Saturday, March 31, 2012

RANT: Thanks, But I'll Read What I Like


I'm usually a pretty classy blogger. Or at least, I try to be. I don't read books for the sake of ripping them apart. I stay out of the majority of the drama I hear about in the blogging world -- heck, half the time I don't hear about it until months after the shots have been fired and the dust has settled. But every now and then something comes up that I simply cannot ignore. Something is said that demands my attention. That is how I feel about this article by Joel Stein.

I am a firm believer that the experience between book and reader is a deeply personal one. That is why I often say, even when I don't like a book, that someone reading my review should not simply take my word about the text I am discussing. I cannot tell you how you will feel about a book; I can only share how I felt about it and why. After that, the rest is totally up to you. (And thank goodness, I have enough trouble making choices for me.)

I am going to post parts of Mr. Stein's article and I am going to respond to them. In many ways, I must say that my short review of the article would be to call it "a joke" because it contains many flaws, primarily that Mr. Stein admits to not having read within the genre he is bashing. However, the potential dangers and implications of an article of this nature are no laughing matter. There are many people, from authors, to agents, to editors, to book sellers and bloggers and librarians who make the world of literature go 'round. The number of people insulted before we even get to the average book lover in a general sense is staggering.

We cannot afford to let pot shots of this nature go. All literature deserves to be respected, because someone took the time to sit down, to write it, to make sure it got out there and to give it the chance to touch peoples' hearts. The amount of gall it requires to mock creativity of this magnitude is not something that our community should just silently accept. We all put way too much effort into this, regardless of what part we play, for that to be an acceptable response.

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

Considering the fact that you are about to publish a novel entitled Man Made: A Stupid Quest For Masculinity I must immediately question, based on the way you have chosen to open your article, if you subconsciously aren't aware that your book is done being drafted. Frankly, I can't think of much, in the realm of entertainment, that could conceivably be more offensive then seeing some sicko watching porn in a public place. 

Does the idea of a man reading a book written by a woman offend you? Lets face it, folks: a large majority of the books written under the YA banner are, and it wouldn't be the first time the genre has come under attack for this. Further, and more important, the three (Really, dude? Three? Weak sauce.) examples specifically chosen are. 

Last, how the heck do you expect anyone to take you seriously if you actually have time to waste seeing what everyone else is reading on a plane, anyway? With the array of devices available to us nowdays -- Vita, iPad, Kindle, 3DS, even smart phones -- this just seems like an epicly counter productive waste of time. That would have been far better used reading The Hunger Games then silently mocking the gentlemen in the next seat for choosing to do so. 

I’m sure all those books are well written. So is “Horton Hatches the Egg.” But Horton doesn’t have the depth of language and character as literature written for people who have stopped physically growing.

So tell me, darling, where does the entry bar for "depth of language and character" begin and end? With your book? *snort* Don't even attempt to lie to me here. No one writes a book about something, especially not a memoir, unless they felt that they had something valuable to say. In the interest of honesty and fairness, your book actually looks legitimately interesting. But there is something that your argument about Horton misses entirely, and that is that the value of literature goes beyond "language and character", transcending into what those things make a reader feel. 

Unfortunately for your article, this is an individual response. What one person may feel from reading, say, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, another reading might be able to just as likely glean from reading Ryder by Greta Maloney. (Trust me, I've read both and noted this in my review of Greta's debut.) Are they written the same way, or in the same style? No. But they do share the theme that would be required. That's what matters. Here's the thing: to really grasp that internal core of a book, to truly get it on a soul deep level, you have to have enjoyed it. So if these two readers were to swap books they could both come away with a deeper and richer appreciation of the theme, or they could both walk away completely empty. And it would have absolutely nothing to do with the author, but instead, everything to do with the needs of the reader. 

I've never read the particular book you listed, but (as an example) every Christmas I still read The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve. Is it a deep philosophical text with some deep underlying message that I need in order to open a secret door? No. But it allows me to recall doing the same thing with my grandfather, which is something that none of the literary greats that have been produced during the past 3,000 years has the power to conjure. Dare to challenge that?

I appreciate that adults occasionally watch Pixar movies or play video games. That’s fine. Those media don’t require much of your brains. Books are one of our few chances to learn. There’s a reason my teachers didn’t assign me to go home and play three hours of Donkey Kong.

Last I checked, one of the joys of choosing one's own reading materials is that we do not necessarily need to have a specific purpose in mind when we do so. Are you honestly trying to tell me, Mr. Stein, that you actually stand before your bookshelf going, "Today I want to select a book that will teach me the value of showing restraint economically, despite the fact that I live in a capitalist society?", or are you suggesting that the only time you touch a book is when, say, you need to understand the fine workings of your iPod? 

If you choose to read something, already thinking you know what it can teach you, it is highly likely that you will come away empty, or (far more dangerous) hear what you already had set in your mind. The real power and beauty of the knowledge that comes from fiction can only really come when we do not actually expect it. That high school senior stuck talking about the various themes of betrayal in MacBeth, or the parallel of parent-child relationships found in King Lear isn't actually learning shit aside from how to use the three point formula and quote a play properly, unless she or he was already interested in reading the damn thing. 

The actual value of the play, the real 'point', is going to slip into the recesses of their memory to be forgotten the way that the unneeded parts of the burger they had for lunch will later slip into the toilet. If you actually think that we really 'assign' books and they will effect someone where it counts because we 'assigned' them, you are both niave and a fool. We can 'hope' they will, because there are some fantastic books that have been written that should be shared, but there is no guarantee. 

It is vital that we teach people to read, and that we encourage the habit of reading (generally) regardless of what the individual is choosing, be it a comic book, a YA novel, manga, a picture book, or Mark Twain. Because if the love of reading itself is instilled in an individual, there is hope that they will find the books that they, specifically, need. And who knows, some of those may just be the 'fine' pieces of literature you'd hope they are. But if we ridicule people for the choices that they make for themselves as readers, if we make reading seem and feel like there is actually a way not only to do it wrong (misreading words or context) but also to respond incorrectly, people can, will, and do shut out out, do not learn to do it, and then any hope regarding the written word is lost completely.

And that's a damn shame, because it becomes increasingly difficult to learn to read, to develop it as a habit and have it feel natural. And much like a language, the *joy* of reading is something that can be lost.

I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character. Maybe there are Pynchonesque turns of phrase. Maybe it delves into issues of identity, self-justification and anomie that would make David Foster Wallace proud. I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.

You go right ahead and do that, Mr. Stein. Considering the fact that you have been referencing and insulting a novel you have never read -- and that you admit you have never read at that -- I sincerely must question whether you would be able to comprehend the novel, even if you were able to read the words on the page, if you tried. The Hunger Games, after all, does touch on the dangers of ignorance as a theme -- consider the fact that many people die because of a lack of knowing how to survive in the arena rather then from other tributes killing them. Your article is a clear indication that ignorance is a topic that you are intimately familiar with in all the wrong ways, so it's a shame you feel uncomfortable reading a book that could potentially address it well. I suppose you could always opt for the movie. (No insult to the film, guys. I did five star that.) 

Let’s have the decency to let tween girls have their own little world of vampires and child wizards and games you play when hungry. Let’s not pump Justin Bieber in our Saabs and get engaged at Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland. Because it’s embarrassing. You can’t take an adult seriously when he’s debating you over why Twilight vampires are O.K. with sunlight. If my parents had read “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” at the same time as I did, I would have looked into boarding school.

Now you are advocating deliberately avoiding reading things our children might read? I'm not a mom, and I'm definitely on the more 'let them read it' and of the book blogging scale, but I'd bet someone's gonna ride you hard about that one. I'll let them have it -- that's not my war. However, I will say two things:

(1) Many of the kids that I have worked with (I do a lot of tutoring kids with reading issues, I've worked at camps for kids with disabilities, etc.) appreciate it when someone older has read, or seen, or heard something that they have. Entertainment was always something with a very open door in my parents' home (see above with The Night Before Christmas) which actually added an additional level of value to many books, movies, games, etc. I loved growing up.

(2) You can be embarrassed for me if you wish. I'll be busy having fun reading what I want, listening to what I want (although I prefer Ke$ha to Beiber, thanks) and if I were to want to get engaged at Cinderella's Palace, there's not a damn thing you can do to stop me. 

I'm going to Build-a-Bear next weekend to celebrate my 30th birthday, I'm the one who bought that last darn C.A. Cupid monster high doll at WalMart, and after I make my Star Wars version of Kyden (one of the characters from my book, for anyone who's popping a question mark) I'll probably go and spend far to much at the YA section of the Oshawa Centre's Chapters. 


The nightmare's on me, doll. Enjoy it. ;)

In all seriousness, though, do you really have time to care about this? Really? I can think of a million more interesting things to do. (Admittedly, responding wasn't much better. Perhaps the issue actually irritates you just as much as your irritation at it irritates me.) But, in the end, you get to stay mad and I get to go and read Fever by Lauren DeStefano, Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare, The Iron Daughter by Julie Kagawa or any of the other fifty or so YA books I have sitting here and waiting. I think I'll bow out while the odds are in my favor. Good day.

9 comments:

  1. That guy is a complete asshat.

    I just can't even fathom why everyone is so up in arms about what other people read. I have a ranty post floating around in my head too. I might get to it soon but for now I'm going to enjoy reading yours.

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  2. A justified rant.

    Why do some people care so much about what other people enjoy reading? I was rereading Twilight when I took a math course over this past winter minimester, and a guy at the desk next to mine said it lost me "cool points."

    Really? I had to tell him that I'm not in junior high anymore, so I could give a damn about his "cool points," and that furthermore, I challenged him to find ONE person on this planet who ONLY reads works of great and profound literature. He also didn't tell me what he, himself, was reading, which leads me to believe it was something equally "embarrassing" or he wasn't reading anything at all, which is what would really be embarrassing to me (though more sad than actually embarrassing).

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  3. I only feel pity for him. While he is being full of himself- I get to read some awesome books!

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  4. Wow. That guy makes me want to headdesk. OK, first let me just say, my husband plays video games and I enjoy watching him play and let me tell you, you do A LOT of thinking in those games. Video games are far from mindless with tons of puzzles to solve. Some games you can mash buttons and win but there are plenty that if you don't have a strategy then your character dies.

    As for YA books, he just needs to shut up. There are so many YA books that get anyone thinking. But more importantly, he needs to shut up because maybe I want to read for the pleasure of it. I don't care if I learn something deep and meaningful. I want to enjoy myself, just like I would enjoy myself watching a Pixar movie or listening to Justin Bieber (I don't because I prefer Green Day lol.) Books are not just meant to be a learning tool, they are much more versatile than that.
    Was there a memo that said as an adult I'm only allowed to do things that make me look mature and only do things that teach me and I'm not allowed to have childish fun?

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  5. Nope, no memo. =)

    Hey, he's the one missing out and looking more the fool for it. He's an idiot for thinking that children don't have as good OR BETTER comprehension than he himself does, and that the things written for them cannot have meaning to an adult.

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  6. What a horrible, conceited man! of course, he doesn't even realize how offensive he is to everyone. I am with you on everything you say here. I think the best part of literature is enabling learning while enjoying yourself. Great post!

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