One of my favorite memories from college is walking along the main campus lawn on a warm spring day following a Victorian Literature class. The main campus lawn of my college was like something from a movie – perfectly manicured square of lush green grass bordered by majestic brick buildings that rivaled Monticello. My class had just finished reading the short story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which had followed on the heels of French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. Both had inspired lively, heated discussions and comparisons. We dove into issues of innocence vs. experience; there had been some shouting. Alone with my thoughts, the birds swooping and the sun gentle, my brain fired as I turned over and dissected my professor’s and classmates words. I felt happy and intellectually full.
Reading has always done this to me. I relive the feeling I had that afternoon again and again for each book I love – and there are many. It’ll probably be no surprise to you that once I graduated with an English degree, I decided to extend my schooling so I could get a Master’s in Reading Some More.
It started, like it does for many children, with my parents reading to me – first Dr. Seuss, king of simple rhymes. Once I could read on my own, I consumed chapter books and adored Judy Blume. By 4th grade, I was reading The Odyssey and making diagrams of the moment when Circe turned all of Odysseus’ men into pigs. (I was a strange kid, but, in my defense – it was a school project.) I had a brief foray into trashy novels as an early teen, reading and loving V.C. Andrews – particularly the Heaven series. I can’t defend that, but I won’t even try. All I can say is, when you’re thirteen, a young protagonist falling in love with her uncle doesn’t sound as bad as it does to me now. Now that I have a touch more sense. (This is not to discourage you from reading V.C. Andrews. Do it. Her books are better and more titillating than any soap opera on TV.)
Then, in high school, I started sharpening my reading sensibilities. This was helped, in part, by a fabulous teacher who I know would not mind if I called him a literary snob. It was his job, after all, to make us work for meaning, practice our critical thinking skills, and help us feel like our educations made us just a touch superior. (Superior usually just to those one grade behind us. Stupid sophomores!) He introduced me to The Great Gatsby, A Raisin in the Sun, Animal Farm, The Scarlet Letter, and all of the staples of the American High School Literature class. Like any staple, these can be looked down upon as being basic or overdone, but there’s a reason that flour is an ingredient in every great cookie recipe. These are amazing books. The Great Gatsby, to this day, remains my favorite piece of fiction. Mr. R. helped me to see that I should demand a certain rigor from my reading experience, and so I began to.
If there was a peak to my literary snobbishness, it was in college and grad school. There’s nothing quite like the safety of a classroom with a dedicated teacher to make you feel that there is nothing more important going on in the world than the 8×10 paperback sitting in your hands. I read anything suggested by a fellow snob. I read wunderkinds like Jonathan Safran Foer and Joshua Ferris. I suffered through Moby Dick, believing it to be strengthening my character and adding to my knowledge of bilge holes and albino whales. With one professor’s help, I worshipped the beauty in The Sound and the Fury. I devoured short stories by Willa Cather and Flannery O’Connor and Alice Munro. Some of the my favorites were when the author tackled a voice different from the one you might expect them to have – whether age (Rule of the Bone) or gender (She’s Come Undone). Some of my favorite books, too, deviated from the White male canon – The God of Small Things, The Poisonwood Bible, The Autumn of the Patriarch, Mrs. Dalloway, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Possessing the Secret of Joy. Some of these books were not easy, but they made the journey feel worth it; I felt as if I had earned my interpretation/deconstruction stripes after finishing them. I liked when a book had the effect of leaving the world a little less black and white than before. Gray made me feel unsettled, but it felt more truthful. I liked living in that space.
If someone asked me if I had read the latest mass market or commercial genre fiction, like Sue Grafton, Tom Clancy, or Carol Higgins Clark, I might say, as diplomatically as possible, that I didn’t read those types of books.
Yeah, I was that person.
But something strange has happened to my reading appetite of late. Now, I’m not going to blame one book, even if it might look that way. No, the tide has been changing so subtly that I noticed it only after it culminated sharply when I finished You Deserve Nothing. This book, and its author, have an icky history, but I wanted to read it for the praise that had been heaped upon it and because I hoped it would delve into ethics and morals with a deft hand.
It didn’t. I tried; I really did. I worked at it, hoping to find complexity where there wasn’t any. I wanted there to be a delicious irony to the story of a Philosophy/Ethics teacher sleeping with his student while letting his other students look up to him as a paragon of coolness. It was not delicious. I decided that one shouldn’t have to work so hard for an unworthy book; I didn’t want to create meaning that wasn’t there.
Then, and I’m not sure if this is a direct result of my dislike of You Deserve Nothing, but I did the unthinkable: I picked up The Hunger Games, the popular trilogy that everyone was talking about – even people I admired for their literary discrimination. I took a deep breath and started reading. And I liked it. Yes, it is plot-driven and not an exercise in beautiful writing, but there is some surprising depth to the characters and excellent commentary on modern society. And – dare I say it? – there’s even some feminist philosophy woven into the main character and the way she handles the world in which she lives.
I stayed up late to finish the first book, and – maybe it’s the lost sleep talking – but I had not felt that kind of excitement about a book in a long while. It took me back to that kind of stirring debate about literature that lifted me in college, reminded me why I read in the first place. It reminded me that although I do need complexity and depth and meaning in the books I read, and not just an absorbing plot line, books don’t need to be difficult to achieve those. In fact, sometimes I may just need easy. I’m OK with that.
So while it’s unlikely that I will ever read 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight, I’ll never say never. Maybe, when I’m looking for a light read to take to the beach, I will pick those up…
No, I’m sorry. I can’t. I’m going to go ahead and say never. And I’m OK with that, too.