Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Literacy, Books, and the Coming Kiddo

Ann & I were talking over the weekend about how it's going to be a little weird when it comes to consuming media and stuff with the kid around. We're both pretty much on the same page - we're not into censorship, but there's definitely no need to, say, be watching Mad Men with the rugrat around, either. Why this is a bit of a weird situation for us, however, is because we're absolutely surrounded with books. Many of them are for kids, yes, but many more are for adults, some significantly so.

While two articles came out in the last few days that made me think about this more, the one book that is probably on my shelves right now that I a) love and b) is hardly appropriate for many adult audiences, never mind a teenager, is Alan Moore's Neonomicon. It's a comic book of Lovecraftian creepyness with the added benefit of borderline-gratuitious orgies, rapes, and murders, all in their illustrated glory. It's a great book in spite of its content, but it's not one I go around recommending to people, and it's certainly not one I'd necessarily want my kid reading anytime in the next few decades. There's a reason it's part of a pretty big banned book controversy currently, after all.

Now, we didn't have graphic novels around the house when I grew up, but my mother was a fairly voracious reader as well. She read a ton of Stephen King, I admit to maybe getting into The Thorn Birds or some of the really silly romance stuff on the shelves when I was much too young to even have a clue, but I learned to read at a very early age and I would pretty much read anything I could. My mother had no real rule about books - if I wanted to read it, I could. If I had questions, I could ask her - this resulted in a particularly awkward situation in second grade following my reading of Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret, but that's a story for another time. And, frankly, I rarely read the adult stuff she had around the house. I still haven't actually read any Stephen King, and most of the books from her collection that I've saved are more for posterity/memory's sake than their literary value - I figured out that science fiction and fantasy were my books of choice around the time I hit fourth grade, and that was the end of the curiosity regarding my mother's books.

My experience with my mother and books (a post all its own someday) came right back to me when I read this piece by Jo Walton over at Tor. The gist:

I’ve talked before about starting to read something and realising it’s too old for me and leaving it for later...and how I’m still doing this with E.R. Eddison at the age of forty-eight. It’s a good habit, because it blames myself and not the book when I can’t get into something. It’s quite distinct from thinking “this is awful,” which I think often enough, it’s “this is beyond me right now.”

But is there a right age to read a book?

Walton refers to a blog entry at The Captive Reader, which expands on the idea even more:

The age at which we read a book is of vital importance to the way we experience it but that does not mean that each book comes with a correct age at which to read it. You are not only going to appreciate Vanity Fair if you wait to read it until you are forty-five but you will perhaps appreciate it differently than you did at fifteen and twenty-five and thirty-five. You will understand more and miss fewer allusions but that does not mean you will enjoy it more.

In both cases, the discussion is more about understanding what is being read, not so much content-appropriateness. I can get behind that plenty - while I'm in Walton's boots where rereading a book is difficult for me, I can think of countless books I've read that I think back and say "ohhhhh..." and then move on. But isn't that necessarily the case when it comes to more (for lack of a better term) objectionable content as well? Yeah, I read Disclosure much, much earlier in life than I probably should have, but it's not as if I didn't understand what the two adults were up to on a superficial level, even if the point of where the book was going was probably lost on me for another few years. It's just part of what it is, and I'm certainly not scarred by it today in adulthood. If anything, my mother's lenient policy on books and reading has made me into a better reader today, as I've had probably ten more years than your average reader to figure out what I like and don't like, and experiment with both great and not-so-great works in the meantime.

Yeah, I might move Neonomicon up to a more secluded shelf once our little spawn gets older. He or she might still reach for Game of Thrones, or Judy Blume, or whatever when they're too young as well. I think there's a difference between reading abstractions on a page that you have to visualize as opposed to having the image splayed across your screen in a moving picture. As Ann put it, it's active reading versus passive watching. I wish my mother was in a more coherent place where I could thank her for giving me that leeway to find my own path in the worlds that books open up, and it's a gift I definitely want to give to my own kid moving forward. In the end, I suppose I just have to trust that we are, in fact, made of hardier stuff, and there's a way to be responsible as well as keep a respectful, trustful distance.

If books are that path, I don't think I'll complain.

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