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I Am, Therefore I Read
'He had warned me countless times that I was not to touch it. Chided. Scolded. Threatened even. But what difference did it make? Here I was again, standing before it with my arm extended and fingers outstretched expectantly, ever so slowly allowing my hand to creep forward. I knew why I wasn’t supposed to do this. I knew the so-called “consequences” – if one can even call them that. It all came down to the fact that I was being held back and suppressed like a puppy on a leash, a dog on a shock-collar. I had potential and here it was before me and here I was reaching out to seize hold of it. No more would I live a life of anonymity in the dark recesses of society’s dim, fickle, and ever changing memory. I would have a name and it would be remembered. What was I waiting for? Was I a coward?
'Then my fingers closed around it.
'It was electrifying. It sent a tingling shock straight through my body and held me frozen there, while the blood rampaged behind my ears and my temples kept pace with the pounding of my heart. This must be what it’s like for time to stand still.
'Then all of a sudden the pain ceased. I crumpled to the floor. I lay there for what must have been an eternity before I could force my limbs once more to submit themselves to my own will. And when they did, I smiled. I looked at what I still clutched in my fist, and could hardly contain the wild laugh that bubbled up from the wells of my very being. I had actually done it! Everything would be different now. No more. For the first time in all my years I felt what can only be described as peace. No doubt. No fear. No pain. Just confidence. Just happiness. Just peace.'
Such is the type of story we hear all the time nowadays. For thousands of years, humans have centered their culture on stories, not just of wars fought and lost, great kings dead and gone, but on the tales of fantastic gods and goddesses and mystical beasts. Forming the basis for religion and science, stories satisfied that universal longing for a sense of purpose in life. And in today’s modern society, stories have not gone out of style. But no longer are we hunkering down with our Bibles for a good read. Now we are flipping on the television or opening cheap paperbacks for a short time of escape from the present, and into the past, future, or some bizarre fictional world. Like a much-used pair of socks, stories have been shoved into the classification of “entertainment” and their real value and use seem to have been lost on so many of the avid consumers of today’s pop fiction. Frequently, as long as the blood is sufficiently gory, the love is passionate enough, and the jokes are humorous, the story is deemed “good” and subsequently rockets to a high-rank on the New York Times Bestseller List. But it comes at a heavy price. Whether you realize it or not, stories help you develop your purpose and beliefs. If you are not careful, you may leave your mind vulnerable to many of the mixed messages that today’s mass-produced fiction sends.
As an avid creative writer, my younger sister has frequently acted as my editor-in-chief, reviewing and critiquing my work. The comment that most often comes back is, “Where’s the action? This is kinda boring.” In our fast paced society, the inability to wait is the first of many woes. Most people seem to have lost the patience and self-control to sit still for extended periods of time as others obediently did in centuries previous. Today “kids are kids” and we want our X-Box 360 and our McDonalds Happy Meal right now! Our literature has come to reflect this, and so many readers will sigh and close a book with a resounding snap of finality, the moment things reach a lull in the plot. The number of people curled up on the couch with a cup of cocoa and the social critiques of Jane Austen and George Orwell have dwindled to a nerdy few. In their place are avid Gleeks, Twilight fans, and Percy Jackson lovers. Cherished, traditional literary novels are often only read in the half-awake stupor of a bored student, because books from the rising genre of pop fiction have taken their former place as fun, independent reads.
Popular literature has come to cater to our demands for heart-stopping fights, steamy romance, and magical powers one can only dream of attaining. In her New York Times editorial, “The Last Word; How Many Books Are Too Many?” Laura Miller says that a new fiction book is published, not printed, published approximately every thirty minutes in the U.S.A. which totals over 10,000 per year. You walk in a bookstore and immediately your vision is assaulted by wall-to-wall shelves of bright titles and alluring covers designed specifically to make you spend that twenty in your back pocket. Books have become a commodity to be sold and marketed. As for what’s inside, well, let’s just say it’s generally like the story from the beginning: tense, dramatic, and sure to peak your interest.
And your hard-earned baby-sitting and lawn-mowing bucks probably could have been better spent. Because it would seem that with our patience has gone the awareness of books as having the potential to carry a message. And ignorance is not bliss. Publishing houses are trying to pump out saleable products so fast that there is a decrease in quality. It’s a phenomenon (or not so much if you pay attention in history class or happen to read the ingredient label on your chip bag) that resembles what has happened in the food industry. Companies pack their foods with artificial flavors and hydrogenated-glucate-gobbly-gook for no other reason than, heck, it tastes amazing! And unless you are careful, the poor quality of that junk food may result in some health concerns down the road. Now a long time ago the government stepped in and put an end to the worst of what sometimes went into manufactured food – namely non-digestables like rope and dead rats – but it can take no such liberties in the publishing industry. If it did, it would be censorship. As a result, authors are free to say whatever they want, regardless of whether or not it is an accurate representation of reality and encourages a misguided outlook in readers.
And thus the need for you to be an informed reader and not a blind one becomes all the more important. You need to know to read between the lines before you can see what appears there and thus judge accordingly. Because sadly once you strip away the pretty cover and the likeable characters there is often nothing more than a very empty and meaningless message, like rotting wood beneath gilded gold. For example, consider the story at the beginning. Part of the reading experience is living vicariously through someone else. It can be a means of escape from the problems and stress of life that does not always have ‘happily ever after’ printed in neat little text at its conclusion. Like the main character in the story you should feel triumphant and happy when he finally gets what he has been wanting for so long. He is going to be powerful and happy. And that’s what every person wants, right? Thus this story is one that caters to the instinctual desire for a sense of happiness and purpose, because it shows the life of someone who is fulfilled. Does it matter that the character has to defy authority to achieve this? Does it matter that he inadvertently is submitting himself to the overrated ideal that power is what he needs and fame is what matters? By associating yourself with this character and rejoicing with him you might very well be inadvertently also accepting the not-so-nice baggage that comes with him. Now I certainly did not care that these messages got thrown into the mix because all I was trying to do is create a cool and exciting sounding story. And your dime-a-dozen author is no different.
And sadly Twilight must get dissed again. This series, with sales well over twenty million, is a prime example of pop literature with a surprising bite. While at first appearance it seems to be a story about true love, it ultimately promotes what is more than just love, and actually borders on unhealthy obsession. Essentially Bella’s perfectly fine in letting Edward become the sole focus of her life even though he could kill her and jumping off a cliff is perfectly normal behavior when you want to hear the voice of a boy who left you. Thus Twilight promotes not only shows love as an unhealthy obsession, but also that one cannot be happy unless he or she is with that special someone. It is just one more example of a book with neat characters that make you wriggle in your seat when you read about the things they do, however there are underlying messages that are not all that natural or healthy for teens, especially for teen girls.
And don’t think for an instant that Harry Potter and Percy Jackson have been forgotten. While they may not center themselves on obsession being appropriate, they do lead readers to believe that if only their lives were more extraordinary than perhaps they would also be happy, successful, powerful, and loved like Harry and Percy. You might come to see supernatural powers and magic as the means to a more exciting and fulfilling life - essentially you cannot be mediocre and average and also be content. You have to have a wand or a parent who is a Greek god, which is obviously unobtainable. (Or is it? Both stories would have us believe otherwise.)
In essence, it becomes a message. A sort of venomous propaganda that gradually creeps its way into our minds every time we read a story unawares. The more we hear about someone getting the perfect girl or gaining a magical power, the more we are in danger of thinking along the same lines and thus becoming progressively more and more unhappy with our own not-so-extraordinary lives. For happiness we seek what we get when we read and what we see characters achieving; gratification. This gratification comes to the reader when he sees the character triumph and his own heart thrills in step with the character’s own. What does the average teenager so often turn to in order to get the type of adrenaline thrills of a character who finds love, engages in heart-stopping combat, and wields unstoppable power? Fun. According to the Students Against Destructive Decisions Organization, by the end of high school 72% of all high schoolers have drunk alcohol and about 46% have participated in sexual intercourse. This high percentage of participation in risky behaviors at a young age shows a trend of young adults trying to make themselves content by having fun and breaking rules. Although stories are not solely responsible for encouraging this pattern of behavior, they help promote a continuation of this type of behavior by making us feel unhappy in comparison to the characters we read about and by showing us characters who get thrills by doing whatever the heck they want without consequences. And in real life, things are much different and we have to be able to objectively and critically accept this difference.
In the end, what doting mother is not thrilled with she finds little Johnny reading a book all by himself? But beware. As the old saying, too much of a good thing sometimes is not so good anymore. As stories have begun to fly off the printing press, they have become more and more a mass produced good meant to sell. And if it comes at the expense of appealing to the raw emotions and new-found pleasures of a young adult, then so be it. What so many of us young adults fail to recognize is that just as stories have been shaping men’s view of the world, their religion, and their science for centuries, they continue to do so today. There is a reason some of the first stories were religious one and the Bible is a book; stories defined and are still defining the way many people live. Popular fiction books in today’s society reflect our degenerating sense of morals and values and are only perpetuating it. We are in desperate need of more Alcotts and Tolkeins whose works give us glimpses as what is truly satisfying and wholesome in life, and who shape the world by writing stories that have real purpose. But most importantly we are in need of people who understand the problems that exist in popular literature and are able to look it straight in the eye. Don’t get caught in the trap of ‘I read, therefore I am.’ Decide who you are and what you believe. Read between the lines as well as what is between them. Be, therefore read.