Hearing John Green…

The last time I attended a literary event with Daughter, The Eldest, was in the summer of 2007 when she was eleven and we went to Barnes and Noble at midnight to get  Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows.  She’s now almost 17 and last night we went to hear “rock star” YA novelist John Green speak at The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County for the beginning of Teen Reading Awareness Week.

I read Green’s The Fault In Our Stars earlier this fall and consider it one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.  I’ve heard great things about his novels all over the blogosphere but did not realize exactly how popular he is.  He spoke for about an hour and then at 8:00 pm signed books.  He graciously said he would stay until all books were signed.  They called people by letters of the alphabet.  My daughter had M and it was just after 10:30 pm when she got her book signed.

The crowd intrigued me.  The majority of the audience consisted of teenagers with a few parents (who seemed to also be fans) scattered throughout.  I would definitely describe the teenagers as “bookish” and being bookish myself, I only say this with the best of compliments.  Green mentioned that today’s teenagers read more than past teen generations.  I would probably agree with him after last night.  After he spoke, and everyone was waiting for their letters to be called, the teenagers mingled about, formed groups, socialized – and pulled out books and read!  And it was absolutely socially acceptable!  Where were these kids when I was in high school?

Green was incredibly charasmatic and funny.  One of his topics dealt with why do people read books.  He commented that human beings are really bad at putting themselves in other people’s shoes.  Books give a glimpse into the lives of other people, give insights into how other people think, and put readers into other times and other worlds.  One idea he brought up that I’ve been mulling over ever since is his thought that the reader is just as much a part of the creative process as the author.  The way a reader’s brain processes what they read brings them into something that is bigger than themselves.  As an avid reader, I’ve had similar thoughts over the years, but have never quite been able to put them into words the way Green did.

When asked with what author would he like to collaborate, he first replied with the question “Can he be dead”?  When the audience gave him a collective “yes”, he blurted out Toni Morrison.  He quickly clarified that she was neither dead nor a “he”.

If there was a book that he would read three times in row, it would be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  He mentioned Fitzgerald and Gatsby several times.  He indicated he was not good at writing fantasy or science fiction, even though he has tried.  When asked if he would write screenplays for his novels, he replied that was something at which he was not very adept, either, unlike Steven Chbosky, whose The Perks of Being a Wallflower Green complimented as a “very good book and a very good film”.

While not getting into the nitty-gritty of politics, he stressed the need for everyone to vote if they were old enough.  I was most glad for my daughter to hear his message of teenagers thinking through their life and world and figuring out how to best be a part of it.  The most political statement he made was that he didn’t like Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged or he at least did not like her conclusions to the questions she poses in her novel.  At the same time, he gave kudos to kids he knows who have read this thousand-page novel and thought through the philosophical ideas contained in it.  I haven’t read this novel, myself, but it’s on my Classics Club list.  Ultimately, Green gave a considerable amount of credit, and rightly so from my experience with my daughter and some of her friends, to the ability of teenagers today to be informed, think through problems, and come to their own conclusions.  I’m reminded of the lyrics sung by David Bowie (to whom my kids would say “who”?) in his song Changes:

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

“…try to be a filter, not a sponge.”

I didn’t realize when I was reading it that Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being A Wallflower was over a decade old.  As I contemplated the title prior to reading it, I envisioned lots of teen angst.  It was there, along with a little more.

Daughter, The Eldest gave me the book warning me that there could be some things that might make me uncomfortable.  But apparently, not so uncomfortable that she was afraid to give me the book – of which I’m very glad.

The book consists of a series of letters written by Charlie, a high school freshman in 1991, to an unnamed friend.  As Charlie’s story unfolds, we understand that he is shy, awkward, intelligent.  We also slowly begin to understand that he suffers from mental illness.  As Charlie makes friends with a couple of seniors, he encounters and confronts many of the issues teenagers face:  sex and drugs being the two major (and to a parent, scarrier) ones.  The novel is a little more graphic than I would prefer teen and YA books to be (or any books for that matter), but it stops short of being gratuitous.

Charlie also becomes friends with Bill, a first-year English teacher.  Recognizing Charlie’s intelligence and problems, Bill assigns extra books for Charlie to read – simply because he feels the books would benefit Charlie.  The books that are assigned to Charlie are fairly standard high school English books:  The Catcher In The Rye, The Great Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, Hamlet, The Stranger, Walden, A Separate Peace, This Side Of Paradise.  These were all great books that I read myself when I was in high school (with the possible exception of Walden -which I was only required to read part of).  Bill also assigned Kerouac’s On The Road.  I had not heard of this novel until I was an adult out of college, but it’s a great book, too.

Then, out of left field, Bill assigns to Charlie Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead!  This choice floored me.  I’ve never read this book or anything else by Rand (but have always wanted to – my reading project for 2013 is starting to shape up).  I only know a little about Rand, but this book seemed completely out of place with the other books Bill assigned.  Charlie reads the book and absolutely loves it.  In the course of discussing it, Bill brilliantly tells Charlie to “…try to be a filter, not a sponge.” I don’t know if it’s just a natural ability for me or not, but I’ve always read books as a filter as opposed to a sponge, even as a teenager.  If I absorbed and adopted as my own every thought, idea or philosophy presented in the books on my bookshelf, I don’t think I’d be able to function.  Even if I don’t adopt an idea, it doesn’t mean I cannot appreciate it or at least understand it.  On rare occasions when I’ve been criticized for what I let my kids read, the criticism always comes under the assumption that my kids and all kids are sponges as opposed to filters.  While I very much recommend parents and teachers being involved with teenagers’ reading (and providing guidance to them in general), I think that teenagers have more filter than adults give them credit for.

I’m happy to have read this novel and have to confess that I’m proud that Daughter, The Eldest felt comfortable enough to give the book to me to read.   I’ll probably be back to YA novels sometime, but now I’m on to Charles Dickens.