Sunday, August 02, 2009

It was going to be a book review, then this happened.

I was even going to title it "Book Review: The Thorn Birds & Me Talk Pretty One Day." I'd even written it in the little title box. I took one little birdwalk and then whole thing went to Hell in a hand basket. See below.

Book Review: The Thorn Birds & Me Talk Pretty One Day

Oh, the dichotomy.

Before I even put my toe into the pool that is this book review, I have to quell the voice in my head of any one of several of my high school English teachers, saying do you really want to tackle those two subjects in the same essay? That's the same sentiment that would have seen my essay handed back to me looking like a nineties version of the illuminated manuscript, with swirls of purple ink cataloging my failures as a human being. Red ink was so passé in the mid-nineties. Red ink might cause peril for our little souls. When written in purple pen, however, phrases like awkward, what were you thinking? and weak conclusion were supposed to be a salve to ease a weary teenage writer's pain. I would have received an essay titled thusly back with something like "Are you sure you don't want to just choose one of those topics to explore here? You've bitten off more than you can chew."


At least now that the circle is complete and I am in the dream-crushing business, I figure I should just grab whatever pen is closest and go to town. No student is going to read my refrain of Where the hell is your thesis?, So What?, and Did you actually read this novel? in her margins and stop to think about what color ink I used. She's going to be too busy crying in the bathroom and lamenting the fact that she is sub-par, as humans go. Or maybe not. But the pen don't enter into it.

It's that same sense of judgement by (well-meaning) English teachers that kept me from reading books like the aforementioned two for YEARS, anyway. Way back when the world was all rainbows and unicorns and A-#1 Hot Dog USA ice cream cones and I was still a naive ninth grader who liked to read, I believed--mistakenly, according to my senior year AP English teacher--that reading anything that you liked was both fun and okay. Cut to me at seventeen, shamed, shoving all my The Cat Who... books to the back of the shelf, thinking that anything I was going to read had to meet that ugly burden of proof set forth by the College Board. That limiting phrase, ...must be of comparable AP Literary Merit. Basically? Fun books were bad books because of another terrible word: formulaic.

I missed out on a lot of great reads when I was convinced that fun was evil. It took major coaxing from E to get me to read the Harry Potter series, which is a joke when you consider how much I thoroughly adore Harry and the gang now. I completely abandoned my old friend the mystery novel, scoffed in the general direction of anything that was non-fiction, and put a restraining order on anything that looked like it might be romance--the greatest offender to the AP English exam grader (and in my mind thus all intelligent people, everywhere). The thing was, it was not like I was enjoying my time spent reading. When I spent my first class for my English major choking down servings of Milton's Paradise Lost, I could barely remember the 12 year old me who had laid in a stack of books at least six high any time we'd go on vacation. Reading for pleasure was all but abandoned, and I tried to live on a fiber-filled intellectual diet that could fit into categories like Classic, Myth, and Original Text. Because what isn't fun about a word like "Hwæt!"?

The thing was, my heart longed for any good stories. The difficulty of the things I was reading for school was outranking their fun value. My love of books just transferred to a love of good movies and bad TV. Need a good story or a peek into someone's life? Look no further than reality TV. Just be sure to leave your dignity at the door. While people I know were writing me off as a book snob, I was busy watching America's Next Top Model, The Real Housewives of Orange County, and My Life on the D List.

I've come back around, and I'm happy. I have to say that I have K to thank for it; she's my number one movie recommender and she knows exactly the kind of story I'd like. More importantly, she knows I like a good story. It's appropriate, in a way, since she was such an amazing history teacher to me because she was such an amazing storyteller. I couldn't read a book about Cleopatra or Rasputin, but to hear her tell it, they were characters in a risqué soap opera, metered out in installments for my entire sophomore year.

My biggest breakthrough (besides with Harry P and the Potterettes) came when I read Gone With The Wind. I had been turning up my nose at that title for years, and when I finally broke down and thought "okay, I'll read your stupid romance novel," it was not romance and not at all what I expected and quickly occupied a place in my heart reserved only for good reads that I respected and cherished at the same time. GWTW isn't trite or syrupy. It's a good story with good characters and more than enough conflict. More importantly, it's enjoyable. If you haven't read it yet, what are you waiting for? I promise you won't be disappointed. Don't be scared of its size. Just read one page at a time.

I used to think that if you didn't like a "smart" book, then basically you were doomed to a career of ditch-digging. But now I will proclaim it loud and proud: I hate Hemingway. I don't want to know what Ivan Denisovich did all day. The Last of the Mohicans is a good movie with an awesome soundtrack, but it is the last thing I'll ever pick up again before I die. I like to talk about The Stranger, but reading it every year when I teach it makes me want to gouge out my eyes with a sharp pencil. Melville? Shelley? Hawthorne? Fugheddaboutit. You see, you don't have to like all this stuff. I'm not going to curl up with a copy of anything by Milton. Yeah, some of us have to read it. And it's good for your brain to try. But it's good for your soul to find something that you thoroughly, adoringly enjoy, and you should read as much of that as possible. If you find good stories on TV, then watch them and enjoy them. Don't even get me started on LOST. Holy Pete.

As you can tell by now, this ain't no book review, sweetheart. That same echo of English teacher voices is making me think that I better hit "New Post" and start a new entry, because the ability to transition from all of this book-related musing to an actual review of either book lies just beyond the reaches of my abilities as a writer.

Short answer? The next post will be a review of The Thorn Birds and Me Talk Pretty One Day. Yes, in the same post. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. We must have had the same AP English teacher at good old EGHS. Only 10 years after passing the darn test have I too finally allowed myself to pick up a book without asking, "What literary merit could this swill possibly hold?" No more book guilt!