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When Books Could change Your Life
September 25, 2008 1:34 PM   Subscribe

When Books Could Change Your Life: an excellent essay on Children's literature by Tim Kreider, (previously), on the importance of reading as cultural socialization.
posted by Jon_Evil (32 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very Nice! Thanks for posting it.


I was just thinking today about an issue of Legion of Super Heroes I read as a kid (Mike Grell art for those of you in the know.) I got rid of that issue at one point and had to rebuy it, but I realized that I had read the story so many times that I almost didn't need the physical issue anymore. (It was the story where Braniac 5 is at a chess convention or something and he has to give the rest of the Legionnaires advice remotely as to how to fight a battle. The villain breaks in on Brainiac 5's channel, and disguises his voice, and proceeds to give the Legionnaires fatal advice, telling them to attack from the front, and they trust Brainiac 5 so much that they do it. And they end up winning the battle, because the villains troops didn't expect this.

This issue points to what he was talking about in the article -- how these stories teach us how to be a human being in the world. I remember thinking as a kid, "They trust Brainiac 5 so much that they will follow what seems like suicidal advice to them, because the advice is from him. Wow." I believe the title of the story is "March of the Doomed Legionnaires".)
posted by wittgenstein at 1:55 PM on September 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


All children must read Le Petit Prince (translated into their language of course). MUST. Lots of other greats in there as well. I'm sure someone will be along shortly to pooh-pooh this essay (maybe even to pooh-pooh Pooh), but I liked it.

The big kids' reading boom of the 90s and Naughts ended up being things like Harry Potter, which for all its plotting intricacies is still just a fairly basic adventure story. What do the Harry Potter books say? That evil is punished? Like a thousand stupid movies don't say the same thing every second of our miserable media-saturated lives.

I had a wild, fantastic hope, for years, before Deathly Hollows came out, that in the last book Voldemort would be offed in the first few pages, and the story could get to what I think is really most interesting and powerful about the books, the divide between wizarding folk and "muggles." Isn't "muggle" itself a dismissive term used to write folks off as less important? The wizard/muggle divide that demands examining, but the series just takes it for granted. Don't any of the characters care that they've written off the vast majority of humanity, not only that but keep all kinds of stuff purposely out of their pretty little brains, using "memory charms," an idea Orwell would have a ball with?

They even go out of their way to make muggles forget about their experiences with magical creatures, how messed up is that? If there were really unicorns and dragons in the world, wouldn't you like to the hell know?
posted by JHarris at 1:57 PM on September 25, 2008 [6 favorites]


I may have brought this hope up before, now that I think of it. Sorry if this is a repeat.
posted by JHarris at 1:59 PM on September 25, 2008


The hoary explanation is that "the golden age" of imaginative literature is twelve; & what we read at that age is what will be loved forever, no matter how mature our tastes become in other areas.

Although my love of reading is strong, I think its disingenuous to disregard the role of TV in this magical age. I long for the very feel of transgression that you get from watching B monster moving on TNT at 3 in the morning at the age of 13. Oh, Satanic Rites of Dracula, where are you now?
posted by khaibit at 2:04 PM on September 25, 2008


I've been thinking a LOT about "what are the essential children's books" recently for various reasons; this is perfectly timed.

In my case, there was one book I had read to me at age four that I went through hell and back trying to find when I was an adult -- Henry The Explorer. It's a pretty tame story, about a little boy who goes out to the woods with his dog to play explorer -- but when I was four, the idea of discovering things just grabbed me and ever since I've always been the kind of person who will go take a walk down thus-and-such a street simply because I'm curious what's there. Like Henry did.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:07 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Although my love of reading is strong, I think its disingenuous to disregard the role of TV in this magical age.

I was thinking the same thing about music videos. Growing up, my parents didn't allow television in the house, but one of my friends had MTV and it strongly shaped the person that I eventually became.

The most important video in shaping me was without any doubt Mix-a-Lot's Baby Got Back, which more or less completely altered the way that I viewed attractiveness. I grew up in a white-bread suburb with white-bread media and white-bread social norms. There were a million different things that no one ever actually came out and said, but that were simply assumed. White girls were prettier than darker girls, and blondes were the prettiest of all. There was an equal and inverse relationship between the number of pounds a girl weighed, and how attractive she was. Nobody told me these things, but at the same time, everybody told me these things.

The video for Baby Got Back was, for me, on par with Jesus throwing all of the moneychangers out of the temple. Mix-a-Lot denounced the foul lies that had been told to me my entire life. He freed me to understand that there were other forms of beauty, and they were equally valid. He caused me to question everything that I had ever been told, and examine it with a critical focus.

Also, he rapped on top of a giant ass.

The other extremely influential video of my youth was, embarrassingly enough, Billy Idol's Rock the Cradle, which is directly responsible for my moving out of the suburbs and into the city. When I grow up, I told myself, I'm going to move to the city, and the hot girl next door is going to come over and dance, and then she'll spill wine on her shirt and she'll have to take it off, and then we'll make out while Billy Idol watches us. Life's going to be like that all the time.

And so far, it has been.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 2:22 PM on September 25, 2008 [17 favorites]


I enjoyed that, thanks.
posted by everichon at 2:23 PM on September 25, 2008


At twelve years old, my favorite book was Paris During the Terror. In it, I learned that it's always better to murder revolutionaries in the bathtub and you should always keep your eyes open around a guy like Robespierre, especially if you happen to be his friend.


A lot of kid lit seemed patronizing and disingenuous to me even when I was a kid ( I generally found the villains more sympathetic ). My favorite books (the ones that really blew my mind) were the ones I read later, some much later. I think proposing that Flowers in the Attic, which I read at twelve, somehow made a more significant mark on me than, say, The Savage Detectives(which I read about six months ago), is a little preposterous.
posted by thivaia at 2:46 PM on September 25, 2008


I read The Great Brain series by Scott Fitzgerald as a young kid. Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach is by far my favorite book ever, as I have read almost all of Dahl's work- including his adult shorts and erotica...

But at the age of twelve, the age the essay mentions in the beginning, my older brother gave me Brave New World by Huxley. I read it that Christmas night. The Orwell books soon followed and I was on a roll. Farenheight 451 not long after that. A couple years later, I would dive into Hesse. I read all these cult/underground books at a very impressionable age.

Everything by Salinger.

Now, I must admit, even though I love all those books and would gladly read more like them, I am a little warped because of these works of fiction.

Is this a very garden variety experience? I kind of like my warped sense of perspective.

I plan on giving James and the Giant Peach with the movie to a three year old, for her birthday, which is soon.
posted by captainsohler at 3:08 PM on September 25, 2008



Is this a very garden variety experience?


My 13-14 year old reading list was full of the sort of books frequently stolen from my hometown book shops (the Beats, Ken Kesey, Salinger, etc). Maybe they did warp my perspective, though given my real life at 13/14, my perspective was already pretty good and warped as it was.

The only downside to reading this stuff early is that I sort of got it all out of my system by the time my friends embraced it, which sometimes left me out of the "Oh My God, isn't On The Road, like, the best book ever!!!!" conversations that seemed ubiquitous my freshman year of college.
posted by thivaia at 3:52 PM on September 25, 2008


These stories are products of the same German child-rearing tradition that produced grownups like Hitler.

It would be have been a lot better without this shit.
posted by rodgerd at 4:18 PM on September 25, 2008


"the golden age" of imaginative literature is twelve

I was reading Eric Lustbader - the Ninja, the Miko, that type of stuff. And yes, it affected me and my imagination for life.
posted by Megami at 4:27 PM on September 25, 2008


"Oh My God, isn't On The Road, like, the best book ever!!!!" conversations that seemed ubiquitous my freshman year of college.

Yep!

Great story about On the Road: Upon reading it, I singed my name in the inside cover and asked each subsequent reader to do the same. About 8 years later, somebody showed me the same book, complete with page filling signatures. I exclaimed that is was great and that I hoped it would continue.

And no, while it is a great book, it is not the best book ever.
posted by captainsohler at 4:29 PM on September 25, 2008


Most people desperately want someone to tell them what life's about, what people are for, what we're supposed to do--how to be a human being. But serious literature, at least since the 19th-century, has been disdainful of fulfilling any didactic obligation. Sorry, kids, that isn't what art is for.

A book can be didactic without being too obvious about it.
posted by ersatz at 5:06 PM on September 25, 2008


I was re-reading 'Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada'. It really shaped my perception of gender, and who I think I am.
posted by Phalene at 5:06 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yes! So many wonderful, wonderful books that left their mark on me.

A wonderful link and thanks for posting!
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 7:10 PM on September 25, 2008


This essay would be so much better if Tim Kreider stopped trying to speak for the entire world population of avid readers, and only spoke for himself. Personally, his description of his adult reading life sounds very boring and unenthused, but maybe that's just me.
posted by bettafish at 7:33 PM on September 25, 2008


Nthing the thanks. Best of the web.

It occurs to me that this is less about good childrens books, and more about what good adult books should be. We're wired to learn by example from stories (that's how oral traditions work, after all). If the lessons that come from literature and non-fiction are too didactic, too utilitarian or too empty, we feel empty too. That's why The Purpose-Driven Life was so popular. For my money, a book which really tells you about how to live life is Thomas Merton's No Man is an Island.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:48 PM on September 25, 2008


Boy, there was some great book that we read in 4th grade, and for the life of me, as fabulous as it was, I can't remember the title. The story was nominally (I believe now) about a family trying to solicit storks to nest on their roof, but the subtext was life in a fishing town (in Denmark, maybe?) from the perspective of a young person. Any help here would be greatly appreciated -
posted by newdaddy at 8:38 PM on September 25, 2008


This is an inspiring post -- makes me want to do a lot more research.

Meanwhile, books that unabashedly purport to supply all the answers ... "Religious" comprises its own category on publishers' best-seller lists, so mammoth and lucrative is this market.

... I would suggest that the vast popularity of this genre is because it is effectively children's literature for adults


I am reminded of how many students I would have in my intro to Lit classes who would try to persuade me that "Christian" novels or romance novels, or Dan Brown's stuff was equal to reading college-level novels. Most would respond to books on my lists eventually. and could even understand the difference. Meanwhile, there are millions of students who don't ever get challenged to look beyond those 'culturally popular' reading choices.
posted by Surfurrus at 10:53 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


What do the Harry Potter books say?

That even though you feel like an unwanted outcast in your own family and seem to be completely alone in life, you are actually special, even magical, and there is a whole confusing world of magical people just like you who will love and respect you and treat you like you are a very welcome part of their family--perfect for ackward teens who never seem to fit in, in their struggles to find their place in the world. (I liked the books as an adult too).

I've been reading the Roald Dahl books to my young sons. I started with the fun short ones, The Twits and The Enormous Crocodile. Then I read The BFG, which I had never read before. It was also my first long multiple night book with them and I wasn't sure if they would stay with it. By the third night the oldest (age 8) was fidgeting and seeming to be very distracted. "I've lost them" I thought. "Maybe we'll stop here and read something short," I told them. He gave me a look of horror. "Don't stop now!!" I had misread him--he was fidgeting because he was so excited about the story he couldn't contain himself.
posted by eye of newt at 11:57 PM on September 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


The story was nominally (I believe now) about a family trying to solicit storks to nest on their roof, but the subtext was life in a fishing town (in Denmark, maybe?) from the perspective of a young person.

Sweet God, I remember that too...and from about the same age. Maybe it was some kind of nationalized standardized something?


I am reminded of how many students I would have in my intro to Lit classes who would try to persuade me that "Christian" novels or romance novels, or Dan Brown's stuff was equal to reading college-level novels. Most would respond to books on my lists eventually. and could even understand the difference. Meanwhile, there are millions of students who don't ever get challenged to look beyond those 'culturally popular' reading choices.

Then again, the classics of today were the "culturally popular" books of yesterday. Also -- they may not be masterworks from a literary standpoint, but I still consider them valuable because they reinforce the idea that "you know, reading can be a fun thing too." Challenge some of those students before they're ready and you run the risk of them coming to associate reading with "homework" and they downshift to nothing. But let them do as they want for their own leisure reading and in time, they may pick up harder stuff.

My brother was a good example of this -- throughout high school, he read absolutely nothing but Sports Illustrated and a lone unauthorized biography of Bob Marley. But my mother said nothing -- as long as he did his homework reading, she just let him do as he chose for his leisure reading, and kept her mouth shut. And then after only a few months in college he suddenly blossomed and was asking us for Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson books that Christmas.

This is also what I think the value of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Harry Potter, etc. books to be -- maybe there's a moral merit, maybe a literary one, or maybe not. But -- shoot, they're getting kids to sit down with a book, and that is never a bad thing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:07 AM on September 26, 2008


Was the stork book called A Wheel on the School, perhaps?

I liked that one a lot.
posted by Tapioca at 10:41 AM on September 26, 2008


Yes, that's it! Thank you so much for returning a bit of my childhood to me! I got misty, just reading the sample text. This was read to me in 4th grade - would have been 1972 or 73, by Mrs. McElheny, God bless her, who was beyond retirement even then.

When our daughter is a little older, I will surely try this on her.
posted by newdaddy at 11:08 AM on September 26, 2008


Then again, the classics of today were the "culturally popular" books of yesterday. Also -- they may not be masterworks from a literary standpoint, but I still consider them valuable because they reinforce the idea that "you know, reading can be a fun thing too." - EmpressCallipygos

"College Reading" in an intro to lit class is not just the DWM (dead white men). The lists I used included a diverse range -- including a lot of contemporary and world lit -- Alice Walker, Vonnegut, Laura Esquivel, Milan Kundera, Margret Atwood, Kawabata and Mishima, Ken Kesey, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Sherman Alexie, Barbara Kingsolver ... and so on. Even sci-fi (speculative fiction) is included -- Piercy, Bryant, Stephenson , Gibson, etc.

As I understand what Tim Kreider was saying -- and I agree -- it seems that our culture has 'dumbed down' reading so that adults only want 'child books for adults'. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with escapist reading (detective, romance, etc.) -- but that there is a huge difference in the experience of reading those books and in reading a book that really challenges us to look at ourselves, our world and our assumptions. The latter takes work, reflection and INTERACTION with the ideas in the books. (even critical thinking?!)

The horrible effects of having a populace (the US) that *defends* being only 'escapist/consumer-readers' can be seen in our present political crisis. We are a stunted nation.




Yes, I know ... first they will kill the intellectuals.

Ho hum.

posted by Surfurrus at 12:09 PM on September 26, 2008


As I understand what Tim Kreider was saying -- and I agree -- it seems that our culture has 'dumbed down' reading so that adults only want 'child books for adults'.

I disagree -- not with the notion that there are some adults who only want "kidult" books, but with the notion that this is a new phenomenon.

For every book in The Canon, whenever it was published, there were probably dozens published at the same time that may have been wildly popular at the time but died a quick and deserved death. For every learned member of the nobility there were dozens of lesser-read people who read cheap stuff -- if they could read at all. The stuff that was good enough to stay, stayed, and the stuff that wasn't good enough got forgotten. A hundred years from now the bulk of the books people are reading are going to have been forgotten, and only a small handful of engaging and challenging books will still be read.

It was ALWAYS thus, is my point.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:31 PM on September 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


It was ALWAYS thus, is my point.
posted by EmpressCallipygos

Aside from comparing reading choices of "nobility and serfdom" to those of a democratic society that requires intelligent involvement of it's citizenry in order to sustain the system ... what IS your point?

... is it that this reading choice ("escapist/consumer reading") has "always been thus" ... and is thus (logically) fine is for our society now?

... or is it that educators should simply require only Harry Potter/Dan Brown/Christian-romance novels for all age/courses, because ... "at least they are reading"?



I think you missed my point.
posted by Surfurrus at 1:34 PM on September 26, 2008


Aside from comparing reading choices of "nobility and serfdom" to those of a democratic society that requires intelligent involvement of it's citizenry in order to sustain the system ... what IS your point?

...that....there have always been kids in classes who didn't want to read, and the world seems to have gotten along just fine -- because alongside them were kids who DID want to read.

Just as there are kids in your class today who DO want to read and DO rise to the challenge. For every kid telling you that "Left Behind" is a new classic, there is another kid rolling his eyes and wishing they would shut up, and then going home at night and reading Vonnegut. For every kid that digs in his heels and doesn't want to read what you're offering, there is another kid who eventually will come around.

I promise you, the kids you're seeing who are insisting that popular novels are just as worthy are NOT the only opinions out there. The fact that you see kids who don't want to read doesn't mean that there AREN'T also kids who DO want to read.

THAT is my point.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:56 PM on September 26, 2008


Empress, I never said that I was seeing kids that didn't want to read.

Scroll up ... I wrote: I am reminded of how many students I would have in my intro to Lit classes who would try to persuade me that "Christian" novels or romance novels, or Dan Brown's stuff was equal to reading college-level novels.

AND ...

Most would respond to books on my lists eventually. and could even understand the difference. Meanwhile, there are millions of students who don't ever get challenged to look beyond those 'culturally popular' reading choices.

I come from a very liberal background that 'threw off the chains of pedagogy' and worked to allow students to explore and 'find relevancy' in all their studies. Much of that philosophy was simply damaging to a whole generation. I teach those students now -- the ones who are angry and ashamed of how little foundational knowledge -- or 'brain tools' -- they have to help them grapple with this very, very complex world we live in.

Trying to "be nice" by assuming that a student -- ANY student -- could not take on the challenge of reading on a 'higher' level (a much more satisfying and even life-transforming level) is not only insulting but possibly crippling. It is dangerous to do this to the students -- as well as to our fragile society.

Damn, at the very least, find a simple, short, easy-to-read *higher level* novel that does more than grind through sitcom-style, fairy tale drivel!

i.e., ... for young adults with reading difficulties: Of Mice and Men ... Nectar in a Sieve ... Waves ... The Good Earth ... The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You ... etc.
for children: A Wrinkle in Time ... Island of the Blue Dolphins ... etc.

(Actually, I don't teach children, and would bow to others on their recommendations.)
posted by Surfurrus at 3:11 PM on September 26, 2008


And ... btw ... I have found that -- simply by accomplishing this task of reading something she would never choose herself -- a 'non-reader' *is* transformed. She will never shy away from challenging her reading choices again ... and .. she is (more often than not) alive with the words, images, worlds, ideas that she has found *for herself*.

I think that is what the original article was saying.
posted by Surfurrus at 3:17 PM on September 26, 2008


I never said that I was seeing kids that didn't want to read. Scroll up ... I wrote: I am reminded of how many students I would have in my intro to Lit classes who would try to persuade me that "Christian" novels or romance novels, or Dan Brown's stuff was equal to reading college-level novels.

Fair enough; I wasn't clear in my post then.

I think I was responding more to:

Meanwhile, there are millions of students who don't ever get challenged to look beyond those 'culturally popular' reading choices.

I sensed a hand-wringing in your tone at this state of affairs, and I just didn't feel like that it was a situation to fret about quite as much as I sensed you were, because a) there are millions of students who ARE challenged to look beyond those "culturally popular" choices, fortunately, and b) I'm not convinced that this is indicative of an overall downward trend, as it seemed you were implying.

I absolutely think that everyone should be encouraged to push themselves, and that everyone would benefit, as it seems you do as well. But what I DON'T think is that the fact that not everyone IS so challenged is causing any Great Sudden Overall Dumbening Of Society.

Is it a tragedy that more kids aren't challenged? Yes. But it isn't a NEW tragedy, is my point. We are actually no worse off in this regard than we have ever been.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:26 PM on September 26, 2008


Books were very formative in my childhood. Books offer an extended narrative that can be taken anywhere. Books can be very personal and offer the reader a story that needs no one else's stamp of approval. I was introduced to many adult concepts through books; there is no division between PG-rated and R-rated books.

Through books I learned that the world had many wonderful things in it, and also many horrific things. Roald Dahl's short story "The Swan" taught me that bad things can happen to good people. Gary Paulsen's novel "The Car" showed me the value of independence. In countless other books I learned of ethics and of philosophy, of mathematics and of language, of love and of loss.

I am who I am today, I believe what I believe, I do what I do, because of my literary childhood.
posted by Monochrome at 7:45 PM on September 28, 2008


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