit. She finds it maudlin, simplified, escapist, and designed to be instantly gratifying and nostalgic.
My concern is that she is telling us we all should feel that way about YA literature. Any adult reader who has indulged in a YA novel should be embarrassed. We are “missing something” (although what that “something” is remains a mystery) because we are not engaged in complex adult literature when we dare read something as “trashy” as Divergent or Twilight. So while Graham does admit, “far be it from me to disrupt the ‘everyone should just read / watch / listen to whatever they like’ ethos of our era,” she is still calling us adult YA readers a bunch of simple-minded nitwits who can’t “find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom [we] can’t empathize at all.”
Here’s my first question: how does she know? Because she doesn’t find “intricate satisfaction” in YA novels? Because she doesn’t think characters in YA novels are people with whom we can’t empathize?
Last time I checked readers came in all shapes, sizes, and, yes, styles. What one reader finds “intricately satisfying” can and will differ from another reader. How many times have we sat at a table with our friends, all talking about the same book, and some of us loved it while some of us hated it? I can think of a perfect example of this right now: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. A certified adult novel. One with a story that “confounds and discomfits.” And has “characters with whom we can’t empathize.” Some readers love that book (I happen to be one of them). Some hate it. Does that make Gone Girl a good book? Or a bad book?
Can anyone really and truly say that a book is good or bad?
I lean towards a “no” as an answer for that question. I think people can have an opinion on a book. But just because you hate a book doesn’t make it a bad book. The same as loving a book doesn’t make it a good book.
And reading in any shape, form, or approach is an exercise in active thinking and creativity, as I mentioned before. Whether we are reading See Spot Run or Jane Eyre, an article in The New York Times or a gossip column in The National Enquirer, we are stimulated when we are reading. Reading is an active enterprise. Graham lambasts escapist fiction; but when you are reading an escapist novel, you are still reading. You are still attentive, engaged, and analytical just by absorbing the words on the page and converting them into concepts you can understand. You are still creating pictures in your imagination. And if you happen to walk away with new insights, heightened emotions or ideas, a new sense of awareness, or any other outlook change because of what you read?? Then you have read a good book. Regardless of what kind of book it is.
I am, as you can probably guess, a big fan of reading. Heck – 80% of this blog is about my reading habits. But I support reading as much as I do because of all the benefits it has for those who do it. I read escapist fiction, Ms. Graham. I read YA literature. I happen to think the Divergent series was pretty gosh-darned entertaining. I loved The Hunger Games trilogy, and I think the Harry Potter series are seven of the best books to hit the bookshelves in the last 50 years.
I also appreciate the effects my reading habits have had on other aspects of my life. I feel that much of my creativity and resourcefulness – which I employ regularly in my job and personal life – are all strengthened by reading. My problem solving skills, ability to analyze and understand complex situations, and interpersonal relationship skills have all been improved thanks to reading, not to mention my ability to … ahem … read more intricate and complex material and understand it.
So let me ask you this: would you rather people develop these skills – the abilities to create, analyze, problem solve, etc… – their own way through their own reading habits? Let them approach reading in ways that are more comfortable and enjoyable to them? Or should we all just throw in the towel and read Dickens and Hemingway? Hope that being forced to read “adult literature” will still bring out the best?
I ask because I remember being force-fed A Tale of Two Cities and The Sun Also Rises in high school, and I hated both of them. Reading that kind of slop (my personal opinions on these two “classics” – apologies to any Dickens or Hemingway fans out there!) would have turned me off to reading entirely if I wasn’t already an avid reader anyway, and knew what I loved to read anyway. If, however, I was not an innate reader, and I was forced to read books pre-selected for me, that I in turn hated, I would probably never read anything ever again. At least not for pleasure.
Which is one of the reasons why I’m against these pre-selected reading lists in schools. But that is a whole other topic. I will say this much though: my 11th grade English teacher still stands as one of the best English teachers I have ever had because she didn’t make us read any classic. Instead she assigned a page limit. And I still remember it to this day, even though it has been … well, we don’t need to go into how many years since high school … but it was 600 pages. We each had to read 600 pages every six weeks, and write a summary AND analysis of what we read to turn in. I’ll never forget that because there were no limits on what we read. We could read one 600-page tome or sixty 10-page booklets. We didn’t have to read classics. We didn’t even have to read fiction. We just had to read 600 pages.
I’ll never forget that year because I read Gone With the Wind (loved it!), For Whom the Bell Tolls (which I hated as much as The Sun Also Rises but c’est la vie – at least I read it), The Pearl (awesome!), and a whole book case of trashy romance novels (I was going through a Harlequin phase).
Am I a lesser person because I spent my junior year reading about dashing Scottish lords who made off with ladies of the realm? Or suave medieval knights who fall for the unattainable princesses? Or did I develop and hone personal skills by engaging in the practice of reading? Did I learn to analyze the written word and put my own analysis down on paper in a coherent form? Did I learn how to articulate and communicate my thoughts in ways others can understand?
Well, you tell me.
But if I have learned those skills, then I did so while reading about the rippling pectorals of a half-naked Scottish warrior with flowing black locks of deepest luster…