Friday, November 27, 2009

Peter Pan in Barnes & Noble

When I was growing up, I read indiscriminately.  I read choose-your-own-adventure novels.  I read R. L. Stine.  I read cautionary tales about steroid use, unplanned pregnancies, eating disorders, drunk driving, and date rape.  I read sci-fi, fantasy, ghost stories, biographies, collections of famous quotes, screenplays, and newspaper comics.  When I went out to dinner with my parents -- which was often, since neither of them like to cook -- I always had a book with me; sometimes I brought two, as if the restaurant meal was a long flight or a subway ride to Coney Island.  I read in the car, nausea be damned.  I read when I couldn't sleep and I read when I first woke up.  I did not like everything I read, and sometimes I started a book I didn't finish, but for the most part, my relationship to books was an uncritical one.  I read nearly everything I could get my hands on.

Although I may have been an extreme case, I don't think this kind of behavior is uncommon in children, especially not the lonely ones.  Books (and their modern descendents in the Kindle and the Sony Reader) are like doors to Narnia that you can fit inside your Hello Kitty purse or the kangaroo pouch in the front of a hooded sweatshirt.  And, like portable doors, they do more than just open inward; they also shut the world out.  As Brock Clarke points out in his novel An Arsonist's Guide to Homes in New England: "...maybe this was another reason why people read: not so they would feel less lonely, but so other people would think they looked less lonely with a book in their hands, and therefore not pity them and leave them alone."

Living as I do in New York, I see people reading almost every day, on the subway or the bus, and much of the reading I see reflects a similar attitude of escape.  But there's a difference.  Though as a child I read very many bad books (the Goosebumps cover of Say Cheese and Die! springs to mind, with its Polaroid photograph of a skeleton family on vacation), and I generally didn't care about their mediocrity, even when it was pointed out to me by older readers or authority figures, I also read those books in a spirit of genuine curiosity.  In Writing Past Dark, author Bonnie Friedman describes on an occasion when she, a friend, and a friend's mother went to see a movie about a young understudy trying to make it big.  At the very beginning, the friend's mother remarked that the leading lady would, no doubt, break her leg right before the big performance, giving the heroine her chance.  Bonnie Friedman describes her surprise and confusion, as a child, when that prediction came true, then points out that she can no longer remember what it was like not to know the leading lady would break her leg -- such ignorance/innocence is gone from her forever.  But many of the readers I see on public transportation or elsewhere are long past the point of losing this innocence, and yet the titles they choose don't reflect this seismic inner change.

Here's my point: parents' and teachers' complaints over vampire romances, Harry Potter, Gossip Girl, etc., are often squelched with the retort that "at least the kids are reading," the attitude being that reading something is better than reading nothing.  I wholeheartedly agree with this refutation: reading books, even trashy books – especially trashy books – is an essential part of learning the conventions and mechanics of fiction and nonfiction.  But, over the last few years, I've noticed what I think is a disturbing trend in the opposite direction, toward adults reading either books intended for children or, at any rate, at the same level as books intended for children, and justifying it by the same logic: "Well, at least I'm reading."

Pulps have always been a part of the American publishing landscape, and I don't think there's anything wrong with guilty pleasures (hey, I used to watch the Anna Nicole show when it was on television).  But when we start behaving as though our guilty pleasures are good for us – that munching potato chips is akin to eating our vegetables – I think the world of literature is really in trouble.  Reading a schlocky romance about teenage werewolves may teach you a lot at age eleven, but at age thirty-one, it is to my mind far less intellectually "good for you" than even a great many TV commercials, in that it simply reinforces your existing assumptions. When we start seeing the act of reading at any age as virtuous in itself, regardless of content, we refuse to grow up, to own our knowledge and take on the responsibility of expanding it.  And thus, we act like babies.


ldague said...

I wish you had written this before I dedicated the last six months of my life to writing a novel called "Seth The Sexy, Sexy Vampire From The Wrong Side Of The Transylvanian Train Tracks" and paying off a prominary literary critic to write a blurb saying, "This book is like potato chips for the soul!" Ah, well. I guess it's back to working on my comic book "Rat Penis and the Dominatix" for me.

The Chawmonger said...

Do you need an agent? Or have the bidding wars already begun?