stephen king

Genius

“Albert Einstein was a ladies man
While he was working on his universal plan.
He was making out like Charlie Sheen
He was a Genius”

This is one of my favorite lines from Warren Zevon’s modestly-titled gem “Genius.”  It’s a brilliant song – at once hilarious, scathing, dark, and vulnerable.  And it epitomizes the career, and the life, of one of America’s most under appreciated musical talents.

Reading I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Crystal Zevon’s biography of her late husband, it very quickly becomes clear that Warren Zevon was a genius in every sense of the word.  As some might jot down a grocery list before running out to buy tomatoes, Zevon would dash off entire symphonies on the back of cocktail napkins in full musical notation for instruments which he knew how to play or could figure out how to play in the time it’s taken me to type out this sentence.   He liked to brag about being tested as having the highest IQ ever in Fresno, California.  Whether there ever was such a test, it would be a risky proposition to bet against his IQ.

Zevon was a voracious reader and would veer from Stephen King to Russian history to Catholic theology to Norman Mailer.  His apartments were always strewn with books and, as a friend noted, he read every single one.  Zevon was not a person to buy a book and not read it.  As his good friend and novelist Carl Hiaason writes, “A prodigious reader…he could talk knowledgly about Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, or Micky Spillane, all in the same conversation.”  This vast body of literature informed his songwriting in a way that made Zevon one of the most admired and creative lyricists around.  His songs veer from flat-out goofy (“Werewolves of London“) to cheerfully dark (“Life’ll Kill Ya“) to plaintively earnest (“Don’t Let Us Get Sick“).  But each one displays a way with words that was the envy of many of his novelist friends.  Stephen King summed it up pretty well:  “When I listen to some of the stuff Warren wrote…I think if I could write something like that, I’d be a happy guy.” That’s pretty high praise from a guy who’s put more words to paper that probably anyone else on the planet and is damn good at doing so.

Genius as he was, Zevon was far from a saint – as was probably to be expected given his profession as a rock musician.  Drugs, alcohol, and smashed up hotel rooms are par for the course in that line of work.  Yet, as he went beyond most others in terms of creative abilities, his bad behavior also crashed through boundaries.  In a song titled “Mr. Bad Example,” there’s a line that goes “I like to have a good time and I don’t care who gets hurt.”  This is certainly autobiographical.   In addition to alcoholism, drug abuse, and fits of narcissistic rage, Zevon’s life was littered with other  instances of darker, more despicable behavior.  He beat his wife.  He cheated on every girlfriend he ever had.  In a particularly disturbing incident, he impregnated a fan, lied to convince her to have an abortion, and then refused to talk to her again.   In short, he could be a disgusting human being.

But he could also be a loving father, a caring friend, and a sincere partner.  When he chose to be, if ‘choose’ is the correct word.  I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is told through the eyes of those who knew him so there is no professional psychological analysis at play.  Yet, it is clear from the stories of his friends and relatives that there was a battle going on between his better and his baser instincts with the later often winning out.  While this made for a train wreck of a personal life, it’s a conflict that permeates his music in such an important way that, were he not as twisted, it’s easy to imagine him not having been such a successful and creative artist.

In 2002, Zevon was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at the age of 55.  A week or so before he finally passed, he told his ex-wife Crystal to tell his story.  “You are my witness,” he said. “The story is yours.  But you gotta promise to you’ll tell ’em the whole truth, even the awful ugly parts.  Cause that’s the guy who wrote them excitable songs.”  I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead certainly tells the whole ugly truth and, in the process, helps us to better understand this flawed and tragic genius.

2011: The Books

When people ask me about my favorite book, I often have no idea what to say.  Come up with one book that I like more than any other book that I’ve ever read?  How am I supposed to do that?  I most certainly have books I like more than others.  There are books I love and books I hate.  But I find it almost impossible to choose one single work that I value above all others because, among the really great books, they each have something of value that can’t be fairly compared to others.

In this spirit, my new years review of the books I read in 2011 will not be a single ordered list of books I liked culminating in my favorite book of the year.  Instead, I’ve come up with a few categories into which I can place just some of the books I read last year.  This list is by no means comprehensive but it gives some good examples of what made me happy to be a reader in 2011.

The “Try Not to Make an Ass of Yourself By Laughing Hysterically in Public Places” Books

The Books:  Pygmy by Chuck Palahnuik; Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Friend by Christopher Moore; God, No! by Penn Jillette; Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre

Most books are not laugh-out-loud funny.  They might inspire a smirk, or an inside chuckle, maybe a giggle.  But, some books are pee-your-pants funny.  Christopher Moore’s Lamb is one of these books.  The story of Jesus’ missing years is narrated by Biff, a well-meaning but flawed sidekick to the Son of God.  For all it’s wacky irreverence, the book manages to remain surprisingly inoffensive, no small feat when dealing with two teenage boys (even if one of them is Christ).  Penn Jillette’s God No! could be summed up with  “a fat dude vomits all over naked strippers in zero gravity.”  That sentence in itself is funny and the book follows suit.  Jillette does, however, get a little bit preachy in his hatred of anything religious and that drags the book down.  Pandaemonium, by Christopher Brookmyre, sits in as a a gaggle of hormonal teens battle demons at a forest getaway.  Sex, drugs, and mayhem predictably lead to hilarious results.  And Pygmy, by Chuck Palahniuk, tells the story of an adolescent spy sent to the American heartland to instigate chaos and destruction.  Told through the butchered syntax and grammar of a non-native speaker, Pygmy  is a brutal satire of American society in the guise of a raucous farce.  It was certainly the funniest book I read in 2011.

The “It Would Be So Cool to Do These Things But I Don’t Actually Want to Die” Books

The Books:   Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer; No Way Down by Graham Bowley; The Wave by Susan Casey; Blind Descent by James Tabor

Four very strong books round out this category of tales chronicling men and women jabbing their fingers into nature’s eye by exploring those places where mortals have no business being.  Two have to do with mountain climbing tragedies in the Himalayas.  Krakauer’s Into Thin Air  and Bowley’s No Way Down  read as gripping thrillers set on the rooftop of the world.  Turning a complete 180, Blind Descent by James Tabor follows those who explore the earth’s deepest depths in a claustrophobic tale of supercave spelunking.  The final work in this category is Susan Casey’s The Wave.  She follows  scientists, sailors, and (of course) surfers on a quest to find the worlds largest and most dangerous waves.  The tale of a 1700+ foot wave alone makes this book a gripping read.

The “Sometimes Religion Makes People do Crazy Things” Books

The Books:  Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer; Underground by Haruki Murakami; Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman; The Cleanest Race by B.J. Myers

There were four excellent books in this category, each one exploring a different religious movement and their often tragic collisions with mainstream society.  Haruki Murakami’s Underground deals with the 1995 gassing of the Tokyo subway system by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult.  Murakami chooses to forgo any sort of author driven narrative by telling the story almost entirely in the words of the victims and cult members.  The result is a sobering meditation on Japanese society and it’s culpability in this horrific tragedy.  Inside Scientology,  by Janet Reitman, takes a more traditional approach in exploring the origins, beliefs, and future of Scientology.  Her research is insightful and scathing.  While remaining sympathetic to Scientology’s many adherents, she paints a vivid portrait of a power-hungry organization founded by a delusional huckster and being led into the 21st century by a violent sociopath.B.J. Myers’ The Cleanest Race seems to be misplaced in this category as it is a book about how the North Korean people perceive themselves and how this affects contemporary geopolitics.  Myers, however, makes a very persuasive argument that the North Korean worldview is informed by their own psuedo-religious belief in the purity of their race and in their leaders ability to protect this innocence against an onslaught of corruption and filth from the rest of the world.  Finally, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven explores the violent roots of Mormonism while telling the story of a grisly modern-day murder.  This story of faith gone awry is masterfully told, moving at times more like a thriller than a religious history.  His book challenges believers to ask themselves how far they might go in the name of faith and, depending on the answer, what this implies about the very nature of religious belief.

The “WTF???” Books

The Books: American Psycho by Brad Easton Ellis; Ed King by David Guterson; The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks; Pygmy by Chuck Palahnuik

As an adult reader of literary fiction, one can very easily become desensitized to scenes of violence and sexuality (or a combination of the two).  Depictions of this nature often pop up in various works and, having read hundreds of them, they’re usually not quite as shocking as perhaps they should be.  Still, every so often a book can truly jolt.  Dave Guterson’s Ed King is a modern retelling of Oedipus Rex and is billed as such.  Therefore, the ending’s not a complete surprise.  No matter how prepared you are, however, it’s still cringe-inducing when the titular character discovers the truth about his wife.  Chuch Palahnuik’s Pygmy makes a second appearance for its bipolar swings between boring suburban life and graphic mayhem.  The scene where the diminutive narrator deals with an oafish bully will test your resolve as you try not to laugh at something that shouldn’t be in any way funny.   The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks also deals with an adolescent narrator prone towards violence and sociopathic behavior.  As his story careens towards it’s disturbing surprise ending, he spends his time collecting his own bodily fluids, killing dogs, and torturing wasps.  The last book in this category, however, makes the rest of these seem like appropriate bedtime stories for toddlers.  Brad Easton Ellis’ American Psycho depicts scenes of violence, sex, and sexual violence more disturbing and graphic than anything else legally available.  Readers beware.

“Even Though I’m a Guy, I Sometimes Cry a Little at the End of Books”

The Books:  Room by Emma Donoghue; 11/22/63 by Stephen King; Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

I’m not a crier.  Even if I was, I probably wouldn’t admit it.  But, I’d be lying if I said that these books didn’t bring a tear to my eye.  Stephen King’s 11/22/63 may seem like an unlikely choice – time travelling alternate histories aren’t exactly known for their emotional potency.  King, however, turn this tale into a poignant meditation on memory, loss, and time.  You’d have to be one tough person to remain dry-eyed at the end of this one.  Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men needs little explanation.  The ill-fated story of George and Lenny has been regurgitated so many times in pop-culture that it almost seems cliche.  But this doesn’t negate the raw emotional power of this tragic novella.  The gem in this category, however, was Emma Donoghue’s Room.  The brilliance of this novel lies in the author’s use of Jack, a six year old narrator.  Jack’s innocence in the face of a dark,cruel world is both heartbreaking and exhilarating.

 

 

When cliche is truth…

I agree that “This blew me away” is pretty much of a non-starter when it comes to class discussion of a novel (or a short story, or a poem), but I would argue it’s still the beating heart of fiction. “This blew me away” is what every reader wants to say when he closes a book, isn’t it? And isn’t it exactly the sort of experience most writers want to provide?

Stephen King, in discussing William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  Read the entire piece here.

Tragedy on the Quest for the Tower

The Dark Tower series is Stephen King’s magnum opus.  In his own words, “Roland’s story is my Jupiter- a planet that dwarfs all the others…I think there’s more to it than that, actually.  Roland’s world contains all the other worlds of my making..”  And what a world it is – Careening through time, space, and dimensions, it concerns itself with nothing less than the likely destruction of the fabric of existence, in our world and all others.

Midway through the series, King takes a break from futuristic hellscapes, pedophile cannibals, demonic trains, and dimension-hopping gunslingers to tell the story of Wizard and Glass.  As his characters rest beside Route 70 in some alternate dimension of Kansas, King spins an almost Shakespearean tale of young love, youthful cockiness, greed, betrayal, and human ugliness scarier than any vampire or demon spawned in King’s hyperactive imagination.

No one ever wonders what’s going to happen at the end of Romeo and Juliet.   The great tragedies work because of the sword hanging over their characters heads, a sword that will inevitably fall.  Likewise, the reader knows there is no good end for King’s characters.  Roland, the grizzled and obsessed gunslinger willing to sacrifice anyone and anything in his quest for the Dark Tower, appears in this tale as a fourteen year old boy.  Not quite as innocent as his age suggests, he still embodies the youthful idealism and romance of a teenager. Along with his companions, Cuthbert and Alain, he rides into a sleepy seaside village only to quickly become embroiled in intrigue, treachery, and, most tragically for Roland, love.  The object of that love, Susan Delgado, returns the young gunslinger’s feelings with the passion that only teenagers can summon.

King’s story is intricate, too much so to neatly summarize here.   It’s a web of deceit, honor, nastiness, and virtue.  It’s populated by memorable characters who epitomize the best and, more often, the worst of human nature.  And, when fate draws the novel to it’s close, the foreknowledge of Roland and Susan’s tragic love make it all the more devastating.

I’ve remembered this middle book as being the best of the Dark Tower series.  On a second reading, I really understand why.  Roland’s epic journey toward the Tower is a sprawling, chaotic tale with a cast of thousands and plot turns that very nearly defy belief.   By it’s very nature and construction (and, from my perspective, knowing how it all turns out in the end), it’s clear that King meant the Dark Tower series as a massive open ended multiverse of stories without real conclusion or resolution.

Wizard and Glass takes a step back.  The fantasy/sci-fi elements fade to the background as King focuses on what he does best – writing unforgettable characters and setting them loose upon each other without all the accoutrements which sometimes clutter the rest of the series.  And, tragic as it may be, the conclusion brings satisfying closure, something that readers crave after hundreds of pages with such real characters.

One of the plot devices in Wizard and Glass revolves around a glass sphere which enchants with views of humanity at it’s most depraved, pathetic, and tragic.  Almost impossible to put down, the ball enslaves and captivates.  At one point, the young Roland comes into possession of this charm and it takes a swift blow to the face to tear his gaze away.   That’s about how I felt 500 or so pages into the novel when the sword finally fell on its characters, smacking me in the face and allowing me some measure of closure, however horrid.

For any fan of King, I highly recommend the Dark Tower series, Wizard and Glass  in particular.  While I don’t recommend reading this one without having read the first three books, this is probably the only one which could stand alone independent of the other six.

Any other Dark Tower readers have any thoughts?

 

In Defense of Stephen King

A few months back, I had a really, really nice dinner.  It was at a wedding, but it wasn’t your typical overcooked, mass-produced and reheated affair.   The meal started with a plate of fresh seafood – so fresh, in fact, it hadn’t even been cooked.  As a lover of sushi, I was delighted.  There was squid, lobster, shrimp, and oysters served with fresh lemon and drawn butter.  The next course was a prawn ravioli, immaculately prepared and beautifully presented.  Next came a lobster tail grilled to perfection and served with fresh tart mango.  Apertifs, cigars, and a delicious wedding cake followed.  It was a meal memorable in every sense of the word – gorgeous, unique, delicious.

That night, on the way back to my hotel, after eating what was probably the finest food of my life, I couldn’t wait for the next day when I could go into Rome for a pizza.

And this leads into my discussion on Stephen King, my literary pizza.  He’s criticized quite a bit by the literary intelligentsia for his pedestrian writing.  Take, for example, Harold Bloom’s 2003 op-ed published in the Boston Globe.

 THE DECISION to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for “distinguished contribution” to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.

Bloom goes on, not by providing any useful critique of King as a writer but by lamenting the fact that he’s successful and that he writes books people like to read.  An interesting analytical tack for such an esteemed literary critic, but that’s beside the point.  Snobs (including, but certainly not limited to, Harold Bloom) can’t seem to reconcile with the idea that a popular writer can also be a good writer.

If I was Harold Bloom, I could stop here, include some irrelevant references to how Charles Dickens was immensely popular as well as being a great writer, rephrase my original point, and call it a day.  But, I’m not the great literary critic, so I’m going to have to actually defend my argument.

There are many purposes to literature – it teaches, enlightens, elucidates. It can comfort and console. Often, it tests boundaries, shatters taboos, and offends.  And it does all of this by telling a story.  That is the fundamental purpose of expository literature.  If the story falters, it cannot achieve anything else.  Sure, the prose might be interesting or the words might be complicated.  But, without a good story, no one will care.  All the greats – Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, thousands of others – have known this.

What does it take to tell a good story?  It’s simple – a plot and believable characters. Nothing else.  It doesn’t take a dictionary-size vocabulary or a revolutionary style.  It takes believable characters doing something.  The plot doesn’t even have to be all that interesting – Romeo and Juliet is nothing but two young fools who fall in love and die, happens all the time.  What makes it a classic is that the characters are so real to us, five hundred years and thousands of miles removed.

Now, is Stephen King our modern Shakespeare?  Of course he isn’t.  But no one really is.

Stephen King is, however, a serious writer who creates believable characters and writes them into wonderful stories.  Most memorable of King’s creations? At the top of my list, I’d put Lisey Landon from Lisey’s Story.  She’s a woman not only coping with the death of her husband, but with the unmooring of her own identity in the wake of this tragedy.  The plot of the story pretty much goes nowhere – it happens over the course of a single day and, apart from a visit to a relative’s house, happens mostly in flashback and in Lisey’s head.  But, it’s still one of King’s most affecting works because of the amazing character who drives it.

All of Kings books are populated by characters like Lisey.  There are some derivative and cardboard characters sprinkled in here and there, but for the most part, King excels at characterization.  Especially with bad guys – I’m thinking of the creepiness of the Trashcan Man in The Stand, the repulsiveness of Big Jim Rennie from Under the Dome, and the tragic awfulness of Rhea of the Coos in The Dark Tower IV – Wizard and Glass.  

These characters are the real stars of King’s writing, not the demonic dogs or the satanic clowns or the cell phone zombies.  They are plot devices which lead King’s characters into extraordinary situations where the author can chronicle the fall-out, good and bad.  The real terror of King’s writing is not of the supernatural sort (although It‘s Pennywise the Clown scared the sh%*t out of me).  Rather, it’s the terror that comes from watching ordinary people distort into hideous monsters when confronted with the unknown.  Under the Dome, while not King’s best work, demonstrated this quality incredibly well.  The horror of the book did not come from the Dome, which was vastly indifferent to the suffering of it’s captives.  The horror came from the people within and what they did to each other.

Stephen King has faults.  He doesn’t know how to wrap up a story and often stumbles in the final chapters.  He’s a prodigious user of adverbs and cliches and all the other worn out devices that our high school comp teachers tried to cure us of.  But, really, so what?  When I get shivers at the end of The Stand, am I going to remember the redundant adverb on page 487?  Of course not.  I’m going to remember the hundreds of fascinating characters and the epic story that I’ve just finished.

I’ve read books that outshine anything Stephen King has written and I cherish and love those books.  At the same time, when I’m finished, it’s King who I go back to, knowing that I’m in for a story with characters that I’m going to know and care about.

Stephen King is my literary pizza – sometimes good, sometimes wonderful, sometimes approaching gourmet status, but always satisfying.  I wouldn’t eat pizza every day, and I know that there is some better food out there. Those meals, however,  are few and far between.  While I wait (and look) for those meals, I know exactly where I can get a dish I will love.

(This post inspired by this week’s Literary Blog Hop at The Blue Bookcase.)

Wouk and King: The Serendipitous Connection

I’ve been reading Herman Wouk’s 1971 epic Winds of War over the past two weeks and, yesterday, I started wondering if he was still writing.  Wouk’s old – well into his 90’s – but he’s nothing if not prolific and has been publishing continuously well into his later years.

So, I pulled up Google and did a search.  The first result?  Stephen King, one of my favorite authors, has published a short story this month in The Atlantic titled “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive.”   It’s a rather dark story, but the titular conceit is that Herman Wouk is still writing at the age of 96.  It’s fun, serendipitous connections like this that, while small and trivial, can make one wonder about coincidence.

Anyway, I highly recommend King’s story in The Atlantic.  It completely forgoes any hint of the supernatural to tell a simple, but tragic, human story.  Also, The Atlantic published an accompanying interview with the author which sheds light on the story’s genesis as well as Kings view on the current state of short fiction and the creative process.  Good stuff.

Television Even A Book Junkie Could Appreciate

About a year back, I wrote about the reader’s dilemma when it comes to watching television.  My point was that, while television is full of garbage, there is plenty of programing which can appeal to the reader’s more literary aesthetics.  Just as there is a gulf of difference between crappy Hollywood blockbusters and transcendent film, the difference between Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire  and The Sopranos  is enormous.

Or I assume it is – I haven’t actually watched Who Wants to Marry A Millionaire.

Anyway, as an avid television watcher as well as a compulsive reader, I thought I would highlight a few programs which might live up to the high standards of the reader.

Californication (Showtime)

This story of stunted novelist Hank Moody is, without question, one of the funniest and most tragic shows on television.  It’s also one of the dirtiest.  But, if you can look past the gratuitous sex and drug use, you’ll find a profoundly sad and touching story of squandered talent, emotional self-destruction, and painful love.  What sets this show apart from other shows which have mined this vein of human emotion is the razor-sharp writing and the phenomenal cast.  This show isn’t for everyone – aside from the raunchiness, the show goes to some very dark places, albeit masked in frivolity and humor.  Just as with a good book, however, the viewer will laugh, cry, and run the gauntlet of emotions in between, along with the characters.

Dexter (Showtime)

This series, based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay, chronicles the life of Dexter Morgan, a blood-spatter expert with the Miami P.D. by day and a serial killer by night.  Yet, despite his homicidal and sociopathic tendencies, Dexter is a decent guy.  This conflict has created one of the most watchable and complex characters on television.  Michael C. Hall is brilliant as Dexter and the supporting cast is just as strong.  Like Californication, this is not a show for everyone.  As you might expect in a show about a serial killer, the violence content is quite high.  However, Dexter provides a character study as intriguing as in any good novel.

Breaking Bad (AMC)

Remember the dad from Malcom in the Middle?  Now imagine him as a scowling, cancer-ridden crystal meth manufacturer.   Welcome to Breaking Bad.  This show has so much going for it – smart dialogue, great acting, beautiful cinematography.  But the brilliance of this show lies in the relationship between the two central characters –   Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned meth cooker and Jessie, his former student and helper.  Through this relationship, the writers have spun a dark morality tale of slippery slopes, rationalizations, and greed.  If Stephen King were to write a book about a meth cooker, this is how I’d imagine it would come out.

Sherlock (BBC)

This reboot of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous genius imagines Sherlock and Watson in contemporary Britain.  Far better than last year’s Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law pic (which was not a bad movie by any means!), this three-part series features Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson.  The stories are well-told, the filming fast and exciting but the joy of this show is watching Cumberbatch play Sherlock Holmes.  Far from Downey’s macho interpretation, Cumberbatch imagines the character as a quirky techie, almost Aspergerish in his arrogance and genius.  It’s a wonderful reinterpretation, one which any fan of the original would appreciate.

That’s a small sampling of what I think are some of the best television programs available.  Are there any other shows or series which you think are of literary value?  

What’s a Parent to Do?

Every so often, some new ultra-violent video game or gore-riddled movie sets of a wave of hysteria which sweeps through the nation’s collective parenthood.  There is wailing, there is gnashing of teeth, there are recriminations and name-calling.  Hollywood is decried as a godless behemoth intent on destroying the moral fabric of the nation’s youth.  Politicians draft elaborate bills with grandiose titles like “The Protect Our Innocent Children From the Evils of Bloody Video Games Act of 1998” and wave said bills in front of television cameras.  Parents vow to guard their children’s viewing habits more closely and children figure out how to sneak out and see exactly what their parents don’t want them to.

I’ve always found these bouts of national indignation incredibly amusing.   Firstly, ranting and raving about an incredibly violent movie does nothing but ensure that every single teenager in America will make it a point to see it, if only to annoy their parents.  Secondly, I fully believe that the moral crusaders’ anger is wildly misdirected.

It should be the books they’re after.

Granted, there is the occasional national conniption over a piece of literature.  I’m thinking primarily of Brad Easton Ellis’ American Psycho which was greeted with a level of disgust and indignation on par with that regularly leveled at Hollywood.

However, on the whole, most books seem to slide under the radar when it comes to parental watchfulness.   In the US, a trip to an R-rated film requires a guardian’s presence.  Public libraries, on the other hand, are stocked to the ceilings with books containing violent and sexual content leagues more explicit than anything available in a suburban multiplex.  Growing up in my family, a trip to the movie warranted a suspicious “What are you seeing?” followed by a careful review for rating and appropriateness.  A trip to the library earned a simple “Good for you.”

I’m sure that I’m not alone in this experience and I can think of a few reasons why this would be so.

1.  Reading is perceived as a ‘good’ activity while watching TV, seeing movies, and playing video games are all brain-rotting wastes of time.   Parents like to see their kids reading, it’s as simple as that.  Just the fact that they are curled up with a book rather than staring aimlessly into an idiot box probably makes Mom and Dad feel good enough not to really question what their kid is actually reading.

2.  Checking movie ratings is easy.  Reading a 500 page book is not.  Flip open to any page in a Stephen King novel (my reading of choice as a 13 year old boy) and the are pretty good that there won’t be anything too objectionable.  Some profanity, perhaps.  Read the whole book, however, and most parents would probably find 30-40% inappropriate for their kid.  This takes a lot of time, however, and time is something that most parents are sorely lacking.

3.  Most parents need not worry about what their kids are reading because, sadly, their kids are most likely not reading.  The most obvious reason parents and politicians make such big fusses about movies is that kids actually go and see movies.  Read books?  Not so much.

Despite this third reason,  the fact remains that adolescents have easy access to printed material that is grossly inappropriate for them.  My recent reading of American Psycho gave me cause to reflect on this.

As a teen and pre-teen, I read quite a bit of adult crime fiction.   A title like American Psycho, had I come across it on a library shelf, would probably have enticed me to pick it up thinking it would be an interesting police-chasing-serial-killer book.  Luckily, the first third of the book would have been impenetrable to a young reader – post-modern stream of consciousness combined with lists of brand names I never would have heard of.   In all likelihood, I would have put it back up on the shelf before finishing the first page.  There is a chance, however, that I might have flipped through to the middle and read a random passage, as I had a tendency to do.

The scenes beginning in second third of the book are too obscene to even attempt describing here, scenes that make the movie adaptation seem as cuddly as Bambi. Certainly not scenes that any 13 year old boy should be confronted with.  At that age, there’s no understanding that the violence and sexuality serve as absurd counterpoints to the banality of modern existence that Ellis is attempting to skewer.  There’s no appreciation of the pitch black caricature which is Patrick Bateman.  There’s just sex and torture and murder, explicitly described page after page after page.

American Psycho is an extreme example.  I’m pretty well read and I haven’t come across another book as abhorrent in its content.  That I can understand and appreciate some of its thematic elements and perverse humor, doesn’t mean its not a repulsive work.  I loathe censorship, but I would never want an adolescent exposed to Patrick Bateman’s homicidal and misogynistic rage.

All this being said, In the age of the internet, where the most depraved of human instincts are on full display only a few clicks away, is this really a problem?  I’m not so sure.  I spent my adolescence reading books beyond my maturity level and I seem to have turned out okay.  In fact, I’m certain that I’m a better person for it.

At the same time, I pause when I see a list of banned books that places works such as The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird alongside books such as American Psycho. There are people who genuinely believe that no book should be restricted in its availability and I sympathize.  I’m wholeheartedly opposed to censorship yet I’m certain there’s a very big distinction between books which have simply run afoul of some modern notion of political correctness and books which plunge headlong into the realm of pornography.  Can there be artistic merits in the latter?  Of course.  Should those books be readily available to young readers?  My instincts say no.

I’m not a parent.  I can’t say for certain how I would feel confronted with the possibility that my child might be exposed to material, be it a book or movie or otherwise, that I found objectionable.  Nor can I predict exactly how carefully I will monitor my children’s reading habits (when and if I eventually have any).  However, my sense is that both the hysterical “blame Hollywood” and the rigid anti-censorship crowds, while both genuinely concerned about their children’s wellbeing, are overreacting.  There must be a more common-sense approach which recognizes that kids are going to view material their parents find objectionable while not using this as an excuse to pretend that parents shouldn’t even try.  Banning books isn’t the answer, but neither is allowing children carte blanche to access material which they aren’t prepared for.

I realize that I’ve created a bit of a false dichotomy between two extremes.  Most parents struggle to navigate somewhere in between.  I know that my parents certainly did and I’m thankful for that.  It’s a difficult road, I’m sure, and I just hope that I will be able to do the same when my time comes around.

I’d love to hear from some parents who have had to confront this issue.  How do you deal with it?

Hypochondriacs Beware

Stephen King’s The Stand is one of my all time favorite books.  It’s hard not to love – a massive epic of good vs evil set in a post-apocalyptic America populated with memorable characters and narrated with King’s trademark macabre folksiness.  I’ve read it at least four or five times since middle school.

And every time I’ve come down with a cold.

For those who haven’t read the book, the collapse of civilization is brought about from a government lab (where else?) in the guise of Captain Tripps, the Superflu, which begins its infection with innocuous, flu-like symptoms.  It’s ridiculous, really, to suppose that reading about a fictional disease could possibly bring about an actual illness.  Yet, it always does.  And I’m not alone.  A good friend of mine, and another avid Stephen King fan, reports the same phenomenon with his numerous readings of The Stand. I imagine that we’re probably not alone; the human mind is incredibly prone to suggestion.

On that note, I issue a word of warning to anyone especially susceptible to such suggestions:  See a doctor after reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies.  Just to set your mind at ease.

That shouldn’t be taken as a criticism.  On the contrary, it’s probably some of the highest praise that could be offered for a book that attempts to not only explain the history of cancer over the past three thousand years, but to also explain the scientific and medical intricacies of the most complicated and horrific of human scourges.   This isn’t an academic tract that will have you snoozing five pages in or skimming through entire chapters.  You’ll read every single word.

As one fascinated by history, the progression of cancer treatment over the past few hundred years was a captivating story.  Yet, what really struck home, was Mukherjee’s medical explanations of cancer itself.  Sometime in the 1990’s, Dennis Leary released a comedy album entitled “No Cure for Cancer.” Who knew he was a prophet.   Dr. Mukherjee arrives at the same dismal conclusion.  While treatment for cancer has undoubtedly progressed and will continue to do so, the idea of eradicating the many myriad forms of this disease is most likely impossible.  At it’s essence, cancer is a cell or group of cells which, through a series of fortuitous mutations, has become more adept than normal cells at reproducing and surviving.  The very processes by which humans grow and adapt at the cellular level are the same processes which are utilized by cancer cells so that they may divide and reproduce.  As Dr. Mukherjee writes (I’m paraphrasing, but I’m pretty close), “Cancer cells are more perfect versions of us.”

The future is not all bleak, however.  The Emporer of All Maladies does highlight the amazing progress in cancer treatments, especially in the use of genetic treatments developed in the last decade.  The idea of eradication may be a pipe-dream, but the idea of turning cancer into a manageable medical condition is a very real possibility which has already come to pass for certain types of cancer.

Despite this closing optimism, reading a book which dissects such a scary and formidable foe, makes one thing twice about that nagging stomach discomfort or occasional headache.  The future may hold wonderful possibilities but, as all too many people are tragically aware, that future is not here yet.

It’s probably time for that annual physical I’ve been putting off.

 

 

A Bit of Educated Guesswork

This week’s question over at the Blue Bookcase’s Literary Blog Hop is:

What makes a contemporary novel a classic?  Discuss a book which you think fits the category of modern classic and explain why.

Hopping about and reading other’s responses, there seems to be almost universal agreement on some basic points.  First, while the time frame differs slightly for different people, a contemporary author is one who is currently writing or has been writing in the past few years.  That seems like a fair definition to me.

Secondly, all seem to agree that a classic is a book that can withstand the test of time.  A book, no matter how good, is not a classic if it ends up being consigned to the rubbish bin of literary history.

After these two points, perspectives begin to differ.  How many years does it take for a book to earn the label of “A Classic?” Must a book have a particularly high degree of literary merit to qualify?  Good questions, but open to a great deal of personal interpretation. I choose to think about this whole question in this way:  What contemporary books will people still be reading in 50 years?  I realize that 50 is a bit of an arbitrary number and it could just as easily be 40 or 60, but 50 rounds out nicely and, if people are still reading a book fifty years later, it must have some sort of lasting appeal.  As for so-called “literary merit,” I don’t really factor that into my equation at all.  If a novel can maintain appeal over the decades, I’ll assume there’s something inherently meritorious about the book.

As for the books that people will be reading in fifty years?  I’ve seen Cold Mountain, The Kite Runner, Middlesex, The Road all nominated as candidates.  All of these are all wonderful books.  However, I’m not certain they’re destined to be ‘classics’ in the sense that people, outside of some literary specialties, will be reading them in 50 years.   Certainly, any of them has the potential to become a ‘classic’  – but so do hundreds of other well-written novels from the past ten or fifteen years.  From our perspective in the present, it’s almost impossible to predict how any single book will fare in the eyes of time.  Take Moby Dick, as an example.  It’s now considered by many to be THE Great American Novel.  Yet, it was received with mixed reviews and fell into obscurity after its publication until it was resurrected in the early 20th century.  In hindsight, its easy to say that this rediscovery was inevitable – such a magisterial novel was undoubtedly destined to be recognized for the great work of art that it is.  However, it could have just as easily languished in obscurity and eventually forgotten.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not up to making any predictions.  If I was going to put money down on what books people will be reading in 50 years, I’d easily go with the works of Stephen King and J.K. Rowling.  Call me an uncultured philistine, I’ve got thick skin.  If history serves as any guide, these two authors are the safest bets.  The authors who become ‘classics’ are often the ones who are cultural behemoths in their own time.  Take Charles Dickens, for example.  While his literary merit was debated in his own time (and has been ever since), he was a genuine celebrity.  People loved him and still do – and not because of his original literary genius.  The man simply knew how to tell a good story.  That’s what people remember and that’s why his books continue to be read generation after generation.  Love him or hate him, Stephen King tells a story as effectively as anyone writing today.   And, through his books and their many movie and television adaptations, his characters and ideas have been ingrained into the cultural landscape.  Same goes for Rowling’s Harry Potter series, perhaps even more so than Stephen King’s works.  Rowling hooked an entire generation of kids who will remember those books for the rest of their lives and will undoubtedly read them to their own children.   People will be reading about Hogwart’s and He-Who-Cannot-Be-Mentioned well into the next century, I guarantee it.  And, to be perfectly honest, I think the works of both these authors deserve to become classics.

Other, more ‘literary’ books are certainly destined to become classics as well.  But, for works that don’t come with a cultural zeitgeist driving them forward through time, a lot more is left up to chance.  I’d like to think that my great-grandchildren will be reading Jonathan Franzen and Haruki Murakami, but I can’t be certain of it.  As with almost any aspect of life, the role of luck and chance is just as important, if not more so, than skill and merit.