Should Adults Read Young Adult Books?
March 30, 2012 § 10 Comments
Or: The Narrow-Mindedness of the Literary Elite
Yesterday the New York Times published an essay entitled “Adults Should Read Adult Books” by Joel Stein. The gist is obvious from the title, but I posted most of it below (and if you’re like me, your irritation will carry you through it quickly):
The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.
I’m sure all those books are well written. So is “Horton Hatches the Egg.” But Horton doesn’t have the depth of language and character as literature written for people who have stopped physically growing.
I appreciate that adults occasionally watch Pixar movies or play video games. That’s fine. Those media don’t require much of your brains. Books are one of our few chances to learn. There’s a reason my teachers didn’t assign me to go home and play three hours of Donkey Kong. I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character. Maybe there are Pynchonesque turns of phrase. Maybe it delves into issues of identity, self-justification and anomie that would make David Foster Wallace proud. I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.
There are so many things that I object to about this article that I don’t even know where to begin.
First of all, it suggests that every adult book ever written is more literary and worthy of note than every young adult book ever written “I’ll read ‘The Hunger Games’ when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.”
Apparently books written for young people can never have “the depth of language and character as literature written for people who have stopped physically growing.” Clearly we should all stop reading books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hobbit, and Catcher in the Rye because apparently the arrogant gentlemen near us on planes think it’s embarrassing. What’s that you say Mr. Stein? Oh, there wasn’t a “young adult genre” when those books were written? Oh, I see now. So when book sellers decided to start putting books they thought would appeal to young people on a shelf labeled “young adult” that’s the point after which all books written for “young adults” would be considered second-class literature.
I should also note that girls definitely get the short end of the literary stick here because “people who have physically stopped growing” are expected to read more refined and literary works and most girls stop growing around age thirteen while boys can grow until their twenties. Though I must admit physically stature seems like a strange determinate. Why not something like age? Or foot size? Skull shape?
Now it would be one thing if he were making well-reasoned arguments for why adults should be reading whatever “literature” our dear Mr. Stein is reading, but he’s not. “I have no idea what ‘The Hunger Games’ is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character… I don’t know because it’s a book for kids.” Oh I see Mr. Stein, you haven’t read books like The Hunger Games; the books you are passing judgement on. He sounds like a five year old child, insisting that he doesn’t like broccoli though he’s never had it, and in doing so he’s shaming people away from reading.
To quote C. S. Lewis: “Am I to patronize sleep because children sleep sound? Or honey because children like it?”
Mr. Stein, you may use words like “anomie” and “Pynchonesque,” but I’m not impressed.
Yes, if you’re looking for a book that you can read so that you can look down on everyone else, then young adult probably isn’t for you, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have complicated characters or meaningful plots. On top of that, reading is good period. The more literate a person is, the more likely they will be to get a job and the less likely they are to be incarcerated (in fact, many states decide how many prisons to build for the future based on the reading levels of current elementary schoolers). On top of this reading increases empathy–the ability for the reader to relate to (and care about) other people.
So if someone is either going to read one young adult book this year or no books at all, excuse me for encouraging them to read and practice those skills. Maybe they’ll even go on to read a second book, maybe this time one that you’d actually approve of, Mr. Stein. In a country with falling literacy rates and reading levels you can’t expect people to jump into War and Peace like it’s Dr. Seuss.
This brings me to a broader point in general. Almost all of us do this. We might not be quite as obtuse as Mr. Stein about it, but most of us do this nonetheless. We look down our noses at people who read fantasy or science fiction or women’s fiction or *gasp* comic books. Just the other day I was reading a blog (that I generally like) that was bashing books based on video games. If a person who rarely reads loves Halo so much that they choose to sit down and read the novelizations, more power to them. I know for a fact that for many, these books are a gateway into science fiction and reading in general.
A huge part of the reason that I like science fiction is because I loved Star Wars growing up and stumbled across the novels of the Extended Universe (there are a bajillion of them). I read dozens of those books and they weren’t all literary masterpieces, but they gave me an appetite that I then turned towards Heinlein and Asimov, Orson Scott Card and John Scalzi.
So let’s get over ourselves a little and if someone wants to read, not just let them read, encourage them to. There are important skills to build and amazing worlds to explore.
I’ll leave you with a great flow chart guide to picking the “right” books (borrowed from Book Riot):
On an unrelated note, I think it’s a shame that Mr. Stein doesn’t appreciate Pixar movies.