Wrapped Up in Books

bookshelf 1Besides being under-ambitious in my writing (as evidenced by the way this blog has flamed out yet again), I’m over-ambitious in my reading.  In some ways that makes sense.  I’ve always been a reader, which anyone who’s followed me through the various iterations of my blog will recognize as well-traveled territory.  I can scarcely think of a time when I haven’t been reading something for pleasure.  Maybe my undergraduate college years, when I was heavily (and paradoxically) into angst and improv comedy and less into reading (unless it was Oscar Wilde in the dining hall, which I optimistically figured would attract a sadsack female counterpart and we could wear black and listen to The Smiths together).

But otherwise I’ve been a constant reader since – my parents tell me – the age of three.  The catch, as I’ve gotten older and more financially secure, is that my shelf(ves) of “to-read” books has grown exponentially.  At some point in the last couple years I realized a couple things:

1) I want to read all these books, but if I keep buying more I will never get to them.

2) If I keep buying at the current rate, I will die before I’ve read everything I own.

bookshelf 2A couple weeks ago I did a preliminary count of what was on these shelves.  At that time the count stood at exactly 150 books.  I posted the original photo (not seen here) on Facebook with the half-fanciful notion that I could read everything on these shelves, essentially clearing them out, in approximately three years if I read only these books (meaning none of the Young Adult Literature [YAL] I read for work) and didn’t buy any new ones.  It was, I wrote at the time, perhaps an experiment worth trying.

Cue an old friend from high school, suggesting that such an experiment might be blog-worthy, a la Julie & Julia.   While I know the fidelity with which I view this blog too well to commit to anything of that nature, I like a good challenge, and the prospect of reading only these books for as long as it took to get through them grew on me.

I knew, however, that I had to do one thing first – namely (and stupidly), buy more books.  I had collected nearly all the titles in Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus series, but there were several noticeable gaps that troublingly fell in the middle of the series.  Being just OCD enough that I knew I couldn’t comfortably skip over them, I ordered the missing titles from Amazon, along with anything else I knew I would be seriously distressed at not being able to read for three years or more (like James Ellroy’s brand-spanking-new novel Perfidia or the next two books in Jonathan Maberry’s Pine Deep trilogy).

This morning I finished reading Joseph Heller’s The Painter, and I think I’m ready to begin this experiment, for however long it takes me (or as long as I’m able to sustain it without getting bored).  The accompanying photos reflect the current state of my “to-read” shelves, which now stand at 162 books.  The gap you’ll notice four rows down in the top photo represents the missing Pine Deep books, which should be arriving any day, courtesy of Alibris.  Otherwise, the shelves are more or less what I’ll be working with (except for the exception noted below and the eventual addition of Ian Rankin’s Resurrection Men, which Amazon couldn’t send me for three weeks).

In order to complete this task, I’ve set the following rules for myself:

1) I have to cool it with the YAL, but I also realize that I have a professional obligation to stay current in the field.  I’ll try to set aside some time in my office every day to read it, but I won’t do it in my free time outside school anymore.

2) If you zoom in far enough on the top photo you’ll see that I’ve alphabetized the books by author’s last name and then organized each author’s books chronologically.  My current plan is to start with “A,” read the first book (in this case, J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S., which doesn’t appear in the picture above because I’ve already set it aside), then move to “B,” read the first book there (Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl), and so on through the alphabet, then return to “A.”  I do, however, reserve the right to shuffle the order if I feel encroaching burnout.

3) I won’t buy any new books (or used books, for anyone tempted to think I’m playing games with semantics) until I’ve cleared these shelves, except in extreme circumstances.  Examples of such circumstances would be if Mo Hayder publishes her next Jack Caffrey title or when Jonathan Maberry publishes his next Joe Ledger novel, where my name – the author tells me – supposedly appears in the Acknowledgements.

4) I make no promises for the regularity with which I’ll post updates on the experiment here, but ideally I’ll check in with my progress a couple times a week.  I currently log and review everything on GoodReads, so at the very least I’ll cross-post my reviews here.

And that’s it.  If I demonstrate my usual degree of constancy (see my previous attempt to review every movie adapted from a Stephen King book, which lasted for about five movies), this little experiment will be a distant memory in a month’s time.  But sometimes I do surprisingly well when I create goals that keep me honest.  And when there’s a chance of public embarrassment.  That, too.

*****

Current listening:

Blur leisure

Blur – Leisure (1991)

I Found That Essence Rare

YAL

When I was a teenager – and even, if I’m going to be honest, into my early 20’s – I was an angsty little dude.  It usually had to do with girls and my inability to date them, and I cloaked myself in self-righteous misery.  Imbued with the solipsism of the young, I knew no one else at my high school – those backwards, cow-town knuckle-draggers, as I viewed them at the time – understood my pain, and so I’d lose myself in music.  Morrissey knew what I was going through.  My awkwardness and self-loathing felt right at home on Joy Division’s icy tundra or in the sonic architecture of The Cure’s Disintegration.  I felt harmonic convergence with Elvis Costello’s bile in “I Want You” and Paul Westerberg’s raw anguish in the Replacements’ “Answering Machine.”  It was comforting, reassuring, to feel like I wasn’t alone.  When I needed an escape, all I had to do was put on my headphones and let my friends sing to me.

But of course I wasn’t alone.  What I was feeling wasn’t singular to me.  It wasn’t even special or unusual.  Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and looking in the rearview mirror it’s plain that I was suffering from nothing more serious than adolescence.  But at the time it was weighty, momentous – the fate of the world was held in the answer to the question, “Do you want to go to the movies with me this weekend?”  And to ease this suffering, we want to know that someone out there understands us.

I found comfort in music.  Increasingly, today’s teenagers find it in the pages of Young Adult Literature (YAL), which is in the middle of something resembling a golden age.  I keep up with it as well as I can as part of my professional responsibility, and the quality has never been higher.  Sure, there’s purely escapist nonsense like the Twilight series (and just about anything else categorized under the giggle-inducing “Teen Paranormal Romance” section of your local Barnes & Noble), but man, the best of the best holds its own with – and sometimes even exceeds – the quality of so-called “adult” fiction. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (to name just three recent favorites) tackle serious issues (cancer, mental illness, and racial bias, respectively) with sensitivity and sophistication that can be appreciated by readers who haven’t seen adolescence in quite a while.  Like, ahem, yours truly.

I bring up the issue of content – and these three books in particular – for a couple reasons. One is, as I described at the beginning, the importance of seeing yourself in art.  Just as it was infinitely reassuring to hear Morrissey sing, “I am human and I need to be loved/Just like everybody else does,” I think I would have immediately been drawn to It’s Kind of a Funny Story (had it been written in 1988) and its thoughtful depiction of a teen dealing with depression and anxiety.  Similarly, for teens dealing with physical illness, The Fault in Our Stars treats its cancer-afflicted main characters with dignity, respect, and humor, and Alexie’s Part-Time Indian is a powerful (and powerfully funny) account of growing up as the Other, torn between two cultures who seek to hold you back in different ways.  This is what the best of YAL does: It holds up a mirror to the reader, letting him know he’s not alone and giving him the tools to survive.

But the mirror can also be flipped around to reflect the outside world to someone unfamiliar with it.  Growing up in small-town Ohio, at a school whose demographics skewed nearly 100% white, Alexie’s book would have been just as much a revelation to me then as it is to the small-town Georgia teens who populate the schools around me now.  With its accessible language and relatable characters, YAL can do immense good in helping younger readers broaden their horizons and deepen their empathy.

But of course some people just don’t get it.  What prompted me to write this post was discovering this article from England’s Daily Mail, which completely mischaracterizes YAL as “sick lit” that morbidly traffics in human misery, apparently for the purpose of exploitation and book sales.  Or, as the author herself states, “Since the vampire book bubble burst, publishers have been looking to find the next big thing in the lucrative world of young adult fiction.”  That’s right, folks: cancer sells, dont’cha know.

I’ve had a problem with this kind of reporting from critics before.  It’s the same kind of blinkered, short-sighted ignorance that led many respected movie critics (including my beloved Roger Ebert) to heap praises on the film Waiting for Superman, despite the fact that it’s a thinly-veiled propaganda piece (funded in part by the Gates Foundation) attacking public schools in favor of private charters.  The critics reviewed it as a movie without fully (or even partially) understanding how it plays into the current debate about education reform.  So they bought the movie’s bogus thesis that there’s an education crisis and promoted the movie in their reviews as a solution to the fabricated problem.

The same thing happens in Carey’s article about YAL.  Instead of exploring the mountain of research that discusses the benefits of YAL for readers of all kinds, Carey instead calls on “children’s book expert” Amanda Craig, who says authors have “a moral and social responsibility” when they write for children, and books about illness, suicide, depression, etc., shirk that responsibility.  The implication is that the books are exploitative (she specifically singles out Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why), using serious issues like depression, illness, and suicide as cheap plot devices to sell books.  

Which is absolute nonsense.

Roger Ebert (if I can mention him again for just a moment) wrote something that has often guided my response to both books and movies, and I’m paraphrasing: “A movie isn’t what it’s about.  It’s how it is about it.”  Of course a book about teen cancer can be exploitative. But to say all books about teen cancer are exploitative is to completely ignore just how nimbly, sensitively, and respectfully Green writes about it.  Vizzini doesn’t cheapen teen depression by writing about it, nor does Alexie sensationalize racial prejudice.  In talking to other people who have read these books (and other YAL like them) the reaction isn’t, “Cool cancer book, yo.”  It’s more like, “This really helped me to understand what people endure when they suffer from cancer [depression/prejudice] as a teen.”  The books have an impact not because they titillate, but because the best of them have important things to say about life with all its challenges.

It’s tempting, I think, for adults to want teens only to read sugar-coated tales where the most serious adversity is forgotten lunch money.  But teens face ever more serious challenges, and YAL is just one way of helping them negotiate this minefield.  To ignore the way literature can be a place of solace seems to me to be an even bigger avoidance of moral and social responsibility than to write a book that helps teens find comfort in their – and our – imperfect lives.

*****
Current listening:
Low curtain
Low – The Curtain Hits the Cast (1996)