Saturday, December 5, 2009

Youth reading culture!

I've been reading The Golden Compass to the kids lately, and, aside from a rather disorienting in-media-res opening that seems designed more like the beginning of a movie than the beginning of a book, I'm amazed at how good it is. Its explorations of the nature of the soul are very surprising and quite moving, even to me. And when, the other night, while the kids were in bed, I accidentally picked it up instead of the book I had been reading for class, I was struck by a wave of disappointment that I wouldn't get to continue reading alone.

Anyway, my students were a bit bored during the last class of the semester on Thursday, in part because we were discussing The Unconsoled, which only about 5 out of 35 liked. (To me, it's maddening in only the best possible way; to others, it's just maddening.) There's a section in which the protagonist, Ryder, recalls his childhood "training sessions," during which he would challenge himself to resist, while alone, the desire to go to his parents, and instead would endure the pain of separation.

I told my students that this reminded me of the scene in The Golden Compass where Lyra, its protagonist, is challenged by her daemon (in the book, this is a physical manifestation of the soul that takes the form of a companion animal from which a person cannot be separated by more than a few feet) to speak to a frightening warrior bear, and literally drags her into the conversation, causing feelings of deep pain and desolation. Both this scene and its analog in The Unconsoled are about the creation of the self via an intentional detachment from objects of love.

Suddenly the class woke up. They had all read the book, and they all saw the parallel. The rest of the session was actually pretty interesting. When I told Rhian this later that night, she pointed out that, though we were encouraged to read when we were kids, we lacked any real shared literate culture--there were not many seminal books that every smart kid read, and certainly no series as weighty as Pullman's or as widespread as the Harry Potter books. There was, say, the Hardy Boys, but those books kind of sucked, and you didn't go yammering with your friends about them. She argued--and perhaps will do so some more in the comments--that, far from the conventional wisdom that kids today are being devoured by trash culture, they are rather forming a powerful shared literary experience.

Of course, my Cornell students are a pretty rarefied group--they are all smart, and most are obsessive readers. But it seems to me that Rhian's right, that people of college age today are informed by a shared body of actually quite decent books, which they all understand and can talk about, and which form a common intellectual background that they are building on as adults. We had interesting childhoods, but I don't think we had anything quite like that.

14 comments:

Jon said...

I assume by us you mean late boomers and early Xers? We had public events, film and TV. It is interesting. I loved the Hardy Boys books but I was as embarrassed then as I am now of them. Reading was solitary and not shared. The only common book was Tolkien. But everyone saw (depending on your age) 2001, or for younger people (resolutely NOT me) Star Wars. There was The Godfather, or MASH or Mary on TV, and the assassinations, and Vietnam. I think we had a shared public experience; the sixties and early seventies unfolded before our eyes the way a book does written by a trusted author. Now public life is largely fictionalized, there is no common viewpoint (The New York Times or CBS News) and people are cynical about the media and detached from society. But they do share common books. It's a good thing of course because they are books and because they are well-written. But the are also all fantasy books, so I think you could say that they are developing themselves as private people. The books promote a hermetic spirituality, and present a world of conflict between good and evil. People feel they can't change or affect the real world and retreat into a fantasy world of transformation etc.

Sasha said...

Fantasy books are escapist, but so are fantasy movies. Movies force you to watch the same thing at *exactly* the same time, but everyone reads those books at about the same time, too, and they're passed from friend to friend. I wouldn't say that reading a book at the same time as your friends is more isolating than seeing a movie with them.

Anyway, I'm twenty-three and couldn't get into The Golden Compass for the life of me when I was a kid. Maybe I'm too old to be a part of the Golden Compass experience?

My friends and I, on the other hand, were talking about how Twilight is to this generation what Titanic was for ours. Kids seem to have a need to see a kid finding the Truth. Thirteen-year-olds always seem to need a destined but ultimately safe romance. College stuff is all about identity and discovery and the world is packed with "friendship/clique stories." What do adults need?! What would be the "adult" preoccupation?

jrlennon said...

I was with you, Jon, up until the end of your comment--I think a good narrative, even a fantasy one, can offer strategies for engaging with the world. In my case, I feel as though Asimov, Clarke, and Stephen King turned me into an adult--perhaps we could say that these imagined worlds enabled us to imagine a larger kind of life than we were presently living.

Fantasy books, in my view, are no more escapist than literary books. I do agree with Jon though that books which offer no ambiguity between good and evil are essentially escapist, and that is a quality that common to lots of genres.

The Pullman and Potter series both offer various kinds of moral ambiguity. This isn't a claim for them being excellent (personally I'm not a big Potterite), just that they are more nuanced than most things.

I've never thought about this before, but I think MASH was a very influential series on my moral consciousness.

jon said...

I didn't mean to suggest that 'kids today' are escapist in some way we weren't. I think you were saying that the shared text is a book now, and maybe when we were kids it wasn't. It's funny, my kids range in age from 7 to 23, and they have all read or listened to or watched Harry Potter. So naturally a class of college students have this common touchstone. Does Harry Potter help in moral growth, or inner growth? Maybe. It has moral ambiguity as all good myths should. And it is an ENGLISH not an american book. American film anyway doesn't go in for moral ambiguity. TV on the other hand does. Just look at Don Draper and Tony Soprano. Sasha asked, what do adults want? We want to be 23! (sometimes). Has anyone noticed how many adults read and love Harry Potter?
I just finished Fortress of Solitude. That books had enormous appeal because of the supposedly shared experience of reading Marvel comics. I had friends who did, but I didn't share that at all.

rmellis said...

It's possible that my view of reality has been warped by my working in a book store, but I often see groups of kids or teenagers discussing books -- regular kids! -- which is something that just didn't happen when I was one. I was an obsessive reader, but I read old stuff: Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Richard Peck, Ray Bradbury -- even Judy Blume was kind of old. Kids today know when the next Wimpy Kid, or Twilight, or Rick Riordan, or Warriors book is coming out, and they compete with their friends to read it first. AWESOME!!! Reading is actually part of their popular culture, instead of the nerdy pursuit we all grew up understanding it to be.

There is little that is more heart-warming than seeing a nine-year-old boy jump up and down with excitement because the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid is out.

I feel very positive about the future of literature, actually!

Blythe said...

I suspect convos about both "Looking Glass Wars" and "Looking for Alaska" are going on*. The popularity of realistic YA often gets overshadowed by fantasy blockbusters, but it's not as if it doesn't exist.

Young readers are as eclectic in their tastes as old, grumpy ones. When I was in high school, we were bound together by Hesse, Rilke, Saint-Exupery, Heinlein, LeGuin, Snyder, and Pirsig*. (1975, Montana, bog-standard high school) We handed books around and argued about them all the time. That list is weighted to the fantastic and romantic, but there is a dystopian current there, too. And reality often looks dystopian...especially when a person is seventeen.

*...maybe not as often as clashes between Team Jacob and Team Edward...

rmellis said...

Perhaps it's just us, then, JR, and our pathetic generation....

Blythe said...

Hi rmellis:

One of the advantages that exists today is access to info about book release dates etc. via the Internet. I don't even know if that sort of information was available to the reading public in 1975...
They engage as reviewers too, using their blogs and other online forums as platforms. That does make this gen special, I think.

I have a "Wimpy Kid" enthusiast of my own. I appreciate the image.

Martha Nichols said...

I love thinking about literate kids having a shared book culture. It's such a great reframing of all the current moaning about the death of books and reading.

Here's what nobody's mentioned so far about the shared youth culture of boomers: music. That's what I remember talking about, endlessly, and I found all sorts of wonderful moral (and gender) ambiguity in David Bowie, P-Funk, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith. In fact, Marvel comics aren't the only thread in Fortress of Solitude--funk music is there, too.

TV was the more junky side of youth culture then, but I think Star Trek, in its plaid-pants way, helped plenty of us wrestle with the Prime Directive.

ed skoog said...

I'm with you, Rhian. I see this in the summer camp, not only the vigorous criticism and appreciation the kids have about these books, and the deep deep love, and the social cachet from being able to participate interestingly in the conversation,

but also, as young writers, a sense of mission to be original and compelling the way they find these books. For that most of all.

5 Red Pandas said...

As a school librarian I have the pleasure of seeing students get excited about books. Last year when I was at an elementary school it was Wimpy Kid books, and now in high school it's Twilight and all things vampire. My teen cousin told me she loves Twilight because she loves forbidden romance, which seemed like a good enough reason.

I think there are also some regional teen-literary touchstones, as well. An example of this is Push by Sapphire. It's the kind of book that is super popular in NYC public schools, and has been for years. Since the movie version came out I bought 15 copies and did a book club around it. All 15 books circulated, though only a handful came for the discussion- but it was a great discussion. Very intense.

Perhaps the bar has been raised in general for YA and kids books. Maybe kids and teens have demanded better, or their parents have demanded better.

I don't remember there being books like Looking for Alaska and other equally compelling YA books when I was actually a teen. Maybe I would have taken a little longer to move to adult fiction if they had been around.

Dave said...

Martha: I definitely agree with you. I was actually just talking to a friend of mine about this. I was puzzling over the fact that I didn't really start writing (or reading in the same way that I do now) until I was maybe nineteen or twenty, where all through my childhood I had parents who read voraciously and made me feel guilty for not doing the same, and all these friends who would read something like a book a night, or be writing novel length works at fourteen-years-old. At thirteen I discovered punk music and started devouring albums the way my friends were devouring books. I wrote bad songs that aped the Ramones, and then Nirvana, and then Fugazi and on and on until I was ripping off Bob Dylan. The quality of the stuff I was copying was arguably going up. Music was my inroad to poetry, which eventually led me to realize that I was bad at writing poetry in much the same way that I had been bad (or at least not good) at songwriting. I realized, as I was hashing this over with my friend the other day, that my engaging with music was almost entirely centered around the lyrical content of songs, and that to say that I didn't start reading or writing until later than many of my peers is to knock what I've come to realize is a vital part of literature. Our music at its best is (in terms of perhaps an oral tradition) as much literature as the best poetry or novels.

Dave said...

Point being that, even if we got it though books, we of prior generations still shared literary-cultural landmarks.

McQ said...

I have much, much, MUCH to say about Pullman but there's a tornado warning blaring on the radio and the sky is looking a little green, so I'll just throw my incredible love for Philip Pullman out here and now go retreat to some safer location.

More later!