When I was a kid, I read voraciously. I have always been a reader. But, the things I would read…many parents would classify under the category of “trash”. Romance, horror…well, that about covers it. Judy Blume was probably the closest I came to reading quality books.
During college, when I decided on French as one of my majors, and then decided to take that to the graduate level, I got sidetracked and read book after book of “good” literature. Classics, important stuff. You know, the books that marked significant changes in our world’s approach to storytelling and expository essaying.
Then, school was over. And as hard as I tried to hold myself up to the expectations I had created in grad school. I was “above” all the fluff I used to read. Come on, I had managed to slog through Proust and Les Miserables – more than once even. I had read epic poems in old French (and even understood them, sort of). I had in-depth discussions about how the philosophy of Sartre still has influence on us today in our existential world.
I couldn’t possibly let myself be sucked into the temptation of formulaic romance novels or Steven King’s gratuitous human torture.
Well, I suppose, we can never really escape our true nature. What we want to be, and who we are, sometimes don’t come together easily. And all those books that I accumulated in college, slowly migrated to boxes in the garage. Without the pressure cooker of a competitive grad program, I just couldn’t find the motivation to revisit the 19th century bourgeois life. Instead, I gravitated towards sci-fi, fantasy and pop fiction.
Some of my friends in college drank classic French literature like a fine wine, or guzzled it like beer. Neil Stephenson, that was my beer. The Golden Compass showed me the way. I bled reading Anne Rice. French lit – it made me feel smarter, and it gives me something to talk about when I’m hob-nobbing with important people in important places. But the books that talk to me, are the ones who speak my own language – not the language of “good lit”.
I’ve been reading a lot of chick lit recently. I got kind of tired of the formulaic romance novels. A long time ago actually. I realized I was completely done with the romance genre when I finished reading The Time Traveler’s Wife. That is a love story like no other I had read. I wanted something more complex and uncertain, but which still spoke to me on a level that felt like a friend or neighbor.
Chick lit fills that gap – providing the love stories I hanker to read, yet doesn’t bog me down with flowery language or three-page long descriptions of the love interest’s biceps. In fact, chick lit speaks my language so clearly that I feel like I’m reading a letter from one of my friends, laughing and crying as if the stories were my own.
There is obviously something I’m getting out of reading these books. I read other things too, including a ton of non-fiction. But reading chick lit is like taking a nap. It revitalizes my brain, like a cranial spa. I’m open to anything, but given a choice, right now, I’d choose chick lit.
So, I think about how I read, and what I read, and wonder – did my early years of reading trash mess me up? Did it make me a “bad” reader? Somehow, after years of pretending to read the books I was assigned in school, and writing book reports based on cliff notes and reading the first paragraph of each chapter, I managed to go off to college and become a literature major. I also managed to develop into a relatively competent writer, even though all I wanted to write when I was a kid was sloppy love poems and stories about back-stabbing, boyfriend-stealing friends.
I see my kids now, reading Sponge Bob, Powerpuff girls, Star Wars and Charlie Brown, and think how reading, of any kind, from any source, is good. It’s all good. We are driven to read the things that have meaning for us. And being made to read things we don’t like won’t make us like them. Even if we think that we’re supposed to like them, and we try to like them, if it’s not speaking to us, and doesn’t jive with our true nature, we can’t force ourselves to like it.
Now, can we benefit from reading the classics and knowing who all the authors are and what they wrote about? Sure! Nothing wrong with that at all (especially when playing literature Trivia Pursuit or impressing a boyfriend’s parents). But do we need these things to get along? To be “readers”? To find the written word fascinating and wonderful? I don’t think so.
Some of the stuff that we read now as “classics” were considered “trash” in their own time. Who knows, maybe Bridget Jones’ Diary and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants will one day be listed in the classics, and considered one of the first forrays into a genre that ends up being lauded in the next 50 years as superb cultural commentary? And, does it really matter anyway? There are plenty of happy, successful Americans who don’t read stories for pleasure. And don’t know the classics.
Although, I have to say, for all the people who aren’t reading chick lit, you’re missing out. A good intro to chick lit, IMHO, is Big Love. My favorite so far.
It may be the most “fluff” genre out there after romance, but it’s smarter than most people think, and brings in a whole new kind of story telling that only a 21st century woman can “get”. So for that, it rocks.
Oh, and I can read one book in just a few hours. As a mom, and writer, and 15 other things I’m doing, quick reads are where it’s at.
So, what about you? Do you read “trash”? Do your kids?