One of my formative reading experiences was a book with a title I can’t recall and a story I have no recollection of. I was 11, maybe 12 and I picked up a cracked and bent paperback mystery from the library in my small southern hometown. I was old enough that I was reading “grown up” books, but the cover was dramatically illustrated, reminiscent of the comic books I still secretly read.
It was a crime caper, or maybe a detective story. It was a twisty page-turner. Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you what it was about. What I do remember, though, is the ending. The protagonist, the first-person narrator, was revealed to be relating the entire story from a hospital bed, comatose. Perhaps he was actually locked up behind bars. I really don’t recall.
What stays with me—what made this book so important to me—was the mind-blowing feeling of “discovering” the unreliable narrator…being gob smacked, thinking “books can do this?”
I’m sure the plot was boilerplate and the characters two-dimensional, straight out of dime store novel central casting. The writing? Functional. The meaning and subtext? Nonexistent. By objective standards, I’m sure it wasn’t “good.” But it surprised and delighted young me. It made me want to read more.
This book came to mind this week after reading several thought-provoking articles swirling around certain corners of the cultural conversation. A.O. Scott’s New York Times column from early September, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” was the jumping off point (a worthy, but limited in its view, read in its own right). In it, Scott referenced a Slate article from June written by Ruth Graham.
In “Against YA”, Graham argues that “the very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way adult fiction is pleasurable”. While I’d encourage you to read her article for yourself, essentially her arguments are twofold. First, YA asks its adult readers to “abandon the mature insights into” the characters’ perspectives that adults have gained over the years; YA presents teenage perspectives and problems uncritically. Second, YA doesn’t present the “emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction, i.e., the real world”.
I won’t dispute Graham’s major arguments. I essentially agree with them. The pleasures of reading YA as an adult are different than the pleasures of reading adult fiction. What Graham doesn’t acknowledge are the many types of pleasure a reader might be seeking in his or her reading. Like Graham, I love literature that exposes me to “weird facts, astonishing sentences, deeply unfamiliar (to me) characters, and big ideas about time and space and science and love.” Like her, I also enjoy moral and emotional ambiguity; great beauty and truth can be revealed when an artist paints from a palette of various shades of grey.
Graham chides us that as adults we should be better than wanting the “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia” offered by YA, that there are too many great adult books to waste time on reading YA. I get her point. I’m periodically thrown into a flat-tire funk when all the terrific books I’ll never get around to reading, that ever-growing beast, stirs from its usual spot, unnoticed over my shoulder, cranes its head around and makes eye contact.
Even understanding this, I sometimes need the pure cane escapist sugar YA offers. Sometimes the simple, true melody plucked out by Rainbow Rowell or David Arnold in his upcoming debut novel, Mosquitoland harmonize perfectly with what my heart is humming at the moment.
I’m never going to read all the books I want to read. I tend to follow my immediate wants when picking out what to read next. The end result tends to be a fairly balanced reading diet. More importantly, it’s a diet perfect for me. YA, is a piece of that. Admittedly, my experiences in YA are heavily curated by Booksellers’ former children’s manager and her successor, both of whose tastes have proven refined and both of whose recommendations I listen to.
I wouldn’t want to survive solely on even the best YA has to offer and I’d agree with Ruth Graham that adults who never challenge themselves in their reading choices are missing out. But I also acknowledge that not everyone has had the privilege to read all that I have, to experience the many types and genres and authors that have shaped my reading palate. If YA, or any genre, can make a reader of any age swoon, or leave him or her gob smacked thinking “books can do this?”, then I have nothing to offer but a smile and the encouragement to “read on…”
…as for what to read next? Just ask your friendly neighborhood Bookseller.