Sunday, June 10, 2012

Lifelong Growth - the purpose of reading

Kafka believed a book should wake us up with a blow to the head. But we don’t want our novels to do that anymore.

-Matt de la Pena

I (well, really Lee and I) am committed to lifelong learning. I LOVE to learn new things. So....we are doing our Sunday morning reading of the NY Times with our cappucini (sorry, but as often as I've been in Italy, I really can't say "cappucinos." :-) and at the point that Lee is reading the NY Times Book Review, specifically the Top Ten Best Sellers, he mentions the "Shades of Gray" series - the series of female erotica that has washed over the publishing world like a tsunami.  He points this out with some sense of dismay and I say, "What? Should I read it because it is popular? What is there to learn? Will it make me a better person?"

After a conversation about the collective phenomenon that produces such a blockbuster, Lee left the room and I kept reading. I found a little article in the Sunday Review section called "Room for Debate." The Times presents a question to several people who have professional experience in a related field. Today's question: IS FICTION CHANGING FOR BETTER OR WORSE? Here, my concerns were addressed.

The published answer is written by Matt de la Pena, an author of young-adult novels. His answer pointed directly to my own disheartened, uninspired interest in the "GRAY" series AND it points to the challenges of Lee's own work - getting people to take "INNER FITNESS" seriously. Here is his response to the question:

There are plenty of obvious reasons the mainstream novel occupies such a different place in the lives of today’s readers. The emergence of digital media. The fact that attention spans have devolved in the age of the Internet. Curious education policy: the literacy rate in schools continues to decline, yet indispensable librarians are the first to get pink-slipped. And who can forget the “Today” show’s symbolic snubbing of the 2011 Caldecott and Newbery winners in favor of Snooki. One of the most important factors, however, is less obvious. We’ve grown terrified of sadness and self-reflection, and we actively avoid ideas that challenge.If there’s such a thing as emotional gravity, it’s the invisible force that continually pulls humans back down to their natural resting state of melancholy. Life is sad, man. We understand so little about existence (except that we’re ultimately alone and eventually we’re all going to die). It used to be O.K. to sit in this sadness. Great novels examined it. But today, in the era of pharmaceutical companies, the second we stop smiling we rush off to the doc for a happy-pill prescription. Some people genuinely need medication. Others are ducking perfectly healthy – even beneficial – bouts of melancholy.

This shift has directly affected the kind of novels many of us read. We don’t want our ideologies to be challenged. That’s too much work. We want escape. We want affirmation. We want to be told that we really are good enough and smart enough. Sad and challenging novels are still being released, but fewer of us are investing our time in them. Kafka believed a book should wake us up with a blow to the head. But we don’t want our novels to do that anymore. If anything, we seek novels that will deepen our sleep.

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