Friday, May 3, 2013

Death to Book Snobs! (at least in our homes)

A friend emailed me this great link:

30 Things to Tell a Book Snob

Really what book snobs are doing is comparing. They are examining the reading choices available to the world and determining that their choices are better than others. (I'm sure I do this, by the way—I'm sure I am much more book snobbish than I care to admit)

This article came at a good time, because I've been thinking about "comparing" lately. I've been thinking about how a great deal of the sadness that exists in this world (the modern, first-world anyway) comes from comparing.

The Jones's have a better house than we do, therefore we must be sad.

My children have no apparent talents as compared to the Jones's olympic athletes, therefore we must be sad.

I am not as thin as Mrs. Jones or her daughter or her husband or her cat, therefore I must be sad.

These are all lies of course, and I logically know this, but it still so hard to stop comparing.

Do we do this with reading?

It's interesting to look at what the majority of book clubs for middle-aged American women read. It's very interesting that so many of those books are the same (see Amazon for book club lists for this demographic—they are surprisingly uniform).

Books like this:
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(I purposely put books up there that I have read and enjoyed. There is nothing wrong with these books. They are great. But it's interesting that many of these books have been recommended by Oprah Winfrey.)

Is this a problem? I don't know. Maybe it is. Not because there is anything wrong with these books, but perhaps we feel pressure to read them. Perhaps we feel like we must read what everyone is saying is the greatest book ever, because it will change our lives and we will feel more literary, more in sync, if we read it.

If we were really being true to ourselves and reading what speaks to us, reading what we love, would all these book clubs be so similar? Wouldn't we have a vast array of book clubs reading every sort of book imaginable because we are all so very different? Wouldn't Oprah have a lot less influence on what women in America read if we were more confident in our abilities to choose great books for ourselves?

Even if those books are found in the children's or YA sections of Barnes and Noble?

Now that I think about it, I succumb to this regularly. When people find out that I write, they inevitably ask me if I have read this book or that book and it is always some book like Atlas Shrugged that, yes, I did read long ago, but only because I had to. I always nod. I never explain that not only do I write for children, I almost exclusively read children's books, because that's what I love. I never do that.

This comparing, this snobbery with books, happens to our children too. Even though many adults would never submit to reading the below books because they are written for children, these are the sorts of books that intellectual, bright children must read. Books with stickers on them.

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(Again, nothing wrong with these books!)

But what if they don't like them? Are they less bright?

Then I thought about the mandate from David Coleman, one of the authors of the Common Core (the new educational standards for the majority of children in America).

In this article,,

Coleman explains (using some choice profanity) that he thinks most of what kids read in school is garbage. The article says this:

"the blunt application of these ideas [the idea that children need to see some version of themselves in what they read] has sometimes led to reading lists curated more for inspirational potential than for literary prowess."

In other words, when kids read for inspiration, they are going to be reading something less worthy. When they don't read for literary prowess, they are wasting their time.

I'm not going to argue here for inspirational reading over literary reading.

But I am going to argue for reading.

I'm going to argue that a kid absolutely obsessed with the sea, who loves the idea of captains and islands and adventures, would love the book I loathed more than anything else I read in high school, Heart of Darkness. (Oh, how I hated that book. It was like every time I opened it, my brain turned off. I could smell the characters and landscape and it all smelled like rotten fish. I could see the characters vividly in my mind, and they were the ugliest creatures in the world.) But there were people in my English class that loved it (a thing incomprehensible to me).

One of my favorites that year was, A Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man, no less difficult to read and one many of my classmates hated. But that book spoke to me and the other didn't. I'm not arguing that every book has to speak to every person, but with kids today struggling to pick up a book with all the distractions around them, it is our job as adults to avoid being book snobs. It is our job as adults to shoot down the book snobs, to find books our kids will love based on their content—what the book is about—not on the number of complex sentences in a paragraph or the number of stickers on the cover.

It is our job to stop comparing and to help our kids learn to joyfully, eagerly embrace themselves and find what they truly love.

We can't afford to be book snobs any more, and I hope, if any adults out there don't read because of the book snobs around them, because they don't enjoy the books being read at book club, or they feel like reading children's books, for example, would be a waste of time (even though they greatly prefer them), that they will change their minds. There are hundreds of books out there for every type of person. Thousands, probably.

With that in mind, I'm going to re-recommend my favorite rollicking YA fantasy duet:

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Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith

And I'm also going to recommend one of my favorite books of all time:
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
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Two very different books. As different as night and day, but as my son, Calvin, said when I asked him what he liked better, cats or dogs, "I like them both. They're just different. I don't really compare."

Man, if we could all take that statement to heart, what a better world this would be!

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