Monday, June 20, 2011

What do books do?

A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial by Meghan Cox Gurdon, who argued that young-adult literature has become a bastion of "depravity," "brutality," and "ugliness":
"Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it."
One of the books that she includes in her list of recent offenders is Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a book I have regularly included in the YA lit class I teach ever since its publication in 2008.  It is a brilliant, hilarious, tragic, and moving novel.* 

Yes, it has dark moments.  Yes, the narrator, Arnold Spirit, jokes openly about masturbation and "boners" (he's a 14-year-old boy, for chrissakes!).  But it is, at heart, a book about endurance, perseverance, and (ironically) the value of reading.  Standing in their school library one day, Arnold's friend Gordy points out that
"There are three thousand four hundred and twelve books here....I know that because I counted them."
"Okay, now you're officially a freak," I said.
"Yes, it's a small library. It's a tiny one. But if you read one of these books a day, it would still take you almost ten years to finish."
"What's your point?"
"The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don't know."
Gordy's observation helps Arnold realize that the world we see and think we fully understand is, in fact, full of mystery.  Much like the mystery that surrounds a child with his or her nose in a book:  What's she thinking?  What's going on in her head?

I'm not interested in engaging in the debate about whether, and why, YA literature is so "dark" these days, and what adults should or shouldn't do about it.  What interests me in this latest kerfuffle is what has always interested me when books for kids and teens are challenged:  What is it that we think books do?  How do we imagine they work on kids' minds?  And why don't we make the same assumptions about adult readers?

I have long thought, and discussed with students in my YA lit classes, that book challenges are motivated not so much by the specific, offensive content of any given text, but by the privacy of the act of reading.  Concerned parent sees child deeply engaged in a book, oblivious to the external world (oblivious, in fact, to the parent), and becomes suspicious.  What's in that book that's so interesting?  And why can't I monitor that experience?

If parents sincerely object to "dark themes" in their teens' lives, they ought to be raising this kind of public stink about hyper-violent video games, and movies, and...well, the daily drama in most high-school hallways.

Of course, I know that books are more likely to be questioned than other forms of media because most challenges arise when controversial texts are assigned as required reading in public schools.  (Although why some parents would be OK with their kid picking up such a book on their own and reading it, rather than reading it with the guidance of an expert reader, also known as a "teacher," I've never understood.)

But I remain convinced that the real problem is that the parent sees the child experiencing something that the parent cannot monitor or co-experience, as they could a video game or a movie.  The process of reading, and the images and ideas reading generates, is entirely internal and invisible, and I think some parents find that completely unnerving.

The other thing that baffles me in these cases is the weird construction of what the act of reading, and books themselves, can do to a kid.

As a voracious, lifelong reader, I understand that reading can be one of the most powerful and life-changing ways of experiencing the world possible.  

Parents who object to "dark" books also see the act of reading, and texts themselves, as powerful--but they construct that power negatively, casting the act of reading and books themselves as dangerous and potentially corrupting.  Gurdon writes,
It is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. 
There seems to be a logical line here that gets crossed:  is Gurdon suggesting that if a teen girl reads enough novels about eating disorders she will, most likely, develop one?  And what are these "pathologies" she fears might be normalized if kids read about them:  homosexuality? Poverty?  Heaven forfend.

But what intrigues me most about the above quote is how it underscores the fear of books and reading that seems to be at the heart of book challenges:  what is it that these parents fear their children will absorb through the silent, private act of reading? 

One of the things Gurdon herself fears is that kids might acquire (gasp!) bad taste by reading such things:  "Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it," she says, and claims that it is "a dereliction of duty [for parents] not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person's life between more and less desirable options."

Let me tell you a story:  One summer when I was in middle school, my parents and I went on a long  road trip to the east coast.  We spent a night at Chautauqua in New York, and before we left the next morning, we browsed around a bookshop and they offered to buy me a book for the the trip.  I chose a book of poems by Rod McKuen.  (Hey, it was the late 1970s.)

My mom, herself an English professor, objected on the basis of taste:  "He's a terrible poet."  My dad, undoubtedly not wanting to start a long day in a small car with a quarrel, but wanting instead to just get on the damn road, intervened, saying, "Let her choose.  If that's what she wants to read, let her read it."  Smugly, I carried Mr. McKuen's book to the cashier.

Of course, my mom was right:  the poems were terrible, even though I didn't recognize that at the time.

And guess what happened as a result of my parents' dereliction of duty?  Dear Reader, I grew up to be an English professor.

Clearly, that book ruined me.  If only she'd snatched that book from my hands and given me a "more desireable option."  Which I probably would have studiously refused to read.  Gurdon clearly has forgotten how unwelcome such lessons in taste are to the average person between the ages of, oh, seven and death.

I also find it odd that there seems to be an arbitrary, unspecified point in one's development when books cease to be "dangerous" or "bad for you."

When is it, exactly, that young people can be trusted to read what they choose to read without potentially being harmed by it?  I remember being utterly freaked out by the scene in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure when the title character arrives home to find that his eldest child has hanged himself and his siblings in a closet "because we were too menny."  I was haunted by World War I for weeks after reading All Quiet on the Western Front.  And there's an explicit image of a donkey repeatedly described in John Irving's The Cider House Rules that no amount of brain bleach will ever eradicate.

All of these I read when I was in college or grad school.  I've read other books in the two decades since that have disturbed me, as well as many that have moved me to tears, made me laugh out loud, pissed me off, or bored me stiff.  Don't good books continue to affect us deeply regardless of our age?  Isn't that why we read in the first place?  Why do we imagine that children and teens, in particular, need to have those potential effects vetted and filtered before they even experience them?

There's also a tremendous hypocrisy in the fact that so many cultural critics these days lament the fact that kids don't read at all, and say that we need to do whatever we can to get kids up to speed as readers, and then turn around to slap certain books out of kids' hands while saying "But not THAT."

Adults who challenge books are more often trying to protect themselves and their ideas about what childhood and adolescence should be than they are trying to protect real children and adolescents.   

So, with apologies to Sherman Alexie, I'll end with an affirmation that I wish such adults would repeat to themselves when they see a kid engrossed in a book:  A child, even the smallest one, is filled with thoughts you can't know.  Instead of balking at such a thought, let's embrace and encourage the complex, private mystery that is reading.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
*Alexie wrote an eloquent and passionate response to Gurdon's article, and he has said elsewhere, in an autobiographical essay titled "Superman and Me," that books saved his life


Aaron said...

Michael Chabon talks about something like this in his collection of essays Manhood for Amateurs. As he describes it, one of the great thrills of childhood is the sense of empowerment one gets from flaunting one's elders. As children's lives become more structured, in and out of schools, that pleasure (and the independent drive it fosters)is vanishing. Maybe we owe it to our kids to "ban" a few books - to banish them to the realm of private enjoyment, where no authority figure may tread. Maybe, in that sense Gurdon is (accidentally, I'm sure) on the side of the angels.

Heather Houlahan said...

Almost just "what Aaron said."

A few years ago a friend was fretting about raising his first child, wondering how it was possible to instill a healthy disrespect for claims of authority and still be, you know, a parent.

I suggested he ensure that the boy stumble upon a stash of old Mad magazines at a suitable age (IME, about age seven) and express dour disapproval of them as irredeemable trash upon "discovering" his offspring reading them.

Reading is subversive, always has been. Parents and teachers try to deny that by making it both mandatory and bland. Then they bitch during the commercial break about how these damned kids never read anything.

Susan said...

And I thought my daughter was a geek. Rod McKuen poems in middle school?!?

I kinda wish I didn't have to "co-experience" my son's reading, and he could be "filled with thoughts I can't know" when it comes to his choice of reading material - Pokemon guidebooks.

Jane said...

I think you would find the chapter on the "Privacy of Reading" in this book to be right in line with what you have identified as a central worry of the stingy gatekeepers of school-age reading:

We have lived with these worries for centuries (which only makes reading more delicious).

If you can't get the link, my reference is to Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks's _Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth Century Self_.

I too read on long family car trips. In fact, I missed seeing the skyline of Chicago when I was about 13 because I "had my nose in a book," as my mother would say with irritation. That book was Jane Eyre. What helps a kid grow up more: the view of Chicago, or the trip in Jane Eyre's developing consciousness?

We know the answer.

Rosemary said...

Aaron and Heather, you both managed to get at the nub of what I was trying to say much more succinctly and eloquently! I especially love that line about "banish[ing] them to the realm of private enjoyment, where no authority figure may tread," Aaron. Beautifully put.

Susan, there are so *many* incidents from my childhood I could point to moments when the word "DOOMED" was stamped on my forehead...that's just one of 'em. But Pokemon guides--wow. I can see why you'd rather know as little as possible about *those* reading materials.

And Jane, that first reading of _Jane Eyre_ is more vital than just about any other possible experience, IMHO! And thanks for the tip on the Spacks book...I'll definitely be checking that out.

Anonymous said...

Reading is subversive and therefore suspect.

It's dangerous to allow a kid to read what they want because it is a private act as you say (and say much better than I can). In a society that trades privacy for status updates, reading to yourself will become an even more dangerous and subversive act.

I read "Wifey" by hiding it from my parents when I was a young tween. What is more delicious than stealing away with a "banned book" and reading it literally under the covers? It's a conscience act of authority-bashing to read what your elders tell you not to. And guess what? I grew up to be a librarian and a fairly normal human being. Ha!

I want to take your class.