Shocker, I know. I’m sure that many of you out there reading shared my fate—nerdy, overimaginative children who read everything in sight, without the constraints of taste or discernment. Well, Lizzie Skurnick has made an art out of addressing the adults who grew out of bookworm children, adults who may still have a taste for overwrought pornography, walking while they read, and books that have a lot of detailed descriptions of food, first in her blog feature Fine Lines at Jezebel and now in her book Shelf Discovery, a collection of posts from the Fine Lines series. Believe me, this book was nearly as hard to put down as Flowers in the Attic was when you were 13 years old. It’s just a series of reviews of YA novels—or books that weren’t really meant to be YA, I’m sure (like Flowers), but became that way because adults have the good sense to toss them against the wall, but kids are absolutely entranced by the fact that they’re reading pornography! and no one! will stop them!
Okay, I’ve fallen into Skurnick’s writing style a bit, which might happen if you read a book as quickly as I did. The habit of devouring books is one that I’ve actually put to great use as an adult, and I owe YA authors a debt of gratitude for that. And while I opened this post with allusions to the trashiest of the milestone books of youth, Skurnick actually covers a diversity of books that mark up one’s preteen and early teen years as a undiscerning reader. And so it’s a real trip down nostalgia lane, and impossible to put down. Beverly Cleary, Madeleine L’engle, Judy Blume, Katherine Paterson, Paul Zindel—books that proliferated in the 50s through the 80s because of the popularity of cheap paperbacks. Some are genuinely great books, and others are unrepentant trash. Skurnick is determined to find redeeming values in all, though she’s hard-pressed to do so with the oeuvre of V.C. Andrews, she actually makes a case for Jean Auel. If you’ve read every single thing that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote or had a habit of nicking books that had serious-looking teenagers on the cover, you’ll love this. The only thing she missed was the Anne of Green Gables series, and so I’ll be forced to comb through the blog to see if she’s ever covered it.
And in covering all this ground, Skurnick makes some interesting observations, and gave me some insights about being a young reader. I’ve often thought about it idly, but thought heavily about it while reading this book, but it’s kind of funny how there’s all this anxiety about what kids are seeing on TV or hearing in their music, but outside of the hissy fits thrown by Christian fundies who want to ban “dirty” books (and who are already hostile to the idea of being bookwormish, since reading is a private act and privacy unnerves fundies), kids who read about sex, drugs, and running away tend to be largely ignored. “At least they’re reading,” tends to be many a parent’s reaction. Preteens are interested in what teenagers are up to above all other things, but what teenagers do was very different on TV and in books during this era. In YA literature, you had teenagers smoking pot, drinking, and fucking. On TV, it was squeaky clean, with pablum fare like “Saved By The Bell”. You’d think this would have made the readers more worldly and streetwise when they entered high school, but that wasn’t my experience. So maybe that’s why parents didn’t seem to care.
Skurnick is obsessed with the idea of re-reading, a habit of youthful bookworms that I’ve dropped completely, and I can’t imagine I’m the only one. It’s exceedingly rare that I reread a book, and even rarer that I reread a novel. If there’s a plot point in a novel that I need to remember and can’t, usually Wikipedia satisfies my curiosity. I give novels away pretty easily when I’m done with them, because I doubt I’ll ever reread them, no matter how much I love them. Non-fiction sometimes you merely lend and expect back, but once a novel’s given, in my mind, it’s permanently lost. But Skurnick reminded me of a time when you hoarded YA novels and reread them until they were tattered. Reading this book reminded me of how it was often more pleasurable to reread A Wrinkle In Time for the dozenth time rather than read a new book, and how I often checked the same book out of the library over and over. Why did I do that? Apparently I was far from the only one, though I distinctly remember feeling guilty about that. Part of it is that rereading presented the same pleasure that following a TV show does now, which is that you’ve grown affectionate towards the characters and you want to revisit their world. Part of it is that YA literature is often about creating characters that are ciphers, so the reader can get addicted to identifying with them. Ciphers are a big no-no to my adult novel-reading self, but they’re the mainstay of YA.
I’m intensely glad Skurnick reread some of these childhood books and reported on them, because god knows I’m unlikely to read them again. But she and her guest writers dig up some interesting aspects that fly over the heads of kids who are reading them—the critique of colonialism in The Secret Garden, the fact that the fat kid in Blubber isn’t actually that fat (or the main character), Lois Duncan’s ham-fisted anti-feminism that ultimately fails to convince. It reminded me of things I once knew but had forgotten: that Harriet the Spy wrote in all-caps, that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a memoir of her husband’s childhood as a farmer, that the dad in Cheaper By The Dozen was a scary tyrant (though his kids don’t seem to think so). And just like I felt often when I finished a book in childhood that I adored, I was sad when I came to the last page of this book and that’s all there was. Well, at least I’ll have the blog.
How about you? Were you a bookworm as a kid? What were your favorite books? What books are you sort of ashamed to admit you read?