Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Hunger Games, Plus Some Ranting. Also a New Plan.

I do not live in a cave, and so I know about The Hunger Games. I happen to work in a library, and so, I have read The Hunger Games (yes – all three.)
The writing wasn't very good. I mentally compared it to the writing of Harry Potter and found it some levels lower. The story, I thought, was perhaps not original but good. I'm drawn to dystopian literature anyway, and the 'whole gladiator games thing' was interesting. But there was an ominous lack of one thing in the series: message. What was the book about? What was Collins trying to say? It's pretty obvious that the book, though nine tenths of it is comprised of violence among children and youths, is anti-violence, though not necessarily anti-war. But what solution was proffered? Katniss is certainly dissatisfied with her lot, but she is not able to change the course of events. In the third book, when she has the opportunity to, she takes the road of fighting back – fighting fire with fire, a profoundly unchristian way to go about things.
In spite of all things, I have found myself somewhat favorably disposed towards these books. Why, oh why?

Last night I had a nice debate with my brother about the value of The Hunger Games. Mostly, my argument came down to the old “at least it's got them reading” - an attitude I once abhorred. However, through my job at the library I have come to see a lot of value in that attitude. Kids read trash. Grown-ups read trash too, and nine times out of ten you don't see any hope of that changing. But then, there's that one kid who comes up and asks, “I just finished The Hunger Games. What should I read next?” and you've got that chance to say, “Here. Read this." From that point, you can move on to better and brighter things. It takes baby steps, but it can be a doorway to really good literature.
SOME people (ahem) would argue that there is no worth in reading worthless books. At face value, I agree. Worthless is worthless. But for anyone who reads one book and still has a desire to read more books, then there is always hope that that person will leave behind the worthless and begin climbing towards literature that is not merely entertainment, but thoughtful and wholesome. So while The Hunger Games is by no means good literature, it is better than a lot of what is out there available for young adults to read. I'd rather they pick up this than some vampire love story full of sex and violence and moral abandon.

So, this is not so much a blog post about The Hunger Games, but about books like them, and my reading of books in general. Here we come to the next scene, wherein Emily apologizes for her recent absence and proposes a new plan for the future, but first makes a broad, sweeping statement.

All Young Adult (YA) books are like The Hunger Games. They are generally poorly written, poorly plotted, poorly peopled with poor characters who are full of themselves and pulling this whole 'who am I, really?' gig, and presented to the poor souls who read them and thus consider themselves heavy readers. If there is a book on the YA shelves that does not meet this criteria, then please, put it on the children's or adult's shelves. YA books have no need to exist. If a child has progressed beyond Charlotte's Web, (although, really, who ever does? I reread that book every summer) then give them Robert Louis Stevenson or Jane Austen or Mark Twain or the bookshelves to them and let them learn, and teach them how read real books. If you are a young person with a reading level advanced beyond J. K. Rowling or Kate DiCamillo, then you don't need something to bridge the gap between children's books and literature for grown-ups. Not to boast, but I read Great Expectations when I was nine. I came away with the vaguest of ideas about what Pip experienced and what made Estella so awful, and the hilarity and intensity of Dicken's characters, stories and settings was lost on my quite-young, still-developing brain. But reading that book helped my brain to develop; only by reading good books will we learn how to read good books, or understand their worth or be affected by their meaning. We don't learn to eat if we never sink our teeth into anything more solid than mashed carrots. We don't learn to tie our shoes if we only wear sneakers with velcro. We don't learn to digest good books if we don't read good books. We don't need this weird buffer genera that specifically caters to teen angst, disillusionment, coming of age, and rule-breaking, disrespectful, self-absorbed nonsense.
However – if somehow there is one who has slipped and fallen towards the appealing mirage of YA, there are different levels of terrible, and one level can lead to the next. And perhaps one day they can lead right out of the sea of worthless books and on to better and brighter things. There is always hope. It would be better for us all if The Hunger Games didn't exist, and all the books surrounding it that are various degrees of horrible. But they do exist, and one can hope that the reason they exist is to train eyes upward towards the better things.

And so, in light of all this ranting, I had a little epiphany, and it was the main cause of my long blog-silence. (I do so like epiphanies!) I realized that since YA books should be avoided like the plague, then I have absolutely no obligation to myself, to you, or to this blog to ever read another YA book I my life. So there.
Ahhh, but then what happens? What about my nice little bloggy here? Well goodness, there are still  thousands of books out there that I want to read and should read, books that are of value and contain wisdom, insight and meaning. It's a pretty simple solution...I'll just read those books instead. 

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

My problem has been this: at work, I see or hear of certain books that are immensely popular and highly praised (I should get better at knowing who the praise is from) and so, I read them. The Fault in Our Stars is one such book.
This is the only book I've read by John Green, and I found his writing to be very good. This book moved me to tears, a rare occurrence for me. I can count on one hand the books that have made me cry, but I'm not particularly pleased that this one is among greats like A Tale of Two Cities and Cyrano de Bergerac. Yes, I think Green is a good writer who can power his books with love, loss, sorrow, and fear, but he put a whole lot of other stuff in there that really was completely unnecessary.
The story centers on two teens who meet at a support group for cancer kids. The narrator, Hazel, has not been without her oxygen tank since her diagnosis several years ago, and Augustus has lost one leg to bone cancer but is now healthy. Hazel knows she will not live for more than a few years, at best. Augustus it seems will live forever.
The rest of the story is about Hazel's favorite book, which is also about a cancer kid and which the author ended in the middle of a sentence, because “It portrays death truthfully. You die in the middle of your life, in the middle of a sentence.” The story is also about love, about loving when you know you will someday, perhaps very soon, lose that person. It's also a small encapsulation of life as a broadly untouched surface, as seen by these two people who are doing there best to live well while they have the time. It's an existential book, if you'll forgive the term. It is about life and death.
The characters are precocious, but somehow not annoyingly so. They both have parents who are still married to each other, and their families are close and respectful. So far, everything I have said about this book I have liked. There were two things that ruined it for me. It had a lot of language, and the kids slept together. Both could have been left out and the book would have lost none of its savor, none of its poignancy.
Augustus did believe in Something, but there were no Christian messages in the book. It went more like this:
 “I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward the consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it-or my observation of it-is temporary?”
Such an attitude towards a conscious universe would inevitably lead to some idea, however off-center, of God. Yet only through true recognition of God through the Holy Spirit does it bear any meaning.
I wanted so much to like this book, to buy a copy and reread it and tell others to read it, but its good parts cannot override its faults. It is unfortunate.