Literary Regression

I'll be doing some work in my high school's library later this summer, a revisitation of my senior project, in which I got to play at being a librarian. One of the best parts of the job was buying and cataloging (and often reading) new books, mainly young adult and children's fiction. You wouldn't know it from glancing at a display in the teen section of Barnes & Noble, but there are some really good books still being written for that age group. I'm long past the time when those books were technically at my reading level, but one of the qualities that makes these books good is that I still enjoy reading them for the first time, unaided by nostalgia. I think many authors make the mistake of dumbing down their prose in all the wrong ways, assuming that teens won't understand complex structures or rhetorical devices; basically, writing with any stylistic depth (by depth I don't mean Faulkner; plain good writing is fine by me). Consequently we get a lot of books full of stilted dialogue and simplistic narration. Really, I think teens are capable of understanding the English language as well as the average adult, though maybe with smaller vocabularies (and what better way to broaden them than by reading?). Content-wise, very few things are off-limits in teen fiction these days, and young people are the best audience for fantasy, myths, and generally imaginative stories. My point is, there isn't really a good reason why young adult literature shouldn't be one of the best genres available. Think of Philip Pullman, for example, whose (amazing) His Dark Materials trilogy is just as likely to appeal to adults as children. My other point is, the number of books out there is absolutely staggering. Even in my comparatively tiny high school library of 3000 books, I haven't read an appreciable fraction of them. I missed a lot of great books during the time I was theoretically supposed to read them, but that's not going to stop me from catching up now.

In conclusion, a short list of books I came to late but enjoyed:

You & You & You by Per Nilsson, tr. Tara Chace
The Realm of Possibility by Devid Levithan
The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
Zigzag by Ellen Wittlinger
Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Any favorites of your own? Please share!


Motivation and Justification

Why do we do the things we do? (This isn't an existentially angsty post.) I started thinking about this after our senior week Chamber Singers concert. We chose an ambitious amount of music to learn, worked hard at it, and generally agreed that we pulled it off as well as could be expected. But I think most of us didn't really enjoy giving imperfect performances of songs we could probably have learned nearly flawlessly with more time. Who did it benefit then? The audience? If so, why do we always thank our friends for coming in a slightly apologetic tone of voice? And why does half the audience fall asleep? Maybe it benefited our conductor, then. I know he appreciated all the work and effort we put it, but judging by his repertoire of expressions ranging from anxious to stricken, he was relieved we made it through the concert without any train wrecks. I would bet that the reigning sentiment in that concert hall at the end of the program was relief. So what possible justification did we have for creating an experience that was slightly uncomfortable for everyone involved?

I feel similarly about the new Ayres CD (and the old one, for that matter). Now, I think it's really cool that I'm on a CD, and recording it was a fun if exhausting experience. But it's not like I sit down and listen to it. I would far rather be singing those songs than hearing them. And I have to wonder who actually does listen to our CD. Madrigals have a limited audience anyway, and when you could be listening to the King's Singers, why would you listen to the Middlebury Mountain Ayres? Yes, we're quite good for a college a cappella group, but I'm fully aware that there are better versions of those songs out there in the world. Most of my friends have bought CDs, but I have no expectation that they're going to end up on their iTunes most played lists. Basically, we've created a product of very little actual usefulness to anyone, rather like those little knicknacks that are so cute you just have to have them but end up sitting around collecting dust.

Please don't get me wrong. I love singing in Chambers and recording a CD was a neat opportunity. Sometimes I just have to stop and wonder what purpose all these things have.


Moral Ambiguity

You encounter a lot of new things at college. Middlebury in particular promotes diversity and the value of difference, be it racial, religious, socioeconomic, or simply a difference of opinions. I've run into all these in my nine months at Midd, and for the most part I've appreciated the new perspectives and ideas I got out of such encounters. But a few things have occurred that caused me to stop and wonder: at what point are you allowed to stop appreciating ideas that differ from your own? Do I have to accept a diversity of values and moral standards? Are right and wrong really relative? (If you think I'm going to answer this question in one blog post, you're going to be sadly disappointed.) In theory, I think it's fine for people to have personally defined moral codes. In practice, I hate it when people do things that I consider wrong. It's a different sort of discomfort than when I'm confronted with an opinion that disagrees with my own. Opinions aren't necessarily fundamental; I consider them more thoughts than feelings. My most basic values aren't going anywhere, and I'm not sure I could explain all of them rationally. There are things I do and things I don't do. (Anyone read Orson Scott Card's The Worthing Saga? It plays with that question quite a bit.) So while I'm all for my opinions and ideas being broadened by diversity, I don't consider it necessary or even right for my values to be "broadened" or changed. Does that make me close-minded?