Friday, September 25, 2009

Literature . . . or not

The other day, I talked about how we readers can be quite cruel in making snap judgments about each other based on the books we like to read (or based on the books we read in public, anyway).  That topic stuck around with me, and I've been mulling over it since I wrote the post.  In thinking about how we judge books and their readers, I remembered an incident that occurred when I volunteered for a committee that was in charge of selecting a book for all incoming freshmen to read.  One of the books we had been asked to consider was Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

For anyone not familiar with the book, Persepolis is a graphic novel, written as an autobiography of the author's experiences as a child living in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.  The content of the book intrigued the committee--we had all hoped to choose a book that would make students think outside their own experiences and culture and, perhaps, outside their comfort zone.  Before meeting with the rest of the committee to discuss all the books that had been suggested, I knew that the status of graphic novels in the realm of literature had been debated; however, I had no idea just how hotly people debated over the topic.  And so, I was surprised when the idea of using Persepolis as the book of the year was met with such venomous responses.  I can't forget one person's words: "We're going to let them get out of reading real books by letting them read a comic book on steroids?"  The words had shocked me into silence.  The only clear thought I formed in response was, "Ouch."

I don't pretend to be an expert on literature.  I am a reader--and an avid one at that.  But if you ask me to talk to you about classic novels or literary eras, I would have to be doing the listening and not the contributing.  Even without being a literature expert, though, I feel I am a good judge of books simply because I have read so many, and I tend to disagree with a lot of the book choices schools include on their reading lists for students.  In part, I disagree with many selections because I see reading as a personal journey that must be met with some degree of self-motivated interest for it to succeed.  I fail to see how a piece of classic literature can better relate to students and get them talking about reading than, say, a graphic novel.  Some people see comic-style illustrations and automatically assume they are looking at something that is somehow less of an intellectual impact.  I look at those people and think they are being too closed minded.

The first graphic novel I ever read was introduced to me by my college roommate, who suggested I read Maus by Art Spiegelman.  In Maus (a story told through two books), Spiegelman recounts the stories he had heard from his father about the Holocaust.  As a graphic novel, he turned the story of his father's survival of the Holocaust into one where the Jews are portrayed as mice while the Germans are the cats.  Other ethnicities get thrown into the mix, each with their own animal (Americans are dogs, if you want to have fun with that comparison).  I was at once amazed by his ability to weave such an in-depth story through illustrations and captions and also horrified at the level of reality of the story.  Often, when we read about the Holocaust, the material is edited--cleaned up for the weak at heart.  By using animals instead of people, Spiegelman drew terrifying pictures (quite literally) that my 18-year-old mind had not considered prior to reading the book.  His story breathed life into the real-life pictures I had seen of the after-effects of the Holocaust in history courses.  Graphic novels have a unique ability to open doors into otherwise "rated" material that, if taken seriously, can open readers' eyes to the reality--the dirtiness--of situations.

I applaud the schools whose administrators/teachers have realized the possible impact of graphic novels on their students and, thus, included those novels on reading lists.  When compiling reading lists or lists of essential books, we need to keep in mind the reality of what can help to best serve the students' needs.  I understand students should be introduced to classic literature--I'm not arguing that we should forego reading classics in lieu of reading all modern works.  Instead, I am arguing that we should provide a healthy mix of genres so that students are introduced to a wide variety of types of books in the hopes that they will find something they like and begin their own reading journeys.  I am arguing that we maintain open minds when approaching books we feel are on the fringe of what is considered "literature."

We did not select Persepolis for the incoming freshmen to read because certain committee members absolutely refused to consider the book.  While the book we ended up choosing is a fine one, I worry that too many students will miss out on the opportunities for thriving discussions that Persepolis would have offered.  I also worry that too many students will continue to see reading as something they are forced to do, not as something they can get excited about or involved in.

Happy reading the genres that make you want to read more!


Billy Longino said...

Strange, I was thinking about this pretty much all weekend, and decided to write a blog about it. When I finish it I come here and see this. I haven't read Persepolis, though I've wanted to. Spiegelman wrote an interesting essay on the importance of comics in his book "In the Shadow of No Towers." I don't think it really has much to do with comics being literature necessarily, but it discusses their importance in our culture. Of course I could be completely wrong it has been a good number of years since I last read it.

Jessie Sams said...

That is interesting that you, too, were thinking about that topic. I will look up the essay you mentioned, as I'm not sure there are enough positive essays about comic-style writing out there. I'm not a "graphic-novel-aholic" or anything--I simply think book lists should include wider varieties of genres to get students to start reading. Too many students make it to college without reading a complete novel or without reading beyond the classroom. I'll ask my students how many books they read in a month, and their responses often consist of shrugging shoulders and shaking heads. If students aren't reading, we need to be asking what could be done to help students understand that reading is interactive and not simply something to be done when a teacher assigns a book. I understand that not everyone will turn out like me (addicted to reading), but I can't imagine that an entire generation of students could be completely turned off to reading anything more than websites. At least, I sincerely hope not...

Billy Longino said...

It seems to be a growing trend in this country, and I assume quite a bit of the rest of the world as well, for people to just not read. I guess it comes down to the reasons people were reading before we had things like television, movies, and internet, and seeing what these things, by being alternative sources of these reasons, are supplying the society and finding a way for writers to go beyond these older conceptions of what writing is and what it offers to those who read. A lot of people don't want to spend the time reading when they can be passive and watch television, which makes sense considering that any animal would do the more energy saving activity to get the intellectual sustenance that a story provides (whether that story be a soap opera, the journey of a Dancing with the Stars couple, or American Idol contestant). So, really someone needs to find out how these chemicals in the brains of those of us who enjoy reading are different from those who don't and see how they are effected and by what, and teach writers to evoke these things before writing and reading go the way of opera. Okay, maybe that's going too far.

As for graphic novels and comics I think their attraction is the same as the other things in that reading them is a more passive activity. That's why I love movies, television, and comics that have comments on the human condition supplanted (terrible that that is the right word)into them, and that those things are usually considered the "greatest" of their kind just because they have qualities that literature is teeming with and intrinsic of.

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