Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reading With Trousers Rolled

When I was growing up, my parents were poster-worthy reading role models. My father bought practically every Time-Life, American Heritage, and National Geographic book series that offered itself through a mailing. My mother and I made regular trips to the library.  Every room in the house had at least one book in it, and even those rooms less conducive to book storage, such as the kitchen and bathrooms, often had at least a small shelf's worth.

At some point during my childhood, I realized that whatever he may have read in the past, my father only seemed to read non-fiction -- primarily military history. Though my mother still had her facsimile edition of the Shakespeare First Folio and some random other classics on the shelves, she seemed to read only mysteries and thrillers, and perhaps the occasional best-seller (which, when I got to junior high school, I would flip through looking for the pornographic parts). My own preferred reading material, however, remained literary fiction, with a bit of non-fiction thrown in once in a very great while to mix it up.

It’s by now cliché to wonder when you’ve become your parent, usually when you hear yourself irrationally informing your children that the reason is “because I said so and I’m the Mommy” or when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and think, "That's Mom." (I am convinced it’s true that I look more and more like my mother. But I am also convinced that is because I didn’t really know my mother until she was in her forties. Now that I’m the age she was when I could formulate a lasting mental image of her, the resemblance to that mental image is undeniable.)  I, too, have done the irrational preaching and the mirror glimpse, but mainly I see myself becoming my parents in my choice of reading material.

For a while now, I have wondered whether this movement away from literary fiction is just my experience, or whether it is a measurable trend in the general population.  A number of months ago, I made a crack on Facebook to the effect that old people only read genre fiction and non-fiction and some of my friends begged to differ.  Even so, though I don't have any scientific basis for my supposition, anecdotally I don’t think it is just my experience. Although he claims to have read mostly literary fiction when he was younger, my boyfriend has, for the past ten years at least, only read mysteries and thrillers. I’ve noticed this trend in other friends as well.

And yes, I can no longer deny that the course of  my reading swerved away from literary fiction some time back.  I just thought it was a temporary shift and that long term, my established tastes would win out.  But now I am forced to admit that the last literary fiction I attempted was War and Peace, over a year ago. I made it 350 pages in. Perhaps there is still hope, though.  Toward the end of his life, my father began reading literary fiction: notably, War and Peace. If I really am turning into my parents, maybe I’ll get back to it in 30 years.

The more I thought about this topic, the more I felt moved to break my more-than-a-year-long blogging hiatus to remark upon it. (I would say that I'll explain the hiatus later, but if I don't write again for another year I'll feel too guilty about the cliffhanger.) I've been pulling my thoughts together on and off for a couple of months, in between genre and non-fiction reads, thinking "Someone should do a study on this.  Seriously."

And guess what?  The next thing I knew, not only did I discover yet again that there is no such thing as an original thought (at least not in my brain), this time I was partially scooped: Salon’s Laura Miller just did a piece on older people turning away from fiction altogether, though genre fiction wasn't specifically discussed.

In any case, if it is in fact a tendency in the general population for older people to turn to non-fiction and genre fiction over literary fiction, I have a few unscientific thoughts about why that might be -- some of which are similar to those Ms. Miller mentioned, others of which will, I hope, add to the discussion. To be fair, some of the fiction/non-fiction gap is also apparently a gender gap.  But age seems to play a part as well. 

1. We realize there’s a lot we want to know about, and we no longer have forever to learn about it.

The non-fiction books I’ve read or bought lately are an eclectic group. I tend to read clusters of books on topics, not just one. My current clusters range from the American manned space program, to child rearing and psychology, to brain elasticity, to the economic crisis of 2008, to mathematics, to chess.

Some of these are topics I feel I need to learn about for practical reasons. For example, I know there will come a day, sooner rather than later, when my children will out-math me. I don’t have occasion to use much math in my day to day life, so I have lost a lot of what I used to know. I’m attempting to refresh my knowledge of algebra, geometry and trigonometry and teach myself the rudiments of calculus so that by the time my kids ask for help I’ll have a clue as to what they’re talking about.

But a lot of these choices have no practical rationale. I’m reading space books because I saw Apollo 13 on television again recently and it piqued my interest in learning more. The same thing happened after I saw Too Big to Fail on HBO; hence the economic crisis books. Cable television sucks me in to all kinds of reading I would probably not do otherwise. See, e.g., Twilight and The Song of Ice and Fire.  Oh wait, I forgot.  I read genre fiction now.  Heh.

Becoming well-versed in a topic provides a feeling of mastery that older people enjoy just as much as younger people do.  Reading permits us to cultivate this feeling to no small extent, and from the comfort of our own beds for an hour or so nightly before we crash.  When we wake up, we know it will be to another long day at work instead of going away to space camp for a few weeks, which is what we might have done had we wanted to learn about the space program years ago. As far as non-fiction goes, while autodidacticism admittedly has its limitations, it is better than not learning at all.

2. We know too many characters too well already.

By the time we reach middle age, we have a pretty good idea of the gamut of human experience: its triumphs and tragedies, its good guys and bad guys, its sicknesses, its perversions, its jealousies and greeds, and its moments of almost inexplicably touching kindness and beauty, real and imagined. Yes, everyone is an individual, and the never-ending variety of humanity continues to be astonishing, fascinating, and even enjoyable when we get older. But the deep, scary, interior of the human psyche and the rawness of experience that are the stuff of literary fiction are -- well, not to put too fine a point on it, enough already. Particularly when you have a family, a career, a home and the late onset ADD that tends to come with being chronically overscheduled trying to do an adequate job at each of these things.

It’s not so much that we lack the patience to get to know the terribly flawed human beings that great literature serves up to us. We don’t become shallower versions of our former selves simply by getting older. Miller's piece referred to a blogger who explained this as "having experienced enough real life narrative and drama such that made-up stories no longer appeal."  I wouldn't go that far, but I think that statement has a grain of truth in it.  I expect I'll continue to read literary fiction because made-up stories do appeal to me, but I have a feeling it will make up a smaller fraction of my reading going forward.

If it's not the lack of appeal, then what is it?  The reasons are somewhat elusive to me, but I think part of it has do with becoming parents.  We’re already spending so much of our own psychic energy raising our own flawed human characters, trying to comfort them and teach them to persevere despite the conflicts in their own stories, that we don't have room for the fictional ones.

Part of it may be that we see our younger, more angst-ridden but also more hopeful selves, both in the characters that populate literary fiction and in ourselves as the reader. Confronting that loss of youth, that loss of the feeling that one’s whole life is ahead and ripe with infinite possibilities, can be wickedly painful stuff. These days my feelings of infinite possibility are pretty finite. As my parents’ generation gets older and passes away one by one, I am increasingly aware of the psychological buffer they provided between my generation and the gaping jaws of death.  To paraphrase Sirius Black, I guess we're the old ones now.

To digress for a moment, I think the same phenonmenon is often reflected in changes in musical tastes. Rock and roll used to be my life, but these days I can barely stand to listen to most of it. For the most part, it isn’t speaking to me in the same way anymore. This fact is actually far more disconcerting than the substantive disconnect between me and the lyrics and beat to which I used to relate so strongly.  It's like what Miller said about novels:  "Once, the struggles of 25-year-olds to satisfactorily arrange [sic] their romantic lives was a fascinating topic to me.  Now, not so much."  Much of rock music is about the same topic, and directed to the same age group.  But what bothers me more is that I no longer find these topics fascinating.  It makes me wonder whether there is a statement in there about my idealism, my passion, and my joie de vivre in general.  Am I over the hill?  Or am I just grown up, finally?

For a number of years now, I've found myself listening to classical music instead of rock. It is timeless, it is soothing, and it is what my mother listened to back when I didn’t look quite so much like her. It doesn’t have words that express youthful yearning, suffering, and passion, which are, these days, largely outside my frame of reference except vicariously.

My boyfriend deals with the same thing in a different way. He's a musical Peter Pan; forever stuck in his youthful tastes, he refuses to listen to anything other than 70s rock, unless it is folk or country. I think the polar reactions he and I typify are fairly common, though I have no data to base my opinion on other than my own observations.

3. We read for escape, entertainment, and information rather than for enlightenment.

To push the previous point a bit further, maybe our reasons for reading change as we grow older. Instead of gathering insights along the path of becoming an adult to aid us in the maturing process, we are now more often reading to place ourselves out of time altogether:  to go on mini-vacations from the routine of work and child-rearing, and in some respects to distract us from fact that we don't have the same level of intimacy we used to have with people outside our family unit.

Although there are exceptions, plot driven fiction or information driven non-fiction is fairly circumscribed. It typically doesn’t tackle the big, deep, and nuanced questions of the human condition (unless it is philosophy). It speaks in broad brush strokes:  good against evil, or the meaning of X event in the context of the broader panorama of Y history.  But the existential questions of meaning, purpose, belonging, and how to be usually aren’t addressed, and if they are, their treatment is superficial compared to the work of good literary fiction.

By the time we hit fifty, we’ve at least started to come to terms with our grand existential questions. Either we have a pretty good understanding of our meaning and purpose, or we’ve concluded there isn't a meaning or a purpose to be understood, or we've accepted that we'll just never comprehend them fully and that’s ok. If we don’t already know how to be, we probably aren’t going to learn in the absence of some religious or other life-changing experience.

Personally, I think the question of belonging is the most difficult as we grow older. Maybe some people have a community they’ve been part of for years that gives them that sense, but I’m convinced as many of us don’t. We don’t have the ready-made pool of friends we had in school, or in our first jobs out of school where everyone was young and single. If we happen to leave the base of friends where we had all those things to move somewhere else, it becomes harder to meet people and spend the sort of time with them that cultivates friendships on anything more than a very superficial level. Most of the people I know now are the parents of my kids’ friends, and though they’re generally pretty nice people, we talk mostly about our kids, the school, activities, and such. Contrast that with college, where we talked about ideas, books, and feelings.  The problem is particularly acute in Northern California, where it seems that everyone is doing their best to build consensus with everyone else and would never risk saying something that might be viewed as divisive.  This is one reason I miss New York so much.

And contrast the mini-vacation experience with what readers expect from literary fiction.   Here's an interesting article that identifies some of the expectations as therapy, life lessons, challenge, and a chance to better ourselves intellectually.  At various times I've looked for one or more of those in a literary reading experience.  But I also read literary fiction for the aestheticism of it -- the sheer beauty that comes from the meter and sound of words coalescing with a thread of universal meaning to make something lasting and memorable.  I don't think we appreciate beauty less as we grow older.  I think, though, that maybe we just make less time to do it in our reading because we get a decent dose of it daily as we experience the beauty of our children blossoming into terrific people.

I have a feeling I'll be thinking about this subject more, and may have more to say after I do.  In the meantime, please be so kind as to participate in my very unscientific poll on this topic, just for laughs.  It's in the top right corner under the title banner of the blog.



Holly Jahangiri said...

I think your insights are very accurate. Maybe you've explained why I've ALWAYS found literary fiction tiresome (I'd like to say it's because I'm an "old soul," but the truth is, I just never did enjoy real life "drama" and never felt this angsty need to "find myself.") I've always read for escape.

When I read, I go blind, deaf, and dumb. The words blur - there's a movie going on in my head, and there I am, in the thick of it. I want it fast paced (I read fairly quickly). I want to be TRANSPORTED. I don't particularly want to have to decode, think, psychoanalyze (although that can be fun, too). I don't want superficial characters and plots, but they don't have to be Marianas Trench DEEP, either. I want a little FUN, darnit!

That's what I hope my own writing is. Fun. Entertainment. A little mental vacation from reality. I'd much rather they be that, than studied posthumously by grad students.

Oh. Hi. :)

**Morgana** said...

Hey Holly, thanks for stopping by! (And for voting in my little poll. Lol.) I'm trying to educate myself on the gamut of speculative fiction these days. My sense is there is more market there for literary fiction, so I wanted to take a shot at writing some. But I'm rather a noob and figured without a basic education I'd come up with what I thought was an awesome plot only to find it's a horrible spec-fic cliche. Meanwhile I dusted off a few of my literary stories, revised and submitted. And it didn't take long to remember why I hate submitting. ;-)

**Morgana** said...

Oops... should say "more market there than for literary."

Holly Jahangiri said...

Why is this the last post? And why must I pass an eye test to convince you I'm not a robot?

Holly Jahangiri said...

By the way...

I'm just leaving this one in case you answer here, so I'll get notified by the little birdy that brings my mail.

**Morgana** said...

Hey -- well, the reason it's the last post is because my writing time is scarce and I've been focused on fiction again for the past year.

Re the eyetest, that's a Google thing and I'm not sure I can change it. If it makes you feel better, I had to pass it to post this on my own blog.