One or Several Books

The NYTimes had an article in its “Room for Debate” section (which, admittedly, I usually skip because it is a) about something entirely uninteresting, b) not really a topic that seems to have any room for debate and, c) because it doesn’t load properly in Reeder, the app I use for checking the Times) about books for children and when/if it’s appropriate to allow them to read above their age level. The article can be found here.

For those of who have no patience or interest for it, the responses take two, mostly non-contradictory positions.

1) Don’t stop kids from reading what they want to read because they’re “too young” for it; if a child is really too young for a book, they will recognize and put it down and if they’re willing to get through it, who cares if they’re missing nuance.

2) Don’t give kids books beyond their age level because you want to.

Both of which I can get behind. This was not so much room for debate as a large room of people more or less agreeing. The one (comparative) voice of dissent was Paolo Bacigalupi, who recounts the experience of reading a book that was definitely not age appropriate, encountering a rape scene in the first 50 pages and being traumatized by it. He does note, though, that many of his friends were entirely unbothered by the scene, so his point is closer to “Know thy Child” than “Censor!”

I, personally, would have gotten annoyed at anyone taking books away from me, but I was also the kind of child who just read straight over things she didn’t understand. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve revisited a book I had first read as a child and found myself thinking “Wait, there was sex in this? How did I miss that?” It just entirely failed to register. But, then again, I was also very good at reading things I didn’t really understand. Which is not to say that I didn’t get the story of Pride and Prejudice the first time I read it, merely that I had no idea what the carriages looked like, how the dances were danced, what the characters were wearing, etc. and that never stopped me from following the story. I just let the things that didn’t make sense pass by . This was also my approach to vocabulary, which explains why I cannot pronounce anything. I learned too many words by reading them, rather than learning what they meant.

This makes it sound like my reading was entirely self-directed, which it wasn’t. I do disagree somewhat with the responses that chide parents for giving their children books beyond their age level. Okay, not with the librarian who complains about parents giving A Tale of Two Cities to their eight year olds because they are “precocious”. That’s appalling (and not just because it is Dickens). But, realistically, if I had just been let loose in the library and only read what I picked out myself, I don’t know if I would have ever left the science fiction and fantasy section. (As it is, the library approach leaves what to be desired. I never read Asimov because he was shelved too high for me to reach on my own.) My mother, however, would often give me books and tell me “read this, you’ll like it”. She was usually right. She would also resort to interesting methods when I was a teenager, such as sending me away to camp with reading material carefully selected by her.

So I firmly believe that encouraging children to “read up” is a good idea, even to the extent of providing them with books beyond their age-group’s reading level…provided you are giving them a specific book because you think they will like it. Giving a child Dickens as a kind of reading lesson/educational gambit is ridiculous. Giving her Bronte because you think she will like it is an entirely different story.

Although, you might want to beware Bronte at a young age. It could be a bit too influential, in the same way and for the same reason that there is all this worry about young girls modeling their romantic desires after Edward Cullen. Arguably (and, by all means, argue) Rochester is just as problematic an object-of-desire as Edward.

Here’s the point where I poll the audience, because I have a vague theory about the differences between children readers and adult readers brewing, but I’m curious whether this is just my experience or a broader one. (Also, I’m using reader as a stand-in for “media consumer” because its convenient. If there were movies, TV shows, video games to which these questions are applicable, feel free to answer using them.)

So, audience, were stories “realer” to you as a child than now? Did you find your reading experience more immersive, was it easier to get lost in the stories and pretend they were real? Did you pretend they were real? Is that something you do as an adult, lose yourself so completely in a story that it seems tangible to you? Did your favorite main characters as a child shape who you are? Do your current favorites still do so?

Feel free to post your thought in the comments!

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About

I'm a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. My interests lie in the field known very broadly as the Digital Humanities and I focus on reading digital books (what happens to books as they become not merely digitized, but digital) and reading books digitally (how can we use computers to learn new things about literature). In what spare time I have, I read speculative fiction, transform long strings of yarn into apparel and decor and play with my friends' dogs while eagerly awaiting the day when we move to an apartment complex that will allow us to have one.

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10 comments on “One or Several Books
  1. Ema says:

    At what point do you stop reading above “your” level? I assume we are talking about fiction and reading for enjoyment? I think the concern is really just about sex or gratuitous violence in the hands of a young person not yet equipped to deal with the ramifications of the information. I started reading Conan Doyle when I was 10. I too, didn’t know what many of the words inherent in a description of Victorian England meant, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the stories and becoming a life long (good) detective fiction junkie. Same thing with the Hobbit and LOTR. In retrospect, I missed a lot that first go round at age 12, but part of the joy in that is going back to read it again. I think I first read Pride and Prejudice at 18, but enjoyed it much more when I reread it at 28 (and every few years after that as well). So, I haven’t answered your questions. I think the younger I was, the “realer” the stories felt, but the older I am, the more I connect emotionally with the characters. The younger me got swept along with the story – I was the character having the adventure. The older me asks “would I really do that in this situation?”

  2. Karin says:

    Yes. Much ‘realer.’ Because the story is all you’re interested in. As an adult, even when you’re reading for pleasure and are not consciously critiquing, you come to any book, but particularly a new book, with the baggage of the education you have received and the critical abilities you have developed as a result. So there are lots of things going on at once when you read it – visualizing the scene as clearly as possible, keeping track of whether the characters are behaving believably and consistently, the flow of language, the level of the writing, the employment of narrative and linguistic devices for both plot and effect… Etc. But when you’re a child, you’re reading the story. That’s it. So the story is all-encompassing.

    I am still not sure whether or not I would choose the analytical abilities I now possess if I could be taken back to age, say, 14 and given the choice. I loved reading the way I used to do it. I still enjoy reading enormously, but it’s not the same.

    I didn’t need to pretend it was real. It was real, while I was reading. And I could always make it real again by opening the book once more. That doesn’t happen anymore.

    I think you’re right about the age-appropriate thing. Guiding children to books that they’ll benefit from and that you think they’ll enjoy is the key, but there’s no point in taking books away from them if they get odd ones by mistake. I found and read Claudine at School when I was 11, and my parents very sensibly didn’t comment and let me get on with it. A sizeable chunk went utterly over my head – rereading it at 15 was a surprising experience – but I got the characters and their roles in the story, which was all I was interested in anyway.

    I think you’re wrong about Rochester though. The whole point of the romance is that neither he nor Jane is an object of desire – or, at least, that is only a small part of who they are. They’re fully rounded, complex characters with diverse desires, aims and hopes. They’re proud, exasperating, selfish, pig-headed, intelligent and willful. They want love, just as we all do, but only from an equal, and not to the point of dangerous adoration. I haven’t read Twilight, but from what I gather, I don’t think the same can be said of Edward.

    • Liz S. says:

      Thank you, your description of reading as a kid was excellent and pretty much describes what I felt.
      It’s the choice I miss most of all. I wish I could open a book and decide “I am going to read this immersively” or “I am going to read this analytically” and then do so. Because some books only work, or work best, when you read them with critical detachment. And I don’t think I regret my dwindling tolerance for bad characterization, which I used to be far more forgiving of while in the grips of a good story. On the other hand, it would be nice to utterly lose myself in a book again. It’s a pity no one warns you that you’ll be giving that up.
      I think I disagree with you about Rochester. (Spoilers for Jane Eyre ahead.) Yes, in terms of characterization, he is not a cardboard cutout with sparkles. He is a fully realized human being as is Jane and she, in the end, returns to him from a position of strength. But their romance is still problematic.

      “They want love, just as we all do, but only from an equal.”

      I don’t think Rochester does, not at first. He wants a doll to dress in finery, he wants a mysterious fae woman, he wants a mistress when he can’t have a wife. He wants to possess her. Jane talks of them as equals and Rochester insists that they are and yet “I must have you for my own, entirely my own” (224). He loves Jane, yes, but he wants to own her too. He thinks he wants an equal, but doesn’t seem to notice or care that he won’t have one; he certainly doesn’t care enough to disclose the WIFE in the attic. And their relationship is entirely unequal, even given the historical circumstances. She goes in with nothing and all the status, money and position she gains is only through him. If he leaves or even if she chooses to leave him, she loses it all. And he’s significantly older than her and he’s her employer. Jane is definitely outspoken and more self-assured than just about anyone else in that position, but she is in no way his equal.
      Yes, it’s a much better written and characterized book than Twilight, but it still suggests a model of romance that is, overall, troubling. Jane doesn’t leave Rochester for being an overbearing master with a tendency to grab her against her will and refuse to let go (Off the top of my head, he does it three times. Once during the proposal scene, once on the way to church and once during his confession before she leaves), she leaves because he already has a wife (which, again, doesn’t seem to stop him).
      The point isn’t that Jane Eyre isn’t a great love story–it beats out Pride and Prejudice on my list of top love stories of all time. But it’s still a problematic love story because it never really solves the problem of Rochester’s character. He is broken…though not entirely reformed (witness his reaction to Jane’s description of St. John). And yet Jane goes back to him, and the return works because of her growth, not his. She can now actually stand as his equal because of the way she changed. Of course (Twilight spoilers), Bella is transformed into a superhuman vampire by the end of that series and she’s more than Edward’s equal so, you know.
      The point isn’t that Twilight and Jane Eyre are equal in quality. The point is that the issues that appear in the relationship disparity and the kind of relationship that is idealized in Twilight also exists in Jane Eyre. And what do you do with that?

      • Karin says:

        Re Jane Eyre spoilers – yes, there are spoilers, but really, if you haven’t read it but are reading this blog, you should have, so go and find a copy rather than reading this post.

        I am at a slight disadvantage here because, as I say, I haven’t read or seen Twilight. So I can’t really talk about that. I’ll stick to JE instead.

        I agree it’s problematic at the beginning. Obviously it is – EFR is a deeply flawed human being, as he himself admits. But the relationship at that point is not touted as a ‘model’ – and the book is very clear about what it thinks, and would like the reader to think, about the relationship at the various stages it inhabits. And the book doesn’t like a lot of what it portrays, and it doesn’t want us to either.

        Jane nips his Cophetua inclinations in the bud very sharply, and teases him out of the nonsensical flowery speech that attends his first flush of love requited. It is made clear here that the only way to balance the inequality in their positions is through a respect for Jane’s pride, which she is justified in possessing and defending qua human (sex irregardless). It’s something Rochester finds hard because he has never had to give a second thought to his own pride. He’s wealthy, manly, athletic and intelligent. His strong but mostly unconscious knowledge of his own worth makes it hard for him to realise that not everyone shares that almost enviable unconscious awareness.

        That’s what changes, after she runs away and he loses everything. He no longer has all the things he once had, that gave him that certainty of worth. He has no more cause for pride. That’s why he hides away where no one can see him. And it does change him – the man who so resented asking for a shoulder to lean on for a moment is now than willing to accept help walking, seeing, understanding. Because he realises that Jane is his equal, he puts away his pride.

        Also, Jane doesn’t go in with nothing. She has her education and her wits, and she has already proved she can use them to better herself. She could advertise again, she could return to Lowood, she could find another school to teach at. She’s not that interested in wealth and position. She wants to marry him in order to be married to him, to Rochester, the man, not because it’ll make her mistress of Thornfield – something that never becomes real to her even in imagination. She’s not helpless – not least because of her own strength of mind and character, which Rochester values in her from the start. I don’t think you give him enough credit for this, incidentally. It’s impressive. Yes, she’s young and innocent and unprotected, but she’s also plain, stubborn, smart and religious. None of these characteristics are obviously attractive, but he loves her for them – and rejects the beautiful, sparkling but empty-headed Blanche.

        It’s true that he has a possessive streak, but notice that it comes out well after he has fallen in love with her and only when he’s struck with terror lest Jane discover his secret and so he be prevented from marrying her (or close enough). Now, of course, he’s wrong to keep this secret. It’s indefensible. But it’s also understandable. And it’s also understandable that this makes him cling to her in a kind of panic as if that will prevent her from slipping through his fingers. He’s not a good man, but he’s generous and thoughtful and intelligent and he tries – but you have to make allowances for the fact that someone who has had to work things out for himself and has been miserable and lonely most of his life is going to get it wrong sometimes. And the book makes it clear that at this stage in the relationship, he is getting it wrong. It’s entirely unambiguous about it.

        I think you’re unfair about the St John bit – and NOT just because I loathe St John. A little plain, old-fashioned jealousy is fair enough – he’s feeling inadequate enough without her going on about a man who sounds like a paragon of every virtue – unless you’ve actually met him. Even the most reasonable male has his limits.

        Basically, bless him, he’s so complex and layered and human that I really don’t think a Twilight comparison does him, her or the relationship justice.

      • Liz S. says:

        (I’m sorry for not replying sooner; it took me far too long to figure out where the setting for nested responses were so that I could, in fact, reply to what you said rather than just starting a new comment).
        Given all that you’ve said, which I pretty much agree with, by the way, I still think that the specific power dynamics in the story can be read as problematic, especially when you take into account that the reasons things worked out in the end and the changes that happen to Rochester in particular were the result of divine (or narrative) intervention and are not personal changes made by the characters. Had Mason not interrupted the wedding, Rochester would still have retained his peremptory and overall disrespectful attitude towards Jane. Yes, he respects a lot about her, but he still sees himself as master and possessor until he has nothing left.
        So, fine, by the end of the book, everything has been made better. Rochester, by virtue of losing his house, most of his money and his sight, has figured out how to be a better person. But this isn’t the sort of thing one wants to rely on happening in a relationship. (Yes, he can be overbearing, but maybe he’ll meet with a tragic accident and get better!)
        As an individual story, Jane Eyre is excellent and you’re right; it does provide answers to most of the objections I raised. We know, in the end, that Rochester is a good and worthy man and that, for all his flaws, he and Jane are not merely right for one another, but deserve one another.
        But as a model for romantic attachment, it can have its issues, especially when you take into account 14 year old girls. I remember, the second or third time I read it, yelling at Jane for leaving Rochester after he confesses about Bertha. Because I wanted her to stay, despite all the deeply problematic elements. I didn’t notice them and I didn’t see them as problematic. Yes, as an adult reader whose job, at this point, is to nitpick books, I can understand both how these possibly-worrisome elements work and why, in the larger contexts of the narrative, it’s alright.
        The question, for me, is whether this is the sort of thing one would notice without deeper analysis. Can one differentiate between Rochester and Edward, as you do, or is it the sort of thing likely to be missed, especially by a younger reader who is more interested in the romance? And is that a problem, given the tendency that at least a few teenage girls have of falling in love with fictional characters (and I say teenager as if I’ve grown out of it)?

  3. Erachet says:

    As I have learned in many child development classes, the line between reality and fantasy is naturally blurred for children. That is why children might sometimes say things about themselves that are completely untrue. They are not necessarily blatantly lying, but they have come to believe their own fictions. They cannot always tell where truth ends and fantasy begins. I think it is the same while reading. When I was younger, part of my brain knew what existed in reality and what didn’t, but a much more noticeable part of my brain insisted that I couldn’t really *know* what was real or not and that *maybe* the things I was reading could exist, and yes, they *did* exist somewhere, surely. I was usually convinced that I was reading about actual possibilities. I even believed my own made-up stories, to some extent.

    As for keeping books from children – I think you have to know the child. Children who devour books will not get discouraged by a book above their level, because they are already familiar with the rewards of reading and will read under and around the difficult words and concepts in order to discover the story. Children who are merely okay with reading might get turned off by attempting a more difficult book. Also, if you know you are dealing with a very sensitive child or one who gets scared/disturbed easily, I would not really recommend offering that child a book with difficult/adult subject matter.

    • Erachet says:

      Oh, and although books were more “real” when I was younger, I am much more in love with their literary merit as an adult. I appreciate them more, understand them better, and can learn from them in a way I didn’t really do as a child.

      • Yael says:

        In most normal development, the line between reality and fantasy is blurred only for the very young child. By age 7, most children recognize the difference between truth and fiction. Part of the allure for the young reader is to be the protagonist when you know you are actually someone else. The young reader allows herself to become someone else within the safe confines of the book.
        I agree with Karin. I sometimes sort of long for those days when I can read without judgment or criticism.

        Also, what’s all the fuss about Jane Eyre. Better love story than Pride and Prejudice? Huh?

      • Liz S. says:

        I didn’t say it was a better love story, I said that it wins over P&P when I start listing my personal top love stories of literature. (I’m not sure if I have an official list, just a vague idea where things go in my head.)
        And it’s because the actual falling-in-love that happens in the actual text of Jane Eyre is more realized and dwelt on in a way that doesn’t happen in P&P. You almost see Lizzie and Darcy fall in love, yet not quite. It’s part of Austen’s reserve and definitely deliberate on her part. So while P&P might be the better book, Jane Eyre is a more enjoyable love story.
        If it makes you feel any better, Persuasion beats them both.

      • Karin says:

        That’s true, and a good point – I do enjoy being able to deconstruct what I’m reading, see how it all fits together and why it’s elegant, and then put it back together again. An appreciation for literary merit is only something you gain with experience and (usually) education.

        But it’s a different kind of enjoyment – more detached, less wholly engaged and thrilled. I still miss the old way, and I don’t seem to be able to recapture it. This is one case where I would like to be able to have my cake and eat it too!

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