As a technical writer, I have a lot of anxiety about releasing documentation with errors. Sometimes I lie awake and wonder if I should have had another person review the godforsaken diagram I’ve been toiling with for two months. The diagram chases me through my dreams. (And I have reason to believe that I haven’t seen the last of that bastard.)
This weekend, I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. The book is about Krakauer’s disastrous expedition to the top of Everest during which an unusually large number of people died. At the beginning of the story, the author laments that when he returned from the trip — badly shaken, of course — he had to get right to work pounding out the contracted 17,000-word article detailing the tragic adventure for Outside magazine, who paid for the trip. Under the wire, he bungled some facts and made a major error that he says caused a lot of pain to the family of one of the deceased.
Now let’s discuss what’s worse: falsely representing the events surrounding the death a person who perished on Mount Everest during the deadliest season on the mountain vs. incorrectly labeling an arrow on a diagram in a software manual that 27 people might read.
Perspective. I have some now.
Last night, I was finishing Brave New World and came upon this sentence:
“Nice tame animals, anyhow,” the Controller murmured parenthetically. “Why don’t you let them see Othello instead?”
I love this unexpected use of an adverb that would normally put one to sleep. (Parenthetically is frequently used in this context: “Page references are cited parenthetically in the text.” Zzzzzzzzzz.)
The author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, loved parenthetically so much that he used it twice within a few pages. The second reference was less entertaining, but still fun:
“There was a man called Cardinal Newman,” he said. “A cardinal,” he exclaimed parenthetically, “was a kind of Arch-Community-Songster.”
For the record, Brave New World doesn’t have a place on my “read it again” shelf. I acknowledge the brilliance and eeriness of Huxley’s predictions for our future, but I wasn’t too engaged in the story, for whatever reason.
I posted about whether or not reading crap is better than reading nothing at all, which made me start wondering if those thousands of girls reading the Twilight series are softening their brains, dooming themselves to a future of nothing but Nora Roberts. Shouldn’t we insist they read Emma instead?
Full disclosure, before we go any further, I read the Twilight series in its entirety.
Here’s where I propose that reading crap is better than reading nothing at all. If someone can’t get enough of Twilight, if reading Twilight gets her into the book store to find more titles she might enjoy, if she chooses to read Twilight instead of watching Dancing with the Stars before bed, she’s on her way to being a reader. And eventually, most readers will pick up something by Jane Austen or John Steinbeck or whomever you consider a great writer.
I have a painful memory of being forced to read “great literature” in my senior year of high school. We had a legendarily horrible English teacher who assigned a number of volumes that were very difficult and less-than-engaging, especially to 17-year-old students. Among them: Lord Jim, Invisible Man, The Fountainhead, and Dante’s Inferno. Not exactly light reading for a bunch of kids skating through their last year before college. Even the most studious of that group found getting through Lord Jim to be a slog. And so, we learned to detest Joseph Conrad and Dante and the guy who wrote Invisible Man. (I should mention that many of us liked The Fountainhead, even though that fact threatens my argument.) The books were hard to read, someone was forcing us to read them, and the someone was mean. To summarize, Mrs. Hoffman didn’t set us up to love the classics.
I’m not suggesting we not offer Emma to our kids because they might find it harder to read than the works of Stephenie Meyer. I’m suggesting that learning to love reading in general should come first, even if it comes before learning to love reading great books. Put great books on the shelves in your living room, where your kids might happen to crack them open, but don’t freak out if you see only stories about teen vampires in their backpacks. That’s all you can do.
I don’t have the answer to this. I have read my share of crap. I have also read my share of “important” literature. As an English major, I was assigned everything from Invisible Man (at least 4 different times) to The Female Quixote to Paradise Lost to The Color Purple. I did not enjoy all of these. And as an unrefined college student who drank boxed wine and had an old couch on my front porch, I didn’t really even appreciate why I was assigned these books. I may have done some serious skimming of the works I found less compelling (I’m talking to you, Invisible Man).
As an adult who need not adhere to a list of required reading material, I find myself choosing books that I hope to be meaningful, to add something to my mental inventory of great writing – but not necessarily books that my English Lit professors would have assigned. I don’t usually read fluff, not because I’m a snob who is above Nicholas Sparks, but because it’s much easier to play Mario Kart than wade through crap.
That being said, yesterday I finished reading an extremely fluffy book, Confessions of a Shopaholic, which I bought in an attempt to recover from the very depressing Sarah’s Key, followed by Revolutionary Road. (Both great books that I will keep on my “read again” shelf, but both major downers.) I thought some chick lit would lighten my mood. And maybe if Confessions hadn’t been such a terrible book, it might’ve served that purpose. Would my time have been better spent playing Yahtzee on my iPod than reading that book? Was reading that book better than reading nothing at all?
On a related note, a friend sent me this list today, the BBC’s Top 100 Books. I’d read maybe 30 of them, and I have several of them on my shelf that I’ve never opened. A lot of these books are considered classics. Some are just entertaining reads (Bridget Jones’s Diary, anyone?). The list reminded me of a number of books that I’ve meant to pick up over the years that I have never gotten around to reading. I think that the next time I’m tempted to select a paperback from the Shopaholic series, I’ll consult the list instead.