21 March 2012

"Junk Food" Lit as Reading Bait

Today the Crescat muses over The Hunger Games and the lamentable phenomenon of much teen or YA (Young Adult for those who aren't familiar with library speak) lit.

...but not everything.

For the most part, I tend to agree. There is a lot of junk in the Teen Lit universe. It is true that sometimes kids and teens (and now that I think about it, even a lot of adults) who need some sort of literary "fluff" to turn them on to reading. But young people who are whiling away the hours reading, e.g., the Gossip Girl series, are almost certainly reading at the expense of intellectual and moral muscle. Sometimes a kid picks up a book like Twilight and it begins a lifetime of reading. But I think there is a greater possibility that those whose first gravitate towards reading purely because of YA fluff (especially that with more sexual content) will turn out to be the same people who can't live without their fix of Cosmopolitan magazine, unless something helps to otherwise shape their reading habits. It's not the reading their interested in, but the juicy content (why, oh why else, are Danielle Steele novels still in print?).

There tends to be an attitude in the library world that any reading, especially by young people, should be cause for celebration. I was annoyed, but not surprised, at the actually graphic content of some graphic novels I had to review for a Collection Development class last year that were aimed at tween boys (nearly nude women and drug use, anyone?)*. I'm of the mind that any instance of good reading, by anyone, is what ought to be celebrated.  Kids have to learn that it's eating their literary 'vegetables' that makes them strong. Parents, despite their often cynical impressions, have a significant role to play in forming good life-long reading habits in your children (yes, even teens). And what a lot of Catholic parents do have going for them is that they exercise more discretion in what their children read than your average mom and dad, who are just happy that the children have something to keep then occupied (if you are a parent doing this in regards to either books or television, you may want to re-think your strategy).
But I think it is also important to avoid elitist attitudes towards reading ("I only let my child read Christian authors..."). It not only fosters the exact intellectual narrowness and rigidity that good reading is supposed to foster, but as Barbara Nicolosi notes in her chapter of the newly released Sex, Style, and Substance, these kind of attitudes isolate Catholics from the rest of the culture:

Everywhere I go, Catholics tell me that they never go to the movies or watch TV. Invariably, someone waves his hand dismissively and says,"It's all garbage"...But the truth is, it isn't all garbage. Some of what you find on television on a given night is very, very good...This is not to say that there isn't a lot of very harmful stuff out there on television and on the Internet and in the movies...Serious Christians need to experience the cultural arena not as fans but as apostles. We should be brooding over today's art and stories as signs of the times, not simply absorbing them like sponges. We have to fortify ourselves spiritually, philosophically, and ethically, so that we can enter into the cultural climate the way a doctor enters a hospital. If we shun the hospital because there is some sickness there, it means that some of the souls entrusted to us will die.  
But here's the real rub: if we avoid the hospital, we also die, because we aren't just doctors to the times, we are also patients...Just as much as our pagan neighbors, we need stories to lead us to wonder, hope, and compunction...It has to be regarded as a modern heresy that so many contemporary Catholics have bought into a reactionary posture  of seeing themselves as apart from the culture (163-165).

While this isn't a reason to read anything and everything and allow your children to do the same, it is important that Catholics be aware of contemporary culture and engage with it. I grew up with some adults who avoided nearly all movies and fiction because they weren't explicitly Christian, took their allegories too literally, or couldn't see past the most minimal of basic human nature captured on camera (a little violence, a swear word here or there). I only managed to read the Harry Potter series as a kid because I hid the books in a shoe box under my bed (whether Harry Potter is healthy reading for Catholic kids is a topic for another day). In other words, these adults forgot, in one way or another, to nurture their faculty of imagination. If we isolate ourselves from culture by taking too literally the call to be "in the world, not of the world,"we risk stunting ourselves nearly as much as we would by bad reading habits.

And as a parting note, I'd highly recommend C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy for teens and adults. It's science fiction that packs a punch, and doesn't involve vampires or futuristic gladiatorial games.

*I'll return to the issue of book challenges in another post.

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