I fall in love with books the same way I fall in love with people– deeply, unabashedly and without any pretense of dignity. This post is a love letter, and like the gushing of any girl newly in love, it may ramble here and there, but I hope you’ll indulge me.
One book that I fell for, hard, during my youth, is John Barnes’ One For the Morning Glory, an utterly unique fantasy novel that will nevertheless remind readers of The Princess Bride and the Prydain Chronicles. Tales of the Madman Underground is nothing like that book, but I’ve still fallen head over heels for it, which is a testament to Barnes’ versatility and skill as an author.
I will admit that I actually haven’t finished the entire book; it’s a long one, and I’m taking my time with it. You might say that I’m enjoying the early stages of being smitten to the fullest. The novel is very episodic but cohesive, thanks to the strength of the main character’s voice. It’s the story of Karl Shoemaker, a teen with an extremely fucked up home life, and the interconnected tales of other members of the Madman Underground, which is the nickname for a group of teens who attend therapy together during the school day. Karl is a brutally honest narrator who tells his story with black humor and a lot of profanity.
Madman reminded me strongly of The Catcher in the Rye, but while I can’t STAND Holden Caulfield, I would love to have Karl as my secret mentally disturbed high school boyfriend. For teachers who want to explore those classic themes of alienation and teen angst, but can’t stand Holden either, I think Madman would be an excellent substitution or alternative for any curriculum or reading list. The book’s profanity might make it a hard sell in schools, though, which is as shame.
There’s a great scene with a teacher explaining about how to read Huckleberry Finn that I think should become a mandatory introduction during any study of that novel. The teacher, Gratz, says that there are wrong ways to read Huckleberry Finn, one of which is the Hollywood way, which portrays the story as being about “[…] all=American boys on a road trip on a raft (211).” The second wrong way to read it, Gratz says, is as a racist novel:
‘[…T]here is a very important character in the book called Nigger Jim. And because of that fact we will say the word ‘nigger’ pretty often in this class. And when you talk about Jim and the way he is treated, sometimes you’re going to have to say the word ‘nigger.”
‘So understand me. First of all and mot important, we don’t ever call anyone a ‘nigger.’ Not in this class. Not anywhere. When we have to discuss the idea, we always quote the word ‘nigger.’ […] It is okay to say that thus and so is what those very prejudiced white people meant when they said the word ‘nigger,’ and that they meant it about Jim. […]’
‘[…T]o show the evil of racism to anyone, you have to use the words that the racists use. And some groups out there insist that Huckleberry Finn is a racist book, and that a teacher who teaches it must be racist, and even that the students who read it will automatically become racists, all because’–he whispered dramatically–‘it…has…that…word!” (213-14).
I read that passage (which I’ve vastly abbreviated) shortly after the “search and replace” Huckleberry Finn debacle, and I put the book down so I could clap. This is an extremely brave statement to make, and I applaud both the author and the fictional teacher for taking that risk.
We talk a lot about keeping kids safe. We put them in booster seats, we keep them away from plastic bags, we rate our movies, and we bowlderize great fiction for their benefit, because apparently exposure to ideas is equivalent to being thrown through a windshield or choking on a hot dog. But you know what? We can’t keep kids safe. We can try, yes, and we should, but sometimes they need to be exposed to danger. Until I read Don’t Hurt Laurie!, I didn’t know that anyone else knew the pain of being physically abused by someone they loved and who loved them. I didn’t know that help was available. I didn’t know that I was alone, until I found that book, and took solace in it. I read that thing to tatters, and it helped me survive. Some people want to label literature that explores difficult topics as triggering and not think any more about it. In my case, triggering literature may very well have kept me from pulling a trigger.
Not every book is suitable for every reader. While I eagerly seek out and devour tales of the broken, beaten, ravaged and raped, and find solace in accompanying them on their difficult journeys, others may not find comfort in those journeys, and might wish to avoid them. That’s why we have book reviews and blurbs on the back covers, so that readers may make informed choices. That’s why people curate lists on a given topic, to point people in a direction. That’s why most lists have a focus and a theme and criteria to be followed. That’s the sort of list that is useful to readers, and the sort of list that librarians excel at making.
Love is rare enough in this world. We should do all that we can to give the right book to the right reader at the right time, and avoid, at all costs, keeping books from readers, even in the most passive of ways. Without lists, blog posts, and professional reviews, I wouldn’t have found my new favorite book, and my life would be poorer for that.
I’ll end with a short list of books that have broken my heart, in the best way possible:
- Tender Morsels
- Blue Plate Special
- Jacob Have I Loved