For the last 2 days I have been pondering why it is I like certain books and dislike others. To be honest, I don’t know the answer. What made me begin thinking was book club on Wednesday. I was the only one who didn’t like the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I found it long, drab, predictable and depressing while the remaining club members found it inspiring, gripping and interesting. The discussion was immensely entertaining (I’m always up for a lively debate- especially about books) but it left me feeling a bit ‘soft’ or ‘old-fashioned’ in my reading preferences. Am I a literary wimp?
Fortunately, as I asked myself this question, I recalled many books, which did not fit such a perky description. Not every book I love has a happy ending or a benevolent hero. For example, I love the Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which is so morose it is narrated by death- yes Death. Like a Tree Grows in Brooklyn it is set in poverty, it is equally long (so I know length is not the problem), and it has a lead girl who is similar (she lives in poverty, faces death, loves to read, is a loner etc). Why did the one book work for me and the other didn’t? I don’t know. Perhaps you, my internet world, can give me some answers?
Maybe it is a question of timing? This is a possibility. I had a very stressful month in January including an injury, and I was not in the mood to read a sad book. Perhaps if I had read the Book Thief last month I would not have enjoyed it? Haven’t you ever had a book that you once loved but upon rereading you think “Why did I like that book?” That’s happened to me many times- especially with books I liked during phases of my life such as the preteen years, high school, college, or when I hated my job etc.
On the other hand, there are books that no matter what mood I am in I enjoy reading- North and South, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Cheaper by the Dozen, Mama’s Bank Account. I have read North and South at least six times in the last two years. I LOVE it! It’s like a hug from an old friend. Why do these books move me every time? I don’t know. It would be easy to say I like them because I relate to them but that is a stretch- what in my life could possibly relate to Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennett? I suppose I relate to their spunk- their willingness to defy convention for love, honor or friendship. All of these books also have a full spectrum of emotions. They are happy, sad, angry, remorseful and hopeful.
When I think about the Book Thief it also has a wonderful mixture of emotions. While predominantly tragic there are several characters that give Liesel hope. Her foster-father is a wonderful character who tenderly loves and encourages her to continue reading (this done while her foster-mother scolds and reprimands her at every turn). There is also Max who is hiding in the basement and draws with chalk about the great life he will someday live. In addition, we know the foster-mother has taken Liesel in at great risk (and Max) so she cannot be all bad?
The plot in the Book Thief was also a huge surprise. It took a standard WWII story and turned it on its head. Not only is Death the narrator, but I never knew what was going to happen in the next chapter. It’s hard to explain but its like no other book I’ve ever read. With all the WWII books out there it is amazing Zusak could pull off a surprising plot but he does.
Anyway, for whatever reason I didn’t feel the plot in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn surprised me. Nor did the characters attach themselves to my heart.
This brings me to one last topic. It is a reality that no human being is perfect. I get that fact, but it seems to me many modern authors are so afraid to show a person anxiously striving to be good that they veer too far in the other direction- making every character full of mournful vices. I can think of 100 supposed ‘contemporary classics’ where not a single good person inhabits the pages. Am I naive? I don’t think so. I believe in even the worst of conditions the human spirit can triumph. I also believe each person has the light of Christ within their souls prompting them to try and live a good life. Obviously this depends a little bit on your definition of good; nevertheless, there are always some people trying to follow a moral code and live life with integrity.
When I think of a book like Catch 22 (a supposed classic) that is full of nothing but crass, mean, selfish characters (and not a single woman who isn’t a prostitute or a nurse!) and a book some people find funny- I am mystified? (Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a million times better than Catch 22). In my life such hateful characters are the exception to the rule. Modern books would make you think I am the exception.
Even while serving in some pretty poor, crime riddled areas on my mission I saw much good in people. For example, Mary Turner, who lived on the worst street of Indianapolis in the worst section of town, sold cans to feed the missionaries and anyone else who was hungry on her street. Many modern authors are afraid to put a character like Mary Turner in their books because it is not ‘realistic’ but she lives, I met her. Its real! Why is gloom and doom in the extreme more realistic than happiness and good in the extreme? Why is a moral character a cliché but a jaded cynical one isn’t?
Even chick-lit books are falling into this trap (aren’t they supposed to be light and fluffy?). For example, Julie and Julia- a book I hated. (The movie is slightly better because it includes the Julia Child sections from Julia Child’s book My Life in France that I LOVED). Julie Powell is a whining, cynical, self-absorbed, foul mouthed author who I felt absolutely no sympathy for. Is life really so bad Julie? Maybe she should read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn- gain a little humility! All she did in that book was complain even about the supposedly fulfilling act of cooking.
Of course, there are many modern books that aren’t afraid to include characters with integrity. The Secret Life of Bees comes to mind- a book with many sad events but also a few people who love as unconditionally as they can. To me it was a great balance. Maybe that’s the word I’m looking for- balance? There needs to be balance in a book.
So, am I soft’ or an old fashioned reader? Maybe I am? I’ll admit I’m a romantic at heart and a bit of an idealist. I like books depicting the triumph of the human spirit, which in its own weird and twisted way the Book Thief does. The only triumph for Catch 22 is cynicism, sin and despair. Not for me!
(I just want to add that in no way did the members of book club infer I was soft or old-fashioned. I’m glad they liked the book. That’s the great thing about reading and particularly book club. The best books touch our souls and produce visceral reactions either praise-worthy or to the contrary. I was not the least bit offended or bothered by our discussion. In fact, it was quite fun. It merely made me wonder about my reading preferences. I promise. I don’t want anyone holding back at the next meeting!)