In Defense of Escapist Reading

StockSnap_NegativeSpace_EscapistReading Image credit: Negative Space via Stocksnap

“Everything we read should challenge us,” said a perky blond millennial behind me.

I was at Brit Bennett’s Ann Arbor book signing for The Mothers, and I was mentally disagreeing with the woman I had eavesdropped on. Had she said, “We should all read books that challenge us,” I would have been in full agreement, but to say all our reading material should be challenging was annoying to me. It was elitist and sad. A reader who doesn’t know the sheer pleasure of escapist reading doesn’t understand joy.

I’m a huge fan of escapist re-reading. When I have had a difficult day, I like to crack open a book I’ve read a dozen times over and it has to be something that doesn’t challenge me at all. It’s familiar and comforting, like going home or getting a pint of a favorite ice cream flavor. Plus it lacks the negative health effects of eating too much ice cream or drinking too much wine, making it a cheap and effective form of therapy.

Benjamin Franklin is famously (and incorrectly) credited with saying, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” I would argue that one can substitute “books are” for “beer is” in that statement, and it will be equally correct.

Reading can be many things. You can read to be challenged, to learn, to escape, or as an act of resistance. Human beings are faceted creatures. You can be smart, you can be sexy, you can be serious yet not take yourself too seriously, you can be extremely knowledgeable in certain areas and less educated in others, you can be thoughtful in some ways and a bit of a brat in others. You are many things, so your bookshelf should be too.

But, if I’m being totally honest, I’ve been the confident, annoying woman in the bookstore too. I edit my favorite book lists to make myself seem more intellectual, more well-read.

Sometimes, these little dishonesties pop up out of sheer panic over the possibility of being judged. In my senior year of college, I was in one of my lit classes when my professor asked us to go around the room and name our favorite book in childhood. I panicked. There was no way I was going to say, “Anything Sweet Valley Twins. May the Unicorn Club live long and prosper.” Eventually, I settled on a half-truth: Anne of Green Gables, which I loved as a girl and love still as an adult. But I read Anne first in 7th grade, not elementary school, making it more of an adolescent favorite than a childhood favorite.

But the honest answers sometimes get the best responses. Say Sweet Valley (any part of the franchise) or Baby-Sitters’ Club online, and you always get a response. These were literary Sweet Tarts, pastel, sweetly tart, and compellingly artificial.

Now as an adult, my reading tastes are varied. I like literary fiction and classics (as does any English major), but I also like mysteries, gothics, early 2000s chick lit, YA fiction, humorous memoirs, the Harry Potter series, and fluffy love stories. There are echoes of my childhood favorites in my current reading. Sweet Valley and Baby-Sitter’s Club gave me an interest in girl power stories. I enjoy a well-plotted mystery likely because I read so much Nancy Drew in elementary school and Agatha Christie in middle school. I gained a taste for the gothic from my high school preferences for VC Andrews, Anne Rice, and LJ Smith.

Literary choices can be like culinary choices. I’m a person who likes kale salads, and I will eat any vegetable except celeriac; I’m also a person likes cookies made with lots of butter, who doesn’t always heed a reasonable serving size. I don’t have to choose between being a kale person or a cookie person. I’m allowed to find joy in both. Likewise, I can read a book that challenges me and makes me think, and then throw a mystery novel in my weekend bag. Because sometimes you need to escape and sometimes you need uncomplicated joy. Guilty pleasures are a gift, just as enjoying a serious work of art is a gift.

Life is short. Read what you like. Comic books, prize-winning fiction, romance novels, series classics, cozy mysteries, YA, sci-fi, fantasies with intricate worlds, history, science, and current events. If it makes you happy and piques your imagination, it’s yours. I avoid sci-fi and true crime, but if that’s your thing, go for it, and don’t let anyone tell you what type of reader you ought to be. No one will steal your adult card or your feminist card or your library card if your bookshelves do not meet some arbitrary level of seriousness. Roxane Gay writes of her Sweet Valley love in Bad Feminist, and Brit Bennett has written about American Girls dolls and books for The Paris Review, and these are both serious and talented writers. If they can do it, so can you.

Advertisements

Book Review:  The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (YA)

HuG

Starr Carter has two lives.  She lives one with her family in Garden Heights, a mostly black neighborhood where neighbors take care of each other, small locally owned businesses provide hope, and gang violence affects everyone’s lives no matter how hard they try to avoid it.  She lives the other in her mostly white school, Williamson Prep, where she is careful to keep her speech slang-free and never gets emotional because she doesn’t want to be known as “the angry black girl.”  She has friends in each world, but they never mix, and she prefers to keep it that way.

Over spring break, Starr attends a Garden Heights party at the insistence of her friend, Kenya.  She feels out of place, a girl in a hoodie and ponytail surrounded by girls dressed in their sexiest outfits, until she sees her childhood friend Khalil.  Once best friends, Starr and Khalil had not even crossed paths in months, but they catch up quickly.  When gunshots go off at the party, Starr and Khalil leave in a hurry, taking his car home. On the way home, Khalil is pulled over for a broken taillight.  Pulled out of the car by an aggressive cop, Khalil is treated like a criminal, and when he opens the door to ask Starr if she is all right, the cop assumes Khalil is reaching for a gun and shoots him in the back, killing him.

After Khalil’s murder, Starr tries to keep a low profile, not wanting to known as the witness in her community or in her school, and she does not know how to speak about the murder to her own friends in either world. She cooperates with the police in the investigation, but quickly realizes they are not interested in investigating the cop but in investigating Khalil and Starr and finding out if Khalil had a criminal history and if either teen had been drinking that night.  Soon, Starr is no longer able to keep quiet, learning that she can only honor Khalil’s life by becoming his voice.

The Hate U Give (or THUG) is a heavily hyped book right now, and with any book that is receiving an unusual amount of attention, the first question is always, “Is it worth the hype?”  The answer for this is a definite yes. The first 100 pages don’t move as quickly as the rest, but once you are a quarter into the book, it is very difficult to put down. For me, the primary appeal was that I fell in love with the characters.  Not only has Ms. Thomas created well developed main characters, but even the supporting characters are worth rooting for, from Starr’s neighborhood friend, Kenya, to the grumpy barbershop owner, Mr. Lewis.  My favorite character may have been Starr’s father, Maverick, a wonderfully complicated man.

Another thing I appreciated about this book is that it feels universal, or at least national. We are never told exactly where Starr lives, but I think this could take place anywhere in the U.S.  The images in my head were that of my hometown of Saginaw, a heavily segregated Michigan city that is quite similar to Flint or Detroit.  I highly doubt that Ms. Thomas, a Mississippi resident, had Saginaw, Michigan in her mind when she wrote this, but it’s to her credit that you can take this story and move it into your own world and it will feel true.

THUG does not simplify the issue of police violence in black neighborhoods.  Starr’s uncle is a police officer and a colleague of the officer who killed Khalil, and Uncle Carlos is definitely a positive part of Starr’s life.  Also, Khalil has a past.  If he had been presented as 4.0 student who never got into trouble a day in this life, this novel might have been didactic with a simple message. But with Khalil presented as a good person who has not always been on the right side of the law, there are more questions that a reader has to work through.  Questions about the assumptions we make about victims of police violence, wanting to make angels or demons of them, and questions about whether a white teen with the exact same history as Khalil could have ever found himself in the same situation.

I do strongly recommend The Hate U Give, and I am going to pass this onto my stepdaughters because that is what I do with the YA novels that I love.

FCC Notice:  I bought my own copy.

Cat and Dog Join Forces to Ban Easter Bunny from Home

StockSnap_bunnyImage credit: Mike Birdy via Stocksnap

Tim Gunn the two-year-old Siamese mix and Columbo the one-year-old Saint Bernard have joined forces for the first time in their lives. While their owners have hoped the two pets would live in suburban peace together, it was violent intent that brought the two together. For weeks, Columbo’s large heavily jowled head has been seen bent towards Tim’s small silvery head, as they have plotted how to destroy a mutual enemy: the Easter Bunny.

“If he hops his fluffy tail in here, I will eat him,” said Columbo.

“It is a well-documented fact that rabbits are unsanitary,” Tim added. “They don’t have the decency to use a litter box like a cat or the consideration to do their business outdoors like a dog. Also, they have fleas, which they then pass on to well-groomed domestic animals.”

“I bet he tastes like chicken,” Columbo continued.

“And he not only imports fleas, but brings in unhealthy foods that have been scientifically proven to cause both obesity and cavities in humans. Any cat can tell you that a fat, cavity-ridden human cannot fill a feline’s food bowl as quickly as a healthy human can,” the cat concluded.

Their research has consisted of watching Home Alone on repeat and analyzing which booby traps seem most reproducible. They have managed to collect materials for five booby traps thus far.

If booby traps fail, the cat has a second plan. Tim Gunn has been spotted pulling out Mastering the Art of French Cooking and leaving it open to rabbit recipes. It seems he would most like to see the Easter Bunny in a pâté.

The Easter Bunny was not available for comment.

April Book Review Club:  Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (memoir)

RLiT

I have been thinking a lot about reading these days: reading as escape, reading for information, reading as an act of resistance. It’s my interest in reading as resistance that led me to this book. I have picked this book up in bookstores at least a dozen times over the last decade, only to put it back down.  Which I am now grateful that I did because I needed to read this book –and read it as a first time reader– right now.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is the story of Professor Azar Nafisi’s book club, where she invited seven of her female former university students to join a weekly reading group at her house where they would discuss forbidden works of Western literature.  There are four sections to this memoir:  Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen.  Lolita and Austen serve as bookends and tell the story of the book club, while the Gatsby and James sections go into Nafisi’s academic career and how her students responded to Western literature in different political climates. Reading Lolita in Tehran praises how literature teaches empathy, which the author would likely say has more value than any moral lessons embedded in the text, and emphasizes the importance of imagination.

In addition to being about literature and personal liberty, Reading Lolita in Tehran is about the lives of women and about female friendships.  The young women in the class range in age from the late teens to early thirties. Some are liberal, while others are more religious and traditional.  Some have had multiple marriages while others have never had a boyfriend.  Some of them have been imprisoned.  All of them are well-educated, and each is independent in her own way.  They are alike in their love of literature and in that all of them are restricted by the laws and culture of Iran.

As I read this, I kept thinking of current events.  On some level, this is not quite fair to what the people of Iran went through in the eighties and nineties.  Nafisi had friends and family who were executed during this time, and she kept a nightly vigil outside her small children’s bedrooms while bombs fell on Tehran.  Nafisi had to make choices between her career and her personal liberty.  Meanwhile I am irritated by the people who are currently in power and concerned about what will happen to the rights of women and minorities over the next few years.  So I am not suggesting the two situations are the same, especially on the level of severity, but I think lessons can be learned from Iran in how political climates can change so dramatically and how everyday people both contribute to this and are victimized by it.

I hope that in ten years time, I will look back at my current blog posts lamenting certain current events and find my posts to be melodramatic and ridiculous.  I hope the current national environment is nothing more than a normal step backyard that will soon be remedied by moving two steps forward.  I hope the checks and balances are more effective than I think and the American people less apathetic.  But it may not be.  Reading Lolita in Tehran does show that progressive changes can be reversed.  Nafisi writes of being young in a progressive environment, only to have her daughter be born into an environment where women’s rights had moved back to what they had been in her grandmother’s youth when girls could be brides at age nine and courts ruled in favor of domestic abusers.

It could have been a depressing book, but it is not.  It is a celebration of life, love, friendship, and literature.  This book left me grateful to be a reader and grateful to Professor Nafisi for sharing her stories and her life with us readers.  I wanted to be part of her book club, eating oranges and pastries and drinking tea out of beautiful glassware, while talking about literature and life with these women.  And I am left with an urge to read and/or re-read the books mentioned in this memoir, looking at them with a new perspective.

FCC Notice:  I read a library copy.

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy