How cartoons taught me to accept adults who read YA literature

010

Now, more than ever, adults reading young adult literature is definitely, finally, a “thing.” I’m not going to pretend like I’m an expert here, but let’s just say that things started changing around the time Harry Potter took off in the early 2000’s, and things haven’t really slowed down since. As an active reader of (and, I guess, participant in) the book blogging world, I’ve noticed more and more adult readers picking up YA books. Many of the blogs I started following five years ago that used to primarily review literary, or “adult,” fiction, are now featuring more YA and graphic novels written for young people than they are “grown-up books.”

Meanwhile, a lot of those adults are also writing about their experiences reading YA, pieces that sometimes spiral into stubborn defensiveness: “YA books have important themes, and are just as good as regular books, so I’m not dumb reading them! It’s actually the smart thing to do! So therefore, I’m smart!” Whenever someone suggests that adults reading YA is not such a good development for our literate nation, those readers go into full attack mode. I recently shared my thoughts regarding only the most recent kerfluffle that erupted around Jonathan Franzen, after the author everyone loves to hate suggested that YA literature is “morally simple.” Oy to the vey.

Now, I’ve written here many times about how my reading tastes could be considered snobby by some, and how that’s OK, and you know what, sometimes you just gotta brush the haters off.  I also somewhat defended Franzen’s comments regarding YA literature in my post, even if I was simply pointing out that yes, folks, teenagers and pre-teens are developmentally less mature than adults, and so books written for them are understandably going to be different than books written for adults. Not worse. Not “morally simple.” But different.

And so, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I state that I, as a “book blogger” and fanatic reader … do not read YA literature on a regular basis.

I say “regular basis” because of course I have, and still do, read a little YA every now and then. Plus, I’ll just up and say that the Harry Potter series has some of my favorite books of all time, and I will re-read them every few years, regardless of who they’re written for.

However, here’s the caveat: I started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when I was a young adult. I had just turned 13, it was 2000-ish, and the first three books were already out. That was when I first heard about JK Rowling. There were no movies. Harry Potter was not a cultural “thing.” I picked up the first book and never looked back, but you know what? That was at a time when it was actually appropriate for me to start reading Harry Potter, because at the time, I was the same age as Harry.

Now, I’m not saying that adults shouldn’t read Harry Potter, because everyone in the universe should read those books. I mean, it’s Harry f’cking Potter, for goodness sake. But all that aside, that was probably the last “young adult” series I got myself into, because soon after, I started picking up classics and other “adult” books to read on the side. It didn’t hurt that I was a supremely advanced reader who absolutely loved to read, so suffice it to say, once I eventually graduated to the YA section at my local library/bookstore, I got bored pretty quickly.

Since then, I haven’t had much of a reason to go back to YA. I read The Hunger Games in 2009, soon after it came out, because I received a free copy from the publisher. However, I’m not the biggest fan of how the series panned out, so I quit on that pretty quickly. I want to say that I’ve read a few really good YA books since then, but nothing is really coming to mind. All I do know is that I’ve never read Perks of Being a Wallflower or anything by John Green (I know, I’m ready for your stunned looks of disbelief).

Now, I frankly don’t care that I don’t read YA. It’s for much the same reason that I don’t read Westerns, or crime novels, or thrillers, or romance novels – they’re not my thing. I don’t really like them, and given the millions of books in the world that I do want to read, I know I would be wasting my time. OK, maybe one day I’ll read Fault In Our Stars, but I’ve got a lot of other titles to get to first.

All that being said, I sometimes wonder at my ambivalence toward YA when I consider my television-watching habits. Because it’s right there, folks, that I am a complete enigma.

I could say that I “don’t really watch TV,” and it’s because “I don’t have time,” or “I have more important things to do.” All of those things would be true, but then statements like those make me sound like I’m some Luddite snob that scorns technology, which is not true. Because I do watch TV, and when I do, I watch primarily one thing:

Cartoons.

It wasn’t until I started hanging out all the time / living with J that this obsession with cartoons evolved.  J grew up without cable, and so every week, the only reliably “good” shows on television (for a teenage guy, that is) were Sunday night cartoons on Fox: The Simpsons, Family Guy, etc. I, being a good little far-left liberal at 17, didn’t believe in watching anything on Fox, so I thought J’s fascination with Peter and Stewie kind of funny. I mean, I obviously had the good channels – MTV, VH1 – where I watched such enlightening afternoon entertainment as 16 and Pregnant, Pimp My Ride, and endless re-runs of I Love the 80’s. But I started watching J’s shows, and I do remember a spring break trip senior year of high school in which we only watched J’s Family Guy DVDs. Yikes.

At some point, though, I fell in love. J became obsessed with Futurama at some point, and it wasn’t long until I was as well. To be fair, that show was so funny and entertaining, and it’s one of the only shows that J and I can watch anytime, anywhere, no matter what. It doesn’t matter that we’ve seen the one about Fry’s dog ten thousand times, we’ll both tear up every time.

When we moved to Michigan and finally had some disposable income, we got cable. But instead of jumping onto the “golden age of scripted television” bandwagon, we got hooked on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim shows. We discovered Archer on FX. We became obsessed with Miyazaki films. We began creating LARP-style Halloween costumes based on Adventure Time characters. Fast forward to now, and me realizing that the only movies we saw in theaters last year was The Lego Movie and Big Hero Six. We do not have Netflix. I stopped watching Downton Abbey after Matthew Crawley died (buzzkill). I didn’t really like Game of Thrones on HBO (love the books, though!).We never got into Breaking Bad, The Wire, House of Cards or whatever the cool kids are watching nowadays.

And yet, I’m the person who only reads “serious” books! I’m the snob, right? And so why, when I “look down my nose” at YA, do I absolutely love a visual medium designed for children? Seriously, J and I totally dig kid shows as well – all your kids should be watching Steven Universe right now, it’s that good. And Adventure Time is just a masterpiece. As Fry would say, “Why are … these things?” I mean, take a look at what we’re watching on a regular basis:

  • Futurama
  • Bob’s Burgers
  • Adventure Time
  • The Regular Show
  • Steven Universe
  • Clarence
  • Archer
  • Kill la Kill
  • King of the Hill
  • American Dad
  • Any movie made by Hayao Miyazaki

Notable exclusions: Family Guy because I actually think that show isn’t very funny anymore, and The Simpsons because J watches it so damn much now that it’s on all the time on FXX.

Meanwhile, the list of “scripted shows” we both like include .. um, Parks and Rec? Other than that, we watch random shows on HGTV, the Travel Channel, the Food Network, and the morning news, and that’s it. 

J and I, most likely feeling our intelligence threatened by all the cartoons we watch, have theorized on this subject before, coming to the conclusion that cartoons have a certain creative leeway and freedom to be absurd, which means they’re able to achieve a certain kind of comedy – and even depth – that live action television can’t. Oh sure, you won’t see any high-level drama, and “adult” cartoons are more likely to be raunchy rather than innocent. But I’ll tell you what: I’ve watched Futurama episodes that are just as hilarious and heart-felt as any sitcom. And Adventure Time takes real risks with what is technically a “kid show,” delving into surprisingly deep topics all the while remaining a positive influence for kids. Hell, Tina from Bob’s Burgers has become something of a feminist icon (I mean, she likes butts and isn’t afraid to admit it).

But in reality, these shows are fairly simple. They’re silly. They’re funny. As Jonathan Franzen says, they’re not very “morally complex.” But you know what, I’m OK with that. In all reality, J and I are very busy and I’m not being pretentious when I say we literally have no time to get sucked into an intense television series. Our cartoon shows allow us a half-hour break on the couch at the end of a long day, when we can escape into some silly, multi-colored fantasy world for a short time, laugh, aw, and then be done. No huge emotional investment, though I guess we’re not getting a huge intellectual return either.

But then … we are in a lot of ways. Like I said, the cartoons on nowadays can really surprise you with their amount of emotional depth, what with their creators and writers all being young’uns like myself – in their late 20’s and early 30’s – who are drawing on life experiences very similar to mine (Cartoon Network’s Regular Show is basically about two 20-somethings bumming their way through life, making up rap songs and drinking lots of “soda”). It’s no wonder I connect with them.

And so what I’m really saying is: I get you, YA readers. Even if I don’t read YA myself, and freely admit I don’t like it, I get where you’re coming from. So, you take your YA book that you’ll finish in an afternoon, and I’ll take Moby-Dick. Then, you can relax with House of Cards while I enjoy the supreme voice talents of H. Jon Benjamin in this week’s episode of Archer and Bob’s Burgers. It all comes out to the same thing.

Hating Jonathan Franzen + debating literary elitism

Last week, I was browsing the LA Times book section, and stumbled across this fascinating article on “Literature and the moral question,” in which the author discusses whether literature truly can be considered, according to most definitions, “moral.” It’s a fascinating piece, and I encourage you to check it out. But what I was truly interested in, reading this article, was a passing mention to the kerfluffle surrounding the most recent Jonathan Franzen interview, in which Franzen discusses moral complexity in literature with Booth magazine:

…[Franzen] was getting at the difficulty of navigating a world with no clear markers, in which it’s all we can do, much of the time, to make it through the day.

“People don’t want moral complexity,” Franzen argues. “Moral complexity is a luxury. You might be forced to read it in school, but a lot of people have hard lives. They come home at the end of the day, they feel they’ve been jerked around by the world yet again for another day. The last thing they want to do is read Alice Munro, who is always pointing toward the possibility that you’re not the heroic figure you think of yourself as, that you might be the very dubious figure that other people think of you as. That’s the last thing you’d want if you’ve had a hard day. You want to be told good people are good, bad people are bad, and love conquers all. And love is more important than money. You know, all these schmaltzy tropes. That’s exactly what you want if you’re having a hard life. Who am I to tell people that they need to have their noses rubbed in moral complexity?”

And so, here’s what I want to talk about: Jonathan Franzen and his haters. I’ve known that people in the literary world have beefs with this guy for quite awhile, but I’ve never jumped on the bandwagon, nor have I given it much thought. I read The Corrections in 2010 and thought the book was good, even if it felt like Franzen was trying a little too hard at times. I have Freedom on my shelf, though let’s just say there are other books I’d rather be reading first. But I have no reason to hate on Franzen, even if he likes to self-style himself as the “next great American author.” Well, sure dude. Go ahead.

But I guess he’s also kind of an asshole about it, and a little pretentious. And he’s pretty successful. And he was on the cover of Time magazine. OK, I can see where people might find it easy to hate the guy. In fact, Flavorwire took issue with Franzen’s quote on moral complexity, interpreting it as yet another of Franzen’s many knocks against genre fiction and YA literature:

It’s an interesting stab at kindness and empathy. He’s saying, “Hey, it’s OK to read books to escape reality, my hard-up fellow humans.” Yet I think it’s fair to say that this kind of statement ends up having the exact opposite effect. It’s condescending. It sweeps popular fiction under the umbrella “adolescent,” and assumes that people read such books purely for escapism rather than engagement with moral gray areas. For the latter, presumably, they turn to Jonathan Franzen novels.

And this is where I begin to take issue, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I just may be about to defend Jonathan Franzen (God help me). But you see, Flavorwire’s reaction isn’t the first backlash piece I’ve read railing against the “literary elitism” espoused by Franzen.  There’s Flavorwire’s other piece, “Why Book Criticism and Literary Culture Needs a Poptimist Revolution.” Over at Bookriot, there’s the snarky “Jonathan Franzen is a Parody of Jonathan Franzen,” in which the author compares the poor guy to Ann Coulter (harsh!). I can’t say that hating on the literary elite is a “thing” now, but since Fifty Shades of Grey exploded all over the place, I have noticed a lot more “apology” pieces for genre fiction and adults reading YA, as well as more snark-fests about how snobby book people can be.

Yet, I read through the Booth interview, and aside from a few indications of a ‘tude on Franzen’s part, I really didn’t find anything wrong with it. Does this make me as “bad” as Jonathan Franzen? Well, what if I don’t believe that Franzen is as Ann Coulter-like as everyone thinks he is? Is this OK? Let’s look at the interview:

Well first, let’s just call a spade a spade: Franzen does a lot of literary high-talk in this interview. Stuff about “emotional truths” and “first-person voice” (not point-of-view, mind you). Blah blah blah. Whatever. Am I hating Franzen yet? Of course not! Franzen is very smart, and it shows in his writing. Now, whether his kind of storytelling is right for you is a matter of opinion, but you can’t deny the man knows writing and literature inside and out. But that’s nothing to hate someone for – if that were the case, then I would hate every single critic I was forced to read as an English major. Are there hate pieces on Harold Bloom out there? He’s just as high-thinking and abstract as Franzen, but since we’re only asked to confront him in the classroom, that somehow makes it better? Well, I say go ahead Jonathan Franzen! Be a thinker, even if it makes you look like an egghead! Brush the haters off!

Now, let’s move on to the moral complexity statement and YA lit. Reading the interview, it’s clear the interviewer is trying to goad Franzen into saying something zingy about YA literature:

SL: There’s been heated discussion lately about the uptick of adults who read literature written for young adults. Recently in Slate, the journalist Ruth Graham declared that adults should be embarrassed if what they are reading was written for children, and that it would be a shame if readers substituted “maudlin teen drama” for the complexity of great adult literature. What are your thoughts?

JF: I don’t care what people read.

SL: You have no opinion on the question of whether or not readers might be cheating themselves if they’re reading YA lit?

JF: If it’s a loss, it’s their loss, not mine.

Well … that’s pretty much how I feel about YA literature as well, Mr. Franzen. Not my thing, really. So, no problems here.

Ah, but then he throws out the “moral complexity” quote, noting that YA literature is “morally simple.” Ah gotcha, now everyone’s pissy. But is this quote really that bad? I’m not arguing that YA literature doesn’t delve into morally complex issues – death and love are a big part of the genre. Let me be clear: I’m not trying to say YA literature is not “good,” powerful, or complex. However, let’s all remember that YA authors write for their audience, and their audience is the wide spectrum of tastes and opinions known as the American teen and pre-teen. And while you have Eleanor & Park, there’s also The Clique, which sells just as many copies as the good stuff. And so, while it is unfair to say that YA is just for immature kids and dum-dums, I don’t think it’s particularly far-fetched to say that the overwhelming majority of books published in the YA genre can not be legitimately compared with traditional “literary fiction.” They’re not selling Lolita in the YA section.

And so, when I read Franzen’s quote on moral complexity, I understood exactly where he was coming from. Is the man the biggest fan of YA literature? Of course not,  but you know what? That’s his prerogative not to like it. So, why should we expect Franzen to publicly support something he doesn’t even like? Why must we all in the book world be expected to throw a semi-positive twist on everything that happens in the literary community, even if we don’t believe in what we’re promoting?

Now I know, some people are going to say that it does matter what Franzen says, and what Franzen supports, because he’s styled himself as a great “voice” for American literature, and so when he craps on something, everyone notices. To that I remind you what I said above regarding Franzen’s “claim” that he’s the next great American writer – “whatever, dude.” Something can only be considered “a truth” when people provide affirmation. If you don’t think Franzen is the next great American writer, then don’t think itThen try reading his interviews again; you’ll soon find that when he’s just a guy, it doesn’t matter what he says. People are letting themselves get worked up over Franzen, his personal opinion regarding his self-importance, and the stuff he says. As Franzen clearly states in the interview, “I don’t care what people read.” Really people, he doesn’t care. So, let’s just take a step back, OK?

The last thing I wanted to point out from the Franzen interview is his comments regarding Jennifer Weiner. Now, I don’t like to see authors taking potshots at each other … unless, I happen to agree with them. It’s easy enough to be sympathetic to Weiner in this situation: “Oh, here’s a nice woman author who writes nice stories about women getting married, and look at this jerk who’s bashing her in the New Yorker. What a dick.” But what about when Stephen King praised JK Rowling and totally slammed the Twilight series? No one really made that much of a fuss (unless you’re a Twilight fan, I guess), even though it was a man-author poo-poo’ing a woman-author. Maybe it was because deep down, we all kind of agreed with him?

So, is the Franzen-Weiner “war” evil because Franzen is wrong? To that, I can’t say either way. I’ve never read Jennifer Weiner. The kinds of books she writes do not appeal to me, and I doubt I’ll become a fan in the near future, not even if she is a woman. But, let’s look at why Franzen gets so irritated with Weiner, because, dare I say it, I might agree with him on this point:

JF: It’s tricky because there’s something about Jennifer Weiner that rubs me the wrong way, something I don’t trust…

SL: What is it?

JF: What is it? She is asking for a respect that not just male reviewers, but female reviewers, don’t think her work merits. To me it seems she’s freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon, and over the years in the major review organs, to promote herself, basically. And that seems like a dubious project that is ideally suited to social media, where you don’t actually have to argue, you just tweet. Where is her long essay about this, where she really makes a case? She has no case. So she tweets.

I mean, he has a point, guys. If we’re going to talk about gender bias in the serious literary canon, then is Jennifer Weiner really the appropriate figurehead for this battle? How about someone like Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri? There are some amazingly talented and powerful women authors working right now, and yet we’re supposed to feel bad for … Jennifer Weiner? The author of Good in Bed and other similarly pastel-be-covered books? I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for Jennifer Weiner, and her books have their millions of fans. I’m sure she sells way more books a year than Jonathan Franzen, so let’s withhold our tears for now. And so, while Franzen’s beef with Weiner has become an obvious sore spot for him (and one I’m sure everyone likes to pick at), I’m not sure that his point should be discarded here.

And oh yeah, he bashes Twitter, and let’s all pile on Franzen because he’s this anti-technology Luddite, blah blah blah.

JF: …the fact that you can’t sit still for five minutes without sending and receiving texts. I mean, it does not look like any form of engagement with art that I recognize from any field. It looks like a distraction and an addiction and a tool. A useful tool. I’m not a technophobe. I’m on the internet all day, every day, except when I’m actually trying to write, and even then I’m on a computer and using, often, material that I’ve taken from the internet. It’s not that I have technophobia. It’s the notion that somehow this is a transformative, liberating thing that I take issue with, when it seems to me more like a perfection of the free market’s infiltration of every aspect of a human being’s waking life.

Unfortunately, the anti-Franzen camp doesn’t recruit me to their cause with this argument because I stopped tweeting about a year ago and am thinking of deleting my Twitter account all together. Again, this is a post for another time, but I’m actually on board with Franzen’s desire to unplug from the mindless “noise” of social media. So yeah … score another for team Franzen?

There’s a lot more in the interview, and again and again, I found myself agreeing with the guy. Or, I found myself not not agreeing with Jonathan Franzen. Maybe it’s just who I am: I know that I can be an odd duck sometimes. In recent years, I’ve gone from essentially being a social media “expert” and being tuned in 24/7, to now, when I can lose my iPhone and not even notice for half a day. I don’t really watch TV (though, stay tuned for a future post on this). I like to read a lot of really tough, morally complex books that are very often considered “literary fiction.” I can be kind of snobby about my reading tastes, and I have high standards for the books I read – and I’m not afraid to say they “suck” when that’s, in fact, how I feel.

If that makes me like Jonathan Franzen, well then, so be it. But here’s the thing: regardless of whether you “agree” with the stuff Jonathan Franzen says, or regardless how you feel about “literary elitism,” the kind of snarky, almost reflexive bashing I’m reading all over the Internet is not a good way to go about it either. To be honest, it doesn’t really mean anything to “hate” Jonathan Franzen anymore. Are we all so morally offended by him, or do we say we hate him so that we’ll fit in with the cool crowd on the book-ternet? “Oh, everyone is ganging up on this guy? I don’t want to be left out!”

It seems that we are currenly living in a strange moment in the literary community, especially as it exists online as chatter between various “book blogs.” We’ve moved away from “the canon is all important,” to completely tossing out the canon, moving onto a world where everything is welcome, everything is accepted, and everything is “good.” Along with it, it seems that we’ve also tossed out the notion of value judgments, and the right to make them, especially if you choose to judge works based on certain “patriarchal” concepts like “quality,” and “artistic merit,” or “good writing.” In fact, it’s suddenly become rude to make any kind of value judgments whatsoever, lest you risk hurting someone’s feelings, or making anyone feel stupid or uneducated. If you want to read trashy romance novels, read them! Anyone who says you shouldn’t is a fuddy-duddy and we’ll take them and their snobby ways down!

But here’s the thing: I don’t care if you read romance novels. But I do reserve the right to dislike certain kinds of genre fiction. And I’m allowed to say that many of these books are formulaic, and lack “artistic merit.” If that hurts your sense of delicacy, well, grow some thicker skin. This is the Internet, after all. And hey, you’re allowed to think I’m weird for really digging Tolstoy and Henry James.

All that being said, I really don’t think Jonathan Franzen needs defending. The man can defend himself, and frankly, I don’t think he really cares all that much. Because hey, we’re keeping his name at the top of the trending Twitter topics! And so even if he does “scorn” Twitter, he’s still there, and people are talking about him. You guys, Franzen is actually winning. If you don’t like what he says, it’s perfectly easy to ignore him. But you’re not, so who’s really to blame here?

But regarding literary elitism – whether you’re for, against, or neutral – I’m just hoping for a more fair, less judgmental discussion on literary tastes among the digital literary community. I don’t care if you like Jennifer Weiner, and I don’t care if you read YA lit as an adult, but that’s no reason to get your hackles up whenever someone else with a slightly more traditional – some may say “snobbier” – taste in books walks by. The current trend seems to be seeing how nontraditional one can be with your reading choices (more women! more writers of color! graphic novels! …. by the way, I love all of these things). But let’s not get so carried away that we forget that hey, people are still allowed to like “the canon.”

And yes, I am perfectly aware how this all sounds very much like a #firstworldproblem, what with me being a highly educated white woman living in America, one who has the time and leisure to debate “high art” on my blog. And even though I’m a woman, I don’t feel particularly marginalized or alienated by the dead white guys (or, alive white guys in the case of Franzen) who write the books I tend to read. However, this doesn’t discredit my right to think, debate, write about, and have an opinion on books, writing, and reading. We’re all allowed to have opinions, even if those opinions are negative, or unpopular, or stubbornly refuse to follow trends. And that applies to everyone … even Jonathan Franzen.

 

I’m suspicious of the new Harper Lee novel

It’s no great secret that I’m a fan of the wonderful, talented, awesome Harper Lee. I named my cat after her. If I could go back and change my roller derby name,  I would be Tequila Mockingbird. I’ve said that To Kill a Mockingbird is just one of those books that every human being ought to read.

And yet, I was definitively not excited when I heard news that Harper Lee would be publishing her second novel this upcoming summer. Apparently, Ms. Lee just recently “re-discovered” the manuscript for Go Set a Watchmen, which she actually wrote before TKAM. And now they’re publishing it.

This should make me over-the-moon excited. I am not. Instead, I’m suspicious, and this Jezebel piece perfectly sums up why:

Sadly, this news is not without controversy or complications. Harper Lee’s sister Alice Lee, who ferociously protected Harper Lee’s estate (and person) from unwanted outside attention as a lawyer and advocate for decades, passed away late last year, leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart.

I can’t remember where it was, but a few months ago, I read a piece on Harper Lee and her lifelong struggle for privacy, as well as her embattled relations with the public. Because of some shifty maneuvering by publishers in the ’60’s, Harper Lee signed away the copyright to TKAM, and has been pretty much left out in the cold, financially, since the book became one of the greatest books in American literature. For that and other reasons, Lee is very private, some might even call her reclusive. In an interview with Oprah, she once said that people always assume that she identifies with Scout. Instead, she says she’s more like Boo Radley.

Unfortunately, Lee has also been struggling with health problems in recent years, problems that have been described as being simply “forgetful,” to being close to senile (and that’s not a slam, the woman is 88 years old). According to the Jezebel piece, and I remember this from the other story I read on this subject, Lee has been known to sign “whatever’s put in front of her,” sometimes according to the advice of her lawyer, Tonja Carter. This Carter became Lee’s lawyer after her former lawyer – Lee’s sister, and who Lee calls a “real life Atticus,” Alice Lee – retired at 100.

Alice Lee died a few months ago. There’s been a lot of attention drawn to Harper Lee since the unauthorized biography of Lee, The Mockingbird Next Door, was published last year. You’re telling me that there’s nothing suspicious in all this? Hmm. Even the friend and previous biographer of Lee interviewed for this NPR piece, Charles Shield, – who states that Lee is still “sound of mind” – said he was surprised Go Set a Watchmen emerged so soon after Alice died.

I don’t know, guys. I hate to be a negative Nancy, but I’m joining the camp of those who are worried Harper Lee is being taken advantage of in her old age. And so, while a new Harper Lee novel is exciting, that excitement will turn really bitter, really fast, if indications of foul play emerge from this situation.

And let me tell you: I love this writer so very much. If she’s been taken advantage of, I’m going to be pissed.

Also, check out:

Finishing ’25 Books to Read Before You’re 25′

If you follow me at all at this blog, you’ll know that I’m a major fan of using lists as way to guide, and inform, my reading habits. Since I was a kid who loved to read (everything and anything), I knew that as I got older, I wanted to be one thing: well read. I knew that this meant reading “the classics,” but also all the books considered “great,” and “famous,” and “influential.” I wanted to be plugged into this world, fill myself with these thoughts, and live what I imagined to be a richer life informed by talented writers and wonderful books.

To do this, I turned to lists. It’s a natural choice. Wondering what books to read in your quest to be “well read”? Well, let’s find a list titled “Books to Read if You Want to be Well-Read”, and start there. In the beginning, I started by writing/typing-out these lists in Word documents and saving them to my computer. Later, I began saving them here, at Paperback Fool. But beginning in high school, I began making a conscious effort to read “great” books outside of the classroom in order to educate myself, and expose myself to as many great books as possible. Being an English major in college helped, though I will admit that my syllabi were less classics-based than you might think.

Through it all, I relied very much on the lists I found in magazines, books, and on the Internet, all guides on the path to enlightenment and smarter reading. If you’ve browsed the “Reading Lists” section of this blog before, you’ll know that I frequently update these lists with new books I’ve read. I also keep track of this information in my Reading Stats spreadsheet.

I won’t lie: it’s a little bit of a challenge and game to me. I like to see how many, out of how many, books I’ve read on a certain list, and how many I still need to read in order to “finish it.” Many lists, I understand, I may never finish. I may eventually read all of Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, but will I ever finish Time’s 100 Greatest Nonfiction Books? Probably not. Because game or not, I also understand that these lists are meant to serve as a guide more than anything else. And, I know that there are hundreds of excellent books still out there not on lists (yet), books that are just itching to be discovered. That’s why I look for quirky lists with unexpected, yet quality, recommendations, like 65 Books You Need to Read in Your 20’s.

Which brings me to today: My Big Accomplishment. You see, one of the very first reading lists I ever found, wrote down, and then began following was a little list called 25 Books to Read Before You’re 25. I can’t remember which year it was, but it was more than 10 years ago at this point, because I was still a teenager (probably 16-17 years old), and it was in Seventeen magazine. The magazine’s editors had put together this list alongside then-First Lady Laura Bush – the only Bush I ever liked, largely because she was a librarian. This may have been the list that started it all, and oh, what a list.

The reason I fell in love with this list then, and why I still believe in it now, is because of the sheer quality of books that comprise it. These are, truly, great books, people. And despite the fact that this list was originally published in a teen magazine, this is not your typical “YA”, easy-reading fare. These are impressive, heavy, difficult, yet ultimately, amazing books. These are books that are meant to scare you, challenge you, and force you to think about the world in a dozen different ways. These are books that are meant to introduce you to some of the world’s greatest stories and storytellers, from Edith Wharton, to Daphne Du Maurier, to Leo Tolstoy. There are award-winners, novels, and presidential biographies. Many of these books have become some of my favorite books of all time.

Why am I writing all this, then? On January 18, 2015, I turned the last page in Fyoder Dostoyoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov  – the very last book I had to read on the 25 Books to Read Before You’re 25 list. I am now 28 years old, so I’ve missed the quarter-life milestone.

And yet…and yet. I can’t help but feel a great sense of pride upon finishing this list, so much so that now, hours later, I’m still buzzing. (Is that weird? I think it might be.) I’m proud because I finished the list, which is a big deal to a gal who finds great satisfaction in checking major milestones off the life list. But I’m also proud, and overwhelmingly content, because of the books I read. Looking back, these truly were some of the greatest books I’ve read in the past 10 years, and I know I wouldn’t have discovered many of them if not for this list.

I haven’t wrote my review of The Brothers Karamazov yet (oh man, that was a doozy), but I thought it might be appropriate in this case to look back over those 25 books, and remember the places I’ve been:

 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

  • This was the easiest to check off the list, as I read it (like many young people) early in my high school career. I feel I need to read it over again, now that 9th grade English is so very far behind me, but I think the inclusion of this book, while a bit cliché, is entirely appropriate.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

  • Wow, Atonement. I remember reading this book and feeling so emotionally wasted at the end of it, it was that powerful. This book also introduced me to Ian McEwan, who is an utterly wonderful British author. I should probably re-read this book as well, as it’s been awhile since I first read it. But first, I’ll need to prepare my heart – oh, the feels!

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

  • This was the first “non-classic” that I a) had never heard of before hearing about it here, and b) purposely went out and sought specifically for this list. I’m not sure if it ever “caught on” among the reading public, but I do remember how the story introduced me to a very new culture, and how it was probably the most original,” unorthodox reading choice I had ever made up to that point. The first of many.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

  • I will admit that I liked The Age of Innocence better, because what I do remember from Ethan Frome is that not much happened. That’s probably not the best sign, so I think this one needs to be part of my Re-Visiting the Classics Project. Still, it is her most famous work, and I was introduced to it very early.

Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote

  • This is where this reading list started to change my life. At some point in high school, I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s and was never a fan. In Cold Blood was to come much later on, so during the early years of high school, I wasn’t sure if I liked Truman Capote. Then, this list got me to pick up Music for Chameleons which is, truly, one of my favorite books of all time. Truman Capote shines in this collection of stories, and I love to devour each one.

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

  • OK, this book I can say that I didn’t like – that I remember very distinctly. I’m not sure what it was about, but I know this: I didn’t like it. Moving on.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

  • Well, this one surely goes without explanation. I mean, did I need a reason to re-read this – one of my most favoritest books of all time – for the 10,000th time?

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

  • This was a new-ish book when this list was published, and probably one of the more “commercial” picks, but I was still pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it was. So much so that I still look fondly at Ms. Kidd when I see her in bookstores.

Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

  • Everyone should read Flannery O’Connor – everyone. She is truly a master, and one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. Her stories are part of the American mythos, and deserve to be more. I read another collection of her stories for an English class, but this list encouraged me to pick up the Complete collection, and I’m so glad it did.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

  • This was a book that I couldn’t stop reading … until the very end, when I got a bit confused and frustrated. And yet, it was still a great read for many, many reasons, unsatisfying ending notwithstanding.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

  • OK, I’m making a point today to say: I need to read more Graham Greene. I really do, because, you guys, this guy is great. This was my first exposure to Mr. Greene, and given that I’ve never been assigned to read him for a class, it’s been my only one. This book was excellent, and I’m thankful for reading it, if only to inspire me to read more.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

  • This was a relatively recent read, and I loved it. I didn’t think that I would enjoy a fictionalized account of the Roman Empire, but man did I ever.  A complete surprise of a book that I’ve since “heard of,” but I’m not sure I would have actually picked it up had it not been part of this list.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

  • This is another shoe-in for “favorite book of all time”, and I’ve read this baby about 10,000 times as well. In fact, I kind of want to read it again. And watch the movie. Oh, Mr. Rochester…

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

  • Again, another book that I might not have picked up had it not been on this list. This one has since made it onto many high school reading lists since I read it, and with good reason. This is a story that had a profound impact on me when I first picked it up, and has stayed with me for a very, very long time.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

  • Because everyone needs an excuse to read about le petit prince.

My Antonia by Willa Cather

  • This was a book I tried to read many, many years ago … had a hard time with it … thought  I didn’t like it … gave it up (the first time I ever did that) … and then, just last year, I picked it up again and just loved it. OK, so maybe it’s not my favorite book on the list, but it’s still great, and Willa Cather is a seriously impressive woman that everyone needs to read.

Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough

  • This was a new kind of book for me, and I’m oh-so-glad this list convinced me to try it out. This was my first presidential biography, and never did I have so much fun learning about Teddy Roosevelt. I need to read more David McCullough.

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

  • This book … I can’t even tell you. I didn’t expect to love this book, but what I really wasn’t expecting was for this book to completely, and utterly, punch me in the gut and leave me breathless. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but this book touched me in a way I can’t even explain. A simply amazing, deep, profound story.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

  • This should be on everyone’s Required Reading Lists for Life. This book taught me about Iran, culture in the Middle East, Islam, as well as the sheer power of literature. This is a great true story, and it’s one that I love to read.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

  • This book always stumped me because it always made those “great books” lists, and yet, it looked like a romance novel. Well, I just loved it, and it’s one of the only times I’ve admitted to being engrossed in a novel. High-quality escapism at its finest.

Ship of Fools by Katherine Ann Porter

  • I admit that I don’t remember much from this book – it’s been a very long time since I read it; it may have been one of the first books I tackled from this list. It is an award-winner, however, and following the winner of the various literary prizes has since become a major guiding force in my reading life.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

  • I had high expectations of this book, and while it was very good, it wasn’t as great as I was hoping it might be. Still, exploring Indian mysticism from what is truly a classic of modern literature was a great experience, and was definitely worth the effort.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

  • OK, if you know anything about Sophie’s Choice, you’ll understand when I say: wow. When I first read this book – because of this list, by the way – I knew nothing about it, nor William Styron. Nothing. You can imagine the sheer devastation that this book wrought on me, and how a part of me changed forever after reading it.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

  • Would I have read Tolstoy’s masterpiece if not for this list? Probably. Would I have felt so motivated to do so sooner rather than later? Probably not. I attribute reading War and Peace with the creation of my Big Books Project; after finishing this behemoth, I felt thoroughly inspired to tackle more BIG books in the future, knowing that despite the time they take and the work they require, they’re awesomely worth it. Now, on an editorial note, I will criticize the list to say that Anna Karenina would have been a better pick, especially since this list is geared toward young women. And, I liked Anna Karenina better. But if you want to encourage young people to tackle a lifer novel, well, do whatever you can.

 

And finally… The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoyoevsky, which you’ll hear all about later. As you can see, this list meant a lot to me, and I’m super excited to have finished it. I feel like I just overcame a huge life milestone – like graduating college, or landing a dream job.

Still, it’s a little sad as well. This list was always one of the more manageable of my reading lists, which meant that finishing was always a viable goal. Having that goal within reach was exciting, and gave me something to look forward to. Now, I’m done, and I’m going to have to turn elsewhere for that driving motivation. Oh sure, I’ve got plenty of lists to keep me busy. But finishing this list is kind of like the end of an era … the end of a certain stage of my life. I started a teenager, and finished in the waning years of my 20’s – that’s an important time in anyone’s life, and these books largely defined it for me. I won’t forget them.

Plus, there’s always time for re-reading. For more on this topic, check out the post I wrote shortly after turning 25, when I still had 10 books left on the list: 25 Books to Read Before You’re 25: Did They Make a Difference?

A brief guide to northern Michigan bookstores: Traverse City

As I’ve already shared, J and I recently returned from a lovely week-long vacation in northern Michigan, specifically the Traverse City region. While we made sure to hit up all the important sites – namely, lots of wineries and breweries – I also made a point to visit as many independent bookstores as I could. While it sometimes feels like I have to drive all over town to find a great, welcoming indie here in Metro Detroit, one can’t go a few feet Up North without stumbling across some great book shop, all of which are incredibly different and special.

Obviously, we didn’t go to EVERY bookstore in the Traverse City region (remember: wineries and the beach were calling), but here’s a brief guide to the ones we revisited, as well as the ones we discovered for the first time.

Horizons Books

photo 4

This is the place it seems every book lover visits in Traverse City, not surprising considering it’s on Front Street in the heart of historic downtown Traverse City. Horizons was the biggest indie I visited, with three floors of books and coffee accessible on two of those levels. I think this place can feel a little sterile sometimes, but I absolutely adore its collection of bargain books in the basement – we ended up buying three great titles for less than $15. Plus, the place is big enough to hold readings and book clubs, and is always hopping.

Brilliant Books

This was a new one for me, which is surprising considering it’s also on Front Street in Traverse City. I think this is one of my favorite new bookstores. The shop is in an older building with a charming front window display, and so it wins the cute factor. It’s not huge, but it’s well laid out and with plenty of browsing space. But what I loved most was how well curated the space was; it felt like the employees have taken great care to create meaningful displays, highlighting great titles rarely seen in big box bookstores. I definitely want to return.

Leelanau Books

The other little town we hit up while we were north was Leland, MI on a particularly nasty and rainy day. I didn’t know this shop existed (didn’t see on the visitors’ map, that is) until we were forced to duck inside to escape the gale. It’s very small, but completely charming. It’s in a long, narrow space, so it’s a little cramped making your way from front to back, but they had a great section on northern Michigan history and nature guides. Remind me to buy a book on wildflowers sometime – how adorable would it be to learn the names of your local wildflowers? I have to do it.

Good Old Books

photo 5 (1)Good Old Books, however, wins – hands down – for my favorite bookstore of the trip, and perhaps one of my favorite bookstores ever. We kept seeing signs for this place while we were exploring Leland, and so once the rain died down, we hiked a block outside downtown, following signs until it led to…a random house? Well, there were arrows saying the “Books” were this way, so we kept going until we found ourselves in the back room of master bookseller George Ball’s house, where he has amassed a huge collection of used books. He specializes in signed copies, rare books, and the Rivers of America series – Ball said he may have one of the largest complete collection of this series in the country. His books were unfortunately a tad too expensive for me, though it was awesome browsing his shelves. Of course, the space is small so you can’t escape a conversation with Mr. Ball, though why would you want to? The man is fascinating and full of stories, and even taught this English major/future librarian/former bookseller/all around book nerd a fact or two.

And those were the spots we hit up this trip. I’m sure there are some that we missed and I’d love to hear about them! What other great indies are Up North, in the Traverse City region or elsewhere? Because really, there’s no tourism like book tourism.

Sentences to knock your socks off

I read for a lot of reasons. I also pick the books I do read for a lot of reasons.

But one of the biggest reasons I read – and why I select the books I do – is to find special sentences. The passages or lines that get stuck in your throat, drive the wind out of your lungs, and completely knock your socks off. I absolutely love discovering the beautiful things that can be achieved with language, and always keep an eye (and ear) out for it while reading.

That’s why I derived way too much pleasure reading The American Scholar’s recent list of the 10 best sentences from literature, which included lovely lines from F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Vladimir Nabokov. It got me thinking about the best passages I’ve discovered in books over the years, many of which I’ve documented here at Paperback Fool, if only so I don’t forget them. (You can find all of these by searching the “Great Quotes” category on the right).

Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is our strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful and part of a greater certainty, as your own father always said in his sermons and to you at home. And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.

Tinkers, Paul Harding

I’ve always felt that there was something pathetic in the founders of religion who made it a condition of salvation that you should believe in them. It’s as though they needed your faith to have faith in themselves. They remind you of those old pagan gods who grew wan and faint if they were not sustained by the burnt offerings of the devout. Advaita doesn’t ask you to take anything on trust; it asks only that you should have a passionate craving to know Reality; it states that you can experience God as surely as you can experience joy or pain. And there are men in India today – hundreds of them for all I know – who have the certitude that they have done so. I found something wonderfully satisfying in the notion that you can attain Reality by knowledge. In later ages the sages of India in recognition of human infirmity admitted that salvation may be won by the way of love and the way of works, but they never denied that the noblest way, though the hardest, is the way of knowledge, for its instrument is the most precious faculty of man, his reason.

The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham

But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

She enjoyed people with glasses the way only someone who doesn’t need to wear glasses can enjoy glasses on other people – can find them “nice”.

The World According to Garp, John Irving

And while I do enjoy the “famous lines” from the famous novels – do I need to repeat the first line of Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina? – but I find the passages that hit me the hardest come from the most unexpected places. American Scholar includes a line from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in its top ten list, but it’s not MY FAVORITE line from all of literature – a line that still sends shivers down my spine:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’.

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

Reading the book before seeing the movie

I recently read a particularly baffling post about seeing the movie vs. reading the book first. An inocuous subject, to be sure. But a subject about which all book lovers chant with the same voice: “Read the book first.”

This person wanted to argue the latter and while I won’t comment on the context in which I saw this post, I felt the need to comment. An insatiable need to comment. However, in an attempt not to come off as a snooty, raging bitch in the comments section, I decided to step back, pour myself a cup of coffee and utilize this blog instead for my ragings.

Now whether this person is serious, I don’t know. But the post insinuated that it’s somehow better to see the movie before reading the book. They argued that a movie is simply one interpretation of the book, and that movies aren’t going to please everyone. They said they’re tired of hearing “Oh, the book was better” after coming out of a theater. They said that seeing the movie, and then reading the book if you liked it, will give you a better appreciation of both. They also said that one should not read books when they’re at the zenith of their popularity.

OK, let’s take a step back here and breathe. First of all, I will say that there are some stories that translate better on film than in writing. However, most of the time, this is largely due to poor writing. Though they’re not my films of choice, I don’t have a problem watching a Bourne Identity movie. In fact, I very much enjoyed the first film when it came out in high school (though that could have been due to Matt Damon). However, when I tried reading the book awhile back…no thank you, m’am. Terrible. Awful. Do I need to go on? The same is true with films like the James Bond series; I’m not one for the mystery/thriller genre, so I’ll pass on the books. But do you have Daniel Craig in your back pocket? All right, now we’re talking.

That being said, if you truly want to appreciate a story, there is a reason why you should ALWAYS read the book first, before seeing the movie: the book is the author’s original conception of this story. The book is where it all begins. The book is the nexus point for any kind of interpretation, no matter how great. If you want to truly gain a full appreciation for a story, it is ALWAYS best to first read the book and see what the author intended for this world and the characters. Only then are you able to fully judge the films for the interpretations they are.

There are some caveats to this:

  1. Again, there are some genres that you, personally, are not going to care for in written form. If Transformers was a book, I don’t think I’d ever have the desire to read it before gleefully watching cars turn into robots (believe it or not, I’ve always liked those movies…go figure). 
  2. There are some movies we watch before even knowing they were books first. And sometimes, we don’t know if we’re even going to like the books until we watch the movies. Joel and I saw Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World a few years back not knowing what we were getting ourselves into. We absolutely loved it, and subsequently picked up the graphic novel series, devouring them in a few days. In that case, great movies lead to the discovery of great books, which is always a good thing.
  3. There are also many movies out there that are truly better than the books, and once I see the movies, I find little desire to read the books. However, this usually goes hand-in-hand with with the first caveat; these are usually genres that I typically don’t enjoy anyway. The Godfather is considered a masterwork of film, but the books are kind of dry. I love The Godfather, but I don’t feel bad about not reading Mario Puzo.

All that being said, when it comes to true literary masterpieces, or books I want to read anyway, I will always – with very few exceptions – wait to read the book before I watch the movie. It’s that simple. When Les Mis came out last year, I knew I’d want to see it. But I also knew it would be best if I took the time to read Victor Hugo first (and boy am I glad I did because that book is 100x better than that movie). I have never seen one episode of Game of Thrones. Do I want to? Sure. But am I going to wait until I plow through the rest of the series? You bet (the first book was so good, so why not?).

And does my brother – the brother who refuses to read popular books just because they’re popular – now have a greater appreciation for The Hobbit after he baffled us all last year by reading Tolkien’s book before seeing the first movie? You bet your ass.

Now, I say all this, but does it mean I exit every theater holding my nose up high and asserting that, “(sniff) Well, the book was much better, if I do say so myself.” Of course not. I understand that films are interpretations of the original material. I don’t even mind when filmmakers take some artistic liberties in order to best translate the book into film. Unlike many Tolkien nuts, I didn’t care that The Fellowship of the Ring omitted the entire Tom Bombadil storyline; it simply wouldn’t have worked well with the film, and it would have confused viewers coming to the Lord of the Rings for the first time. Also, my favorite cinematic version of Pride of Prejudice – one of my FAVORITE books of all time – is the one that took the most artistic liberty and didn’t hew to the book, page for page, like the BBC’s miniseries, for example. I appreciate a good movie that can capture the spirit of the book, as I know that’s almost as hard as adhering to the plot.

But those who insist that seeing the movie counts as reading the book – no. Just, no. Like I said, movies and books are two different beasts, and no matter how you feel about the movie, you may feel completely different about the book. Some movies are just bad interpretations of the books they mimic, and judging those stories by the films alone will leave you with a stunted appreciation for the original vision of the author. Plus, even if the films are amazing, there’s always a chance to discover more within the original book. I can’t even imagine watching Harry Potter (great movies, all of them) without having read the books first. Not only are the books truly better, but the world is richer and allows you dive deeper into the characters and their lives.

Plus, some movies are just bad when it comes to translating plot, which is the most unfortunate of all. Nearly every Stephen King adaptation (with the exception of movies like Stand By Me, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption) fails to live up to King’s original stories. I loved Under the Dome but the CBS miniseries insisted on changing/making up a major plot point within the first minute of the first episode, so I just turned it off. Hell, the Dark Tower series, considered to be King’s masterwork, is practically impossible to translate to film or television, though it’s been considered several times.

Suffice it to say, if you refuse to read, or insist on using movies as your guide to great reading, you’re going to miss a lot. A LOT. And that’s only too bad for you, because to risk sounding like a ALA poster, there’s wonderful, powerful, magical things to be discovered in books. Relying on a movie is like trying to appreciate a train when you’re standing at the station watching it whiz by. You got to ride that train, girl, and see where it takes you.

>end rant<