“Why do you only read one book at a time?” my eight-year-old daughter asked me recently.
It isn’t true. I have piles of books stacked around the house, some homework for my writing projects, others written by friends, a few I have the best intentions for but just can’t seem to finish. She’s right, though, that there is usually one book whose call is strongest, and when we read side-by-side for pleasure, that’s the one I grab. I’m a slow reader, so my daughter has time to get attached to my choices. Three years later, she never fails to point out Lisa Ko’s The Leavers in bookstores, like it’s my long-lost friend, which, in a way, it is.
I have limited time to read usually—on the train, if I’m lucky enough to get a seat, or a few pages in bed before my eyelids grow heavy. Anyone who’s ever written a book knows you can accomplish great things via incrementalism, but reading slowly can feel like a grind. This year I’ve been sticking to shortish books that I can fly through. But recently I had some extra time and knew it was my chance to start Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, a multi-generational epic about Koreans living in Japan. I needed a good run of hours to devote to its 497 pages, and finally I had it. My daughter fingered the book’s shiny cover, tracing the mountains and valleys hidden in the folds of the woman’s hanbok.
“I want to read one of your books,” she said, eyeing the shelves in my bedroom.
I looked up, thinking of all the sex and violence housed there, subjects my girl will need to understand eventually, but slowly and carefully and not yet. Then I saw it: the Anne of Green Gables series. Last year I’d asked my mom to ship the books to me. I’d wanted my daughter to have those stories about the plucky red-haired orphan sent to live with a bachelor and his spinster sister on Prince Edward Island. But there’d been no space for them in her bedroom, where every horizontal surface is crowded with Ivy and Bean and Dr. Seuss and Star Wars and Roald Dahl.
“Those ones,” I said to her, pointing at the eight-book series nestled among the other Ms on my shelves. My daughter would need a chair to reach them, and I could see it was this fact—not my personal endorsement of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classics, frequently and freely offered over the preceding months—that sold her on them.
My aunt gave me Anne of Green Gables, the first in the series, in 1982 (“Hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I did more than 20 years ago!” inscribed on the inside flap), and I remember finding the book one summer afternoon as I lay, bored out of my mind, on the floor of my room. Its green cover seemed to twinkle at me from under the bed. I don’t remember how it ended up there in the first place, but I can hazard a guess.
In the four years since my daughter first learned to read, I’ve been hoping to teach her the joys of reading for pleasure. No one wants to be nagged into enjoying themselves or doing something that’s good for them. Instead, I turn off the TV, grab the dog and a blanket, and make a nest so cozy the FOMO sucks in my daughter. You’d be surprised how often it works. But even for a lifelong reader like me—with the responsibilities of middle age: the emails to send, checkups to schedule, sitters to book, pages to write, and bills to pay—it can be difficult to access anything like joy. Contentedness? Sure. Admiration for an author’s achievement and the gratitude that comes with having your world increased and your knowledge deepened? Of course. But the joy in discovering a book that’s too good to resist? That’s been rare—until I started reading with my daughter.
To a second grader, reading is like throwing confetti in the air and getting back music or diamonds; sometimes, on a bad day, only dust motes. My girl isn’t a purist like her mother. I prefer the book as a physical object, novels preferably, the bound pages humming with secrets. But she’ll read anything: comics and graphic novels, chapter books, e-books on her Kindle (she has one; I don’t), engineering manuals, visual encyclopedias, books her dad and I made for her, stapled-together pages she’s started writing and will likely never finish, stories she’s started on my laptop. In the early days, I thought it all a performance, a child’s idea of what reading was supposed to be. I didn’t know then that pretending (to read, to write, to cook, to dance) was the beginning of the thing itself.
It’s incredible that children are so good at beginnings because so often the difficulty with reading books is surviving the beginning. It’s a huge investment for an adult to make—let alone an 8-year-old—to learn about a whole new set of people and places. Somehow it’s worse if the last book you read was one you loved. You have to start over in completely unfamiliar territory and trust that you will get your bearings, that you will fall in love twice (or three times, or a hundred times) and have fun again.
My daughter opted to read Anne of Green Gables to herself at first, slowly, diligently, but I could see she was starting to get bogged down by its rhapsodic passages. One Sunday, I rounded up the dog and the blanket and I offered to read a few pages to her. She was tired from her morning’s adventures, or she never would have acquiesced. As I read aloud, I grew nervous. I knew she’d be on safe ground once Anne meets her bosom friend, Diana, but first we had to outlast the buggy ride from the train station with Anne’s new guardian, Matthew. What would my city kid make of all this rapture over ponds and blossoms: “a glory of many shifting hues—the most spiritual shadings of crocus and rose and ethereal green”? She would need all the ballast I could muster, and I gave it my all: varying my tone and volume, telegraphing true delight. Still, the journey felt as if it might go on forever, with nothing but a mere mention of Diana’s house on the other side of Barry’s Pond. Even Anne knows it’s a drab name for a pond, so she rechristens it the Lake of Shining Waters. “Yes, that is the right name for it,” she tells Matthew.
“I know because of the thrill. When I hit on a name that suits exactly it gives me a thrill. Do things ever give you a thrill?” Matthew ruminated.
So did we. We pondered the word thrill until it almost lost all meaning.
When Matthew starts to point to Green Gables, Anne interrupts him and begs to be allowed to guess which house will be her new home.
They were on the crest of a hill. The sun had set some time since, but the landscape was still clear in the mellow afterlight. To the west a dark church spire rose up against a marigold sky. Below was a little valley and beyond a long, gently-rising slope with snug farmsteads scattered along it. From one to another the child’s eyes darted, eager and wistful. At last they lingered on one away to the left, far back from the road, dimly white with blossoming trees in the twilight of the surrounding woods. Over it, in the stainless southwest sky, a great crystal-white star was shining like a lamp of guidance and promise.
My daughter was rapt, becalmed by the crystal-white star. Now we had it, that swoosh of momentum that carries you past the letters on the page, straight into the heart of a story, like the wave in the painting that lifts the Narnia kids out of England and onto the deck of the Dawn Treader. My daughter and I were both swept up in Anne’s reverie, as charmed by this dreamy orphan as silent Matthew is, as I’d been when I first read the book during the Reagan years. The magic held. We flew to the end of the chapter.
“Keep going or stop here?” I asked.
“Keep going,” she said.
We read five chapters like that, coming to a delicate little cliffhanger, scanning the title of the next chapter (“Anne’s History,” “Marilla Makes Up Her Mind”), deciding to go on.
And then, as often happens on a really good reading day, my daughter rolled over and slipped into a delicious nap.
Now it was my turn. I picked up my copy of Pachinko. The paperback was heavy in my hands. I was more than a little afraid that it would defeat me with its length or its sterling reputation as a must-read 10 years in the making. What if I could only read the same two pages over and over again until I, too, fell asleep? What if I didn’t love it or admire it? Or worse, what if I felt like a failure as a writer? What if I felt like giving up? It had been a rough year, and I wasn’t sure I could handle the disappointment.
But two pages in, here was Hoonie, the beloved and only surviving son of an old fisherman and his wife, “this steady, beating organ” his parents shared. Here was the matchmaker, whose “black flinty eyes darted intelligently,” correctly tallying the family’s fortunes from the stacks of rice on the shelves and chickens in the yard. Here was Hoonie’s mother, salting radish “with a flick of her thick wrist,” careful to guard her emotions. And, at last, here was the promised bride, Yangjin, “the last of four girls and the easiest to unload because she was too young to complain, and she’d had the least to eat.” As I got to the end of each chapter, the novel’s gentle pangs urged me forward, until I forgot my to-do list, forgot myself, forgot everything but the warmth of the sleeping girl next to me. I had my own momentum now, born happily aloft to a land and a time far, far away.
Image: Nong Vang
I count Elisa Gabbert among the essayists I would eagerly read on anything. It happens to be the case that the things that tend to interest her—translation, literary style, and disasters, to name a few—tend to interest me, too. But the real pleasure of reading Gabbert is in letting oneself be carried along in her thinking, which is cuttingly clear and delightfully digressive. The Word Pretty—Gabbert’s fourth book, following two books of poetry and one book of very short prose pieces—collects 22 previously published essays on a wide variety of themes. The subjects range from notebook-keeping to the guilty pleasure of reading only the front matter of books to the TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. Each is a journey through some of Gabbert’s idiosyncratic interests by way of her formidable intellect.
Gabbert generously answered my questions about The Word Pretty over email.
The Millions: On Twitter, you described The Word Pretty as “a collection of [your] critical essays, rarities, & B-sides.” I love that description, in part because of the way it uses the language of music rather than literature. I’ve been wondering about the way that collections function as books, which seems different from the way that book-length works do. The Word Pretty is a good case for thinking about this, because you acknowledge its heterogeneity, and the book itself makes no claims to, say, thematic unity, yet it does feel to me like a whole. Does it feel that way to you? If so, is it in a different sense than your previous books, which are also wholes made of isolatable parts?
Elisa Gabbert: I often feel that where books start and stop is essentially arbitrary. I start to think of something as a book when it’s clear to me that I’m repeatedly returning to a certain set of concerns and a certain shape or structure or form as an approach to those concerns. Once I’m able to describe the concerns and the form to myself, it’s fairly easy to imagine the shape of the finished book. But it could always be a little shorter or longer, or arranged slightly differently and so on—at some point I just decide it’s done, maybe only because I get sick of the project and want to work on something new! The Word Pretty didn’t quite make sense to me as a book until I figured out the three sections. Then, if I wanted to add a new piece, for example, I knew which section it would go in, and I didn’t have to rearrange the whole table of contents. Sections and structure are important to me. I don’t write fiction, but I’m really interested in chapters, too, and I have a fantasy course mapped out in my head called “Chapter Studies.” In any case, after the fact of writing, I find that a book feels like a book partly because it’s time-delimited: I started it in a certain month of a certain year and finished it in a certain month of a later year. So whatever the genre, the book feels to me like a record of my thinking during that period.
TM: You told me, also on Twitter, that this book is “the kind of thing [you] always wanted to do but thought you had to be famous first.” What did you mean by that? And how did the book come about?
EG: I tweeted once—not that long ago actually, in early 2016—“I want to do one of those books of random bits and bobs of unrelated prose that only famous people get to do.” I was thinking of these collections that come out by J.M. Coetzee or Siri Hustvedt or Zadie Smith or, when they were living, John Updike or Gore Vidal—basically people who are some combination of “working writer” and “public intellectual” so that every few years, they’ve published enough essays or criticism to be packaged up into a book, and the fans buy it because they’ll read anything by that author, they just want the point of view. But debut collections of essays are usually not that freeform, unless maybe they’re on a small press. As it happens, later that same year, I had a small press approach me asking whether I had a manuscript of essays they could consider. Around the same time, I learned that my poetry publisher planned to launch a nonfiction series. So I got my wish via the small press route.
TM: I’m curious about the sequencing of the book. The essays are divided into three unnamed sections. Resonances abound, but there’s no clear thematic demarcation. In at least some instances, it seemed as if the ordering of essays within a section might be guided, in part, by shared references. For instance, “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” follows “The Inelegant Translation” (though there’s a section break in between), and both mention Lydia Davis’s introduction to her translation of Madame Bovary; “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” is followed by “Seeing Things,” both of which mention Howards End; “Seeing Things” is followed by “Impossible Time,” both of which mention The Catcher in the Rye. Am I right that you had this in mind? What other priorities guided the sequencing?
EG: In my mind, the middle section is made up of all my little “I noticed a thing” essays (a term I borrow from my friend Catherine Nichols) in the literary criticism category. Most of those started when I noticed a thing in a book I was reading (an idiosyncratic use of paragraphs, say, or a kind of POV), then thought about that thing as a thing, then started noticing how other books handled or achieved that same thing. Within that section I tried to sequence them in such a way that you might get a hint of an idea in one essay and then read an expansion on that idea in the next essay, as you suggest. That said, I’m not one of those people that tries every conceivable order of parts in a book to see if one permutation turns out better than the others—not that that’s actually possible. (Google tells me 12! ≈ 479 million—can that be right?!—and that’s just the essays in the second section.) I think on some level I’m just letting the juxtapositions do their own work. The first section and the third section could really be one section, but I wanted to split them apart, so there’s a more personal voice at the beginning and again at the end, with the more pure (-ish) criticism in the middle. Really, there’s plenty of I throughout. I got thoroughly sick of myself while proofing it.
TM: You began your career as a poet. How did you come to write essays? Do you think of your poetry and your essays as related or overlapping projects, or as discrete?
EG: I think essays are basically chunks of prose (nonfiction prose to be a little more exact), and I’ve been writing chunks of prose my whole life—papers, reviews, blog posts, whatever, they’re all essays if essays involve thinking about something for a while and then writing about it. At some point I decided to be more purposeful about calling them essays, and calling myself an essayist, probably around the time editors started asking me to write essays. Later, when I was working on a book proposal (not for The Word Pretty, but for the book I’m writing now), my agent asked me if I was committed to calling it essays—rather than, just, you know, a book—and I decided that yes, I really wanted to align myself with that tradition specifically. I think you approach a book of essays differently than a nonfiction book in chapters, and I wanted people to approach my essays as essays. (Incidentally, my second book was a collection of chunks of prose, and because, as you note, I started off as a poet, many people think of that book as prose poetry. It was actually marketed as a book of essays, but regardless of how it’s officially catalogued, it’s very obviously made of chunks of prose, and I think it reached a much larger audience than my collections of pro-forma poetry for that reason. More people read prose than poetry! No question!) But to get back to what you asked—I think my poetry and essays do have overlap in terms of my voice and sensibility and obsessions. But it feels very different to write prose versus poetry. It’s kind of like, I can either think in sentences or lines, in poetry or prose, but they’re distinct and exclusive modes. And my default mode is prose. Poetry is harder work. (At least in the drafting phase.)
TM: While I was in the midst of reading The Word Pretty, at a moment when I wasn’t actually reading it, I had this thought (which I considered tweeting, but decided not to): People talk a lot about overwritten prose, but what about the more common problem of underwritten prose? When I returned to The Word Pretty, I was surprised to find, in your essay “Writing That Sounds Like Writing,” first a discussion of overwritten prose, and then this: “of late I’ve read a few books I thought of as underwritten.” This could be a coincidence, or maybe I had read this essay of yours before (I can’t remember if I had) and was anticipating it. But another explanation would be that your essays so effectively convey your style of thinking that reading them helped me to have an Elisa Gabbert-style thought. What do you think of my hypothesis? Is that at all in line with what you think your essays accomplish, or what you intend them to?
EG: Oh, I love this story. It’s hard for me to think of a better compliment than “recognizable style of thinking.” But yes, what I look for in essays, and what I try to do in my essays, is interesting thinking. And sometimes I like when writers really show every step of the proof, as it were. Maybe they’re revealing all their missteps or false starts or the bad ideas they had on the way to a better idea. Or maybe they aren’t missteps exactly, but a series of small but necessary steps to get to something more profound. That level of thinking can be so interesting, even if you don’t really know what the writer is talking about! Like this paragraph I read yesterday, from a brief essay about Shostakovich’s 15th symphony by Tom Service:
Weird. Yes, Shostakovich has set up a sort of pre-echo of the William Tell tune in some of the rhythms we’ve heard; but when the trumpets play the tune, it’s a shock. So is it ironic? Not really, there’s a genuine musical connection, a reason for it being there. A parody? Again, it’s not that simple; Shostakovich doesn’t frame this moment as a separate kind of discourse from what we’ve heard so far, this quote isn’t in quotation marks. And in fact, I don’t actually think this is a quotation at all: what I mean is that the effect of hearing this music at this point in the symphony is so utterly removed from the original function, expression, and associations of Rossini’s tune that it becomes, in fact, a totally different object. Instead of infectious operatic cheeriness, we’re in a place of existential symphonic crisis. If anything, you hear the disjunction in meaning and context even more precisely because the pattern of the notes is so familiar. Make sense? Possibly not – but these are the kind of labyrinths Shostakovich’s symphony leads you into… (Even Shostakovich himself couldn’t properly explain the reason for the quotes in this symphony: “I don’t myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them,” he told his friend Isaak Glikman in a tortuous bit of triple-negativity.)
I know almost nothing about classical music (does Shostakovich even count as classical?) but I read this three or four times. It’s such a great example of attention, representing the act of attention within the text, along with the uncertainty that follows attention, the questioning of what you thought you knew. Also, your story makes me think of that bit at the end of the Anne of Green Gables essay, where I talk about binge-watching TV and then feeling like I look like a character from the show, like looking at a face so much has warped my self-image. It sounds like you experienced a version of that!
TM: It’s clear that your writing is informed by a robust reading life, in which you take seriously the choice of what to read when as a part of living. Is developing a certain kind of reading life something you’ve worked at, or has it come naturally? How is your reading life related to your writing life?
EG: I have worked at it! I’ve loved reading all my life, but I made a conscious decision about five years ago to be more disciplined about it. I felt like approaching my reading in a haphazard, undisciplined way wasn’t cutting it anymore. So I made all these little, or in some cases not so little, habitual changes in order to make reading more central in my life. I started going to the library all the time—this has at least two positive effects. One, there are always stacks of unread books around, so there’s never the problem of having “nothing to read.” Two, due dates are deadlines, so I can’t put off reading a book forever. I also pretty much stopped watching TV. I know it’s supposed to be the golden age of prestige TV blah blah, but for me, good TV still isn’t as good or rewarding as a good book, and even bad TV is addictive. It’s just too easy to get sucked into, so I avoid it entirely. Another thing I started doing is documenting all the books I finish, then publishing little mini-reviews of all of them at the end of the year. I like writing them and I like when people read them so it gives me extra incentive to finish books. As for how my reading life relates to my writing life, it definitely feeds it, but lately I feel like the balance is a little off. Too much writing and not enough reading!
TM: I love the way the essays in The Word Pretty ground the acts of reading, research, and citation in your life and in the world. For instance, you thematize the act of finding something to quote in “Meditation on the Word Pretty”: You write, “I flipped through my copy of Terry Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic from grad school; I had not recalled that it paints Edmund Burke-ian sublimity as practically a loathsome side effect of testosterone,” and then you quote it. I think this is related to the way, in “Seeing Things,” you write about picturing characters and spaces in novels by drawing from people and spaces from your life. Essays that engage texts often give the impression that the essayist is a brain in a vat encountering texts in some abstract way. Yours never do that, even when you don’t explicitly dwell on or dramatize the physical or imaginative encounter. Is this grounded textual engagement a way of achieving a certain effect? Are you writing against a tendency in essays or criticism?
EG: Ah, this is one of my signature moves, incorporating notes on the process of writing an essay into the essay itself. It feels more authentic, or maybe I should say truthful, to reveal that process, which can involve chance and randomness, or cursory, passing interest in things. I don’t want to create the false impression that every time I cite a book, I’ve necessarily read the whole book or that author’s whole oeuvre. (But I’m trying not to do this move reflexively or let it turn into a tic. There’s a danger of understanding your own style too well, and then imitating yourself.) I think I’m also using, in a sense, critical or topical essays to write about my self in the world. I’m always trying to situate who and where and when I am in relation to the books or other things I’m writing about. Partly it’s an ethical position, a way of highlighting my subjectivity, and partly it’s just ego.
TM: Do you have a favorite essay from the book?
EG: Yes. My favorite essay is the last one, “Time, Money, Happiness.”
TM: I know you’re working on a new book. What can you tell me about it and how it’s going?
EG: I just finished the penultimate essay, so I think I’m allowed to say it’s almost done. Writing it while also working a pretty demanding full-time job has been incredibly stressful and difficult, but it’s a good kind of pain, I guess you could say. (As I just tweeted the other day, writing it is taking years off my life, but seeing as it’s about disasters, it’s making me want to die sooner anyway.) Working on it is giving me forward movement and purpose at a time when it would be easy to succumb to the whole “LOL, nothing matters” ethos. Nothing does matter, but also this book is important to me. I want to finish it, and I want people to read it.
As an English professor and unabashed therapy-junkie, I recently made it my business to read every YA novel I could find in which an adolescent protagonist visits a psychotherapist. It surprises me that teens in contemporary Young Adult fictions are still submitting to the rigors of talk therapy. This seems to be passé. According to a myriad of recent articles and books, more Americans — adolescents included — are tossing back pills for depression than trudging to therapists’ offices. In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Marcia Angell explores the “shift from ‘talk therapy’ to drugs as the dominant mode of treatment” for mental illness. Nevertheless, fictional teenagers are still talking to therapists for pages on end. Having now read a growing pile of novels, I can vouch for the fact that teen protagonists are actually having insights and getting better. In fact, the majority of these novels depict psychotherapy as transformative.
The fictional teens who frequent therapists’ offices range from full-blown “tragics” to Holden Caulfield-esque depressives — tragics being “people who get help because they’ve had something really bad happen to them, like getting cancer, or being abused,” according to Ruby Oliver, the therapized protagonist of E. Lockhart’s The Boyfriend List (2005). Anna, of E.R. Frank’s Wrecked (2007), is definitely a tragic: she killed her brother’s girlfriend in a car crash. The accident wasn’t Anna’s fault, but still. Chloe Doe, the eponymous heroine of Suzanne Phillips’ 2007 novel, also has woes. After her stepfather sexually abuses and murders her sister, Chloe runs away from home and takes up prostitution. And then there is Valerie, of Jennifer Brown’s Hate List (2009), whose boyfriend Nick Levil (get it? he’s evil!) grabs a rifle and shoots a few classmates before offing himself. Why didn’t Val see it coming? Luckily for her, Dr. Hieler (a healer!) well, heals her.
I like the un-tragic protagonists; they melt down less flamboyantly than the tragics, but they’re funnier and more soulful. Alice, of Susan Juby’s Alice, I Think (2003), suffers from the “emotional and intellectual handicaps” of home schooling. She sees a counselor she dubs “Death Lord Bob,” so named for his “small goatee” and penchant for black clothes. Alice suspects Death Lord is “riddled with issues,” and, in an effort to boost his self-esteem, becomes a model patient, overcoming her fear of public school. James Sveck of Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You (2007) is my favorite character (in the one truly exceptional novel I read). A New Yorker, a stickler about language, and a gay high school student with a crush on John (his hip black gay Ivy-League-educated boss), James creates a fake profile on Gent4Gent.com, ensnaring John and ensuring a disastrous end to their friendship.
The therapists in these novels are a motley crew. They come in all colors, ethnicities, and nationalities. Crunchy, Birkenstock-sporting Dr. Z is Black (The Boyfriend List), Dr. Rowena Adler is German (Someday This Pain); Dr. Minerva is Greek (Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, 2006); and Dr. Greenburg is Jewish (Robin Palmer’s Cindy Ella, 2008). Some are motherly: the therapist in Patricia McCormick’s Cut (2000) smells like lavender sachets, while Frances, the freckled therapist in Wrecked, is warm (symbolized by the fact that she wears yellow in the heart of winter). Smart therapists like Dr. Adler and Chloe Doe’s Dr. Dearborn give as good as they get, meeting their teenaged patients’ verbal sallies with equally adept parries. Loser therapist Marla Dawson in Chris Crutcher’s Deadline (2007) gives up on her dying patient, protagonist Ben, lamenting that she’s “out of [her] depth” — and diabolical Dr. Malcolm Roland steals protagonist Hilly’s diary in the hope of passing it off as his own work in Kathe Koja’s Going Under (2006). Mia, in Meg Cabot’s princess series, sees a cowboy therapist named Dr. Knutz. He “certainly lived up to his name,” she tells us, surprised that he is not like the Jewish Jungian psychologists, the Drs. Moscovitz, parents of her best friend Lilly.
Despite all the silliness and melodrama inherent in the YA genre, many of the therapists in these books are depicted as helpful guides to their young patients. In The Boyfriend List, Dr. Z’s suggestion that Ruby make a list of all the boys in her life structures Ruby’s first-person narrative, fracturing chronology, engendering copious footnotes, and spawning new lists such as Ruby’s list of lies. My personal favorite is Ruby’s apology list to Noel, a boy she has treated badly. Composed of six delightful similes — Ruby is sorry “[l]ike a cat who rolled in jam” — the list allows her to make reparation while saving face through humor. As the novel closes, Ruby is able to use the list form Dr. Z has given her to live more creatively. The list, Ruby finally acknowledges, makes her feel “rather well adjusted.” Dr. Z teaches Ruby the value of playfulness, demonstrating that if you rearrange familiar elements, you will gain a new perspective.
While many of these protagonists are initially resistant to therapy, they usually get over it quickly. When we first meet Chloe Doe at the Madeline Parker Institute for Girls, she is giving her therapist, Dr. Dearborn, some serious attitude in the form of her bare breasts. Soon enough, though, she pulls down her shirt and commits to the hard work of self-discovery. Like Dr. Z, Dr. Dearborn reinterprets the world for Chloe. He sees life as a battle: “‘There’s the walk into battle. The battle itself. And the walk away… Sometimes it’s over small stuff. Sometimes it’s life and death,’” he tells her. Accordingly, Chloe envisions therapy as a high stakes struggle and begins to take it seriously, even though she feels like she’s “sitting in a tub of broken glass.” Ultimately, Chloe triumphs over her resistance: “I’m standing at the top of Everest, and I’m light-headed,” she thinks after an especially grueling session. No surprise, then, when Chloe, who overuses figurative language, comes up with the appropriately metaphorical last name of Aimes for herself at the end of the novel. This assures us — however obviously — that she is going to have a future.
James Sveck is also argumentative and hostile to Dr. Adler at the start: “I felt like we were in some contest to see who could unnerve the other first,” he admits. When their verbal pyrotechnics inevitably transform into repartee, however, James is able to use therapy to encounter his despair. In the centerpiece scene, James describes to Dr. Adler Thomas Cole’s series of four allegorical paintings, The Voyage of Life. The paintings, representing the four stages of a man’s life — “Childhood,” “Youth,” “Manhood,” and “Old Age” — were once meaningful to James: when he was thirteen he bought reproductions of them, which he taped to his wall until a schoolmate told him they were “stupid and faggy.” Upon encountering the paintings again on a recent trip to The National Gallery, James realizes that he wants to be the central figure floating toward death in the last painting, Old Age. “I wanted to skip the Manhood boat,” he tells Dr. Adler. “I wanted to die.” James’ use of Cole’s allegory to distance himself from his suicidal thoughts assures us that he will survive his depression and return to the business of living, as indeed he does.
Overall, YA novels involving teen protagonists and their therapists suggest that adolescents are vulnerable and in need of adult intervention. These new teen protagonists are mostly unlike their immediate predecessors from the mid-Twentieth Century, the Holden Caulfields and Harriet the Spys, who saw through the hypocritical fabric of adult society and landed in therapy only as an afterthought to a gripping emotional quest. In Cut, for instance, Callie waits outside her therapist’s locked door like a sad dog, yearning to tell her “everything.” Similarly, Anna, of Wrecked, phones Frances from school for emergency therapy after having a panic attack. These dependent teens are more in the tradition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women than Holden and Harriet. Like the March sisters, who sob out their sins to Marmee, the adolescents in these contemporary fictions are represented as being quasi reprobates in need of spiritual, moral, and emotional guidance from the adults in their lives. As such, they follow in a literary historical tradition that didactically represents children and adolescents as dependent on adult wisdom — as opposed to the parallel tradition that portrays adolescents as purveyors of enlightenment to the adult world (think of Anne of Green Gables, who softens and transforms all the adults with whom she comes in contact).
The form of these YA fictions also nods to Louisa May. Just as Alcott offered her readers a novel about young adults structured around the guiding principles of John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography The Pilgrim’s Progress, these YA novels present their adolescent readers with a new kind of conversion narrative in which the adoption of a psychotherapeutic frame of interpretation is saving. If you only yield to therapy, the tacit argument goes, you will be saved — or, if not saved, at least able to live with your problems. Emerging from the hospital after five days of in-patient therapy, Craig Gilner of It’s Kind of a Funny Story experiences the cathartic shift in his brain for which he has been longing, along with a sense that he “can handle it.”
If it is indeed true that we are experiencing a movement away “from ‘talk therapy’ to drugs as the dominant mode of treatment” for mental illness, then are these YA fictions charming anachronisms? It could be that these novels fascinate me because they are written by authors who are all around my age, born in the 60s and 70s, when psychotherapy was reckoned as an exciting possibility for transformation. My generation is still stubbornly committed to the idea that knowing oneself is a worthwhile pursuit — and these novels, however rife with soap operatic bad luck and sentimentality, champion the idea that self knowledge emerges in dialogue with a trusted other. Although most of them grind out cookie cutter conversion stories, I cannot be hard on these works. Ultimately, they suggest that engaging with someone else, face to face, is transforming — or, at the very least, provides more scope for plot and character development than popping a pill.
As had become our Saturday morning summer routine, my friend and I were sitting on the benches outside of our local café nursing iced coffees and watching the neighborhood go by.
“That’s a weird outfit,” Anshu said, nodding in the direction of a man whose printed belt matched his printed shoes, which matched his printed hat.
“Is it just me or are there more lesbians around here than there used to be?” I responded.
“Maybe.” She chewed on her straw. “Remember that time in college when it snowed two feet? I want it to be cold like that now.”
I nodded. We were silent, taking in the traffic and the people coming and going and the small dog that was tied to a signpost and the woman who was having a battle of the wills with her bike lock.
Anshu’s eyes then landed on a girl—about nine or ten—sitting with her mother on the bench beside us, oblivious to everything, her nose in a book.
“She’s reading The Witches,” Anshu said, nudging me and nodding in the child’s direction. “I can see the words ‘Norwegian Witch’ from here.”
I looked over. Sure enough, I could read the large, child-sized font from where I sat as well. I looked again at Anshu, who is not known for her soft side. I could almost reach out with my bare hands and grab hold of her desire to be picked up out of her own body and replaced into that of the girl’s.
“I love Roald Dahl,” Anshu was growing more misty-eyed by the second. “I wonder if her mother gave her the book?”
“I don’t know,” I said noncommittally and eyeing the girl’s mother who, like us moments earlier, seemed preoccupied by the intricacies of traffic patterns.
I smiled. I wanted her to keep indulging the nostalgia.
From there we traded childhood reading habits. Anshu had grown up Indian-American in Seattle and I had grown up Just Plain American in Virginia, but our formative literary lives had been the same. We remembered bringing books to the dinner table and we remembered being told to put them away and participate in conversation. There were the flashlights snuck into bed for reading after lights out. I was indignant all over again about Amy stealing Laurie out from under Jo even if Jo didn’t care. Anshu described running across her backyard in Seattle the way she imagined Anne ran across the fields of Prince Edward Island towards Green Gables. We both remembered how, when we walked our family dogs, we would leave the house with a leash in one hand, a book in the other. The walks, which without a novel seemed endless and boring, would be over and we’d be back at our front doors—dogs relieved, parents satisfied—before we had even had a chance to look around and take note of the clouds, the weather, our fellow dog walkers, trash days, “For Sale” signs, the Volvos parked in driveways.
I wondered whether these experiences were some of the things that had led us to be, at thirty, sitting together on a bench in Brooklyn: single, childless roommates.
If we are lucky we are read to before we read to ourselves. That is where it all originates. For me, the beginning of the story went like this:
Dinner is over. It was creamed asparagus on toast and I had seconds. Dad is doing the dishes and my sister is upstairs in her room finishing her homework. The dog is licking the dishes sitting pre-washed but still dirty in the dishwasher. It is almost my bedtime, but first mom will read a chapter aloud. Every night for almost two months we have been sitting down together on the couch at this time and, as dusk gathers outside, she has been reading me Little Women. Before starting, she reaches an arm around me. There’s a part of her that is a would-be actress and so she is good at reading, doing distinct voices for different characters in their various situations: Meg leaving home, Jo cutting her hair, Beth exclaiming over that piano, Amy telling Jo she’s fallen for Laurie, Marmee in the arm chair by the fire reading letters from their father on the front.
At the end of each chapter, my mother gets quiet and still for a moment. By now it is completely dark outside and I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed. I can’t even see the trees in the front yard. Then: “Bedtime,” she announces decisively. I protest. Just a few more pages. One more chapter. But my mother grew up in the fifties on a chicken farm in rural Maine and has the get-on-with-it attitude of that time and place. “No, it’s off to bed with you,” she says taking her arm from around me and closing the book. “Another chapter tomorrow night.”
And so it would be until there were no more chapters because the little women had all grown up.
If there is one thing that can consistently reduce even the most hardened cynic to a sentimental softie, it is the books she read as a child.
Of course, we still read, my friends and I. We read on the subway and on the couch or in bed just as we used to do. But it’s not the same: the subway ride ends, the couch inspires naptime, a flashlight under the covers is absurd. I certainly can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, “I was walking down the street reading a book when….”
The closest I’ve come to witnessing such a scenario was last summer when a friend and I were going hiking. She had her nose in the trail map and we had yet to leave the parking lot or break a sweat when—not looking where she was going—she fell off the curb, cutting herself so badly she ended up needing to go to the hospital and foregoing the hike. In the time between now and when we last walked the dog and read a novel at the same time, it seems we’ve lost the ability to read and walk simultaneously. These days, I put dinnertime ahead of reading and fit the latter in where I can and when I feel like it. Often, until I am directly confronted with the sight of a girl and her book—a sight outside the purview of my current routines—it can slip my mind that I, too, used to read like that. To love reading like that.
As it was with our first loves, we fall hard for our first books. When we were with them the rest of the world fell away. And as with our first loves, we will never let go of ourselves like that again. I’ve asked myself when it was I read for the last time as a child, but the question is as pointless as asking when me and my first love lost what it was we once had. The answer is probably nothing more than, “One day the magic was there and the next day it wasn’t.” At some point I just took the dog for a walk without a novel, looked around, and either the things around me had changed or I had.
The diminishment of the intensity is an evolutionary imperative. We reach a point at which we no longer allow ourselves to read like that because if we did we would never get anything else done. We wouldn’t meet new people or remember to make those doctors appointments. If we still read with the intensity of an eight-year-old or loved with the intensity of a novice, at thirty we might forget to leave the house at all.
While the same could be said for boys—who I am sure have their own list of classics that conjure a unique common history—I am speaking here for girls. Girls and the books that taught them everything from how to reach out and touch something fuzzy to what it was like to get their periods and find an insane not-so-ex-wife in the attic. Just a list of titles is enough to conjure the timeline of an entire X-chromosomed American childhood: Pat the Bunny, The Runaway Bunny, Blueberries for Sal, The Lonely Doll, Miss Rumphius, Madeline, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, Ramona Quimby Age 8, The BFG, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, Julie of the Wolves, Jacob Have I Loved, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca, Jane Eyre again, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre again, Ethan Frome…
Somewhere around Ethan Frome is where the unselfconscious abandon began to dissipate in lieu of simply sincere appreciation and sometimes even a little critical distance. Whereas I can’t count the number of books I couldn’t put down in the first fifteen years of my life, I could name on two hands and feet the number of books I’ve felt that way about in my second fifteen years. But that fact does not make me sad or give me pause and not because I tell myself that if it were otherwise I would have ended up a hobo. What seems to matter most is that I had those first fifteen years to begin with.
My friends feel similarly. One formerly horse-crazy friend talks often about her childhood passion for the Marguerite Henry books. Another friend has an entire shelf devoted to her childhood library, and that’s where she turns on the days when she’s tempted to get in bed and never get out. Another friend has taken it all a step further than the rest of us and is getting a Ph.D. in Y.A. Literature, writing academic papers on Ramona and The Twits that she then presents at high-brow conferences across the country. These are the things we have carried with us and as such are the things we have to give away.
When I turned thirty this year, the same friend who had fallen off the curb and gone to the hospital gave me her three favorite Y.A. novels from childhood. A few months earlier, she and I had compared notes on what we’d read when we were young and she had learned that her favorites had not been on my early reading lists. When I told her I hadn’t read Caddie Woodlawn she said, “You haven’t?!” as if I just told her I had never brushed my teeth. With this birthday present she had wanted to rectify that—to her mind—gaping hole in my life.
I haven’t read the books she gave me just yet, but the fact that she gave them to me at all is just it: Not only do we hold these books we’ve read and characters we grew up with close, but we want to share them, to pass them on. As of my writing this, my friend who fell off the curb is also single and childless. I am not convinced I was the person she wanted to be giving books to that day.
When people have children, some are reluctant to admit it, but they have a secret preference in their hearts for a girl over a boy or vise versa and for a multitude of reasons. I am nowhere near the stage in life of being a parent myself, but when the time comes as I hope it one day will, I often think I want a girl. I want this because I recognize even now how much it will matter to me to know and understand how she is feeling and what she is learning and experiencing all for the first time. I know too how difficult it will be to access these complicated growing-up emotions of hers, ferreted as they will be inside a person not myself. To put a book that was once special to me into her hands and watch it become special to her is one way to do that. At least for a little while.
But before I send her off to read on her own, I want to be able to sit on the couch with her and do the voices of the characters. As it is with my mother, there is a would-be actress inside me, too. It will be getting dark outside and the spot on the couch where she and I will sit will be the only well-light place in the house. A husband will be doing the dishes and have a dog to keep him company and help with the grunt work. He won’t be watching because he wouldn’t want to intrude, but he will listen from the other room.
I will put my arm around her and start like this:
CHAPTER ONE: Playing Pilgrims
Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug…
Seen from outside the window, she and I in the arms of the light beside the couch might make you think that here is where the entire world begins and ends.
[Image credit: Frank]