I like to think of myself as a reader and my fingers are itching to type the word “voracious” in front of “reader,” but I cannot really do that in a spirit of honesty. I can spend a full day (and most of a night) reading if I want to and find a book that is genuinely able to hold my interest. But most of the time, I choose challenging books…challenging in the fact that they require effort on my part to find the interest, and when I accept this challenge, I am doing exactly what I need to make the reading worthwhile. Due to the fact that the interest in the book for me is not merely on a superficial level, I find myself reading a page and then staring off into space, coming back to myself fifteen minutes later…and fifteen miles away mentally from where I had stopped reading (though I had not moved from the page). Thus, my selection in books and wandering mind cause me to be a slow reader, thus decreasing my output of books finished and depriving myself of the honor of the appellation “voracious.”
But I did not really set out to justify my reading habits. Maybe beginning with a digression will help me not to digress further…and I intend to bring this post to my original purpose. I am a (not voracious) reader. I like books. So you can imagine my disappointment when I heard my fifteen-year-old brother tell me repeatedly how much he hated reading what my parents considered “books” and would much rather read a graphic novel. After promptly removing the knife he had just plunged into my heart, I tried to address his concerns. It resulted in a late-night discussion of why he should bother reading. It was a spiral discussion (not circular because even though we kept coming back to the same place, we were progressing somewhere). The conversation left both of us unsatisfied and cranky (though that could by attributed to the fact that it was also 3 AM when we finished). I hope I can find an answer that will do it for the both of us at some point.
The conversation is not the goal of this post either. Anyway, my brother was left without a satisfactory answer, but with more to think about (I hope) and resigned himself to checking out books that seemed to interest him from the library. Somehow, I managed to persuade him to accompany me on a trip to the library (a habit which seems to have become weekly this summer). After managing to find some intellectually stimulating material for myself, I found my brother in a place highbrow literary sophisticates like myself rarely dare to tread: the young adult section and I was shocked with what I found.
Scanning the spines of the glossy, plastic-covered volumes on the shelf, I could see part of the reason why my brother had moved to the very end of the shelves along the wall in order to examine some graphic novels. Every single novel was…how do I put this without sounding sexist? (since I’ve already made myself sound like a snob)…”girly”!
Let me make myself clear, I HATE with a burning passion when different activities, movies, books, etc. are classified as male or female. Why? Because it makes the possibility of someone of the opposite gender participating in that gender taboo. Men and women are different, with their own characteristics. This is good. There are some activities which, in our culture, are distinct to one gender or the other and really should not be transferred (like as a man, I’m not a big fan of the idea of wearing high-heeled shoes for special occasions). These things are not necessarily universal norms, but in our culture, help us to express our genders in a unique way. (This is a huge simplification of a discussion which could and does fill several books.)
However, there are activities and things (hate that word) which do not fall under the category of gender by definition, though these categories can be applied loosely. For example, it can be said that Jane Austen novels are enjoyed predominantly by women. But guess what? I should be able to watch the 1996 film adaptation of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow (regardless of the movie’s quality) with a bunch of my female friends without guys coming in and attempting to assert their manliness by stating their inability to watch a movie so “girly.” Heck, I should be able to watch it without the excuse of having female friends who want to watch it, too. I should be allowed to enjoy Jane Austen’s keen eye for social interactions and witty humor in peace! Just because these things can fall into gender categories does not mean they must stay there.
On the other hand, these categories are useful in determining interest in a book. And though I can appreciate Jane Austen, I really am not all that enthused by one book I saw in the young adult section with the premise of two girl’s dramatic fight over “the perfect guy” and the revenge that follows. I looked for any books that did not seem “girly” 1. in the sense that my brother, who has tastes which fall more squarely among what is typically for boys his age, would approve of and 2. meaning books which were not written specifically for female audiences.
I saw Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I was even impressed to find some literature that was not “young adult” by definition: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. There were maybe five other books which could be considered “not girly” and most of their titles now escape me. While I could perhaps have found something interesting among the “girly” titles, I could not see my brother reading any of these.
This rambling post does have a point. I was now able to identify somewhat with my brother’s lack of desire to read. After all, how was he supposed to enjoy reading when there was really nothing for him to read? Not only were some of the books “girly,” some of them disgusted me from a quick glance at the covers. This was young adult literature?
My brother cannot be the only young adult with this problem. It makes me wonder about the state of young adult literature and even what defines this genre as a whole.
In my own leisure reading, I think I simply skipped this step, moving from children’s literature to adult and classic literature. I was brought up with the Harry Potter series (which got many more than me to enjoy reading) and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, to name a few. These had set me off on a literary love affair that could not be stopped by a dearth of young adult reading materials, as could be seen by the fact that I had read about one young adult novel among all the other books I had read in my leisure time since I had left childhood to that point.
But what about people who, like my brother, did not find a love of the written word as a child? Is it just my library’s fault in what books they choose to stock? I need hardly say that it if it is the case that the young adult literature market is targeted exclusively to young women, then it is grossly unfair. Yes, I know that there are plenty of works of literature worth reading, but how are young men supposed to be enkindled with the desire to read them if they do not pick up reading as a habit? I can’t tell authors what to write, but I cannot imagine why there are so few books of this age level written for boys.
Maybe this was just a moment of me sympathizing with my brother. Maybe this is just a rant. Or perhaps this is an appeal to all you authors out there to write high quality young adult novels for young men. Heaven knows we could use some.
I wanted to get this problem which has been growing in my head verbalized, but regardless of my purpose in writing this rambling post, I know that I am going to investigate. Thanks for sticking with me to the end!