dwj-digest (Diana Wynne Jones) V1 #70

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Tue Aug 31 01:18:51 EDT 1999


On Mon, 30 Aug 1999 18:47:05 -0700, mwarner at azstarnet.com wrote:

>I think I understand what both of you guys are saying, and I'll try to
>explain it as clearly. It's like every once in a while I feel guilty for
>preferring DWJ to all those other highly intellectual, trying to get the
>meaning of the world authors, because she doesn't go that far (and I'm
>glad!). It's not that those writers are bad, it's just that they're not as
>entertaining as DWJ or others like her. A lot of grown-ups (lol, I know
>most of you are just that =) push those kinds of books my way when they
>discover I'm an avid reader, and it annoys me because I get the feeling
>that my liking DWJ is like a dirty secret or something. I know that's not
>the case, not by far, I'm just saying sometimes I feel that way a little
>bit. Argh, this isn't coming out right. Maybe you guys will know what I mean. 

When I was in my early teens, as an avid reader (and presumably a smart one)
I agonized over the fact that (gasp!) I didn't like the classics!  Isn't
that the--okay, there's a term for this, but I can't remember what it
is--the myth that we get from reading?  In books, when you have a bright kid
who likes to read, they're always reading stuff like Dickens or Bronte or
Coleridge when they're five, and that's a mark of their intelligence.  So
for me, preferring DWJ (well, not DWJ, I didn't start reading her books till
I was in college) but you know what I mean--reading books that were fun but
not hailed as particularly intellectual was equivalent to saying that I
Wasn't Smart Enough.  Extremely embarrassing.  I felt like a fraud.

It took a few years to realize that there were "classic" books that I really
did like--_Silas Marner_ and _The Grapes of Wrath_ and all of Jane Austen.
And a few more years--and the presumed authority of an English degree--to
realize that a lot of the books I had read for enjoyment when I was 13 were
every bit as worthy in a literary sense as anything you find on a Best Books
reading list!  And, moreover, that I could prove it.

When you hear about child prodigies, they're always good at things like math
or chess or playing an instrument.  You hardly ever hear about child
prodigies in reading, unless you're talking about reading early or reading
beyond their presumed age level.  And even then, those kids are reading and
comprehending words--they're not discoursing on the meaning behind those
words.  And reading is so much more than words.  It's a shared history--a
presumption that the reader will grasp the subtext, the historical and
literary references, the implied meaning.  I don't mean literary criticism,
though it gets its start there.  In postmodern criticism there's this
metaphor of reading as two people--the reader and the author--each coming to
the book with a "repertoire" of knowledge about how to read and other books
that they've read and history and philosophy and all sorts of things.  It
sounds complicated, but it really isn't.  Every time you read a book you add
that book to your repertoire.  Say you read _Fire and Hemlock_ without any
knowledge of the Tam Lin story.  Then you go on to read _The Perilous Gard_
(which is another Tam Lin variation).  Having read _F&H_ gives you more
information with which to read _PG_.  Same if you do it the other way round.
And unlike mathematical genius, which can be inborn, you cannot be born with
a repertoire of understanding; you have to acquire it by reading.  A lot.

I talk a lot about having this English degree as though it's a sort of joke,
and it is in a sense because you certainly don't have to have a college
education to enjoy reading.  But the truth is that it gives you a sort of
implied professionalism, an air of expertise, to be able to defend what you
like to read.  I know all about having the dirty little secret of liking
unliterary books.  In some ways it never goes away, because there are always
people who are looking to make themselves superior to you and will use that
against you.  (In fact I ran up against it, sort of, in the AlexLit
newsgroup just today.)  And against that sort of person there are two
defenses: silence, or attack.  You can ignore it, or you can fire right back
at them.  

But most grownups behave this way only to other grownups.  To kids, it's not
superciliousness that motivates them to recommend "classics."  It's just
being grown up and having left Narnia for good.  Like Susan, a lot of people
want to throw themselves fully into adulthood; but for some reason it's not
enough just to outgrow things, they have to repudiate them.  Another reason
is that as times change, most adults don't keep up with young adult
literature.  I know I haven't been able to, not as thoroughly as I did when
I was myself a young adult.  They don't want to recommend the books they
liked when they were your age, thinking that enough time has passed that you
won't relate to them.  (My mother loved the Betsy and Star books when she
was a kid, and although I loved them too, my youngest siblings are too far
removed from that world to really be interested.)  So they recommend
classics because...that's what classics are.  Timeless.  Something that
people still like even fifty or a hundred or two hundred years later.  And
also, perhaps, because of a misplaced adult guilt that they should be
shaping and molding our young breed with Good Literature.  And because they
like those books themselves.  You may too, in time.

But even with all that education, you know what my favorite books are?  DWJ,
obviously.  The Miles Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Helen
Cresswell's Bagthorpe Chronicles.  _The House With a Clock in its Walls_
which I still can't read late at night.  The Discworld novels.  Anything by
Connie Willis.  All good literature, but none of it traditionally Classic.
There is no shame in loving a book that makes you feel good inside.  That
makes you feel happy about reading it.  That makes you want to read it again
and share it with your friends.  Anyone who would make you feel ashamed
about the books you like is either misguided or a jerk.

>	I also wanted to say that I think I may have been a little harsh about
>Madeleine L'Engle. I've read about four books by her, and I haven't read
>what seems to be the best one, A Wrinkle in Time. So maybe I didn't know
>what I was talking about, or I haven't read the right books by her, I don't
>know. I think I'll try to find all the authors you have mentioned, see how
>I like them. 

Don't feel bad about not liking something.  And on this list you don't ever
have to suggest that you might not know what you're talking about. (Okay, so
this is one of MY buttons.)  It's one thing to make comments about the
absolute worth of a book--whether or not it is, in some concrete sense, a
bad book.  It's another to say that you just didn't like something.  Your
opinion of your reading tastes is something only you can know!  Sure, you
may want to read more Madeleine L'engle, but even that may not change your
mind.  (The reason this bugs me so much is that so many people--not the ones
on this list, but my mother-in-law is one of them--read a book, don't like
it, and say "This is a bad book" as though their opinion of it was exactly
what every other reader would think.  Grrr.)  Yeah, a lot of us on this list
are at least chronologically grownups, and we all have strong opinions...but
this doesn't make us right.  Except me, because I am always right.  :)

I am so glad you are on this list, Antonia.  Welcome.

Melissa Proffitt
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