I am beyond children’s literature. I am above the YA genre.
Not in a pretentious way, understand. It’s not like I think, Oh, I’m too good for these books. It’s more that I’m too old for them.
I can’t relate to the characters. I don’t see myself in their thoughts and actions. These books are so juvenile, in their stories and the way they’re written.
Don’t get me wrong; these books are great for their intended audiences. Every child should read The Giver and every teenager should read Harry Potter, along with any number of today’s trendy dystopian dramas.
But as for me, that kind of reading is all yesteryear. I’ve been there, done that. I enjoyed my YA season, but now all I’m interested in is gourmet literature. Give me Franzen and Zadie.
Anything less sophisticated will just clog the neural pathways.
Anything less will be a waste.
Anything less is a regression.
Or so I thought.
* * *
You see, I recently finished John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and I realized once again how wrong all those previous thoughts are.
This is a book about a sixteen-year-old and a seventeen-year-old dealing with cancer and life. To tell you flat-out, it’s a teen romance. It’s a rom-com-dram for high schoolers. And, just being honest, it’s not at all the sort of book I would pick for myself.
But it was recommended by a few people whose literary suggestions I trust. So I gave it a whirl.
And it was intoxicating.
The Fault in Our Stars is beautiful. Not necessarily the writing—though it’s thoughtful and sometimes poetic, and many people love the style—but the story itself. This book made me feel for the characters, despite my skepticism. There were so many times while reading when I thought, Yes, it works exactly this way. I empathized with the dreams, appreciated the perils, knew the feelings.
I liked it when Green writes: “I don’t believe that everybody gets to keep their eyes or not get sick or whatever, but everybody should have true love, and it should last at least as long as your life does.”
And “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
And lots of other less-cheesy lines about life, pain, writing, and God.
And reading this gem isn’t the first time I really liked a book I wanted to be ten years too old for.
I’ve felt the same resonance in quite a few stories that I thought would infantilize me.
I’m not exactly sure why, but I’m a little embarrassed to say how much I like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, His Dark Materials, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Wednesday Wars. For some reason it feels like I’m saying, “My favorite food is chicken nuggets,” or “I really like listening to Hanson while playing laser tag.”
I hate the idea of looking childish or naive or dumb.
I’m uncomfortable with the very thought of picking up Divergent, because I might like it. What if, heaven forbid, I actually enjoyed Twilight or anything remotely like it?
You see, there are some lines I’ve not yet crossed. Some I’m not sure I could.
I have this question in my head: In literature, is it worse to be called a baby or a snob?
Really, I suppose those are ridiculous extremes. Folks who read classics exclusively need not be highbrowed, and those who reread Tuck Everlasting ad infinitum need not be immature.
None of this will come as a surprise to those with a tendency toward cross-generational bookishness. So forgive me that I need regular reminders of the merits of John Green and his ilk.
Forgive me that I hate to like The Fault in Our Stars. Forgive me that my default is staid resistance to anything that might appeal to kids who still get recess. Forgive me.
In my defense—though it may be that no defense need be mounted—I consider myself a mature reader. Do you know Tolstoy? I once got 100 pages into Infinite Jest. I just read Palahniuk’s Choke, so what does that tell you? That’s how literarily edgy I am.
But so what?
I don’t read to be edgy.
I read partly to be entertained, but also, in my better moments, to see something I’d not seen before. To be in another person’s head. To live in other worlds, other times, other dangers, other lives.
I read to be moved. Whether that’s in knowledge or emotion or spirit, I don’t much mind.
And, frankly, The Fault in Our Stars, like so many others in the genre, moves. We were all young once. Even children know the sentiments. They know what it is to be human. There’s no rule that says a 200-page young adult novel can’t reveal the world in all its complicated truth and beauty every bit as well as the required tomes of every MFA striver.
No matter the presuppositions we arrive with, the work speaks for itself, as all great art must.
The Fault in Our Stars did not disappoint, and I suspect it will not disappoint you either. If the muse hangs on, I’ll not soon forget it.
So, to borrow and repossess the Dickensian call: Read on, Spirit! Read on!
After a few years spent correcting grammatical errors and writing subtle, clever headlines in a Chicago newsroom, Griffin Paul Jackson (’11) now does aid work with refugees in Lebanon. He writes about that, God, and, when the muse descends, Icelandic sheep. Read him here: griffinpauljackson.com.