As a person whose apartment would probably draw casting agents if anyone ever develops a TV show about book hoarding, I never thought I’d feel this way.
I’ve probably said it hundreds of times in my adult life, and heard it just as many times from friends (especially since I added a whole new layer of awkwardness to my social life by publishing a book that only a few people have actually read).
Sure, you could look at the phrase “it’s on my reading list!” as a harmless way to deal with the author in your high school class. It works great on anyone who loved the latest treatise on epidemiology, genetics, or the future of cloud computing, and you can also keep it on hand for folks obsessed with the newest dystopian young adult novel, guide to spirituality, or food-based memoir.
But face it. The one thing “it’s on my reading list” almost never means is “I intend to read that book.” Never before did one little phrase incorporate such an interesting array of self-serving lies.
Here are five things I believe we really mean when we say “it’s on my reading list.”
1) “I have zero interest in that book, but to avoid offending you, I’m going to pretend otherwise.”
It’s just a book, for God’s sake. And if someone’s going to give you the cold shoulder for not promising to read some book he or she recommended, remind me why you’re friends?
2) “That book does not appeal to me, but I’d rather not admit my real interests.”
Implying that you’re just about to download that particular title onto your Kindle can be an attempt to make other people think you care about things that you really don’t give a hoot about – but who made them the boss of your professed interests?
3) “I’ve never even heard of that book, but I don’t want you to think I’m a huge ignoramus who doesn’t read the New York Times Book Review or listen to Terry Gross.”
Sure, what someone’s wearing or eating can give us clues to who they are, but glimpsing what someone else is reading is probably the closest we can get to peeking right inside a stranger’s mind without saying a word, and we’d all probably rather be heard raving about Steven Pinker than Stephenie Meyer. Making all sorts of wild claims about what’s on our reading list is one way to build ourselves up in the eyes of others, because when it comes to symbols of intellect – or lack thereof – it’s hard to beat a book (or a mention of your “reading list”).
4) “Funny you should mention that famous, famous book – I’m so embarrassed that I haven’t read it.”
This is one that I’m guilty of. I have read hundreds of books. But I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (read The Hobbit and that was enough), any Dickens except for A Christmas Carol and part of David Copperfield (I couldn’t take all the weeping), Little Women, Don Quixote, The Grapes of Wrath, Silent Spring or The Kite Runner and I have only the merest smattering of Dostoyevsky and absolutely no Jonathan Franzen, Michiko Kakutani, or David Foster Wallace. I may read some of them one day. I may not. But I’m going to quit claiming they’re “on my list” any time somebody brings them up.
5) “Of course I have top-flight literary tastes, but I’m too busy and important to have any time for reading.”
Sometimes, pleading the “reading list” isn’t just an attempt to placate someone else, hide your true self or alert the world to your intellect. It’s also a heavy clue about your high-powered lifestyle to anyone who asks (or doesn’t). Here, I must give credit to Tim Kreider’s excellent New York Times essay, “The Busy Trap,” which skewers our self-imposed human hamster wheels and explains why we actually love complaining that we’re busy. Somehow, grousing about our packed schedules has become more fun than reading.
But the book-suggesting masses aren’t going anywhere (and I say this as a person who probably devotes an hour a week to convincing friends, family and co-workers that they’ve got to read whatever book I just finished). How do we cope? I have a few suggestions.
You can always give someone else the impression of a sparkling conversation without saying anything at all about yourself or your intentions. It’s called asking questions. If the other person enjoyed the book, just ask him about it. There is no need to guide the conversation with announcements about reading the book yourself.
Stand up for what you really like. If you’d rather not read books about forestry, politics or sexuality, but you love wizards, parenting tips or naval history, say so (politely). It’s not a crime to have your own interests.
Be nice without actually implying anything about what you’re going to do. Just trade “it’s on my reading list” for “thanks for the recommendation.” It’s friendly and it’s not a lie.
Forget the reading list altogether. Reading doesn’t need to be regimented and curated by you or anyone else. Just read a book. When it’s done, find another one that looks groovy. Repeat.
If someone recommends a book you don’t think you’d like, why not expand your horizons? Don’t tell the person that the book is “on your list.” Borrow it and read it. (I tried this at the office recently and am now reading a book with a picture of a horse running through the ocean surf on the cover. The Untethered Soul is actually pretty interesting.)
Enjoying a book is a bit like letting someone else inhabit your mind for awhile – or vice versa. Our taste in books is an intimate part of who we are and what we love. Since our library reveals so much about ourselves, maybe that’s why we tread so carefully when talking about books – and why a statement as innocuous as “it’s on my reading list” can be so many things, from a way to keep the peace to a subtle dispatch on your own importance.
I admit that at heart, the “it’s on my list” syndrome is probably just a harmlessly polite affirmation to dole out to others without inconveniencing yourself.
But I’ve decided to quit saying it, unless the title is truly on my shelf or on my wish-list. And I absolve everyone else of the need to say it to me, even if I wrote the book in question (read it if you want to, or don’t, but don’t feel obligated to bring it up). I won’t hold it against you if you and I have different tastes in books, and I won’t conceal my true interests or feign fascination with yours, so let’s get down to a real conversation about books or anything else that brings some honesty to our social and intellectual world.
If you don’t want to be liked to this illustrious senator, don’t call out famous journalists’ mistakes.
What with America’s usual crop of shootings and political pronouncements on the uterus, I felt like the discovery of plagiarism in the work of a major US journalist was hardly a blip on the screen.
But I quaked inside when I saw that NewsBusters.org had caught writer Fareed Zakaria transplanting a passage, nearly word-for-word, from a Jill Lepore piece in the New Yorker into his own piece for Time magazine.
As an aspiring writer, I had admired Zakaria since before I was really old enough to understand his prolific articles. I watched him go from an omnipresent newsmagazine byline to bestselling author, TV pundit and host. It seems like there’s no topic, especially when it comes to deeply complicated foreign policy issues, which he can’t knowledgeably and credibly tackle.
I first saw Zakaria’s name in the Newsweek magazines of my youth. According to his bio, the India native is a Harvard Ph.D. and spent a decade handling Newsweek’s international editions before becoming Time magazine’s Editor at Large in 2010. He’s also a Washington Post columnist and is host of CNN’s international affairs program, Fareed Zakaria GPS. He tops all kinds of lists of America’s powerful and intelligent, writes bestselling non-fiction books, and is a sought-after speaker.
New York Magazine helped to lay out the charges first noticed by Newsbusters.org, whose mission is “exposing and combating liberal media bias.” (Since it was an article on gun control, they must have been paying close attention.) You can look at the passages in question here.
Zakaria owned up quickly – I think.
“Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 22nd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers.”
I was shocked.
He was briefly suspended by Time and CNN, then reinstated. Why hound a man out of a stellar career for one little mistake?
It’s a play on the word schadenfreude, a German gem that means taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune (hey, I’m not going to pretend that I was born knowing what that word meant).
Varadarajan is a former editor of the Wall Street Journal and the current editor of Newsweek International. He writes the “World on a Page” feature in Newsweek which rounds up offbeat international doings in a pithy, entertaining way. So in my humble estimation, he’s well-qualified to comment on tiffs in the media.
I’m assuming that Varadarajan is acquainted with Zakaria, given their common experience at Newsweek and their work on foreign affairs, but he doesn’t mention a personal acquaintance in his essay defending Zakaria.
Despite being only a pipsqueak local journalist, with only 29 years to my name and no serious mane of gray hair, I didn’t like the piece.
Varadarajan criticizes Zakaria’s media colleagues, saying they “slobber[ed] and snarl[ed] for his blood” over a “trivial” act of plagiarism that shouldn’t have merited such “cyclonic castigation.” He calls the employers who immediately, albeit temporarily, suspended him “spineless,” and laments that now Zakaria will never be chosen for that national-security post Obama was eying him for.
He calls the angry uproar “a hideous manifestation of envy – Fareed envy.” Journalism, like academia, is a small, competitive world: “Media reporters who hounded Zakaria occupy the lowest rung and exult at the prospect of pulling people down,” Varadarajan says.
In defense of the embattled writer, Varadarajan lauds the scope of Zakaria’s “insanely successful” career: his widespread columns, famous cover stories, bestselling books “that presidents clutch as they clamber aboard planes,” and $75,000 speaking fees, not to mention his TV stardom.
Varadarajan aptly explains that as traditional media outlets fight extinction in the digital age, “celebrity public intellectuals,” all with their own nationally-known brand, are the only viable resource. “Recognizable across all the mediums, the branded few [like Zakaria] become mini-industries unto themselves.”
So have some pity when they screw up, Varadarajan seems to say: it takes a hell of a lot of energy to maintain the kind of output that keeps you at the top of the world’s media circus. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop “a huge cloud of excluded people, regular civilians and workaday journalists alike” from venting their feelings on the internet. We’re “resentful” that journalists like Zakaria soak up all the airtime and we look obsessively to discredit them.
Varadarajan calls us the “plagiarism McCarthyites.” He says that with such demands for quality pieces on so many topics, it’s no wonder Zakaria cheated just a smidge.
“So he cribbed a little: he read a lot; took notes; things got jumbled. Is that worth a man’s career? I think not, and to his credit he thought not too.”
I’m not convinced. I like what Huffpost pointed out, in response to people who declared that Zakaria must not write all that stuff himself anyway – doesn’t he have some interns? They must have made the mistake, not him. As Huffpost reports, Zakaria denies that anyone other than himself writes the pieces under his name, and says “his mistake came from mixing up different notes from different sources.”
“That account does not quite explain how the plagiarized paragraph was so closely aligned with its original source, nor how it was unattributed to the writer, Jill Lepore,” Huffpost concludes.
As someone who tends to get pretty livid over plagiarism, whether it’s the widespread cheating in schools and universities full of kids who don’t scruple to purchase papers or simply copy them off the internet, or professional writers who can’t be bothered to turn out consistently original content, I’m disappointed in Varadarajan’s defense.
I, too, am learning that success – or maybe I should say making a living – in the journalism world demands an almost super-human versatility. When people ask me how the heck one pays the bills by writing, one answer is that you have to be willing to write about pretty much anything. And that means learning about pretty much everything, from aquaponics to Stanislavsky to jet engines.
I am not saying that I am a journalist on par with Zakaria, in terms of my intellect or my experience. No way. But I don’t buy that he should get off the hook for lifting someone else’s work because the guy just takes so many notes. I’m buried in notebooks and piles of paper, and that’s not even counting my computer files. But you won’t catch me lifting what someone else wrote, tweaking a few words, and passing it off as my own idea.
Some of the ensuing coverage of Zakaria’s trouble points out that the plagiarism was not so much a lapse in his ethics as the natural outcome of having too many responsibilities. Publius Forum and The New York Times both report that the episode has taught Zakaria he needs to lighten his professional load, so he doesn’t get so stressed he mixes up his notes. Or something like that.
I suppose that’s valid. But I’d like to hear a little more focus on admitting that what he did was wrong, rather than indirectly excusing it by saying it was the outcome of an over-scheduled mind.
After all, it’s a perfect excuse for frazzled college kids everywhere.
I am not among the journalists baying for Zakaria’s blood. I don’t think the episode should sink his career. Rather, it can be a valuable chance for all journalists to remember their responsibilities.
But here’s what your piece says to me, Tunku Varadarajan, should I ever get famous and then decide that quietly nabbing somebody else’s passage would be easier than writing my own.
I should ignore the people who would call me out, because they’re just jealous of my success. I should get allowances for that sort of thing once I get to the top of the pile. It’s petty, cruel and McCarthy-ish for anyone to expect my stuff to be 100% original. Maintaining a mega-brand is more important than dealing honestly with my mistakes.
And all those excuses sound almost as bad as plagiarism itself.
The last thing I want you to think is that I hate books. I love books, especially when they’re books and not text on a digital device. But here are four things that I think authors, designers and publishers really need to quit doing.
1) Ill-chosen rave review quotations
Any book cover worth its salt has a prominent excerpt from some critic or notable reader who just loved the book. Newcomer authors are likened to somebody famous, with a few juicy adjectives thrown in.
See Jonathan Lethem on the cover of one of my favorite essay books, Sloane’s Crosley’s “I Was Told There’d Be Cake”:
“Sloane Crosley is another mordant and mercurial wit from the realm of Sedaris and Vowell.”
That’s how it should be done.
I read a lot of essays and non-fiction, and if I had my say, there is one word that should be permanently struck from all book covers. That is the word “readable”.
“An immensely readable account of one of the smartest, most workable projects our government ever thought up.”
To me, putting the word “readable” as praise on a book jacket is akin to beginning your cover letter with this phrase:
“I believe I am a good candidate for this job.”
Of course you believe that – why else would be sending your resume in? Why don’t you start by telling me something I don’t know?
Similarly, if you have written and then published a book, why oh why would you give space on the jacket to a reviewer saying that your book was “readable”? Of course the damn thing is readable, how else was it selected for publication, marketed and printed?
As a nonfiction enthusiast, I come across the word “readable” on a lot of book jackets. To me, it’s code for “yes, this topic is a slog, but somehow this writer makes it bearable.”
What, you thought a long travel memoir about the peripatetic 14th-century Moroccan, Abu Abdulla Muhammad Ibn Battuta, might be tough going? Nope, never fear: according to the cover, it’s quite “readable”!
2) Cheap 19th-Century Classics With Ugly Paintings on the Cover
I understand they’re probably trying to keep the budget to a minimum on the design of these editions, and I’m happy they are – should my copy of “Jane Eyre” fall apart on my fifth or sixth reading, it’s good to know I can pick up a solid new one for seven or eight bucks.
But when this New York Times article about 21st-century teen-friendly updates to the covers of Austen and Brontë novels caught my eye, I was finally able to express what’s been bothering me about the old covers.
Sure, it’s neat to pair the book with a painting of a woman from roughly the same era as the book’s publication, give or take fifty years. But why must publishers consistently pick the strangest, dullest, homeliest ones possible?
A Barnes and Noble edition of “Pride and Prejudice”.
Who are these wan and dour ladies? Not Lizzie and Jane, surely. Who’s lurking behind them? Mr. Darcy? I think not.
A Dover Thrift edition of Jane Eyre
Who’s this? Bertha Mason? Jane has a bit more verve, as I recall.
A Barnes and Noble edition of “Persuasion”.
The pragmatic but sensitive Anne Elliot falls in love with a dashing young man, but her rude and foolish friends and family pressure her out of the marriage. Years later, the former lovers meet again and resolve not to pay any attention to each other…
A woman in what looks like a maid’s uniform slouching on the couch, reading a book by herself? Really, Barnes and Noble? You couldn’t come up with anything else to hint at Anne’s story?
These poorly-chosen images isolate their subjects from any greater context besides the visual message that This Story Is Old-Fashioned.
3) Novels whose covers have a picture of an elegantly coiffed woman with her face turning away from the viewer.
“Who is this woman? She looks beautiful but I can’t quite see her face. Why is she turning away? She’s inscrutable yet dramatic. I will read this book to find out more about her.”
I bet these are the thoughts running through the minds of the buyers of the first fifty or so books which were published in the last few years with this type of image on the cover.
Can’t we think of something else?
Same goes for chick-lit historical fiction with cover art showing a lavishly dressed woman whose face is only one-third visible.
What, is it illegal to show a woman’s entire face on a book cover?
4) “With a Preface by the Author” Fiction Editions
I just bought your book – why would I carp about your writing a preface?
Because you’re a successful novelist, not some Open Mic Night singer-songwriter regaling the audience with the story of How He Got The Idea For This Song while he tunes his guitar. I didn’t pick up your novel so I could spend the first chapter reading a self-indulgent mini-memoir about how nobody thought this book would come to be and lo and behold, it’s a best-seller.
I should note that I take less issue with an epilogue or concluding Author’s Note, should you feel that the story of how your novel was written merits some space between the covers. At least then I can finish the story and decide if I want to wade into your commentary, instead of facing a superfluous, mildly pretentious essay by you right off the bat, not knowing if it offers important context or if I can just proceed to the good stuff.
I’m looking at you, Ken Follett in “Pillars of the Earth”: a nine-page preface on how you conceived, researched and sold this novel, concluding with the insight, “Publishers, agents, critics, and the people who give out literary prizes generally overlooked this book, but you did not. You noticed that it was different and special, and you told your friends; and in the end the word got around”?
Your book is already long enough. I came here for some good fiction. Get on with it.
A few years ago, when I still had what the world calls a “real” job, I crossed paths on my worksite with a new hire.
She gave me a beautiful smile and said, “Do you like Kierkegaard?”
The short, out loud answer was “I don’t know.” The longer, internal answer was holy crap, I was just pegged as the kind of girl who can talk early European existential philosophers when really I’m a total ignoramus.
It’s not to my credit that I still haven’t read Kierkegaard.
But right now, I’d like to share five books published within the last twenty years that, in addition to being extremely well-written, have really stretched my brain. And when I say I “read” these books, it might be more accurate to say that they hacked my skull wide open and poured coals on the comfortable mass of my brains.
Keith’s detractors rail that she’s out to destroy the world with a heartless, ill-founded attack on eco-friendly eating and living. I wonder if they’ve read her book. Keith forces the reader to consider the truths of our food system, and it’s not what you’d expect from someone who’s trying to save the world from the over-consumption of factory-farmed meat.
Her basic premise, packed with knowledge and heart, is that those who promote vegetarianism or veganism as healthy, natural or eco-friendly – despite their excellent intentions – are wrong. A pillar of her book is what she calls “adult knowledge”: the fact that death is essential to life, and anyone who tries to live (or eat) without causing death is denying the real nature of life. She promotes a diet of sustainably-raised plants and animals, and argues that whether it’s foraged or grown, food can’t be sustainably produced without a symbiosis of animals and plants.
She dares us to consider that the modern vegetarian or vegan diet (often founded on grain or soy-based products or massive vegetable mono-crops) may engender more death and tragic illness than any other diet in the history of the world. She points out the damage of modern industrial agriculture to our planet and its species, including the disappearance of entire habitats as more and more of the earth’s surface becomes dedicated to rigorously maintained, genetically-engineered monocultures that must be doused with chemicals to survive. By daring to emphasize the deaths that keep our world in balance, she takes a holistic view of planet-wide food sources, asking us why we’ll refuse to eat a cow or a chicken, but allow the wholesale destruction of eco-systems in favor of fields of wheat and soybeans.
Her book examines veganism or vegetarianism for moral, political, ecological or nutritional reasons, and lest you think she’s shilling for the meat industry, she rails against the atrocities of modern factory-farming. There isn’t room for all her revelations, research or proposed solutions here. I urge you to pick up The Vegetarian Myth for yourself. I’m not even a vegetarian and the book left me quaking inside – but eminently glad to have read it.
I was a wife well into my twenties before I managed to grapple with questions of human sexuality and gender. This book was the first one to really open my mind on the topics.
Many of my former teachers at the Christian academies I attended as a child and teenager would find this a wholly dangerous title. It’s written by a transsexual woman (Bornstein was born a man).
The most charitable handling I can recall of deviations from the standard marital narrative of gender and sexuality, according to my upbringing, went like this: it may be ok to offer friendship to people who are homosexual, as long as those people are truly doing their best to fight their disorder.
I never truly bought into this mindset and was glad to leave it behind when I got to college outside of my religious community, and decided that it wasn’t my job to judge people’s sexuality.
So Gender Outlaw didn’t only interest me because it was an introduction to something beyond the idealized vision of man and wife and the cloistered, condemning lessons I’d had as a young person. The book’s real punch came when I considered that I had still failed to realize that human sexuality and gender are a vast spectrum.
I used to think there were basically two options: gay and straight (bisexuality was a fuzzy third). There were two genders: men and women. I assumed that sexuality had consistent implications for gender or gender expression: i.e., loving men meant that you identified as feminine, and loving women meant you identified as masculine.
I had grown up with such rigidly enforced norms of gender – not only that real men love women and real women love men, but that men and women always have easily defined characteristics and roles – that it took me many years to see the world for how it was.
Bornstein’s fascinating book helped me realize that your sexuality can have little or nothing to do with your gender, and that definitions of gender, for all the surety of many religious institutions, are surprisingly slippery (read what she has to say about it).
Loving women doesn’t mean you conform to traditionally masculine preferences or roles, and loving men doesn’t mean you act in traditionally feminine ways. Your gender is not necessarily determined by your genitals at birth, and who you’re attracted to is a separate proposition entirely.
Bornstein is at her most challenging when she asks why we put so much stock in identifying people by a traditional concept of gender, and how these norms control us in dehumanizing ways.
Ok, I know I cheated and this is two books, but they hammered my mind in similar ways, so I’m lumping them together. Humes’s book details a 2005 Pennsylvania court case that erupted when a public school board voted to require its teachers to put Intelligent Design on the syllabus. Miller’s book asks if the concepts of evolution and God are mutually exclusive, and decides that they are not.
I’m fascinated by the concept of evolution, and I will read books about everything from bacteria to dogs to dinosaurs if there are wild evolutionary conjectures involved. I think my interest began in a high school comparative religions course, during a field trip to a local Baptist church. The clergyman there told us that evolution was a lie and dinosaur bones were a trick of the Devil. He said the fact that there are “no transitional forms” in the fossil record proved that the Bible was scientifically as well as spiritually correct.
I asked him about archaeopteryx or the coelacanth, but he showed little interest.
I’m a Creationist-ist. My family, friends and neighbors and Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, agnostic, atheist and whatever else, but I don’t know any Creationists and I don’t want to know any.
That’s why these books were so challenging. Yes, they scrupulously debunk the fallacies of the evolution-deniers and I ate it up, patting myself on the back for being on the side of truth. But these books also dared to humanize the proponents of Creationism, and they forced me to admit what I’d never admitted before.
At heart, religious people who deny evolution don’t do so because the evidence is insufficient or because they’re too stupid to process the science. This has nothing to do with the value of facts and everything to do with gut belief. How can religious fundamentalists accept evolution if they believe it means denying the basis of their whole life, i.e., that they’ve been specially and directly formed by God and not by millennia of natural selection among the animal world?
It must feel as if someone wants them to learn the physics of a tornado while it’s bearing down on their house, insisting that if they can just accept the scientific facts of how the storm formed, their house won’t be torn apart.
Some books, like Bornstein’s, have challenged me by nudging me outside the original parameters of my family’s faith. And some books, like Humes’s and Miller’s, challenge me by nudging me back in again. In this case, I realized that the fundamental problem facing the “debate” about evolution in America isn’t about making the facts more accessible or breaking them down into smaller words. Instead, it’s about exploring the ways in which God and science can go hand-in-hand. It’s a tough concept for a secularized biology-junkie like me. But my mind’s been feasting on it for years now.
Ryan and Jethá, a husband-and-wife author team, take on scientists and writers from Dawkins to Pinker to Goodall to turn the standard narrative of human evolution on its head. This book is not for the faint of heart.
What are the real origins of humans’ sexual behavior? Is the nuclear family unit (a monogamous man and woman and their children) truly the natural basis of our species? Ryan and Jethá argue that most anthropological, sociological and evolutionary models of human sexuality explaining monogamous pair-bonds are based on the faulty science of projecting the patriarchal, agricultural, and hierarchical society of the last few thousand years onto our real genetic and social roots, which are actually millions of years old.
For centuries, we’ve learned that men’s sexual aggressiveness and women’s relative sexual reserve are due to opposing evolutionary strategies. It all boils down to a difference in biological resources: men have plenty of sperm and don’t have to invest in pregnancy or child-care, while women have a finite number of ova and must give years to motherhood. Therefore, men want to have sex indiscriminately while women are rarely tempted, only having sex when they’re convinced that the man is lifelong Daddy material.
Ryan and Jethá think there’s no truth to any of that. And they’ve got compelling genetic, sociological, evolutionary, anatomical and anthropological evidence. Do women have a lesser sex drive than men do? Are men and women’s evolutionary strategies in conflict? How do matriarchal societies affect men? Why do so many religious traditions threaten adultery with death? Why do humans have what is proportionally one of the longest penises in the animal kingdom? I bet none of these writers’ answers are what you think they’re going to be.
Here’s a fun tidbit. While other scientists are arguing that human males compete to win and keep a mate who will remain sexually faithful and therefore ensure the man’s genetic legacy, Ryan and Jethá point to compelling evidence for the theory of sperm competition. What if the battle between men’s genes takes place not on a socially observable level, as we’ve been assuming – i.e., which woman belongs to which man – but on a microscopic level: women aren’t as passively non-sexual as the standard narrative indicates, and may the best sperm win.
Best of all, the authors don’t pretend that their theories must influence readers’ life choices. They present their research in the name of more open and loving communication between partners – including the ones who have chosen monogamous single-family life. Just because we don’t know what to do with the information, or because it threatens an established mode of life, doesn’t make it any less true.
You might guess that this book makes the list because there’s no story more integral to the modern history of South Africa, my husband’s home, than the story of Nelson Mandela as told in his own words.
I knew it would be a rich and inspiring story that was necessary to have under my belt as a citizen of the modern world. What part of the book is most exciting? Mandela’s life in hiding, before his arrest? The extraordinary legal, political, and humanitarian landmarks of his public career?
The most eventful and intellectually riveting piece of the whole book, to me, was the 27 years that Mandela spent in prison, eighteen of them on the infamous Robben Island. You wouldn’t think that almost thirty years behind bars would be the most interesting part of the book that includes Mandela’s early life, his education and political rise, harrowing adventures eluding the police, and his becoming the country’s first democratically elected president.
But it is astounding to read about how Mandela and his fellow political prisoners banded together, often during their backbreaking work in a rock quarry, not just for emotional support but to avail each other of their intellectual powers. For years, Mandela and his imprisoned contemporaries pooled the knowledge of their respective fields and experience to share it with each other by any means possible, whether whispered across bars or scribbled in the margins of books. Under the eyes of their prison guards, they determined to emerge from exile enriched by the others’ knowledge.
Sometimes it seems like education is for the classroom, a detour from the rest of our lives. Mastering knowledge is a matter of syllabi, textbooks, exams and papers. Proof of that learning is a diploma that costs thousands of dollars but promises to improve your salary. But if Mandela and his contemporaries could turn Robben Island into a clandestine university at the height of apartheid rule, is there anywhere in the world where we can’t engage in new ideas if we so choose?
My Kierkegaard-reading friend, having reached her mid-twenties, is well into the studies of her PhD. I have no plans to follow her into academia, but I still like to think that I’m learning in my own way. I recommend reading any of the books above, but only if you’re up for some challenging notions.
Do you have a book that’s changed your own intellectual outlook?
At first it seemed just like one of those ubiquitous Twilight t-shirts, but on a closer look, the curly text didn’t say “Twilight”; it actually said “Jesus is The Light”, and then: “you can live forever”.
I know the tagline here is “fiction need not apply”, so maybe I should just forget about the Twilight books, despite the hype over this week’s release of the fourth film installment, “Breaking Dawn Part I”. I’m writing because Twilight saga may be fiction, but the ideas it promotes have real impact.
Before I read Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling quartet about a superlatively handsome, unusually principled vampire at a Pacific Northwest high school, I would not have been surprised to see a chaste evangelical teen choosing her Lord and Savior over the Twilight saga. I assumed the novels were the latest racy vampire romance, and modern vampire sagas are in a delirious contest over who can further media boundaries of sex, sadomasochism and necrophilia. But Meyer is up to something very different.
The teenager who preferred to honor Jesus over Meyer’s vampire, Edward Cullen, certainly is not alone. The key themes of Meyer’s series may have been missed by the What Would Jesus Do crowd: a Facebook group called “Jesus Christ is My Edward Cullen” celebrates joy in Jesus over Meyer’s sensational fiction and the romance it idealizes. “In reality, no man is going to meet the standards of our beloved Edward Cullen. Even our Future Husband is going to look like dirt in comparison…only Jesus Christ will ever meet such standards,” the administrator explains. “Only He is the true gentleman, only He can sweep us off our feet and take us on a journey that far out-weighs any story-book fairytale filled with vampires and werewolves.”
But the whole Twilight saga, despite being billed on the jacket of its final installment as a “spellbinding romantic epic that has entranced millions,” reminds me of nothing so much as my own days in a conservative Christian high school. Instead of pointing out the crucial differences between Jesus Christ and Edward Cullen, chastity-vow teens (and their educators) should embrace these novels.
Meyer’s obsession with abstinence is already apparent to most readers of her novels (and in each successive Twilight film installment). But it worries me to see just how much these wildly popular novels reflect harmful educational tenets that are all too common in America. Religious teens shouldn’t let the whole vampire thing deter them – Edward and his human high-school love Bella are a metaphor for not only the dangers of premarital sex, but also for traditional gender roles which emphasize female naiveté and fragility, as well as the imperative of early marriage for virgin partners.
The question of whether or not Edward will have sex with Bella (or, just as naughty, make her into a vampire) provides most of the books’ suspense. Bella’s trading in her humanity for vampirism becomes intertwined with the question of whether or not she’ll be trading in her virginity, too – the vampirism amplifies a moral message rather than detracting from it.
Like many others who spent formative years in abstinence-only classrooms, I learned that losing virginity before marriage would represent an immediate, irrevocable and probably damning change to body, mind and spirit (a change that could hardly be more problematic than becoming a vampire). For example, in my own high school, a homeroom teacher would offer a candy bar to one boy, and then ask why another boy didn’t want the bitten remainder. This lesson varies in different abstinence-only programs recommended by some US groups. Some suggest that the teacher unwrap a piece of candy to pass around the class, or that the students pass a beautiful rose, each tearing off one petal. The dirtied food and the stripped flower represent people who don’t wait for marriage to have sex.
You know who you are.
It’s no wonder that young matrimony (perhaps even straight after the girl’s high school graduation, as in the Twilight saga) seems like a good way to quench the risk. In my own experience, education on this topic also stressed my prime value as someone’s future wife. Just as the “Jesus Christ is My Edward Cullen” administrator capitalizes both her godly pronouns and “Future Husband”, my own unknown spouse-to-be was almost deified as a figure who would transform my life – if I stayed worthy of him through abstinence.
Bella’s Future Husband is a thirsty yet conscientious vampire who’s been seventeen for almost a century. He places Bella in exquisite peril, since he yearns for her body in more ways than one and one little sip is enough to seize her virginity – oops, I mean, make her into a vampire. Edward finally agrees to consider “changing” her (her heart’s desire being to stay with him forever, at any cost), and he also bargains his agreement to make love to her for her promise to be a traditional human wife, as soon as she graduates high school: “I just want it to be official – that you belong to me and no one else,” he says in Eclipse, the series’ third novel. Of course, it’s vital that naïve, breakable Bella wait until after the wedding for everything she wants from Edward.
Through a few painfully coy kissing scenes per book, the novels iterate a visceral supernatural danger that closely parallels an evangelical perspective on worldly premarital sex. Meyer repeats ad nauseam the danger of Edward’s strength on fragile Bella as a barrier to the desired consummation. “‘Do you imagine I would ever take that kind of risk with you?’” Edward asks Bella one heated bedtime in Eclipse, reminding her that his magical strength would harm her, a feeble human, should they attempt to have sex. “Bella, I could kill you.” But the overt danger to Bella, instead of drawing me into the supernatural romance, reminds me of the way some educational programs teach that sex is an emotionally – and even physically – fatal choice, especially for young women.
For example, we’re accustomed to the language of conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation on this topic: their website warns that “teens who engage in sexual activity” risk not only disease and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but “emotional and psychological harm.” The Sexuality Information and Education Counsel of the United States (SEICUS), in reviewing many popular contemporary abstinence-only curricula, criticizes the programs’ repeated assertions that premarital sex often causes not only incurable disease and unwanted pregnancy, but also poor grades, loss of social respect and self-esteem, increased risk of sexual assault and suicide.
Meyer evokes a similar perspective on premarital sex by dwelling on the danger of Edward and Bella’s sexual consummation, swapping the usual warnings about pregnancy, chancres and HIV/AIDS for the more entertaining prospect of a woman facing death by supernatural bloodlust in her boyfriend’s arms.
Meyer also has no qualms about echoing the grim moral and spiritual concerns which underlie many religious educators’ abstinence-only lessons on STDs and unwanted pregnancy. In Breaking Dawn, the fourth novel, the message comes from Edward himself. Convinced that a vampire is a soulless being barred from heaven, he initially refuses to “change” Bella because she will then be damned. However, vampirism isn’t the only potentially damning change the virgin Bella is after. Edward worries for her soul on all counts, discouraging her amorous embraces by alluding to “rules that have to be followed” for “a shot at heaven” – he suspects that premarital sex will damn Bella in God’s eyes, even if it turns out that being a vampire is ok.
“You’re trying to protect your virtue!” Bella exclaims. “No, you silly girl,” he scolds. “I’m trying to protect yours.” It’s hard to tell what’s more important to Edward: waiting to have sex until Bella’s an indestructible vampire, so that he does not risk killing her, or waiting until they’re married, so that they won’t sin.
“You silly, beautiful, oversensitive girl,” Edward scoffs manfully in Eclipse, to assure Bella of his desire despite his maddeningly principled refusal. “It’s not possible now. Later, when you’re less breakable. Be patient, Bella.” Whether it’s not possible because she’s not a vampire or because she’s not yet his wife is unclear in the third novel, but by Breaking Dawn, the final installment, Meyer makes it the latter.
Edward, who has spent three books explaining to Bella that sex will be impossible for them as long as she is human, suddenly decides that they can risk it after all (as far as I know, the main selling point of the Twilight film that opens November 18th starring Robert Pattinson and Kristin Stewart), because Bella has made her walk down the aisle. Clearly, the risk of the vampire killing his sweetheart –or turning her into an immortal bloodthirsty being – is not as dire as the moral and spiritual risk of having sex before the wedding.
My virginity certainly seemed like the most breakable thing about me in a Christian high school. But this isn’t the only Twilight plot point that reminds me of my school days. In Breaking Dawn, Bella becomes pregnant practically in the same instant that she finally leaves her virginity in the tropical honeymoon surf. I can’t help but wonder if Meyer is taking a break from the vampirism/premarital sex allegory to drop in a more literal, traditional message: if you have sex, you’re likely to get pregnant immediately. And, as the newlywed Bella faces the terrifying unknown of being pregnant with a supernatural being (her child’s birth is the bloodiest, most violent scene in the series), Meyer echoes the message which framed my younger years: think what a dangerous and impossible crisis a pregnancy would be if you’re not married.
Meyer makes a point of explaining why Bella’s near-fatal pregnancy with Edward’s half-vampire baby is so unexpected, even to the scientific vampire patriarch Carlisle Cullen, MD. Vampires are apparently not able to become pregnant, but besides some brief allusions to the myth of the incubus, apparently nobody wondered what could happen the other way around: could a vampire be your baby-daddy?
Meyer explains the science of her childless female vampires: childbearing requires bodily changes, both that of menstruation and pregnancy, therefore Edward’s adopted vampire sister “could not conceive a child, because she was frozen in the state in which she passed from human to inhuman” (good God, if a vampire ever bites me, it better not be during my period). But in Twilight’s world, it turns out, a male vampire’s body clearly can achieve the “changes” necessary to human conception (perhaps these functions, to Meyer, don’t measure up to the vagaries of the menstrual cycle).
During her honeymoon in Breaking Dawn, upon first discovering that her period is late, Bella muses that human men “pretty much stayed the same from puberty to death…Men had no such thing as child-bearing years or cycles of fertility” – so that’s why undead male beings like Edward can continue to father children, given a human partner, while their female counterparts make the ultimate reproductive sacrifice.
To be fair, perhaps a more logical or even-handed version of the steamy mechanics of Bella’s baby’s paternity are just TMI for Twilight’s target audience. The graphic details of Bella’s life-threatening pregnancy, on the other hand, are obviously deemed more appropriate and play out at length. Meyer, after countless prudish, clichéd narratives of Edward and Bella’s boudoir, seems to have no creative reservations about the violence of Bella’s subsequent delivery: with “a blood-curdling shriek of agony” Bella vomits “a fountain of blood” before her husband performs an emergency C-section with his teeth.
This not only reminds me of the way many of my educators would probably have preferred me to watch a violent movie over a sexy one, but also recalls the way many of them made a consistent and conspicuous mystery of sexual facts and anatomy (for example, in my own senior year anatomy class, the human reproductive system was covered with a single video of childbirth on the last day of class). SEICUS criticizes some abstinence-only programs for similar omissions, like describing and depicting only internal rather than external reproductive anatomy, focusing exclusively on the failure rates of contraceptives while neglecting to describe their proper use, and emphasizing only worst-case, incurable STD symptoms instead of early, treatable symptoms. In other words, the facts are much less important than a moral message – the less teens actually know about sex, the better.
Maybe the mysteries of Bella and Edward’s consummation, conception and shocking birth scenario are simply hot-n-heavy teen plot twists. Perhaps it’s an accident that Edward’s new wife, as we’ll see, seems as naïve in the final novel as the virgin brides lauded by abstinence-only programs. But it seems strange that the otherwise worldly, sensual, long-lived and sophisticated Cullen family is at a complete loss for practical sexual precautions.
In Breaking Dawn, Edward admits to asking his vampire father for guidance on sex, with very little practical result: “I asked him what I should expect. I didn’t know what it would be for me…what with my being a vampire.” Edward learns merely that sex is “a very powerful thing, like nothing else. He told me physical love was something I should not treat lightly.” This vampire foster-dad seems to have about as much useful information on sex as the average abstinence-only classroom, and the impending pregnancy shocks everyone.
But even after her protagonists’ wedding, Meyer highlights a strange sort of sexual ignorance that amounts to female amnesia. Bella awakes after nighttime cavorts with Edward in “layers of bliss” and a “glowing sphere of happiness.” However, her memory is oddly blurred. She does not realize that Edward has slaughtered the pillows in his ecstasy: “What had happened to me?…Why am I covered in feathers?” Even stranger, it’s a mortified Edward who must point out that she’s covered in bruises from his vampire embraces. “I tried to remember this – to remember pain,” she thinks, “but I couldn’t.” In a later episode, it’s also Edward who notices that her nightgown has been torn to bits – somehow this has escaped her both in the moment and upon waking. Edward’s destructive power is not limited to her negligee: “I followed his gaze and was shocked to see that large chunks of wood had apparently been gouged from the left side of the headboard.”
Perhaps Meyer is simply attempting to give her young readers sufficiently titillating allusions without courting an “R” rating. Or perhaps Bella’s bizarre, “blissed-out” amnesia, in contrast to a “hard, cynical” Edward’s chagrined, hyper-aware superiority, maintains the girlish innocence iterated in Meyer’s novels almost as much as it was in my high school classrooms.
Bella certainly seems to face the long-awaited consummation with more terror of the unknown than anticipation. In Breaking Dawn, she ritualistically prepares herself alone in a bathroom, dumbfounded with fear: “I started to feel a little dizzy, apparently a full-scale panic attack on the way. I…put my head between my knees. I prayed he wouldn’t decide to come look for me before I could pull myself together.” She’s so alarmed “because I had no idea how to do this, and I was afraid to walk out of this room and face the unknown.” It is striking that after three books of overheated teen romance (with a boy who can silently leap into your bedroom at all hours of the night) that the reality of sex with Edward, even after the wedding, is still a panic-inducing “unknown”.
“How do people do this – swallow all their fears and trust someone else so implicitly with every imperfection and fear they had – with less than the absolute commitment Edward had given me?” Bella wonders in Breaking Dawn as she huddles on the bathroom floor. I have to look again at the cover of the book to convince myself that I’m reading a romance novel, and not a religious tract on the rewards of waiting for marriage. Given Bella’s awed reflections on the impossibility of finding true personal acceptance without the “absolute commitment” of marriage, I’m surprised that the Twilight series isn’t required reading in abstinence-only classrooms across the nation.
Perhaps I sense that Meyer is reaching for a message on sex and relationships because Bella herself is such a colorless character. Her biggest distinguishing trait, besides her obsession with Edward, is her tendency for violent, life-threatening crises from which supernatural boys must save her. She seeks alternate relationships only when Edward leaves her briefly in the series’ second novel, New Moon. She has few ambitions, besides eternal partnership with Edward. She doesn’t like to dance, shop, go to parties, work, play sports, or even eat (until she’s eating for two, of course). As some critics have suggested, this may help readers project themselves into the character, the better to fantasize about devotion like the beauteous Edward’s. But it also could be that Bella’s generic presence helps to elevate certain messages in the story, the way stock characters emphasize morals over plot. The peril of premarital sex and the traditional imperatives of female chastity and ignorance, along with haste toward marriage at all costs, are dressed up in the consummate good looks and gallantry of a sexy 21st-century vampire.
If all of these moralistic overtones were leading to an image of love girls should aspire to, they might be easier to stomach. I argued at length with knee-jerk Twilight-haters that the kind of youthful infatuation Bella experiences for Edward is a legitimate, universal theme. But that was before I finished the series.
I don’t think Meyer describes a love readers should aspire to any more than a repressive, simplistic and misleading abstinence-only classroom teaches teens about the reality of lust and love. In Bella’s world, love is giving up everything and everybody else in your life as long as you can drink in your partner’s beauty and devotion with no risk of mortal interruptions like sleeping, bathroom breaks, or adult employment. “We didn’t have to catch our breath or rest or eat or even use the bathroom…he had the most beautiful, perfect body in the world and I had him all to myself,” Bella thinks in Breaking Dawn, during the intimacy finally allowed by her two vital changes: from human to vampire, and from virgin to wife.
But if Bella’s fans grow up to embark on successful real-world relationships, they will find that mature partners look out on and engage in the world together, serving challenging, constantly evolving mutual roles. In contrast, I presume the eternally teenaged Bella and Edward (like the rest of the Cullen “kids”), are going to go to high school again and again in the world’s cloudiest places until the end of time. No wonder everyone is swooning.
I don’t mind Meyer or anyone else writing about the intoxication of all-or-nothing teenage love. But I’m disappointed that when she maroons Edward and Bella there forever, girls call it a favorite epic romance and drape themselves in all things Twilight. Perhaps teens who favor religious slogans over the Twilight franchise are on to something. But even if Twilight never does catch on with the W.W.J.D. crowd, there may be an untapped market for a new bracelet, given Edward’s almost paternal care for Bella’s body and soul: W.W.E.D.
Since, in addition to being an article-writer and one-among-millions blogger, I would like to become a Serious, Respected Essayist whose book is lauded by critics as “lyrical and precise” or “a stunning debut”, I thought the writers’ conference I attended in DC last month would be a good start.
Sponsored by several literary magazines who, as of yet, are not banging down my door to publish my essays (so that a reviewer can call them “harrowing and affirming”) the conference offered several panel discussions for working or aspiring writers.
As I research markets for my essays, I notice one huge difference from my present work right away. Many worthy literary journals seem to believe I am huddled beside a candle, sharpening my quill. In my work for news, industry or arts publications (online and in print), I often communicate with my editors exclusively through e-mail, phone and electronic files. But many literary journals take the opposite approach.
“No phone calls,” their listings say; “We do not consider e-mailed submissions.” And most emphatic of all: “Do not send your only copy to us!”
Are there essayists who are not only still working exclusively on typewriters, but who do not have access to a copy machine or the wherewithal to use it? Are there writers who compose an essay on the computer, print it, permanently delete the file, and then mail their single copy to a publication which buys one percent of the work it receives and shreds the rest? These scenarios do not seem plausible to me.
Forgive me if I’m way off base here, but I think the “only copy” admonition might be a relic of another time, when all writing was bound to a physical page. Besides insinuating that we’re not smart enough to keep copies of our own work, journals mired in the last century seem to be assuming that their writers are too. They’re hoping that they can ride out the new waves in publishing like a stately ship at sea while everyone else is building the ports of the 21st Century.
Which brings me back to last month’s conference. I attended a discussion panel of editors from prestigious journals in poetry, fiction and nonfiction who talked about what they like and don’t like in writers’ submissions.
Everyone chuckled ruefully as an editor with a spiky Mohawk described a pushy writer who had the gall to call him on the phone twice in seven days to find out the fate of a submitted poem. Editor Mohawk explained how, upon receiving the calls, he had to get up from his desk because he didn’t know where to find the poem. He had to walk into the office of another staffer and ask him if he remembered seeing that poem in the paper stack.
Another editor was handsome in a stylish, spring-like pink vest and a purple tie. It looked like Justin Bieber had copied his hair, rather than the other way around. As he spoke, he continually tossed his bangs out of his eyes like a male pop star on the red carpet. Editor Vest complained about writers who mail their submissions inside folders, especially the slippery plastic kind.
First, he offered the revelation that if our work was good, it didn’t need to be dressed in a fancy folder. But then he got to the root of problem. He asked us to imagine the stacks of submissions in his office: towers of paper that he needs to keep organized. Imagine what happens when a clear plastic folder is in the middle of a pile: it can slip right out, bringing the rest of the stack down to the floor with it! It really muddles an editor’s day when he has to re-sort that stack, and brings the offending folder-sender’s chances of publication down to zero.
Editor Vest imparted a second annoying habit of writers. Sometimes, when they mail their submissions and contact information, they invite the journal to notify them via e-mail about the fate of their manuscript, rather than traditional mail. Seems easy enough, right?
No, Vest says. Replying to a writer by e-mail would “throw off the whole office,” because they have specially pre-printed rejection cards, and office staff whose job it is put those cards into envelopes and mail them. It’s proper and efficient, and writing an e-mail instead would gum up the whole system.
“Our publication has a reputation for being elitist.” (Hair toss.) “But we are who we are.”
“Elite” is an admiring title that others can give you. But “elitists” are those who call themselves elite, and then take perverse pride in their inaccessibility. In this case, modern communication methods, instead of easing the submission process for everyone, are used as a barrier between the publications and their writers.
To be fair, I admit to being something of a troglodyte myself. I’m always behind on the latest internet craze, and I didn’t get an iPod until last year. I have no desire for a smart phone, and I have an iPad, which I use to play Boggle, only because someone gave it to me. A few years ago, I was among those who preferred the old ways of doing business.
But work as a writer in the real world has forced me to adapt. I blog and promote it on Facebook; I opened Flickr and YouTube accounts because that’s how my magazine editor prefers to collect my digital photos and video. If I cannot contact or submit to a publication through its website, I am unlikely to pursue it, not only because contacting them would likely be a hassle, but also because they are unlikely to maintain future readership if they are not internet-savvy, and therefore are not a good market for my work.
I have a suggestion. Avail yourselves of the Internet! Are writers bothering you with phone calls? Why not communicate with the click of a keyboard? Are towers of paper and foolish folders weighing you down? Accept electronic files. Are writers antsy about their pieces’ fate, needing to know if they should try their stuff in a different market? Upgrade to an online submissions system which can give notice of acceptance or rejection. If a writer asks you about a particular piece, you could find it easily on your computer instead of walking to the next office and digging through a pile. Does every request for an e-mail throw off the pulse of your office? Modernize your system, and those staffers who are stuffing envelopes and licking stamps could be managing databases and sending e-mails. No more budgeting for postage and printed cards!
Many publications are adapting to the modern world without losing the quality of their content. In a recent issue of Creative Nonfiction, Sarah Wexler’s piece on editors who resist the online revolution is headlined “Junior staffer to management: EVOLVE OR DIE!” When I recently submitted an essay to the same journal by mail in the required fashion, I was gratified to receive a concise and courteous e-mail confirming its arrival. Barrelhouse magazine has implemented an online submission system – I just found out my essay is still under consideration without bothering anyone. And some editors on last month’s panel urged writers to accept publication online when it is offered, instead of holding out for print, because an online essay has a wider audience, a potentially endless life, and a greater opportunity to be noticed and shared. These publications will reach new generations of audiences, and other lit mags can and must get up to speed. In fact, a recent New York Times article by Reyhan Harmanci discusses the potential for lit mags’ ongoing survival, with their low overhead and devoted, specialized audience, and details the newly launched online efforts of several venerable journals.
My mother was curious about the conference and I told her about my frustration. The daily urge came over me. “I need to write about this.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said. “You shouldn’t say those things about publications – now what you say will be out there forever and if you want to write for this or that journal, they’ll just toss your work. It’s not smart. Wait until you’re a famous writer. Then say what you want.”
I am touched by my mother’s faith in me, and I don’t know of anyone who got famous by refusing to offend anyone. And I’m peeved that I paid money in the year 2011 to hear someone complain about all the paper in his office, when he refuses to accept a Word document or send an e-mail. Maybe an august editor will read this and blacklist me, but I doubt they’re scouring the internet for my opinions. And I have one more pretty good defense.
“We have no plans to go online, at present,” said Editor Vest (smirk; hair toss). They probably don’t pay attention to blogs.
Once, I made a pirate ship by extending a deck of wooden blocks from the cubby under a desk. Pirates needed a treasure map, I knew, so I drew one on a piece of scrap paper. I folded it up, but something else nagged at me. I thought about the alphabet. If I knew the sounds that lived in the word “map”, couldn’t I fit the sounds to the right letters, and label the map? Mmm. “M.” Aaahhhh. “A.” Puh. “P.” Forgetting the ship, I ran the map to my mother to check if I was right. It may or may not be true, but it seems to me that after my on-deck epiphany, I learned to read through a sort of hungry mental osmosis.
There are children who won’t go to bed without a certain blanket or doll. When my parents tucked me in, I pulled the covers up to my chin, to hide the jagged stack of books smuggled in beside me: William Steig, Shel Silverstein, Richard Scarry, Margaret Wise Brown. The books’ square cardboard edges were as cozy to me as a favorite stuffed animal, and I didn’t want to part with them overnight.
I was a fortunate child and there were frequent trips to the public library. The rush of air which greeted us at the old glass doors smelled like pages and quiet and I couldn’t breathe it deep enough. (The only thing wrong with the juvenile section was a life-sized plush E.T., which scared me – and what does E.T. have to do with literature, anyway?) Each week, I could barely carry the stack to the counter: Ann M. Martin, Brian Jacques, Lois Lowry, Judy Blume, Sharon Creech. On nervous visits to the adult stacks, I digested the difference between kids’ books and adult books: grown-up books had the author’s name written as large as the book’s title. How did grown-ups choose their books? Was it the story, or was it a matter of who wrote the story?
My favorite books were not borrowed but lived at home. I think my mother read her Little House books once before they returned to the shelf to await her own daughter. But when my turn came, I began a sort of lifelong relationship with the books and their author. Don’t ask me how many times I’ve read the entire series – I’ve lost count. As a child, I only knew that the books entranced me. But as a teenager and a young woman I was drawn back into the books again and again. I read them this year as a companion to a biography on Wilder, and to think about the interplay of autobiography and fiction. Adult readings of the novels also let you follow the thread of history outside the Ingalls’ family life. At first, I missed the references to Laura’s uncle’s service in the Civil War, and the stark racism against Native Americans embodied in the Ingalls’ gentle matriarch. At one point, Laura’s future husband Almanzo declares how good it is to be “free, white, and twenty-one.” Ma, frustrated over the town drunks, declares that women just might have to bestir themselves, even if they should not vote. Laura witnesses the marvels of the telegraph and the railroad, and the epic incursions and adventures of homesteaders in the westward expansion. I’ve also read Wilder to appreciate the nuances of the novels’ evolving and maturing point of view, as the protagonist grows up. The Little House volumes also pack some of the most potent thrills ever put on paper – Ma’s encounter with a bear, Pa’s getting lost in the Minnesota blizzard, Ma, Laura and Mary saving their house from a prairie fire, and the whole family’s near-fatal bout of the then-mysterious fever of malaria. As Laura and Mary (left alone when their parents go to town) single-handedly face down a whole herd of horned cattle trying to eat Pa’s haystack, you can’t help but think of modern American kids, shepherded onto the school bus lest they come to any harm outside the house. I also return to Wilder for the same reason I revisit Beverly Cleary’s iconic children’s series: both authors perfectly capture timeless, lovable characters and the lucid, universal moments of family life with spare and simple language.
My loved ones have been exasperated for years over my penchant for re-reading. But I don’t re-read books on a whim, as if I’ve forgotten the message or story. If I’m engrossed in a book the first time around, I approach the return as a sort of class in an admired writer’s style, syntax, characterization, research and themes. Last week I re-read Arthur Golden’s luminous “Memoirs of a Geisha” for the third (fourth??) time, because I wanted to savor his luxurious use of simile. A year does not go by without my re-reading some Larry McMurtry, marveling at his masterful dialogue, and the way his descriptive prose is nearly devoid of overblown verbs. It’s as if he’s simply gotten out of the way of the characters: men and women I’ve loved for years, despite the fact that they roam the Texas plains without a single clear-cut relationship or stirring moral victory. I just finished Robert Goolrick’s “A Reliable Wife”, but probably won’t revisit it – for all the major news outlets trumpeting praise on his book’s cover, each of his characters seems to unspool his or her story in the same voice.
My favorite literary protagonist? Yep, sorry, it’s Jane Eyre (may Brocklehurst burn forever in a pit full of fire). I never love her more than when she faces down the cold, pompous piety of St. John Rivers, who would dictate her life’s course. No matter what or who she faces, Jane always speaks her clever, forthright mind and sticks to her principles. My least favorite protagonist is Bridget Jones. Author Helen Fielding kept me afloat through Bridget’s relentless idiocy by her cheeky borrowing of Pride and Prejudice plot points in the original novel. But I ultimately flung the sequel away from me (literally) because no matter how funny or vulnerable or real Bridget is, I cannot forgive such exhaustive stupidity. Waiting for Fielding’s Bridget to do a single mature and productive thing in any situation is like waiting for something interesting to happen in a Beckett play.
I think the one protagonist that has affected me the most, and perhaps for the worst, is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Sara Crewe. I re-read this book for years as a child and teenager, and in retrospect I think the thing that captured me was not A Little Princess’s riches to rags to riches story, but the determined potency of Sara’s imaginative inner world. I think Sara, who despite all her hardships continues to direct her thoughts and feelings to transport her, connected with an unconscious desire on my part to keep control of my emotions at all costs. One of Sara Crewe’s phrases has stuck with me through the years: “There’s nothing stronger than anger. Except what makes you hold it in. That’s stronger.” I internalized the idea that shielding others from your true, painful feelings was a virtue which showed your integrity and self-control.
“You had better not get any more books,” my husband says. “There’s nowhere to put them.” If our small apartment had continents, overflowing bookshelves would make up a big one. But I still find myself kneeling for an hour on the musty carpet of the New Life Thrift Store’s bookroom, agonizing over whether I need the Stephen King, Sue Monk Kidd, Jared Diamond, Flannery O’Connor AND the David Wroblewski. I tear myself away from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle only because someone else deserves the chance to discover it there on the shelf and be as transported as I was. When I get the rest of them home, I lift them out of the wrinkled bag one by one and run my hands over the bindings, feeling a familiar jolt of sheer unaccountable pleasure. I once heard that reading is like a kind of psychic connection – a writer (whom you will likely never meet) can implant his or her thoughts or imagination right into your mind.
Right now, I’m reading The Mermaid Chair and Gender Outlaw: Men, Women and the Rest of Us. I’ve always hoped that if my home city is paralyzed by some natural disaster, it will hit while I’m in the bookstore. I will build an igloo out of books and read for days, completely unmolested while the others fight over the dwindling cafe bagels. I agree with you – I might just have a problem. Does the giddy joy which steals over me at the Library Festival mean I’m addicted to books? I’m sure there’s a book on the subject. The first step to recovery is probably to read up.
Instead of picking up some quality literature and engaging with the themes and content of real life, kids and teenagers (yea, even infantilized adults) have immersed themselves in a puerile, shoddily written fantasy world of wands and broomsticks, dragons and spells and wizards, all ready-made for a fantastically lucrative film franchise. You might think that any BOOK a kid is willing to READ (in this age of earphone and video-game appendages) should be viewed as a heaven-sent gateway to more reading, as if it’s worth allowing your kids to consume this nonsense because it might lead them to open a real book in the future.
So say the Harry Potter Snobs. If you’re a Harry Potter Snob, let me fill you in on a few key facts before we proceed.
If you want to talk about worthwhile themes for tweens and teens, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are pretty high on the list. Friendship, bravery and loyalty pull HP and friends through year after year. The whole series revolves around the defeat of one uber-bad wizard’s goal of wiping out those he deems inferior and impure – in Rowling’s world, non-magical “muggles” and “mud-blood” wizards who have muggles in their family tree. Rowling underscores the equality/diversity theme by emphasizing international and interracial friendships and romances.
I think the best novel in the series is number five, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”. Rowling takes pains to avoid reducing the story to simplistic good and evil. With the introduction of the odious, sadistic Dolores Umbridge and her fearful, incompetent Ministry of Magic cronies, the author dwells on complicated conflicts, pointing out that ignorance, denial and selfish ambition can be just as dangerous as outright malevolence. In “Order of the Phoenix”, a newly angry, isolated 15-year-old Harry feels a treacherous mental and emotional proximity to his nemesis, Lord Voldemort, as if his usual qualities are coming unmoored in favor of a dark new presence. It’s a great metaphor for the difficulties of adolescence, when bizarre new urges, influences and feelings bombard the growing teen, volatile emotions giving way to the conviction that no-one, especially staid, authoritative adults, can fathom what you’re going through.
And do we need to mention the irresistible etymological wordplay of the novels’ spells and names? If HP readers ever take Latin, they’ll have a leg up.
Why hate HP? That being said, respect for the HP novels should not mean an obsession with the denizens of Hogwarts. There are many reasons to take Rowling’s exalted talents with a slightly snooty grain of salt.
Critics who attack her pedestrian, repetitive prose have a point. I’m all for an aptly placed adverb, but Rowling sows some pretty hefty ones as if she senses an opportunity, outside of her role as storyteller, to seed young minds with fancy words. Because why else would you write that Crabbe and Goyle “laughed sycophantically”, unless you wanted your young reader to glean new vocab from the context? As a piece of description, you can’t get any less original. On its own, in a typical context, a $10 adverb does not an interesting sentence make.
I enjoyed the HP books. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some serious questions, though. For example, I always wondered: if Barty Crouch Jr. (disguised as Professor Moody) wanted to serve Harry up to Lord Voldemort through a portkey, why the heck didn’t he just make it Harry’s fork or textbook? Why does he bewitch the Goblet of Fire and mentor Harry at great personal risk through the Triwizard Tournament in hopes that Harry will be first to grab the Cup? There are just so many variables – like Cedric and Harry, painfully noble, reaching the Cup together. But just as Voldemort always waxes lyrical about Harry’s death before Harry defeats him, I guess the Dark Arts must be done with style – flashy, questionable strategies be damned.
As for Hermione Granger, I’d like to know what she has against Divination. She finds it, if I recall correctly, a “very woolly discipline”, far too ethereal and subjective for her concrete, practical tastes. But don’t you think that’s just a bit rich coming from a girl who regularly conjures birds out of thin air?
And Dumbledore, how did you get the reputation for such sound judgment? Granted, you do say that since you’re more intelligent than everyone else, your mistakes are “correspondingly huger”, but come on. Ignoring Voldemort’s early dark tendencies, you provided him with a top magical education and his first opportunities in evil recruitment. And really, I’m shocked by your abysmal estimation of potential faculty. You hire Quirrell (who happens to have Voldemort growing out of the back of his head – one of the more surreal moments of late 20th-century children’s lit), Lockhart (a devious, inept charlatan), Lupin (a werewolf who almost takes out your favorite students), Mad-Eye Moody (whom you failed to notice was actually a notorious, deadly criminal in disguise), and Slughorn (who taught young Voldemort how murders could be the key to eternal life, and then lied about it to cover his behind). This is not to mention the near-fatal Hogwarts basilisk incident. And if you really wanted Harry to stay out of trouble, you would have confiscated that Invisibility Cloak in Book One. Dumbledore clearly has tenure, because if he were an American muggle professor, even the teachers’ unions would be howling for his dismissal.
Despite their fantastic abilities, Dumbledore’s Hogwarts charges seem steeped in an almost medieval ignorance. Somehow I don’t think “History of Magic” covers the Magna Carta, the Norman Conquest, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the American and French Revolutions, or the end of Apartheid. Hogwarts students learn how to transfigure animals (although why you’d need to transform an animal into an inanimate object is beyond me, unless, instead of throwing the TV Guide at the skulking cat as my father was wont to do, you could simply turn the offending feline into a nice quiet magazine), but do they learn any modern languages? Do they study grammar or literature? What about geography? They might take Care of Magical Creatures and Herbology, but do they learn about Adenosine Triphosphate, photosynthesis, the Periodic Table, or evolution? Those who want to ban poor HP on grounds of witchcraft probably wouldn’t mind the omission of that last one. The anti-Darwin league would probably also get behind Hogwarts’ apparent lack of any sex-ed curriculum – a potential problem, given all the snogging in books 5 and 6. Could Molly Weasley, shocked and horrified by the concept of medical stitches, master the muggle science behind the appearance of her and Arthur Weasley’s large, red-headed brood? Because I doubt she learned about gametes and genetics at Hogwarts.
I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of HP with my questions. These queries are ill-applied to fantasy novels. There’s a reason I never have, and probably never will, publish fiction (unless you count press releases and playbill articles, but those aren’t so much fiction as drivel based on the truth, a genre at which I excel). Nobody would want to hear about Ron’s Geology presentation, Hermione’s Spanish exam, Harry’s paper on Beckett, or the birds and the bees at the Weasleys’. What would “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” be without Harry in the Triwizard Tournament, glaring plot device or not? So having said my piece, I subside. The Harry Potter Snobs are just frustrated writers who wish they’d sold 11 million books in 24 hours. Long life to The Boy Who Lived.