A Spectrum of Possibilities

I was on a road trip, driving home from college on a break, with another overachieving English major friend of mine. I swear to you, in the darkness of a stretch of eastern Nebraska highway, our conversation went like this: 

“I really want to work on making my grammar perfect, so if you hear me make a mistake, please make it a point to correct me,” she said. 

“Are you sure you really want that?”

“Absolutely,” she said.

“I can do that, but I’m guessing that it’s going to get old pretty fast, so (1) please remember you asked me to do this, and (2) let me know when you’ve had enough. And, just so you know, I won’t ask you to return the favor. Not that my grammar is perfect, but I’ve found that the more I get wrapped up in things like that, the fewer friends I have. I’d rather people not get the idea that I’m judging them based on their grammar. It makes them self-conscious and uncomfortable.”

“Interesting.” And then we turned our attention to road trip songs.

I try to live and let live. I worked as an editor for several years, and the self-consciousness thing is real— some of my closest friends have told me they worry that I mentally correct their emails. But I honestly make it a point not to punish my friends for being unguarded with me. In addition, I have plenty of my own populist leanings. I’m an unrepentant rom-com fan, and I like chick lit and sitcoms and I read the books of the Hunger Games series like someone was going to erase them if I didn’t finish them in time.

My college entrance essay was about learning not to be the sort of person who says “actually, you mean to say ES-pecially, not EX-pecially,” with a self-satisfied smirk. I was that person in middle school, and I learned that nobody’s really that interested in being nit-picked. They don’t, as a rule, admire you more when you intentionally make them feel inferior. So I stopped.

But then, as part of my comprehensive exams for my English major, I had to write an essay on whether the literature that they required for the English major was pointless, since you could study basically anything. So I wrote this essay about why studying Spenser’s The Fairie Queen was superior, in fact, to being instructed in literary analysis by watching “Days of Our Lives” (which I also did through much of college.) I talked about how Days of our Lives was superficial, and didn’t offer the depth, timelessness, and complexity of The Fairie Queen. The faculty really liked the essay, and encouraged me to submit it to the literary magazine, which I did, after graduation. And it got published.

So I’m torn. I honestly believe that people should be who they are, and read what they want to read without being self-conscious. But the more that I think about the Slate young adult article from last week, the more that I agree with… at least where she ends up, if not her superior attitude in getting there. Don’t be embarrassed, but do read great stuff that challenges you, no matter your age. I read The Fault In Our Stars this week, and it was good. There were insights and phrases there that were really impressive, and it told a meaningful story. But I couldn’t help but compare it with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer, which I read a couple of years ago. They’re both dark, contemporary fiction, dealing with coming to terms with loss and grieving, the loss of childhood. But Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close offers so much more. TFIOS moved me—ELAIC changed what I thought about literature, and to some extent, who I am and how I see the world. It’s the sort of thing that years later, I find myself thinking about and wrestling with. I think that’s the point of great art.

There’s nothing wrong with Young Adult literature—there are incredible books in children’s literature, and not every book has to be incredible. My experience is that when I’m stressed or pressed for time, or even between reading “serious literature,” I need something far less serious. I go long stretches without reading anything at all, spending all my time trying to balance out my sedentary work life with something more active. But when I am reading, I’ve never regretted mixing in something that stretches and challenges me.  

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