Thursday, 2 October 2014

On my reading level

On Twitter yesterday, I promised myself that I wouldn’t write about the latest article that implies that adults shouldn’t be reading YA books. On this occasion it wasn’t an entire article devoted to that cause, but part of an author’s interview with MinnPost. The author was asked what she thought of Ruth Graham’s famous article “Against YA,” which suggested, like so many articles, that adults should be embarrassed to read books written for people younger than they are. Her response was this:

I don’t understand why adults like to read books written for children. I said that on the air the other day. That’s going to upset people… you’re missing out on some really great stuff written for you as an adult. People come back and say, “But at least you’re reading something.” Well, I don’t think that’s justification enough. I think you ought to be reading at your level.
This author is entitled to her opinion and entitled to state it in response to a question. She’s also right to note that her opinion may upset people, as opinions so often do.

I’m not upset. I am, however, more than a little puzzled.

How can I identify my “reading level”?

Is there a test I can do to work it out? I’m turning twenty-three this November. Am I still all right to read Young Adult fiction, or am I now considered far too old for it? (If so, you can pry The Hunger Games and Throne of Glassfrom my cold, too-old hands, thank you very much.) The ALA defines Young Adult as being aimed at readers of twelve to eighteen years of age. This means I am now half a decade too old for these books.

When I turned nineteen, did an entire genre really get boxed off for ever? Did I lose the ability to comprehend all the wonderful stories that had kept me company through the tumultuous years of becoming an adult? Did I forget the emotions, the experiences, the memories of a whole decade of my life?

At twenty-three, will I still be considered too young for books about people in their thirties and forties, or written by people in their thirties and forties?

Where do I, at twenty-three, fit in to this spectrum?

Can I only read books within the New Adult genre, which are aimed at eighteen to twenty-five year-olds?

Perhaps it isn’t about age. Perhaps that isn’t what the quote is saying. Surely it wouldn’t make sense for me to restrict myself to that one genre, which was only created in 2009. (What did we do before that?) Is your reading level based on your education? Your upbringing? How many books your parents had in the house as you grew up?

No?

Perhaps I’ve misunderstood. Perhaps your ability to enjoy a book is based on life experience. I’ve never been married or divorced or had children. I’ve never had cancer or held a sword or solved a crime or lived in a city other than London. Will I fail to understand or connect with books that present me with characters who have led very different lives to mine?

No?

Will I fail to understand a story about a teenager  even though I was one once?

Did I lose the ability to recognise a stage of life I’ve left behind?

No.

Everyone has the right to read the books they enjoy. If adults would prefer not to read books about teenagers, power to them. There are piles of brilliant books out there that are written for adults, waiting to be discovered. But to suggest that adults should no longer connect with stories written by, or about young people  can’t read them, as if doing so would trigger an allergic reaction is to dismiss the experience of young people. To cut them off. To suggest that adults must justify reading these books, that they must be embarrassed by it, is to suggest that there is something fundamentally embarrassing about being a teenager. (Which sometimes there is, as all teenagers know  but trust me, the possibility that you might do or say embarrassing things doesn’t go away when you turn twenty.)

We are a society obsessed with retaining and reclaiming our youth the dying of our grey hairs, the editing of our bodies, the petrification of our faces but when it comes to books, that veneration disappears in a puff of smoke. It is one of many contradictions at the heart of modern life. We praise the idea of youth, but invalidate the internal experience of it. Try to look like a young adult, yes, but for God’s sake don’t listen to one. 

Some adults are still listening.

The world can be a dark and daunting place. Now more than ever, it’s tough to get up and turn on the news in the morning, knowing you’ll be hit with a barrage of horror and not much light at the end of the tunnel. And now, after you’ve tried to process all the darkness, you’re more than likely to see an article informing you that, in the midst of all this, you shouldn’t be reading the books you love. These are the books that help you block out all that horror and despair, that help you to make sense of it. These are the books that you read late into the night, the ones you can’t stop reading until the very last page is turned. These are the books that make you love reading. 

Is that justification enough?

14 comments:

  1. I totally agree with you. C. S. Lewis said some very perceptive things about so-called 'children's books', for example: "I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last."

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is definitely one of your best posts, Samantha. I totally agree with you. Reading should never be forbidden.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Exactly ... I respect you immensely
    Thank yoy

    ReplyDelete
  4. I read whatever the hell I want!! I read what moves me, what makes me laugh, what fascinates me, what scares me, and what thrills me. Most importantly, I read what helps me to relax and forget about all the stresses in life :).

    ReplyDelete
  5. Every time someone complains about adults reading "books for children" or any variation of that, I almost completely lose interest in anything else they have to say. It drives me crazy! In my opinion, dismissing or being embarrassed to read something because it's a children's book, a young adult, or a new adult book shows a level of immaturity and insecurity. I know how old I am, I know how mature I am, I don't need to prove it by what I read. I read plenty of "adult" fiction, such as Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates as a teenager, but periodically pulled "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" off the shelf and reread it. Now as a 30 year old woman, I still read "adult" books, but I will adore Harry Potter until the day I die, and enjoy "young adult" fiction as well (like Samantha, I adore the Hunger Games, Team Katniss!). Levels and categories are somewhat arbitrary and often problematic. The fact of the matter is that some of the most exciting, engaging, and innovative fiction that's been written in recent years in "young adult", and that it's widely read is something to celebrate.
    Finally, I'll always be of the opinion that any reading is better than not reading and should always be encouraged.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There does seem to be an assumption that reading YA means you never read adult books! I'm certainly not going to give up reading YA just because I'm in my twenties...

      Delete
  6. You've hit on several fantastic points. I think that there's an assumption that YA fiction lacks something substantial that adults are supposed to want from books or perhaps that because there is 'adult content' that is not considered suitable for children that there is an opposite to the spectrum as well. People underestimate children, and I adore Flannery O'Connor for writing, "Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

    It's wrong to assume that one has to let go to grow up, that being a dreamer somehow discredits a person or casts into doubt a capacity for responsibility. The author you quoted may be right, that readers are 'missing out', but there are only so many books and it's up to the reader to decide what they feel is written for them or how they want to spend their time and the experience they want to have.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Young Adult novels are a great escape for adults because they're filled with so much magic. Who isn't still young at heart and who doesn't want to be a kid again and get that letter from Hogwarts?

    Adult books are filled with adult problems and we get enough of that in real life. It's the same concept of why someone wants to watch cartoons like Adventure Time instead of a political drama like House of Cards.

    Adult stuff is boring.

    ReplyDelete
  8. This OAP is a dreamer and agrees 100% with the "read what you like" ethos per previous comments, and I can't say it better than Cindy - 'moves me' etc. Crikey! Does the peculiar 'adult books only for adults' author mean that Jane Austen would be denied to me too? Ms Austen was only a young woman when she wrote about young women.... Oh pass me The Hunger Games and my Harry Potter collection - I'll read by torchlight under the bedclothes if necessary, and I'll take "Alice In Wonderland" with me too, and even "Lady Chatterley's Lover" which I've been crying over since I was 14 (i.e. 50+ years). Oh wait! The latter is an adult book - pity nobody told me 50 yrs ago. Come on! Books are for reading, for liking or disliking, for staying up all night with or passing on half-finished because they don't say anything to you personally. If I believed that children's books were only for children, this Nana would never get to read with enjoyment a bedtime story again.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Personally, I like reading BOTH young adult and adult novels. There's something to potentially be gained from both, for me as a reader, and that's why I like dipping into both kinds of books. Really, for me, it all just lies in these questions: What's exciting to me? What's intriguing to me? What interests me? I don't think there needs to be this whole bit about reading for your age. As you've made pretty clear, that's quite hard to define!

    ReplyDelete
  10. I am 22 and while going to the library after reading countless numbers of summaries to find an "adult" book I just felt as if they didn't seem they were going to be interesting so I found myself going back to the YA section where I felt as if the passion was. It's what attracts you. You pick the books where you know you can just melt into the story...has to be done on a case by case basis

    ReplyDelete