Thursday, February 24, 2011

Vignettes: The Not-Literature

When I was an English student, my course advisor, who was English department chair, used to lend me books from the heavy-laden shelves in her office –romance novels, “beach reading,” murder mysteries – in an effort to broaden my horizons. I would read these books, despite their lack of dragons, out of respect and admiration for this woman, and discuss them with her over long lunches at a restaurant near the campus green. We would be laughing over the plots and characters, describing what we enjoyed about each book and why…

Then she would soberly say, “But of course it’s not literature,” and take a slow sip of coffee as she stared out the window.

My God, it was like someone had shot her dog.

During my first month as librarian at the inner city high school, I opened the fifty heavy boxes with anticipation, relishing the new-book smell. The last librarian had qualified for a generous grant and ordered hundreds of new titles, but accepted a higher-paying job elsewhere before the order came in. They were beautiful! They were shiny! They came with free library processing! I basked in their light without having to do a lick of work. It was glorious.

The principal did not share my excitement. Herself a product of the inner city, she held high expectations of her low-achieving students. Picking through the “Hi-Lo” page-turners, designed to be of “high interest” to young adults reading at an elementary or “low” grade level, she saw Not-Literature, such as my old professor had lamented. She wrinkled her nose as she picked up a Goosebumps book. “Why would the librarian order this trash?”

Because reading trash is a step up from not reading. To this day, I kick myself for not saying that aloud.

When the state closed the inner city high school due to low achievement, I landed at a magnet middle school. “These kids read all the time!” my predecessor claimed before she retired.

But the English teachers told a different story. “They only read enough to earn their AR points, then they stop.”

I sighed as I surveyed the generous library, packed wall-to-wall with shiny, untouched Literature.

“If I get them to read more, do you care how I do it?” I asked.

“Knock yourself out,” the team leader said.

My days blurred together, spent at the shelves as often as behind the desk, pushing Not-Literature into unsuspecting hands.
“This one’s got spaceships in it,” I told the kids,
and “You’ll like this one: there are pirates”
and “Just read the first page, and tell me you’re not interested. I dare you,”
and “You look like you need a ghost story.”

The reading scores improved.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

When the Zombies Rise, We'll Carpool to Walmart

We had all moved to the same backwater town, about a half hour outside of the city, for the cheap rents during grad school. Our four households not only doubled the town’s population of twenty-somethings but comprised the entire geek scene, a new species migrating in from hipper climes. When gas prices skyrocketed after Katrina, we were in a unique position to carpool together.

We changed it up often, tweaking our rides and our schedules, using different combinations of carpool buddies to keep things fresh, but the months of carpooling strained our conversational talents and we often fell back on ye olde standby: the zombie plan.

“I’m telling you,” Sarah told us on the way home that day, “Walmart is the way to go. We weld the carts into an impassable cage structure in the entryway and hole up for the duration. We’d have clothes, food, tools – heck, they even have ammo. We could spend our days on the roof, sniping the zombies in the parking lot.”

“But how would we get there after the invasion?” I asked. “It’s half an hour away. So much could go wrong.”

“Infestation,” said Alex. “You said ‘invasion,’ like they’re some army waiting to invade our borders. You meant ‘infestation.’”

“Fine, but that doesn’t answer the question,” I said.

“Oh, but it does,” Alex said. “No bio-terror zombie infestation is going to start here. We’re in the middle of nowhere! We’ll hear about it on the news with days to spare.”

“Hang on, now,” Matt said. “If we’ve got advanced notice, we can do better than Walmart.”

Sarah scoffed. The Walmart plan is, of course, genius, and we all knew it. “What did you have in mind?”

Matt drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “What about a fortified island?”

“That’s a terrible idea,” Alex said, bluntly. “We’d be sitting ducks.”

“I don’t believe the shambling undead are coordinated enough to swim,” Matt said.

“You’re right,” Alex said, “but obviously the virus that causes zombification is anaerobic – I mean, zombies don’t breathe, right? – so zombies wouldn’t have to be able to swim. They could just walk along the ocean floor.”

I wasn’t convinced. “They wouldn’t make it. Zombies are dead things and fish eat dead things.”

“Not so!” Alex said. “The scavengers that eat dead things only eat fresh, non-diseased dead things. They would smell the zombification virus and leave the zombies alone. Besides, even if the human zombies got eaten, things that eat zombies become zombies. An island would leave us vulnerable to zombie fish.”

We drove several minutes in silence as this sank in. “Remember that shark at the aquarium?” I said. They all nodded. The shark with the crooked jaw had teeth curling outward at a variety of odd angles. It was just the sort of shark I could imagine becoming a zombie.

Sarah shuddered and said, “At least zombie sharks can’t get out of the water.”

The car settled into silence as we pulled up in front of Alex and Sarah’s house. It seemed as good a place as any to end the conversation, until Matt said, “But if you give the shark a skateboard…”

“No,” Sarah said. “Just no.”

“Well, think about it,” Matt said. “It will give us something to talk about tomorrow.”

Monday, February 14, 2011

I read fantasy because I lack imagination.

When I was in fifth grade, my class read On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer, the story of two boys who sneak off to the river to go swimming without telling their parents even though they're not supposed to. One of the boys drowns, and the other agonizes over whether or not he'll tell anyone. If he does, everyone will know he disobeyed the rules. If he doesn't, he's the only one who will ever know what happened to his friend. When we finished the book, our teacher asked us what we would have done. The class was divided over "tell" or "don't tell" and each side had good reasons for their beliefs. I was horror-stricken. This question was irrelevant! I wouldn't have been at the frakking river in the first place! Their parents told them no!

I was a goody-goody child. I did what I was told. I had a disobedient brother who was always getting in trouble and I was smart enough to learn from his mistakes without making my own. Mom gets mad when you don't do the chores like she told you to, so just do the chores. You got in trouble for lying about the thing you broke, so it would have been easier to fess up in the first place. You broke the thing because you were playing ball in the house; that must be why mom told you not to do that. Watching my brother get in trouble for his antics instilled in me a deep fear of authority and I grew up doing as I was told.

This had the unintended and unforeseen consequence of ruining realistic fiction for me for the duration of my childhood, and far into adulthood as well, because I couldn't imagine myself in the main characters’ shoes. To my childhood self, moral dilemmas were a stupid basis for a plot: Everyone knows these things don’t happen if you follow the rules. How stupid can you be?

You know those people who talk to horror movies? ("Don't go out there! The killer's outside, and you're in your underwear!") I talk to realistic fiction. "Don’t lie to her about that! Lying only causes problems!”

However, I’ve never had this problem with fantasy. The more unbelievable it is, the easier I find it to identify with the characters. If I were the good, true, noble knight in the story, would I be able to do the right thing, tell the truth, and stand up for what I believe in? Duh, of course I would. I know these things about myself.

But would I be able to slay the dragon? Have the courage to confront the evil witch in the scary castle? Could I trek across Mordor to cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom? Finally, some questions I can’t answer! I’m interested in the outcome for the fictional characters because I don’t know what I would be capable of in these situations.

As I get older, I find more gray areas so I'm more and more able to read books in other genres, but it took years to convince me to pick up any book without a dragon on the cover.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Meeting Media: Methods of Teaching class notes

Meeting Media are created during actual and very important meetings while I really was paying attention. Names or other identifying information, or inappropriate comments about my boss, have been blocked out to protect the illusion of innocence.
These notes are from my college years, specifically a coma-inducing class for English majors with an emphasis on education. See references to types of teachers, punctuation, and grammar. The coloring also took place during class. The professor was too caught up in his lecture to notice.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lit Theory and I Never Got Along

At the risk of losing your respect, I will freely admit that I hated Lit Theory.

My undergraduate studies in English largely consisted of enjoyable book-club discussions of highly interesting works, so it was a rude awakening to learn that grad school involved mucking about with literature the same way Dr. Frankenstein mucked about with human anatomy. From my first semester, my Lit Theory professor and I argued about the point.

Every class was the same. The professor would trot out abhorrent specimens of film and prose – taped-together images draped over skeletal plots – that left us all scratching our heads. Then the professor would demonstrate his carefully constructed analyses of the “texts”, like a magician whisking away a cloth to reveal a hidden rabbit. “Is this not a work of genius when viewed in this light?” he asked.

“It… no. That there? I think I just broke my brain,” I said. “What’s the point of reading a story that’s only good after careful analysis?”

“It makes us better than the masses,” he replied, stuffiness apparently being an acceptable life-path for some people.

But my grades were at stake, so I kept at it. After hours of course work, the brainwashing kicked in. I analyzed everything, dividing it into “literature” and “not actually literature.” No sitcom was safe. Every commercial contained hidden commentary on the war in Iraq. The Disney channel became a statement about disillusion and the inevitability of old age.

My friends and family thought I was paranoid. “None of that stuff is actually there,” they said. “Okay, maybe we can see the Disney channel thing, but you’re way off on the rest of it.”

It was easier to believe my professor was full of it than that all of my loved ones were too dense to properly interpret written and visual media, so I started counting the number of times contributors to my writing group said, “It’s interesting that you saw all that in my piece. I certainly wasn’t thinking about that when I wrote it.” I quickly noticed that they said this every time, and confronted the Lit Theory professor with this condemning information.

He replied, “Of course they weren’t thinking about it: authors don’t really write their works, they merely channel the deeper beliefs of the subconscious mind, which we then uncover and interpret to find the true meaning of the text.”

…Whatever. I heard all that as, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. I am the great and powerful Oz.” I was knee-deep in a degree program that I was beginning to suspect didn’t actually contribute to society. However, when I still couldn’t stop analyzing everything, I stopped reading and watching television, instead spending my free time playing solitaire and listening to music that didn’t have lyrics. I was miserable.

One night, on my way to make a sandwich, I passed through the living room where my husband was watching a movie. “What do you suppose they were trying to say, with the glass on the floor like that?” I asked.

He stared at me. “Did you just… Are you seriously deconstructing Die Hard?”

I had to think about it. Deconstructing was just so natural by now. “I think so. Maybe. Yes?”

He turned off the TV and made me sit beside him on the couch. “Dear, this has to stop. This is an intervention.”

That was the end of English for me. I abandoned all plans for a PhD and took up Library Science instead. I joined book clubs, and ran a few myself. I read more not-literature and watched more movies with explosions in. I may not be better than the masses, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.