WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS
My Year of Reading for Pleasure
The first chapter book I ever read without adult intervention was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. I was 6 years old and it took me months to finish it. Or maybe it only took a few weeks. Never trust a 6-year-old’s concept of time. Regardless, by the time I finished Charlotte’s Web the corners of the book were smushed and the cover was missing. I read that book. I don’t remember too much about the experience except this: I couldn’t believe that I was reading a chapter book all by myself. It seemed impossibly mature. My next literary milestone occurred a few years later when I read Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, a lovely tale of friendship between two 5th graders. Then (SPOILER ALERT) one of the friends falls into a river and drowns. This was the first book I read in which a human character — a kid no less! — dies. I knew the death was coming — my classmates spread the news like a dark secret (“Did you read the book where the girl dies?”) — but the sadness I experienced as I read about little Leslie’s tragic drowning still surprised me. How sweet and liberating it was to cry over something that had no consequences in the real world.
Naturally this led me, at the tender age of 11, to Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, the big papa of children’s literature death porn. If you’re not familiar with this tearjerker, it’s about a little boy who, after much hard work and much saving of money in an old K.C. Baking Powder can, finally purchases two coonhounds, Little Ann and Old Dan. Why did he want these dogs? To hunt raccoons of course! Old Dan and Little Ann were topnotch coonhounds. Then they die. And let’s be clear: these dogs don’t just die, they perform death in the most melodramatic, Oscar-baiting fashion imaginable. Remember this passage?
“What I saw was more than I could stand. The noise I heard had been made by Little Ann. All her life she had slept by Old Dan’s side. And although he was dead, she had left the doghouse, had come back to the porch, and snuggled up by his side.”
I’m surprised that Little Ann didn’t rise up on her hind legs and recite a soliloquy about love and companionship before collapsing in a heap onto Old Dan’s grave. But those epic death scenes weren’t enough for Wilson Rawls. He continues the torture when he has his narrator reflect on the lives of his faithful pups:
“After the last shovel of dirt was patted in place, I sat down and let my mind drift back through the years. I thought of the old K. C. Baking Powder can, and the first time I saw my pups in the box at the depot. I thought of the fifty dollars, the nickels and dimes, and the fishermen and blackberry patches.
I looked at his grave and, with tears in my eyes, I voiced these words: ‘You were worth it, old friend, and a thousand times over.'”
I defy you to read Where the Red Fern Grows and not have your heart broken. I remember finishing that book, in the summer after 5th grade, and running to my mom’s room, sobbing. All I could do was hold up the book and whine “They both DIED!” My mom nodded and smiled. I think she was relieved. 11-year-olds cry a lot but book crying is much easier to handle than real-life crying.
In those early heady days of book consumption, I found that, in addition to crying, I liked being terrified. I read most of the Stephen King canon, which I would not recommend for young children. Seriously, 11-year-old’s should not be allowed to read It. After that I was terrified of my sink. And gutters. And really, everything. That’s some top notch parenting, Klein family.
Sure, I read some of the children’s lit classics, like Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and the period/masturbation/wet dreams books by Jude Blume (Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Deenie, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t) but I really loved the trash. There were the Sweet Valley High books, Flowers in the Attic (V.C. Andrews, you dirty, dirty bird), and Archie digests. I loved reading so much that when I went to college, I had no doubts about becoming an English major. While my friends complained about their homework, I lounged in my bed reading A View from the Bridge (Arthur Miller), Geography III (Elizabeth Bishop) and Nightwood (Djuna Barnes) and loving my major. Most of the time it didn’t even feel like work to me. Ironically, it was when I went to graduate school to become a professional reader of books that I stopped reading fiction completely. Part of this had to do with the fact that I decided to study film, rather than literature. But also, having to devote so much time and energy to reading and decoding dense theoretical texts put me off the idea of reading for pleasure. For 10 years the only books I read “for pleasure” were the Harry Potter series and US Weekly.
This changed when my husband brought home a Kindle Fire last winter. It was a holiday gift from his boss. I wasn’t too interested –you know, since “I don’t read.” But I had been hearing a lot about Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series from, well, everyone, and I was tempted to read it myself. I had been tempted by sensational kid-murdering novels before, of course, but usually I would tell myself that I didn’t have time to read. I’m a working mother and I don’t get to recline on a couch somewhere and read a young adult novel about a dystopian world in which teenagers are forced to kill each other. Of course, I could watch a film or TV show about a dystopian world in which teenagers are forced to kill each other (because that’s not pleasure, it’s “work”). When I finally decided to download a copy of The Hunger Games on New Year’s Eve 2011, I did so because I thought it might be therapeutic. My father had died a few days before year’s end and reading seemed like a good way to work through my emotions. So I read.
A few days later I finished The Hunger Games and decided, on a whim, to buy the sequel, Mockingjay. I bought Catching Fire one week later. And that’s how it went for several months. I found myself reading several books each month. I still had two kids and a full-time job and dishes to wash, but I found a way to fit reading in to my daily schedule. If I ever thought that maybe I shouldn’t be spending so much time reading — that I could be finishing up an article or folding some laundry or letting the children out of their cages for their daily 10 minutes of sun exposure — I reminded myself: this is therapeutic. So I kept reading.
Now it’s approximately 11 months after I first picked up the Kindle and I have read a total of 23 books. Here they are, categorized by my own personalized genres:
Fun stuff I never would have let myself read in grad school:
The Hunger Games, Mockingjay, Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)
50 Shades of Grey (E.L. James)
Twilight (Stephenie Meyer)
Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Books written by funny people I like:
Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me? (Mindy Kaling)
Bossypants (Tina Fey)
Half Empty (David Rackoff)
Sad books where people die or are already dead:
Swamplandia! (Karen Russell)
The Descendants (Kaui Hart Hemmings)
The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)
Dysfunctional family stories
Little Children, The Leftovers (Tom Perrotta)
Motherland (Amy Sohn)
The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides)
Room (Emma Donoghue)
Dystopian and/or fantasy
The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)
A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)
Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)
Pulphead (John Jeremiah Sullivan)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)
That’s three times as many books as I read in the preceding decade. Why did I read so much? I think the e-book format definitely compelled me to read more. The convenience of being able to purchase a book whenever I wanted to coupled with the portability of the device — try propping a real novel on a gym elliptical machine — has definitely made me more inclined to read and to read often. In fact, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey “The average reader of e-books says she has read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by a non-e-book consumer.” I also found that social media really encouraged my reading habits. Every time I finished a book I could go on Twitter and ask people what my next book should be — one thing people are always happy to share are book recommendations. I also got involved with an online book club on Facebook. The group, composed primarily of other female academics, led me to read two books I never would have picked up otherwise: 50 Shades of Grey and Gone Girl. This culminated with a drunken live reading of 50 Shades of Grey at a conference, which was as delightful as it sounds (at least it was for us, less so for our bewildered bartender). More recently I decided to read Twilight. After tweeting about this decision, several other Twitter-friends decided to join me in the endeavor, forming an impromptu book club (here is a link to a Storify of our conversations). I have not enjoyed Twilight, but participating in Twilight-related tweeting has motivated me to finish. This sense of community, whether it’s an organized book club or simply sharing my thoughts about a recent read with online friends, has greatly added to my reading enjoyment this year.
I’ve also read a lot this year because I finally remembered that I like to read. It seems like a silly thing to forget but as I get further along in my career it has become easier to marginalize the activities that give me pleasure simply because they serve no purpose other than the giving of pleasure. As if pleasure is purposeless or wasteful. Perhaps this is just a symptom of being a working parent but I suspect it has more to do with the larger culture of academia, which stresses a lifestyle in which everything — including leisure time –must be quantified, accounted for, and somehow contribute to one’s research or pedagogy. In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education that hit just a little too close to home for me, “It’s Your Duty to be Miserable!” ,William Pannapacker describes the typical thought process of the academic:
“If someone asks, ‘How are you?,’ I sigh, shrug, and say, ‘Busy, like everyone else.’ If pressed, I will admit that I spent some time with my family—the way a Mormon might confess to having tried a beer, once. For more than 20 years, I have worn what Ian Bogost has called ‘the turtlenecked hairshirt.’I can’t help it; self-abnegation is the deepest reflex of my profession, and it’s getting stronger all the time.”
In 2012 I have made an attempt to get out of my hairshirt, one e-book at a time. I’m not sure that I will continue my frenetic reading pace in 2013, but I have definitely re-Kindled my love affair with the written word (pun intended). I have found that reading for pleasure is valuable because it is pleasurable, and nothing more.
For those of you out there with e-readers, have you found that you now read more? If so, why do you think that is? What is the best book you read in 2012? And what should I read in 2013?