Evolving Opinions on Literature

Is a love of books innate or cultivated? Can it be nurtured given the right set of conditions? Can it be groomed, guided and trained? Can it be pruned? Should it be pruned? Can it be destroyed?

I came of age in a reading household. Romance novels everywhere. John Grisham and James Patterson were staples (confession: I found them hopelessly boring). To this day my mother will probably still swoon over a good Ken Follett novel. My aunt, despite health challenges, will still use her limited energy to stay up late reading her latest acquisition (Michelle Obama’s Becoming). Even my father had a stash of Clive Cussler books and Marvel comics, in a society where reading was frowned upon as ‘unmanly’.

Nature or nurture?

My primary school evenings were spent hunting down old newsprint children’s books on dusty classroom shelves. Stories that were ubiquitous to public schools in Jamaica, with morals like ‘shortcut draw blood’ and tales that encouraged us to respect our elders and love our neighbours.

In high school, I was forbidden to read romance novels, so naturally I hid and read them any way. I started speed reading out of necessity so I could finish a borrowed bodice-ripper before the last school bell rang at 2:20. The ones I took home stayed hidden among school things, retrieved on lengthy trips to the bathroom. My parents always wondered what on earth I could be doing for so long. I was encouraged to eat more vegetables.

My high school library was under-served, but came with unexpected classics like a collection of Isaac Asimov stories that I discovered shortly after the release of I-Robot, and which piqued my interest in science fiction.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered, ten years after leaving high school, a worn and faded copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. A novel which, according to the Well-Read Black Girl anthology, sparked the genius of several literary leading ladies. I can’t remember ever seeing it during my tenure, but I’m sure the tepid cover wouldn’t have caught my attention anyway, focused as I was on colour and excitement. Interpret that how you will.

Aside from romance novels, paranormal romance novels, historical fiction romance novels and comedic romance novels (are you sensing a trend here?) my appetite extended to comedies, autobiographies, science fiction, young adult and contemporary novels. All illegally downloaded because books are expensive and the esoteric ones (in Jamaica, this means anything that isn’t of the Mills & Boon variety) are hard to come by. My collection included books by Jenny Lawson, Neil Gaiman, Christine Feehan, Michael Crichton, Roxanne Gay, Cheryl Strayed and Eoin Colfer.

Why did I gravitate toward these authors? Was it some combination of genetics, escapism, and excellent taste? The answer to that is about as complicated as the answer to why some people love Nutella (spoiler alert: it’s disgusting).

My literary interests grew like weeds, unfettered and sprawling. True, there was the semblance of a pattern, but it only noticeable in the negative spaces, in what was missing. After reading A Child Called It (Dave Pelzer) in third form, I knew I never wanted to read another story of abuse ever again. And after valiantly finishing The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) I knew for sure first person stream of consciousness and the bildungsroman were not for me. Though I did enjoy A Separate Peace in literature class (I am nothing if not inconsistent).

Still my choice of books could never be described as ‘cultivated’, more like a potpourri of covers, quotes and authors that caught my fancy.

I was perfectly happy to dabble in this hodgepodge of literary entertainment until about my 4th year of medical school, when I decided I wanted to be a writing intern for an online magazine. I showed up for the interview, excited to finally take a step into the real life world of books, and my future editor asked what kinds of books I liked to read. I shared a few samples from the list above (to my credit, neglecting to mention the hundreds of romance novels) but I was wholly unprepared for her next question.

“Do you read any literary fiction?”

I’ll spare you the painfully embarrassing details of me asking what the hell literary fiction was and then struggling to remember the last ‘serious’ book I had read (Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, if you were wondering).

Now I know there are readers who are capable of excelling in medical school full time while maintaining a steady 5-6 books per month batting average, but I am not one of them. After labouring through eight hours of mind-numbing Physiology lectures, deciphering delicate metaphors in a stream of consciousness narrative is not my idea of a fun time.

That encounter in 4th year shifted my reading trajectory entirely. Before, I would devour four or five romantic or otherwise light-hearted novels per month. After, I put myself on a strict literary diet: romance novels were the fast food of the reading world and if I wanted to cultivate a healthy literary appetite I needed to stick to the ‘serious stories’.

I refused to read anything that couldn’t be described as ‘literary’, and ironically I spent a lot of that time re-reading my Jane Austen novels. I love Austen but her books are by no means ‘literary’, just old. I spiraled all the way down to four maybe five books a year, and started to feel guilty every time I saw my blog title.

That editor wasn’t to blame for my literary anorexia, at least not entirely. But there was an unspoken cultural rule that I was slowly becoming aware of, one that dictated which books were worth reading, and segregated readers in caste-like fashion based on the types of books they enjoyed.

This rule revolved around literary awards and the strict boundaries of genre. Much like a social hierarchy, the genre of a book determined the limits of its audience and in turn its perceived quality. Books and the people who loved them were snipped and cookie-cuttered into neat little labels, easy for publishers to target, but overall stifling the sprawling love of literature to which I had grown accustomed.

We readers of fantasy and YA novels can face disparagement for not being ‘serious readers’ and this pushes us to the margins of literary circles. Truth, I felt like an outsider during university when I attended functions in the Dept of Literature, though there was no real discrimination. Teens who spend hours poring over comic books and graphic novels instead of dense volumes of glorified classics get criticized for ‘wasting time’ instead of being encouraged to keep reading.

The delicate sprouts of curious literary leaves are easily crushed by censure. If society claims to value people who read, then why does it matter what they read, as long as they’re expanding their imaginations and honing their critical thinking?

Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man

Damn straight, Sir Francis Bacon

And I’m not drawing any lines in the sand either. All forms of writing are useful in this regard: Shakepeare, Sandra Brown, badly written Supernatural fanfiction. When people are discouraged from reading what they like, they’re just discouraged from reading. Pruning practices that ought to be prohibited is literally a quote from a Harry Potter villain.

On the flip side, if you’re concerned that your ten year old has a morbid fascination with Stephen King you may want to suggest something you’d find a little more age appropriate and save the Master of Horror until the teenage years (or, you know, never). It’s like training pets, instead of punishing the unwanted behaviour, distract and replace it with something more desirable.

At the end of the day, reading should be encouraged full stop. The ridiculous competition of ‘literary’ vs ‘genre’ fiction is best left to snobby book critics and publishers with a cranio-rectal inversion. Everyone else should just be glad your child/loved one/own damn self who reads has a way more useful hobby than policing other people’s bookshelves.

Book Clubs and Bozos

Rebel Women Lit (Jamaica-based book club) finally has a Mobay chapter and I was all over the first meeting.

There were three of us. And despite the book on the table – Marlon James’s Black Leopard Red Wolf – the meeting was delightful.

Well, except for the gatecrasher who wouldn’t stop offering unsolicited opinions on a variety of topics not related to the book at hand. Gems included:

“The Bible is a great book – you should read it”

Also,

“I really think you’d like Cowboy Bebop”

and not to be outdone,

“Don’t you think people are too sensitive about everything these days? It’s like you can’t even make a joke without someone taking offense”

I am not making these up, you guys. They’re actual quotes from an actual stranger who sat down with a group of women discussing a book and felt that was the best moment to go full Kanye West.

And if you guessed that he was a man, you’d be right.

Specifically of the cisgender heteronormative variety. (You know, those people).

When I reflect on the experience I think the universe was just trying to give us the pinnacle of feminist experiences. I mean, he was only the biggest stereotype ever to walk into a cafe. We couldn’t have planned that if we tried.

In the moment though, we were all paralyzed by politeness into exchanging glances that said “Can you believe this guy?” for TWO WHOLE HOURS.

(We could not, in fact, believe him.)

Despite the interloper, we enjoyed ourselves. I have some strong opinions on the book – we agreed it was a polarizing story – even though I didn’t make it past the first twenty pages. Some other time I’ll write about why we all need to stop reading books just because they’re popular (life is too short to read shit that doesn’t spark joy).

For now I’m glad my social calendar is evolving. And if this first meeting is any indication, I may not always be on board with the book picks but I’ll always show up for a bookish conversation.

And coffee. Coffee is non-negotiable.

Apologetics: My Strange Fixation with White Women

Alternative title: Navigating my Reader Identity

When I was a little girl and just starting to flex my writing muscles the first story I ever wrote was called Cottage on the Hill. It was about two young white girls from London who went to spend summer vacation with their grandparents in rural England. Of course, I had never seen a cottage or spent a summer with my grandparents or been to rural England but as so often happens with young black writers the stories we write are the stories we have read about.

It never occurred to me at that age to consider Jamaican characters or settings. I had never read about home outside of those little chapbooks from primary school (you know the ones with the newsprint and sketches) that tried to impart Serious Moral Lessons through Anansi stories and others. But that wasn’t what I wanted to write – I wanted to write proper short stories. And proper short stories were about people from outside of the Caribbean.

I grew up, of course, and developed a thirst for Caribbean literature despite the disinterested way it gets tacked on to high school syllabuses. I actively seek out Jamaican writers and as many women writers as I can. Colonialism may have dictated my preferences but I can change that if I try hard enough. And sometimes the trying is hard. What I want to read isn’t always available, but often what is available ends up being what I want to read.

Transition with me from books to the online world of blogs; most of the ones I’m familiar with (and like) are written by upper middle class white suburban housewives. What the hell is this demographic? I have no idea. Okay, maybe I have a little idea. But as I grapple with this proclivity and the desire to see myself represented in internet writings, guilt often bubbles up. It feels like consuming all this content from a foreign culture only pushes me further away from my own.

Another issue is that I have more in common with these women than I do with people I actually live and work with. Cue identity crisis! Cue questioning my life choices*! This is why I read those blogs, this is why I feel distanced from my own culture: camaraderie and the quest for acceptance. But what is the solution, lock myself away from the world and read only content produced by Jamaicans for Jamaicans?

No, xenophobia isn’t the answer here. It isn’t automatically bad to be intrigued by alternate ways of life. On the contrary, globalization is accepted and encouraged. Where it crosses the line into acculturation is a little blurry, but we’re working on that.

These days I berate myself less and less for my tastes, but unlearning decades of stigma for being ‘the weird one’ is hard. I will probably never stop liking The Bloggess or Neil Gaiman, but I am gradually unwinding myself from the notion that these interests make me less Jamaican. In reality I will always be Jamaican, just a Jamaican who is open-minded, liberal and a little more day-dreamy than expected.


*Life choices like watching Doctor Who, listening to The Chainsmokers, and reading yet another Jenny Lawson/Elizabeth Gilbert mental health guidebook cleverly disguised as a novel.

 

What Would Robyn Read: on Love

In real, real life when I’m away from the computer I’m having six hour days on the surgery wards getting all sorts of despairingly complex and maddeningly simple information thrown at me. When I retire to the internet, I delve into the quirky and non-medical. I figure (depending on who you talk to) the business of love is as far away from science as you can get.

For those who don’t know (aka me, three weeks ago) The New York Times runs a segment called Modern Love which publishes essays from readers on that most chemically and emotionally confusing topic. Curated by editor Daniel Jones, there are essays written by range of subjects as diverse in their demographics as they are in their content.

I started reading the top ten list one lazy Saturday morning (that really should not have been lazy) and I liked it enough to share with you here.

Have a look at the top ten best Modern Love columns ever.

I used to think that elder love, if it even existed, was confined to rocking chairs or golf carts, that it had to be a dull business because of the physical limitations of age. -Nora Johnson, 2013

Housekeeping (and an apology)

I missed posting anything last week, which I feel guilty about. I’d like this place to have a kind of regularity, like a bar. Except less seedy. But if you’ve been reading my friend Tricia’s new blog then trust me, you would have gained way more than you missed out here. Go check her out.

My computer has been having issues, probably due to me having put the fancy new Windows 8 OS on a considerably old model. Imagine your grandmother in fishnet stockings. It’s not quite so accurate an analogy but you’ve now been scarred for life. You’re welcome. K suggested I try Linux’s Ubuntu which is what I’m going to do. I’ll let you know how that works out. So far I haven’t pulled my hair out, but I’ve had a few close calls.

Image not my own.

I am stuck with my idea for the JCDC creative writing competition. I have two vague ideas that I don’t trust myself to do justice to, even though anyone else could probably run with them straight into an honorary mention, at least. The dealine is April 30 so I need to get a move on.

What’s holding me back is my problem with writing Jamaican. It is such unfamiliar territory for me, and I’m always afraid of being called out as a fraud. It sounds silly but I get that all the time just by living here and being myself. I’m afraid the minute I put pen to paper about any of it people will dismiss it and me as pseudo-Jamaican Americanized rubbish.

Image not my own.
LIAR.

I am a week away from starting my fifth and final year of medical school. The general response I get from people about that is “Congratulations!”, “One more year!” “Excited?” and so on. No, I’m not excited. Yes, there is one year left (and a half!) and I am batting away terror over the whole business. I am not ready to wander off into the world and be partially (minimally) responsible for people’s lives.

This is not a thrilling prospect (maybe in the sense that movies like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer are thrilling). Fifth year is a whole new kettle of fish as it pertains to grades. I’ve heard our clerkship exams are actually harder than final MBBS (on purpose) and if you fail any of them you can’t graduate. Yeah. I’m totally excited about that.

Image not my own.

This will probably mean less time for blogging. But I’m going to try and keep up with things here. Or not. We’ll see how it goes.

Speaking about blogging, there’s going to be a shift in focus for Well Read Robin because I have a fancy new theme. Mainly, I’ll be discussing things I’ve read – newspaper articles, books, magazines (yeah right, I haven’t read a magazine in years) etc. I will still have the occasional “This is My Life Now” post and tidbits of writing here and there, but those will be bookends and bookmarks for the Real Stuff.

Thank you for reading thus far and I hope you continue to enjoy WRR!

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Pax.

I have a fetish. It’s called bibliophilia.

When I have just read a good book, I feel incredibly infinite and alive. I wish I could take this feeling everywhere, carry it in my pocket and put it on when I feel battered and bruised by life.

The novel responsible for my feelings right now is John Greene’s The Fault in Our Stars. It is a cancer book that is not a cancer book, a love story without a happy ending, and a great big existential question. In short, it is exactly the kind of book that has been calculated to step on all my tenderest buttons of emotion and pretty much dissolve me into a puddle of tears. It is a book that makes me live.

Not that living is only achieved by puddles of tears, but puddles are pretty lively things to begin with.

I digress.

When I have read a book like this (and the last was Confessions of a Wallflower) I simultaneously want to tell the whole world about it, and keep it all to myself. This sentiment is shared by the protagonist. When I have read a book I connect with so intimately I get a weird kind of impulse for both PDA and secret kisses.

I will settle for telling the world that it must always, always try to feel like ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ and precious few other books have made me feel after reading them. It must be the purpose of human life to achieve this feeling: a curious mix of certainty and wonder that has been previously been described as serenity. Probably. Serenity may not mean the same thing for you as it does for me.

All I know is my fingers are trembling from a heat in my heart that refuses to be put into words, I feel a reassuring connection to the rest of the universe, and, despite having spent the last hour crying my eyes out, I am the happiest I have been in a long, long time.

moodybooks

You should read…

Not feeling terribly well today. Have a random book rec post!

My one month holiday left me with a lot of reading time – not that I have less reading time now (I’m two books into Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series). And during that time, I got the chance to read a couple books I’d been eyeing for some time.

In no particular order:

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
I can actually remember seeing this book in a bookstore while I was in high school and thinking, I want to read this. It only took me five years. The Alchemist is amazingly insightful, and reassuringly intense. It plumbs the depths of the human soul, returning with priceless quotes and thought-provoking sentiments. If you haven’t, read it. If you have, read it again. I borrowed a copy from a friend and have no intention of returning it any time soon. It’s the kind of book that warms your heart just by having it on your shelves.

House of God by Samuel Shem
Except for her sunglasses, Berry is naked. The first line of this book is kind of a wake-up jolt that preludes the rest of its electric material.  This book finds nothing sacrosanct about the principles and practice of medicine in a hospital affectionately called the House of God. It is bitterly cynical, harshly satirical and wearily resigned. Much like the average medical intern. I recommend it to anyone interested in a career of medicine who has a strong stomach for irreverence.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky
Yet another novel that I’d been interested in reading for years. Written as a series of letters from Charlie to ‘Friend’, it’s a moving coming-of-age chronicle that I wish someone had given to me in high school. I could have used Charlie’s insight when I was his age. But reading it as I am now, a bit older and wiser, I can still identify with the characters in the book. TPoBaW has a timeless appeal, and I’m pretty sure I’d enjoy it as much at 60 as I did last month.