Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reading Outside the Comfort Zone

I almost exclusively read books that are in my department. If only because of the piles and piles of new things that come in every season, and the zillions of books that came before them, I feel like I have to read that way to keep up with the section. I do feel a responsibility to be well-versed in the area in which customers and coworkers rely on my expertise. And because reading for work is pretty much the same as reading for pleasure, and I long ago stopped reading things just to impress other people (oh the liberation that brought!), I'm perfectly happy to be well-read in just one area.

But because I work in the Kids Department, that means I pretty much don't read what we affectionately refer to as “Grown-Up Books.” I'm okay with it; as I said I even consider myself fairly well-read. Until I have an embarrassing interaction: I tell someone I work in a bookstore, and they ask what I think of the hip new book that everyone and their mother is reading. I have never, ever read that book. I haven't read Steig Larsson's Dragon Tattoo trilogy, or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or Let the Great World Spin. I mean, that's okay, right? I've read most of the hip new books that every twelve-year-old is reading, and most of the big children's book award-winners of the last five years. I do read a lot, and within the realm of children's books I read across genre- biography, history, science , fantasy, romance, mystery, literary fiction, coming of age. And as I've written here before, you can learn an awful lot from children's books. But sometimes, that doesn't feel like enough.

Due to Seija's hearty recommendation of William Styron and especially Sophie's Choice, I decided to break free of the under-18 crowd and read a big kid book for once. Seija politely reminded me that if you read a lot of young adult fiction, you might forget how much effort you as a reader are expected to expend to get into the characters and situations in a novel like this. I laughed and said I would be just fine, thank you very much. But it was quite a different experience, and she was right in a big way. Not to say that young adult novels do not require emotional heavy lifting; I would even say some can be more taxing. But after a week of diving into SC, I felt like I had extra roommates. I was taking Sophie, Nathan, and Stingo's opinions of things into account in my daily life, as if they were hanging around and might be offering up a comment on my lunch menu or musical choices any minute. Finishing it took me probably two weeks, whereas I can plow through an average middle grade novel in a lunch break plus a good evening on the couch.

The whole thing got me thinking about what I like and don't about the two respective kinds of fiction: books specifically aimed at young folks, and books aimed at the general reading public. I've read books for kids on a wide variety of intense topics- being an immigrant kid while surviving abuse at home, surviving a self-inflicted gunshot wound and the resulting recovery process, day-to-day life in a concentration camp, a community of runaway slaves in Canada, stories of losing important people in a myriad of ways. The language in kids and young adult fiction, both descriptively and emotionally, is often quite a bit more direct. There's less worming around trying to figure out how to feel, trying to weigh every option all the time, less constant analysis. It's a story about something, always moving forward. Sometimes when I read adult novels I actually find myself annoyed by their Hamlet-y indecisiveness. Just decide whether to be or not be, and quit whining already. Okay, so you had an affair/someone died/she doesn't love you back. Deal with it! Sometimes my angsty teenagers seem more emotionally mature than older protagonists.

But this is all just to say that it can be an interesting exercise to read outside your comfort zone. I highly recommend it. Whether it expands your horizons or just reinforces why you love what you love, it can't be a waste to push it every once in awhile.

-Anna, Kids Books


  1. I feel the same way. Reading books for young people is such a different experience. I go through phases, when I can no longer handle the angst, I switch to adult for a while, and when I can no longer handle the lack of resolution, I go back to young adult. The transition is the hardest part. You have to read differently, and get used to it.

  2. Anonymous10:47 PM

    Well now that I said out loud that I haven't read that list of must-reads above, I'm scouring the shelves for used copies. I do really need to get ahold of all of those.

  3. I read this and felt really bad that I haven't read any of the must-reads you list, either. I have Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, and now I suppose I'd better pick it up. I think I, too, suffer from the reading "comfort zone", so I've been trying to mix things up more.

    I suggest that you try some YA/Adult crossover authors like Isabel Allende, Neil Gaiman, and China Mieville. (I'm sure there are hundreds of others, but those are three I know I enjoy in both age groups.) "Mathilda Savitch" & "The Society of S" are two adult-lit books with young adult main characters that I've recently enjoyed, as well.

  4. kelsey! oscar wao is AMAZING!!!!!!!! (i bought it for the cover, but love it for the contents).

  5. You aren't kidding! I just started it and am already laughing out loud inappropriately on the bus. I'm sure the driver of the 49 thinks I'm nuts....

  6. Anonymous11:13 PM

    Man, someone loan me BWLoOW, please. I've even bought it as a gift before, but haven't read it. Anyone have an extra?

  7. Anonymous11:16 PM

    P.S. Kelsey: I did read Society of S. It was great! Haven't read China Mieville yet. I was having a conversation with Kitri the other day about my favorite adult novels- and they mostly had younger protagonists. House on Mango Street, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There were some others but I forget.


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