So you're an adult and you liked reading The Fault In Our Stars; that's nothing to be embarrassed about.
On my night table, this past February, were three books waiting to be read or just finished: 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, and Paper Towns by John Green. All of them arrived in the varied and sometimes wonderful ways that books find you, or are found. I was reading Solomon Northup’s autobiography before seeing the movie. I picked up Annihilation, the first of an apocalyptic-themed science-fiction trilogy, the same afternoon I stumbled upon an online recommendation by the Globe’s Arts and Books editor, Jared Bland. And Paper Town, a young-adult novel in which the female protagonist arrived on scene dressed as a ninja, was passed to me by my 13-year-old son, who consumed it in less than two days.
To paraphrase a Slate columnist this week, I should be "embarrassed" just admitting to having broken the spine on the third one. (And given how people still tend to sniff at science fiction, probably the second one as well.) I will assume I was safe, by Slate writer Ruth Graham’s thinking, with Northup’s gruelling historical account of his kidnapping and enslavement.
In her column, "Against YA," Graham laments the fact that the adults around her are no longer ashamed to be caught reading books written for “children,” though what she really means are teenagers, given that her targets are John Green’s popular novels, which dominate the Young Adult New York Times Bestseller list. Clearly, that’s not only because teenagers are reading them; as Graham points out with dismay, 28 per cent of all YA sales are buyers between the ages of 30 and 44. That would include Green’s current chart-topper (which I haven't read yet): The Fault in Our Stars, whose weepy plot arrives in theatres today.
“Fellow grown-ups,” Graham scolds, “at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this.”
Gee, no risk of sounding snobby there. Graham is hardly making a fresh argument, but it is a tiresome one. To her credit, she has read the books upon which she casts judgment, which is better than the people who snub their noses at titles they have never even cracked. Science fiction and fantasy fans are used to this - though perhaps George R.R. Martin has raised our status of late. Yes, plots involving wizards and zombies may sound silly. But don’t get all snooty in a debate about whether Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy belongs on a classics list, or cast literary judgments on World War Z, if you wouldn’t even deign to read the first chapter.
Graham’s chief criticism about Green’s books is that they aren’t sophisticated by adult standards, wrap up too neatly, and basically waste limited reading time when there is so much more mentally nutritious content available. Except surely that describes an equal number of so-called “adult” books. They aren’t all Alice Munros. And, even so, are we to confine ourselves to certain “categories” of books because some marketing committee slapped a label on the spine? By that measure, no adult should pick up - let alone appreciate - The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which is ranked third on YA bestseller list, according to the Times.
There are a lot of good reasons why 40-somethings would wander to the teenage section of Chapters. To bond with their kids over a book. To see what all the fuss is about (i.e. Twilight). And there's the chief reason why you pick up any book - because you don’t know what’s inside until you do.
As it happens, Graham has found few allies among Slate readers, who have mostly pilloried her for being so judgmental about their literary choices. One responded with this quote from author C.S. Lewis. Others have passionately defended the teenage books they love as adults, as well the adult books they loved as teenagers. That’s really what Graham's missing. We should all read widely, and deeply. But don’t “focus group” our choices. The best books fall into our hands serendipitously, and lead to conversation, debate, self-reflection, procrastination, even escapism. To do that, a book doesn’t have to win the Booker prize, and it might end up on your reading list because a teenager you know raved about it.
So grab a copy of The Fault in Our Stars, without shame. You may hate it. You might love it. But at the risk of sounding snobbish, just read it before you see the movie. ‘Cause we all know the book is always better, and anyone who thinks otherwise just needs to grow up.