When I was a kid, I noticed a lot of weird tropes in the books I read. Like, the author would say “grown-ups don’t understand X,Y, and Z,” when the book was obviously written by a grown-up. Characters would say “this is just like something that would happen in a book!” when, duh, they were in a book. And all of the main characters loved to read. All of them.
Even if they were a medieval peasant, some random priest would have trained them in the art of reading and writing.
It forms an odd kind-of a self-perpetuating cycle. Sure the kids who love to read may find a relatable character and continue to love to read, but the kids who don’t love to read aren’t going to be converted any time soon if every book they pick up is about someone who’s completely unlike them.
As a kid who struggled to read and only managed to wade through about one book for every ten my sister Amy devoured, I always felt like the bookworm club was something that belonged to her, and to those characters, but not to me.
I was reminded of this self-perpetuating cycle when I took literature and writing classes in college, and once again felt like I was standing on the outside of some exclusive club. This was the club of literary fiction. Genre fiction, you see, was for the uneducated masses. True writers had to love literary fiction.
They’d give us “fantastically brilliant” short stories to read, bizarre plotless things overstuffed with similes. “I once had a class with this author,” they’d say, or “I heard this author speak once.” But I’d never heard of those authors, nor had I ever heard of my teacher’s published works, and suddenly I’d wonder if all the literary world did was pass stories around to each other and tell each other how brilliant they were.
In the last writing class of my college career, we were learning how to write linked collections of short stories. During the term we read three examples of linked collections: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat. A Visit from the Good Squad was the most fun to read, but in the end I had to settle for The Dew Breaker as my favorite. It explored the Haitian-American experience in the wake of the Duvalier dynasty, something I knew very little about. It also explored the concept of an unspeakably evil person deciding to become “good.” (Jesus’ Son was just a bunch of incoherent stories about a guy who drove around town listlessly and did drugs with his friends and watched people die.)
During our last class session, the teacher asked us which of the three books we’d liked best. And my jaw fell to the ground as every. single. person. said, “Jesus’ Son.”
“It was just…his way with words was amazing. I found myself underlining, like, every single sentence,” said Justin. Which was true. I know enough about writing to know that those were some gorgeous sentences about nothing.
“I agree,” said our teacher. “Honestly, a lot of Danticat’s sentences were kind-of clunky.”
Also true. But.
I’d rather live in an ugly house than in a pile of beautiful bricks, I thought but did not say.
Now, I will freely admit that that sentiment may have been my own brand of snobbery. Because if people love their beautiful bricks, what is that to me?
And yet, I firmly believe that reading is a magical form of storytelling that is accessible to all. We just have to stop telling kids that The Great Illustrated Classics aren’t worth reading because of how cringingly watered-down they are, or that they’re not true readers if they only like The Hardy Boys.
And we have to stop telling adults that only the beautiful bricks are works of art and stories worth telling.
We have to stop excluding people from the bookworm club.