Saturday, February 12, 2011

Seminal books

A young friend asked me to talk about my experience with three seminal books she was studying in her Children's/Young Adult Lit class. I bet most of you have read these books too! Do you remember reading them when you were young, and the experience you had? What books were formative and influential for you in childhood and adolescence?

Let's see. I'll just type what comes to me. I was born in December 1955, so right in the middle of the baby boom. In high school, I did read and still remember those three books you asked about:
The Diary of Anne Frank
Catcher in the Rye
The Bell Jar

To some degree, they typify the big issues of the 60s, though they were written earlier, at least Anne Frank and Catcher in the Rye were, and represent a world that was sort of irrelevant by the time I read them. But they represented issues of importance--
Catcher, the rise of youth culture
The Bell Jar, the women's movement
Anne Frank, race, though her story was very European-- antisemitism wasn't the real issue for us in the US (not that it didn't exist, but it wasn't enshrined in the constitution!), of course, but racism against African-Americans.
When I was in grade school, we all read a very important children's book -- I've been trying to find the title, but can't-- based on Ruby Bridges's integration of a New Orleans grade school (the famous Norman Rockwell painting of the little black girl in the white dress, surrounded by
federal troops as she walks to school, is also based on this incident). I remember in the novel the girl was named Mary, and I thought that if everyone could read this, no one would ever say little children couldn't go to school together. Funny that I can't remember the title, because I think it
was that book that taught me that novels can change the world for the better, by making people identify with characters who are different-- make people empathize.

Another book like that, not a novel, was Black Like Me, where a white journalist darkened his skin to get the experience of racism. It was an interesting trick, and sold the book, but I do think
he might have just asked some black people. :) He ended up dying of cancer, and it was said it was due to this skin darkening.

Oh, another huge issue at the beginning of my conscious time (that is, after say 1963 and JFK's assassination, which was the first public event I really remember) was The Bomb, always capitalized. We'd just been through high anxiety with the Cuban Missile Crisis, though I was too
young to notice, and everyone pretty much believed that we'd have a nuclear war in the coming decade. Never happened, but that anxiety might have contributed to the extreme, frenetic nature of the late 60s. I remember reading a kit of dystopic novels like Alas, Babylon and On the Beach which were set in a post-nuclear-war world, and that genre definitely reflected (and contributed to) the sense of impending doom. (In fact, you know, the whole forgotten Y2K panic-- remember how there were dire warnings that planes would fall out of the sky and money would disappear from banks as soon as it became Jan 1, 2000?-- was, in some ways, an echo of
that apocalyptic fear, more extreme and immediate-- I mean, really immediate-- everything was going to change at the stroke of midnight!-- and ephemeral, but the same sort of dire "the world will end" dread.) I can recognize in Catcher in the Rye and the Bell Jar that sort of formless crawling dread-- young people believing secretly that there won't be a world there when they grow up. Anne Frank, of course, had very specific dreads before the Cold War, so the dread wasn't formless there. There really was no future for her.

Anyway, I'd say the central issues of the 60s (for the young) were the rise of the youth culture and the extraordinary explosion of art, especially music, that fed the endless desire for stimulation in the young people. :) And the war-- Anne Frank's war was very different than Vietnam, as the racism that affected her was different from what we were going through in the US. Civil rights and racism... this was more like an issue that finally came to fruition-- it had truly been an issue since the Jamestown settlers first brought slaves there in 1609. I was living in Virginia then, and in my childhood, everything was still segregated, so the great years of the struggle for integration were going on right then as I grew up. And finally, the sort of "sleeper issue", the one that ended up having a huge effect but went on sort of in the shadow of the civil
rights struggle, was women's liberation, and the discontent and sense of entrapment that led to that is fully described in The Bell Jar.

So, let's see. I read these probably all in high school or junior high. (In my town then, the high school was 8th-12th grade, so we were children when we entered and adults when we graduated.) I can't tell you how much changed just in that time. As I entered 8th grade, girls were required to wear dresses and stockings, and by the time I graduated, we were all wearing jeans and t-shirts like the boys (I actually was in a big protest and student walkout about the dress code... we won). The war was at its height when I started high school, and the senior boys were all expecting to be drafted, but by the time I graduated, the war was over (for the US) and the draft was a horrible memory. The school was just starting integration my 8th grade year, and a young black man was elected homecoming king my senior year. (Yeah, he was a football star. ;)

I have to distinguish between these three books. The Diary of Anne Frank we read in school, for school, I mean, probably in 8th grade history class. Oddly, given the subject matter, I don't much remember it. I remember of course the iconic photo she took of herself, but I don't remember much about the story. Recently a friend mentioned Anne's difficulty with her mother, and I had to admit that I didn't remember that at all. Maybe this is what happens when we get assigned a book! We didn't choose to read it, so we forgot it. Of course, I do know the story in the main, and I think her courage is an inspiration, but sometimes I think that it's impossible to
read literature of the Holocaust. We know the ending, and it's too much to bear, and it tells too much about the human race. I think very likely I reacted against Anne Frank the way I have always reacted against books about the Holocaust-- I simply shut down and can't deal with it, can't deal with what it means about my fellow humans (and maybe me).

What's kind of ironic is that we were assigned this book about the terrible inhumanity of humans, and Catcher in the Rye was banned. I know now it's "canon" and kids read it in school, but back then, they banned it. It wasn't in our school library, and when I wanted to take it out of the public library, they said my mother had to come with me and sign a permission slip. (My mother was a great reader and thought we should read anything we wanted and we'd sort it out, so she just bought me a copy-- I still remember-- it was a dark red paperback.) What was the banning
offense? Oh, there was the word "fuck" in there. No joke. We were supposed to read about how the Nazis enslaved and then murdered millions, but we couldn't read the word "fuck" because it would corrupt us.

So of course we all loved Catcher in the Rye, because it was forbidden. It was actually kind of earlier than the 60s. (side question-- why no good fiction about the 60s? There were a couple good novels about Vietnam, but I can't think of a great novel set in the 60s-- the real rioting in the streets 60s, not Portnoy's Complaint. And you know, I grew up then, and I'm a writer, and I never thought to write about the time-- I think it was so much about experience, about the moment, that it can only be captured in music, maybe, and the music is great enough, who needs novels? Just crank up the Stones. "Paint It Black!")

Okay. We were the TV generation, as our parents had been the radio generation and their parents the movie generation. Most families had TVs by 1963, and there were only the three networks, so we all watched the same shows. The sitcom was big then, and silly, a talking horse and a talking car and that sort of thing. Lots of variety shows-- watching the Rolling Stones get censored on the Ed Sullivan show ("Let's Spend the Night Together") was like seeing the 50s collide with the 60s. By about 1968, though, the stereo record player was making more of an impact on the TV generation. That was huge-- for the first time, really, the price of a stereo was within reach of teenagers if you pooled your money-- $300, which was about what a TV cost, and think of what that would be in today's dollars, probably about $1800. But while we still watched TV, music became much more important. The stereo was the same level of technological advance as the Sony Walkman (personal stereo) was, but different. The stereo was a communal technology. We'd all sit in a dark room and listen to King Crimson or Jimi Hendrix, you know. Together. Music was a social activity. You'd buy an album ($7... see, I remember prices because I had to babysit 14 hours to buy an album!) and call your friends and they'd
all come over and listen to it over and over and over. My brother Greg used to buy singles (because he was younger and had no money!) and listen to the one song over and over. He'd be really embarrassed if I reminded him that his favorite songs were a Jackson 5 song (Easy as 123) and some treacly ballad named "Traces". Anyway, the rest of us would get REALLY sick of Greg's favorite songs. He'd commandeer the stereo and play his singles over and over.

We all read Catcher in the Rye and thought we were very sinful. It actually made an impression on me not because it was so wicked (it's not), but because the voice is so colloquial and young. It was like the narrator Holden was talking straight to us. That book keeps showing up in weird places. It clearly inspired films like Garden State. And of course, John Lennon's assassin was holding it when he killed John: "very strange," to quote the Beatles.

The story of Holden Caulfield didn't actually make that big an impression. It was the voice of the narrative that was memorable. I think Holden's world of prep schools and Manhattan was about as alien as Anne Frank's attic to me, a girl in a little town in Virginia. I kind of think back fondly on his absolute narcissism, though of course at the time I thought he was very deep, but he's spending 90% of the book thinking about himself, because heck, what else is there that's important! (Ah, to be 17 again... NOT! Never! I'd die first! :) It's a spot-on portrayal of that age, and brilliant, although now the only thing I can remember that remains very wise and worthwhile is something that his (older) teacher says to him, about how he might grow up just knowing enough and thinking enough to despise people who said, "Between you and I," and that would be tragic. And Holden ignore that because the teacher was a "poof" or whatever he called homosexuals, and made an advance on him. Holden missed how great an insight it was, that learning and growing are misused if all they teach you is contempt.

But you know, the whole Manhattan scene was so exotic, but not in an enticing way. In the 50s, all the thoughtful young people wanted to go to NYC and be philosophical. In the 60s, we all wanted to go to California and be beautiful and free. Holden so much describes a world where
grownups rule, where the world was all about work and drinking for stress relief and desperate but secret sex, and he's the one who brings the whole youth thing-- he wants to be candid and open and speak his emotions and be crazy and creative and never get trapped in a job and an apartment and a bank account. Doesn't he at the end ends up in... California? In a loony bin, but, well, that's what California is/was.

Sylvia Plath's book takes place the same basic time, also in elite schools and Manhattan. (You know, I went off to college and met a girl from that exact milieu-- professional class Jewish New York, and she went to a prep school, and she thought I was the exotic one!) By the time we all read -- all being only girls; I don't think I've ever met a man who admits to reading that book-- The Bell Jar, we all knew about her suicide, and that this book was based on her life, and we looked for clues to the death in the book.

Looking back, I think of The Bell Jar as, again, the portrayal of a world that was shortly going to vanish-- very shortly, so that by the time I read it, only a decade after it was written, it seemed like Gone with the Wind. But I did sort of know that world, because my mother, for a while, tried to live in it, buying a sewing machine to make these glamorous dresses like the kind the singers wore on the Ed Sullivan Show and the models wore in The Bell Jar. Of course, she couldn't live in that world-- being a poor ethnic girl who was the first in the family to go to college, etc., but I know she did feel that she SHOULD be like that, glamorous and artificial and brittle. What a weird ideal that was, and yet that was the world Plath was writing about, the world of the glam magazines. No wonder she committed suicide!

Two things come to mind-- one is that girls STILL read Plath's book and feel that what's her name is like them. I never did-- maybe because she was so recent when I read it, and I think also because girls today also have pressure to be "effortlessly hot, beautifully perfect," and for a brief moment in the late 60s, that pressure was off, and that's when I was coming of age. Not that we didn't want to be sexy and all, but you know, YOUTH is sexy, and we knew it-- the youth revolution thing. We knew that we were beautiful because we were young, and we were important because we were young, and that everyone older or younger than us wanted to BE us.
You could wear makeup or not, you could wear hose or never even shave your legs, and you'd still be considered beautiful. Weird time! But of course, Plath didn't live to that time. She lived just before that, in a time like right now, where even the most beautiful girls don't think they're beautiful enough. But at least now beauty is not all the matters, as it was in her time. Now you can succeed in life and love in other ways, although I suspect that those ways are still seen as a bit lesser than the beauty route.

So, as I said, I think girls today probably feel closer to Plath's heroine than I did. The daughter of a friend of mine actually read The Bell Jar and attempted suicide-- btw, she's now getting her PhD in English at Yale. :) That febrile narcissic intensity was something she understood viscerally, and I think the suicide attempt was almost an emulation (though she told four friends and a teacher that she'd taken all these pills, so natch, she was saved).

Other thing-- the part I remember most, and what does this say :)-- is when the heroine sees her first lover's genitals and thinks that they look like "a turkey neck and gizzards." Now that's pretty funny, and it reminds me that the first grenade thrown at the wall of patriarchy was
ridicule. That is, the heroine (or author) being able to laugh at the man was significant. The whole Freudian penis-envy thing was absurdly prominent in the 50s, and the patriarchy was huge in the US, all these boys like my father, coming back from the war and pretending to be men because the male adult was the ideal then, the silent, knowing, secretive, brutal, war-winning man. The 50s were all about shoving women back into the box (it's happening again, I tell you!) because they got too independent for male tastes during the war-- working in factories and going out afterwards with their friends and drinking and sleeping with other men. As soon as the war ended, all the boys came home and had to re-assert the patriarchy, and part of that, I think, was the attempt to pathologize being a woman. See, women were -wrong-, they weren't what they were supposed to be and knew it, and they envied men and that attribute of maleness-- that was the myth. Freud had sort of taken over in the US (I mean, his theories-- he was dead) in the 50s, and so serious women and ambitious women and smart women had to be told that all of that wasn't because they were serious, etc., but because they wanted to be men, and so it was wrong to be a woman and wrong to want to be a man if you couldn't (poor thing) be one. (This is all happening at the very same time as the civil rights movement, of course, so read "white men" there... but it was all very soon going to start sputtering to an end, the veneration of the white male, and about time!)

So anyway, when Plath's heroine got her first glimpse of the vaunted male attribute and made a joke, that showed that the wall was coming down. The ramparts were being stormed. If she could laugh at a man's phallus, well, all those phallic symbols that represented power were revealed in their absurdity too. Plath's heroine was NOT a feminist, but she became a feminist icon because she could laugh, if only secretly, at the symbol of male power.

Now that I'm all adult and (I presume) beyond adolescent narcissism, I do see that Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar are beloved precisely because both the protagonists are such narcissists, and maybe that's why I liked those books so much more when I was that way myself. Anne Frank's story is just too.... real. It's too much the misery of reality, while the other two books are about the inner misery of the privileged and educated, and I find that more amusing than apt these days.

I always want to tell people that yes, those are great books, but that's not what life was like for most people back then. But actually, it was, in the sense that every adolescent feels uncertain and lost and like he/she is not sufficiently appreciated. I bet if you gave that book to high school students in Bangladesh, they'd read it at night in their tin shacks by the light of a flickering candle and go to bed hungry because there wasn't enough food for the whole family, and fall asleep thinking that Holden and Sylvia really understand me, and my parents, who will shortly get up at dawn to go labor in the fields for $3 a day, don't even know who I really am.

I think that's why both of those books are always in print-- because there all always 15-year-olds who think there has to be something beyond this life of theirs, whatever it is.


So what about you all? What were the important books of your youth? What books do you think really exemplified that period of life, and period of history?


Jordan McCollum said...

Hm.... I think The Great Gatsby might qualify for me. To me, it was all about tying your hopes and dreams to one false, empty dream for too long.

I think Jay Gatsby's first love being empty, and his pitiful devotion to someone so worthless ultimately leading to his downfall, speaks to high schoolers when so many of us (them) are going through our first love—and our first disappointments in love. This may be why, although I call TGG my favorite book, I think I've read it once since high school.

I also really liked Heart of Darkness, and the strict code of morality the narrator espoused—and what it took for him to abandon it. This one I've revisited as an audiobook.

(I think the narrators of both of these books have some in common with your narrators in that they think very highly of themselves and their honesty and integrity and impartiality, when they may not be that much better than the people they look down their nose at.)

Edittorrent said...

For me, junior high was all romance novels -- those Harlequin doctor/nurse or boss/secretary stories, all sweets -- and high school was about SFF and, to some extent, Shakespeare. I started on Shakespeare when I was about 13 and committed vast chunks of it to memory. Not that I can remember it anymore, but it did keep me from stark raving boredom in many a classroom.

But truly, I read so much, then and now, that it's hard to tell you which books were most important. "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson creeped me out badly. That I do remember. And I do have to reread Macbeth periodically just to see if it will finally make more sense than it did when I was 15. It never does.


Unknown said...

I was really into Holocaust biographies (preferably autobiographies) in junior high and what made one of them even more special to me was I got to meet the author himself.

I don't remember the name of the first, but it was the tale of a little Viennese girl who wanted to become a ballerina. She saw the European conflict blossom around her, the changing rules on who she could be friends with, little kids turning in their own parents for not agreeing with the Reich, etc. Through it all, she kept after her dream of being a ballerina. Wish I could find it again.

The big book I remember though was "Don't Fence Me In" by Barry Spanjaard. He was the only American Jew (at least I remember that claim being made) who lived in Europe all through the war, went to the concentration camps (including Auschwitz for a brief time) and survived to tell his story afterward. He could have gotten out through the embassy, but because he couldn't take his parents with him (they weren't AMerican), he stayed. Because of that his mother survived to live out her life in America after the war, and his father survived long enough to get out of the concentration camps, though he died almost immediately after. I got to meet Mr. Spanjaard in 9th or 10th grade as I recall and he was amazing.

I think it was, in part, books like that that led to my getting a BA in History.

Edittorrent said...

Tory, I think I remember that Viennese story-- hmmm. We should try to find the title. Funny how we can remember so much and yet not the name!

And what is the appeal of holocaust lit for young teens?

Shalanna said...

I'll bet the integration book you remember is _Mary Jane_. I got it from Scholastic Book Services sometime in the late 1960s (I mean around 1969 or so) and read it, thinking it was Very Powerful. My grandmother got rid of it soon after, because I left it on the coffee table where we weren't supposed to have anything but the TV guide. (grin) She didn't like the cover, either. BUT ANYWAY, that's probably it.

A seminal book for us in junior high--I'm thinking around eighth grade, yes, because that's when we had Ms. Banuelos--was _The Outsiders_ by S. E. Hinton. Hinton never did another really great book--that was her masterpiece. For us in the mid-1970s, it was a portrait of a world that was JUST out of our suburban ken. Many in my class fell out when the teacher reminded them that this is fiction. "You just RUINED it for me!" screamed one girl, throwing the book across the room. "I thought it was REAL!!" She was sent to the principal's office as we were in those days, but many others in the class behaved the same way. It sparked the discussion of how fiction often is rooted in actual events filtered through memory and given perspective by wisdom, and all that rot. (grin) I personally also loved the Narnia series and _A Separate Peace_. _Peace_ was complex in a subtextual way and I was really impressed by the way the author did it at the time (by that time I was in eleventh grade and reading it for the reading list.) Students don't read those two any more, but they would like them if they did, I think.

Shalanna said...

Aha. "_Mary Jane_ by Dorothy Sterling was first published in 1959. The 8th printing that was published in December of 1968 by Scholastic Book Services." I'll bet this is my old book. (grin)
For sale at etsy: ~

Edittorrent said...

Shalanna, I think you're right! I remember the girl's name was Mary. Good catch!

Leona said...

Interesting discussion. As an adopted child who felt like I was hiding from the "real bad men" I really identified with Anne Frank. I wasn't required to read it the first time. I was given it by my aunt.

My very first book that I remember reading, was a gift from that same aunt, and it was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There is still a lot of controversy about that book among certain people.

I was never part of it. I fell in love with reading and that book. There was no going back for me. The empowerment of kids was a very powerful message for me since I felt so helpless about my life.

I don't even know if any of it had anything to do with the era I grew up in, namely the 70's and 80's, but they sure had a lot to do with the life I grew up with. I have weird memories regarding growing up because most of it was surreal to me in some ways. In others, I was avoiding life and hiding behind the good girl persona until I'd literally blow up at my parent's and their prejudices regarding people "in my position" and how they treated me over it.

I'm trying to break thru those walls to incorporate them into my writing. I may yet write that book that begins:

I was adopted when I was 10 years old.

Anonymous said...

Leona, that's very insightful. Hmm. I wonder if in a lot of times books really break through the defenses.

I loved all the Narnia books too. When I was grown and a parent and read them to my kids, I realized how much my style was influenced by CS Lewis.


Magdalen said...

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett -- an Edwardian tale of character under pressure. Sara Crewe is the spoiled daughter of a widower making a fortune in India. When she's old enough, she's sent to Miss Minchin's school in London. But although he has spoiled her with toys and finery, she is not obnoxious.

Then all the money is lost and she's reduced to being a slave in Miss Minchin's school. People's true characters are revealed, most of all Sara's. She endures through imagination and a sense of her self that even hunger can't alter.

It's all very angsty (Eva Ibbotson created the same effect in her more grown up fairy tales such as The Countess Below Stairs) but there's a thread of sorrow despite the relatively happy ending. Sara won't ever be the same after her deprivations.

I identified with her even when I was her age. I was changed by a childhood that improved but was never reversed. It stuck with me, as Sara's story has done.