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Posts Tagged ‘YA’

Okay, so I made that word up, from the Greek roots of the word “middle” and “place” because I really think there needs to be some sort of alternative to the unrealistic idea of utopia and the dour-as-all-get-out dystopia that’s all the rage.

I understand the popularity of dystopias because I enjoy many of them myself. The idea of looking at the world as it is and wondering how bad things could get, wondering if we’d land on the “right” side of things. Growing up my friends and I would play a similar game of what-if but through the lens of the past: if we were in Paris or Italy or Austria in the late 1930s, or even Germany, would we have done the right thing, would we have joined the Resistance? We’d like to think we’d know to do the right thing, and its these sudden shifts in the ideological ground that makes a dystopia fascinating.

But when you look up the word utopia, and then its antonym, you find that the opposite of a perfect world is hell. Dystopia is hell on earth. And all the hope in the world ladled into the ending of YA dystopias cannot hide the fact that hope is merely a band-aid on hell, a word of cheer meant to let the reader close their eyes and pretend it never happened, that it was all a bad dream, and that everything would get better from that moment onward.

Reality is never that clean. In fact, it’s rather messy.

You know what, I don’t particularly like this partisanship in fiction, I don’t like this idea of black or white with no middle ground. I love me some good dystopia but I’m feeling starved from a lack of a more positive visionary substance. I want to see something in between, the messitopia, a future with human complications but not at the brink of using its children for blood sport or shuttering us in a post-global warming nightmare or forcing us into protective domes that keep the ugliness of the outside world at bay. I would hope that there are writers out there with enough imagination who could deliver an action-packed tale of a future where we got somethings right but still had some kinks to work out.

Give us a future to hold onto, not one to fear.

 

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Yeah, that’s right, get ready for it. Spandex and roller boogie and perhaps even leg warmers and headbands!

Okay, maybe not, but it’s just as plausible as most dystopic fiction out there. And for proof, I now draw your attention to one of my favorite topics in the history of late 20th century American cinema, science fiction films of the 1970s.

What the heck was in the water back then?

There were movies about killer robots (Westword, Futureworld), movies about population control (Logan’s Run), movies about what was called “the greenhouse effect” back then (Soylent Green, which was also about population control), and of course, the reign of Charlton Heston as king of all things dystopian-to-come (Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, uh, Earthquake). In a decade that started with A Clockwork Orange (Cold War dystopia!) and The Andromeda Strain (killer viruses!) then ended with a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (virus from space!) and Mad Max (Cold War dystopia!) there had to be something that would pull us out of the doldrums.

And then along came disco.

Okay, so disco was a simultaneous response to the world, a response that also begat punk rock, but there was huge crossover. So much of the idealistic imagery of the future in 70s sci-fi movies looked like disco outfits — lots of white polyester and feathered hair — while the darker stuff looked like a fashion template for crusty punk squatters. But in the end, wherever there was a dark movie about sanctioned cannibalism there was a new Donna Summer dance tune or a Bee Gees hit!

If YA had been around back in the 70s — and I mean, as huge a market as it is today — I have no doubts teens would have gobbled up books like much of the dystopic sci-fi movies out there. I know, because I was there, and we were hungry for it. I also have no doubt those imaginary books would have been made into movies not unlike the ones that were made that all the teens saw anyway.

So to those adults wringing their hands about how “dark” YA has become, or worried about the boom in dystopic fiction I say fear not. This too shall pass, and in its wake we can expect there to be a rise in mindless pop confections to counter-balance all the darkness. Pastels and fern bars and a return to campy decor is just around the corner. Heck, for good measure, let’s have Woody Allen team up with Dianne Keaton one last time for Annie Hall 2: Electric Boogaloo where the two senior citizens kvetch about New York like nothing has changed in the last 35 years. Maybe Jeff Lynne can collaborate with Olivia Neutron Bomb* for a return trip to Xanadu.** Perhaps the old guard major networks can revive the oldest reality shows they ever created, Battle of the Network Stars, just in time for the Olympics.

Because maybe nothing has changed.

Mostly.

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edited:

* This was a nickname that combined two of the greatest threats to our well-being in the late 70s, the omnipresence of Olivia Newton John and the threat of a neutron bomb which we were told would destroy populations by leave the buildings in tact – as if that were a reassurance!

** Shortly after I wrote this post, but before I updated it to the interwebs, Donna Summer died. The original line here was “Giorgio Morodor and Donna Summer need to get back into the studio STAT and show these girls what it means to work hard for the money.” As much as I mocked Donna Summer as a teen she did, indeed, work harder for the money than many singers these days. 

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Actually, this is more of a question, a call to the universe if you will. What truly are the clichés that are specific to young adult fiction, and not those taken from other sources?

1. trite: stereotyped expression, sentence or phrase, usually expressing popular or common thought or idea that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse; sadder but wiser, strong as an ox

2. trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.

3. anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse.

I think there are many clichés that appear all over the literary landscape, that the use of color or a musical reference isn’t purely a young adult thing, but I’m hard pressed to come up with anything truly YA.

Rebellion against authority?

Bully Boys and Queen Bees?

The nerdy kid who saves the day/wins the prize/is accepted by the crowd?

I know that for middle grade novels I have grown weary of the boy-girl friendship where the girl is a sidekick who is smarter than the boy but lets him think he’s figured things out for himself. This is generally coupled with the equally annoying mystery story where some plucky kids manage to solve some mystery no adult could.

This whole idea has been rolling around in my head since I saw the interview with Maurice Sendak by Stephen Colbert where the faux conservative attempted to reduce the basic idea behind picture books to a simple formula:

Sendak: You know the formula
Colbert: You just need an animal… and something they’ve lost
Sendak: Well, yes, most books for children are very bad
Colbert: A squirrel lost their mittens.
Sendak: There you go.
Colbert: The buffalo lost its gun
Sendak: You’ve just written two children’s books

Kidding aside, is the lost-and-found story in picture books fits the “trite or commonplace through overuse” definition of cliché, yet it seems to elemental at the same time. So, with YA, in the end when the boy gets the girl (or girl gets the boy, or boy-boy, girl-girl, &c.) are we looking at a cliché? When our heroic main character saves the day or conquers their fear or achieves their goal, cliché?

Is writing for children simply a question of cliché management?

No, really, I’m asking. What sort of clichés do you see? What are the things a YA story can’t seem to be successful without these days? All comments and answers appreciated.

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Okay, so, this might have been a rising trend, what, ten years ago? This might have been newsworthy a couple of times maybe five years ago? Now it seem like every five or six weeks (around the same sales cycles that Barnes & Nobles shuffles its stock) some newspaper runs a feature about this “crazy” new trend where adults are reading YA books. Wacky, right?

Today’s article of note comes from the Boston Globe, and the hook this time is that the poor adults can’t find Twilight at the local book store because it’s not with regular fiction but “in the back” with the YA novels. Which is cute, and quaint, and a little ridiculous. Ridiculous because literally ten years ago I was filing Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books in both YA and Sci-fi/Fantasy. Ender’s Game as well. And we had The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in fiction and YA. Maguire’s Wicked took it’s time leaving the adult fiction shelves but eventually was also shelved in YA.

The point, and the reason this is not news, is that savvy booksellers and retail merchandisers put books where people expect to find them. If you have a crossover book that straddles a couple of sections – Stephen King has been doing this for years – you put copies of the book in multiple places for the simple reason that for every person who asks for help finding a title there are three who don’t find it and assume it’s out of stock. You don’t give your retail customers a chance to walk away empty-handed, you figure out that there might be some customers who would expect a book to be in one place and don’t necessarily want to feel insulted that they didn’t realize there were strict marketing rules involved. Seriously, do retail booksellers want to drive people to Amazon, where they aren’t forced to guess a genre in order to find what they’re looking for?

Naturally, that’s not the whole story here, because once you start talking about YA book trends you simply must mention the most recent movie based on a YA series coming out, and perhaps ride the coattails of a couple other titles people have already heard of, and then interview a few local writers for their perspective, and call it a day.

I really shouldn’t complain that any books are getting media attention and perhaps boosting sales, but could we maybe stop with the blatant attempt to tell this same story as a means of selling news? YA, hot topic, braced by a very vocal, buzz-generating community, I get it. But how about instead of talking about the same books, or giving more publicity to established adult authors who have made the leap into the money pit of YA, why not do something radical: create a YA beat. Give some column space to talk about books and trends that haven’t been reported to death. Maybe an old-fashioned three-dot column with smaller news snippets, brief reviews, and the occasional interview.

Damn it, I want that job.

Dear Boston Globe,

It has come to my attention that you like publishing features about the books and trends in children’s publishing, but you tend to write only the most obvious stories. You may have had critics who would occasionally review a few titles here and there, but in an industry that is losing sales in every other area, children’s books is the one place where sales have steadily increased during the current we’re-not-calling-it-a-depression recession. And once full-function tablets and e-readers become cheaper than cell phones, it will be a youth-driven market that will fully define the future of publishing. Will you be positioned to break that news as it happens, or will you ride in the way-back of the family station wagon and give updates on the industry’s exhaust?

What you need is a children’s and young adult beat. Regular installments – weekly at least, not monthly or whenever someone decides to pitch a story – where people can go to find news and reviews of the literature that is shaping and entertaining the minds of the rising generations. You need someone who reads these books regularly, constantly, and talks about them openly via social media. You could become a valuable community asset that would lead the way in providing a resource for parents and young adults (they read the news too, you know, and they smirk at your current attempts to speak to them) to discover what is out there in the world of books. Think of the children!

Should this idea interest you, I am available to discuss it further. I have a varied background that I feel makes me uniquely qualified, and more importantly I possess the desire to see a real change in how books for children and young adults are discussed in the media.

What do you say?

I’m sure there are better, less back-handed ways to do this, but what can I say.

 

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I am a child of the 70s, mostly. I remember the latter half of the 60s as well but my generation pretty much came of age during the tumult of The Decade That Ate Its Young, that alternate (and perhaps more politically accurate) name of The Me Decade. There are many things we have now that we didn’t have then. Technology is obvious. The possibility of an African-American or a woman in the White House seemed far-fetched back then. Oh, and we didn’t have books written for and marketed to our specific teen demographic. The term “young adult” didn’t exist as a category of fiction, and when it was used by an adult it was used pejoratively. To be a young adult was to be one step above a delinquent.

Somewhere in all that we still managed to learn about sex. We didn’t really learn all that much about it in school, and our parents weren’t really talking about it, so we picked it up exactly where our parents were afraid we’d pick it up: in books. No, they didn’t think of it like that, they would say we “picked it up off the streets” like some sun-warmed blob of chewing gum. The irony was that those “streets” of books we learned about sex from were often in our own homes.

I was just learning the complicated and confusing joys of puberty when I discovered that some photos in the National Geographic held a strange fascination over my attention. I’m not even talking about the random shot of a semi-nude tribal woman dancing, but certain faces of young women just slightly older than myself. They could be Irish teens waiting on a low stone wall for a bus, or Japanese women modeling Western fashions in Tokyo, so long as they were a few years older I found myself having wondrous strange thoughts about and imaginary conversations with them. I scoured the three or four most recent issues in our house until I felt I’d exhausted myself over these images, then had a sudden realization: there were boxes and boxes full of back issues in our garage! One Saturday afternoon, when no one else was home to witness, I went into the garage.

And lo! like a beam from heaven in the form of a bare and yellow 60 watt bulb, I discovered a box of paperback books that contained the twin volumes that would forever change me: Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House and Dr. David Ruben’s Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex: But Were Afraid To Ask. Vonnegut is a subject I’ve spoken often about and is no concern to us here today. No, it’s that other book, that grail of information spilling out of its chemically bleached pages like a pulchritudinous serving wench exploding out of her Elizabethan bodice. That’s the stuff.

So full of vivid medical descriptions of body parts and how they work! So full of explanations of mechanics that made no sense to me! So full of information that was… totally unsexy!

Here was the perfect book, I thought, that would do what no adult dared to do: tell the truth about everything. And it turned out to be what I didn’t want. So much what I couldn’t use or apply. So unhelpful. If you’ve only had urges and strange sensations and never had a girl or boyfriend, never been on a date, never even kissed, the whole of a book like Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex was as lost as the acts of the son of Judah.

A few years later it seemed like there was another chance to really get the inside scoop on this sex thing when kids started bringing copies of The Illustrated Joy of Sex to school. We even understood the irony of passing that book around in biology class while our otherwise-preoccupied teacher showed us sex-ed films from the 1950s (Emergency Childbirth ring a bell for anyone else?). This time ’round we had less medical babble and more pictures. Yeah, pictures! That’s what we wanted! Skip this foreplay stuff, this weird section called “Pickles,” show us what we all pretended we knew how to do since we were ten, since the day we found our first copy of Playboy in the bushes and took it home to hide under our mattress. Now, finally, we could see it all, we knew everything about sex, and we were happy.

But we weren’t. Something was missing.

Books had given us something we wanted, information in its most clinical and mechanical forms, and we were grateful because they were at least filling in the gaps created by our parent’s ostrich-like behavior, but what we wanted and needed was something that bridged the gap. Explaining that our “urges” and “changes” were natural didn’t help us understand our feelings at all. They didn’t help us figure out what was normal in terms of communicating with the subjects of our desire, what was appropriate and inappropriate in terms of social and private behavior. We were as lost as if given a destination, a road map, and a car without wheels.

We needed more books.

We needed books that told us, showed us what it was like to live these awkward moments. We needed books that explained the emotional trajectory of first kisses and fumbled make-out sessions. We didn’t want first- or second-hand accounts from kids fumbling around aimlessly on their own – accounts we often dismissed as made up but accepted as truth simply because we had nothing else to go by. What do you do when your crush is unrequited? What do you do when a casual friendship flares up in the heat of the moment and turns into a carnal Lust Monster?

Kids today, they don’t know how good they’ve got it. Not only are there Young Adults books, but you can find them about pretty much any topic. Abuse. Drugs. Death and the afterlife.

Sex.

You can find books about teens wanting, and having, sex. You can read about their desires, and how they go about achieving those desires (or sometimes failing to), and learn a whole slew of lessons without ever having to emulate the characters at all! Imagine! Just like a mystery where you don’t have to murder anyone, or a horror novel where you don’t have to be hunted down by some vengeful spirit or madman, or like some historical epic where you don’t have to fight in a war or suffer from some (then) incurable disease, you can read about sex and interpersonal relations and decide for yourself how to use that information! Amazing! Books are amazing!

And so, while adults continue to wring their hands over the problem of whether or not there is a case to be made for “raunchy” books for teens, we must remember that adults have a long and storied history of this hand-wringing, silence-peddling, censorship-pushing nonsense. Adults will always try to “protect the children” and youth will always find a way around their overbearing protections. The chemical and biological sex drive is there and, for the teen caught in the maelstrom of these awkward and sudden changes, no amount of protective censorship will keep them from seeking out answers. Fortunately for teens today there are plenty of sources Unfortunately, there are still adults out there trying to limit that information.

I say, be young, young adults! Think about sex all you want! Be defiant and delinquent! Read everything and judge for yourself!

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Apparently, it’s potentially my fault.

Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece (as news) examining how contemporary YA books had grown dark and whether or not it’s a good idea to be feeding teens a diet of kidnapping and incest and self-mutilation. The kidlit community went all a-Twitter as a result and began a counter campaign called #YAsaves* to prove that these books did more good than harm. Which has all been well and good, but I can’t shake off the guilt at my alleged contribution to the problem.

As an unpublished writer of contemporary and historical YA, I have had bad thoughts and included them in my writing.

I have written about a teen boy who has accidentally burned down a portion of his school while presenting an ecology project, vividly fulfilling a secret fantasy in the hearts and minds of many readers. Never mind that they haven’t yet read it, I have committed the words to the digital page and thereby one day shall be accused of having pushed that evil influence into the world. In that same story I have included characters of deeply questionable moral character – a teacher who dropped acid in the 60s and is implicated in drug dealing, a former student who became a radical socialist, another student who became a law-breaking monkeywrenching activist.

I have also written an outline for a future project where an abused teen boy runs away from home and finds life out on the streets can be harsh. Teen prostitution and petty theft, though not the main issues of that story, make an appearance. I have another story where a girl runs off to meet a man she’s met online, who steals a credit card to do so, and who at a young age in order to get attention falsely accused an adult of molesting her.

And I am currently involved with a contemporary story where a teen boy discovers through a series of summer jobs that some employers mistreat employees, break the law and take advantage of the elderly and disabled, and generally exploit teen ignorance of their own rights in order to save or make a buck. In these books I have included teens getting drunk, or high on marijuana, having or talking about sex, or breaking the law (sometime inadvertently) in my attempts to present a world a teen reader might find resonance in.

Yes, I have committed these thought crimes, and worse: despite how they sound above, some of these stories are comedies.

Would you like to hear some real tragedies?

As a public school teacher I once had a student who lived in or next to (it wasn’t clear) a crack house where the windows had been replaced by plywood because the glass kept getting blown out in drive-by shooting. That student came to school maybe once or twice a week and spent the rest of his time riding the city busses everywhere looking for someplace he could run away to.

I saw a fourteen year old girl who stopped doing her school work, stopped coming to class, and eventually dropped out before anyone could figure out that she had become pregnant and suicidal over the fact that her father had raped her.

And there was another student, a sweet kid who wouldn’t harm a fly, one day brought a gun to school because he’d been goaded to by other kids and ended up getting expelled as a result of a zero tolerance policy. After that, no public school would take him, and his parents couldn’t afford to put him in a private school or to do homeschooling, and who knows what happened to him after that.

And there was the girl who even on the hottest days of the year insisted on wearing heavy jackets because they were the only thing she owned that covered the welts and bruises from the beatings she received at home. When Child Protective Services was brought in the girl cussed out the teachers and administrators who were responsible for breaking up her family and preventing her from taking care of her younger brother.

If these stories are dark it’s because not all teens live in the light of happy narratives. Teens living in these dark situations need to know they are not alone in the world, and they need to see how others have come to articulate and cope with these issues. And for the teens who don’t live these dark stories, they, too, need to see what the world is like in order to gain understanding and empathy.

But while I’m apparently contributing to all this darkness in teen literature I have to ask the question: Why, when I talk to so many adults, do they say that high school was the worst time of their lives? Why do they say this and then as parents and guardians for the world of teens want to deny current teens the opportunity to realize they aren’t suffering alone?

Unlike “reporters” for the Wall Street Journal (and The New Yorker and The New York Times who have also done their share in the name of protecting the children) and all those ostrich parents with an unrealisitc view of the world, I remember what I wanted to read when I was a teen and why. I didn’t want Horatio Alger stories of lifting myself by the bootstraps into a better life, or fluffy fantasy tales that reinforced a Harlequin Romance view of finding a perfect soul mate (I’m looking at you, Twilight, and all the adult readers who love you), I was looking for a window onto the world that showed me what I suspected was true: that adults didn’t know everything and that the world wasn’t the perfect place the adults wanted me to believe it was. I wanted to know what to expect out in the world, I wanted to know the entire range of human experience beyond the scope of my home town.

And just to cover the bases here for those who worry about the dystopic nightmares kids are reading about today, they were there when I was a teen and I gobbled them up just as readily. My favorite in high school was Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer, a story about what happened before and after a comet slams into the earth. There was also Stephen King’s The Stand, a jaunty little good-versus-evil story that covered the entire spectrum of human behavior. And if I really wanted to see the folly of human behavior on parade I went to Vonnegut, and his stories were funny.

So, yes, the world of literature aimed at teens and young adults is full of darkness. As a writer of stories for that audience I feel there is a sense of duty in sharing with readers a world that they can identify with, including the ugly parts. I make no apology for those adults who prefer to ignore their own past and would rather shove their kids heads into the sand when it comes to deciding what they should read.

Hey, do you believe in freedom of choice? More importantly, do you believe in teaching young minds how to exercise that freedom of choice by giving them opportunities to do so?

Essentially, do you trust your kids? And if you do not or cannot not, whose fault is that?

Stop blaming books.

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* a collection of others looking at this situation can be found at Bookshelves of Doom.

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…like myself, and any others out there who were (and occasionally are) meant to feel somehow not as good as all you people who can whiz through books.

I know there are some of you out there who can polish off books in mere hours while us slow readers will take days.  Sometimes it’s a question of mood.  Sometimes its fatigue.  Occasionally our minds winder, us slow readers.  We aren’t necessarily savoring these books either, we read at the speed that is most comfortable for us and when that gets in the way of other goals it can have a huge detrimental effect on things.

Back in 1986 when I took my first stab at an MFA in creative writing, we grad students were marched across a hall at orientation and meant to stand in front of a freshman undergraduate class and introduced as the students who would be delivering lectures on selected titles.  Our names, books, and lecture delivery dates were chosen at random right then and there.  I was given two weeks to read and prep an undergrad lecture on Moby Dick.

I dropped out of grad school instead.

But I tried first.  I went home and sat down with Melville, and tried like mad to get that damn book read and could not get past page 32.  Even without a lecture assigned, we were expected to read two books a week, write compare-and-contrast papers on them weekly, and in our spare time keep a log of “all the other” books we read.  It was expected, and none of the other students raised an eyebrow.  Many relished the opportunity to devour books like mad and get little gold grad student stars on their heads while doing so.  I felt like a failure of a student, and it took me another 20 years to get over that feeling and try again.

I’ve always had this “problem.”  In elementary school things were mostly fine, but by the time I hit seventh grade the expectation to read and read closely never came to me.  To do close readings slow me down even more, because there’s a part of my brain that’s second guessing whether or not I’m missing something.  The epic battles in my head to shut down the doubting voice and the negative voice and instead listen to the story voice are sometimes an additional cause for the slowdown.

Stepping back a bit and thinking in defense of slow readers I have a question: just how many books a year is a person supposed to read?

Absurd question, no?  It isn’t like we have a national average or standard for this sort of thing.  People who like to read and read a lot occasionally tally how many books they’ve read in a year – Goodreads and Library Thing exist almost entirely for readers to show off their virtual shelves of books – but how many books should we, could we, expect an average human to read in a year?  A dozen?  A hundred?  One?

Out of curiosity I asked my teen daughter what she thought would be a good number of books for a person to read in a year.  After admitting that people read at different speed – she herself can polish off 300 pages in less than five hours – she thought it was reasonable to say eight books a year.  She said, as an average, sometimes you’d read more books back-to-back and other times you’d go for long stretches without reading and sometimes you just wouldn’t be in the mood.  Could she have been saying that for my benefit, knowing the old man isn’t anywhere near as fast a reader?  Perhaps, but it was an interesting thought that an “average reader” who was reading for pleasure and at leisure would spend eight weeks between titles.

When I’m not busying myself with plot or picking at the bones of craft, I sometimes think about what an awesome responsibility it can be to tell stories.  To ask strangers to take time out of their lives to read the words and think the thoughts and experience the emotions, it’s not something I take for granted or lightly.  I am constantly thinking about that teen boy I was, and what he would read, and what he wished was available to him, because I remember how bad it felt to be effectively standing still while everyone whizzed past him in the fast lane of reading, and how he felt like he was somehow doing it wrong.

I pick up so many books now that stretch to nearly double the size of the books I would have read as a teen and find myself wondering why they had to be so long.  Recently at this summer’s SCBWI conference Jon Scieszka was quoted (and retweeted) as suggesting that most picture book manuscripts need to be cut in half.  I would say the same thing should be done with most middle grade books and a fair number of YA titles.  I won’t name guilty parties here, but what a lasting testament to all those books I read that the main thing I remember about them is that they were too long by half, not their stories or their authors intent or that I enjoyed the experience, but that reading them felt like a chore.

It’s easy to dismiss the slow reader.  He or she (most likely he though) is probably a marginal force in the market.  Slow reading is anathema to the idea of book commerce, of quick sales and quick profits.  And while it’s easy to blame our accelerated culture for leaving slow readers in the dust, I’m going to argue that the very same acceleration that has built fast readerships has done so to the detriment of books the way fast food has assaulted nutrition.  I find I’m just not interested in hurrying up to gobble up the next book and then the next.  Its like literary indigestion, I don’t find that pleasurable.

I am a slow reader, and I enjoy reading.  It takes me longer to read most books and it’s taken me a while to be okay with that. And I am okay with that.

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