Mapping Out the Reader Profile

I was talking to a high schooler, Annette, who bewailed her loss of interest in most of the books she reads. She isn’t alone. I’m a bookworm, but I lose interest, too. I asked her what caused her to lose interest. She told me many of the books she reads are recommended by friends, but the stories her friends are gushing over leave her rather unimpressed. “I’m not into fairies or time machines or magic,” she explained. Reading about another character with magical powers is a chore to Annette; she knows it will be another madhouse plot, and that does not tempt her to finish the chapter.

I asked Annette about some of the books she likes. She leans more towards nonfiction but averred, “It’s not that I don’t like fiction. I just don’t like the make-believe fiction that everybody’s reading right now.” There was something oxymoronic in that statement, but I understood what she meant. Fantasy fiction and science fiction aren’t for everyone. And, yes, it’s a bit frustrating trying to find a good read if you don’t like those genres because that sums up so many of the books my kids and their friends are recommending. And I’ll be the first to admit the plots do tend to run together after a while.

Annette added, “I don’t really like the task of reading, so if I know I have so many pages to go before the chapter is over, I’m counting the pages in the back of my mind. And it doesn’t matter if the chapter ends on a cliffhanger; I’m done!” I remember feeling like this about my reading assignments in school. Systems of learning like to grade literature skills by how many chapters the student successfully finishes and whether the review questions were answered with the correct perspective. That’s bound to check the passion and ambition of any reader. (On the other hand, one highschooler bragged to me that he’d read War and Peace. “It was easy,” he said. “I read it in, like, a week.” I asked him what he thought about the story, and, sadly, I don’t think he got much out of it. I guess one can be a little too ambitious about reading books.)

My daughters have developed their own preferences for the books they read, based on their personalities. I like to listen in when Pearl is trying to persuade Dawn to read a story she’s enjoyed, and vice versa. They know what the other likes, and they will tell each other, “I don’t think you’re going to like this book,” or “I didn’t like it, but you probably will.” Sometimes, they read books purely to test out the other’s hypothesis. In essence, each is mapping out her individuality as a reader while learning other readers’ preferences.

As a bookworm, and as their literature teacher, I want my daughters to keep those reading preferences flexible. I try to assign books I think will grow their tastes and experiences. And, of course, I try to win them over to my favorite reads. In turn, they like to recommend their latest book finds to me. They’ve listened to enough of Mom’s analyses to know I have no qualms about telling them when a story is weak, unoriginal, or tripe. For this reason, they’ve carefully studied my reader profile to help them recommend a winner. I asked Dawn, “If you wanted me to read a book, what would you tell me about the story to persuade me, or–what I’m asking is, what do I like in a good book?” Counting on her fingers, she answered, “It has to be well-written. You like when the writing (narrative/style) is different, and you like it to come from a different perspective.” She tapped her fourth finger. “And it has to have symbolism.” I have to say, she knows my reader profile.

Annette’s reader profile stumped them. She doesn’t want to read just any old book, and, certainly, not another book about fairies and magic. When they tried recommending historical fiction, she became a little frustrated. Historical fiction is too much like a school assignment. She wants to enjoy a story, not learn about a time period. So, I pulled out an old book I’ve kept for its message and its approach.

Jean Webster, Public Domain

“Try Daddy-Long-Legs,” I told her. Jean Webster writes a charming, witty character, Judy, into existence by allowing the reader to stand in the place of Judy’s mysterious sponsor as she writes to him about her life. There is so much to enjoy about this story, yet it’s a challenging book to recommend. First, it was published in 1912, so it doesn’t really relate to the 2020 teen. It takes a bit of context to understand the situation and position of women in the early 1900s. It isn’t preachy, which is a downfall for historical fiction writers writing outside of their own setting, but it can come off a bit prudish for some readers. This is no small irony; the author was considered both a civil rights activist and a supporter of eugenics. Further, Webster was interested in implementing socialism in the form of government-run systems to provide for the needy (like her orphan, Judy). She uses Jerusha “Judy” Abbott’s story to introduce awareness of large numbers of people experiencing hardship and raises the call, or duty, of the public to step up and work out a system to help supply the want. To do this, Webster relates to her reader through a personal, one-to-one relationship model of an orphan and her sponsor. She creates a philanthropy association that chooses Judy to receive financial support from an anonymous citizen who gives of his means to an orphan he doesn’t personally know. It’s a social experiment with the underlying question: will Judy use the assistance to launch herself into society and learn to make her own way in life? What Webster actually accomplishes is a brilliant, humorous tale about how one attentive benefactor changes the life of a spunky, driven child, and how their relationship develops as Judy matures. It’s a story about compassion and courage, not about the outcomes of experimental socialism in government. Still, some readers steer clear of this book because of the author’s views.

In picking this book for Annette to read, I considered her particular temperament and preferences. I also thought about her perspective. For example, I know she’s shown interest in 19th and 20th century period movies, so women’s roles of that time wouldn’t be problematic to her reading experience. I considered her background and felt pretty certain that the socialist-tinted aspects of this story would simply be perceived as a message to seek opportunities to be generous and help others. She finished Daddy-Long-Legs in four days (when it usually takes her weeks, she said, to slog through a book). She asked me if there were more books like it because she wanted to read more. I told her about the sequel, but I also told her, “No, there aren’t any books exactly like that one.”

from the Library of Congress, Public Domain Archive

Some would read Annette’s statement, “I don’t really like the task of reading,” and conclude she isn’t the reader type. Yet, Annette found a book that she enjoyed, a book that caused her to want to read more. How is that so? I would assert that sometimes it’s the writer’s method of approaching the reader that draws or repulses that reader. I would also assert that some books have a unique approach that charms even the most particular reader. While there is no book that fits or agrees with everyone, there are some books that reach across genres and times to touch many, many readers. When this happens, a writer can still be heard a century later. These are writers that, by chance or design, know how to map out a reader’s profile.

A ‘Fridge by Any Other Name

When we first moved into our house, we didn’t have the money for a new refrigerator. Fortunately, the previous owners left one for us, only it did a poor job regulating the temperature. Cruciferous veggies that sat near the back came out frozen and spoiled. Ruined produce is a tragedy, and my mourning was heard throughout the house. So, our goal, among many, became saving up for a new refrigerator—well, new to us. Discussing our move to his coworkers in passing, Realm mentioned the refridgerator situation among things we were looking to fix up after buying our home. A generous co-worker approached Realm the next day, offering us a refrigerator she had in her garage. We were elated, we were thankful, and we moved the new (to us) ‘fridge into the kitchen and kept the old, partly-working one in the garage for overflow. This is the first time in my married life I’ve had two working ‘fridges going. So, here I am, fulfilling that never-before-attained stereotype, enrolling myself in the society of American families who use two human-sized cooling containers to hoard their lifetime supply of cold food stuffs–that only last a week. I hear my minimalist side weeping. My frugal side is cringing at the electricity bill. My green-loving side is completely confused because… am I reusing what I have or am I wasting resources with the second ‘fridge’s energy draw? (First world dilemmas.) Obviously, my practical side won because my desire for smaller spaces and less stuff cannot compete with living with people who are just as opinionated and hungry as I am. And all I can say to the inner minimalist shaking her tiny head at me is, “Let’s declutter the bathroom, shall we?” She is slightly mollified.

Yet, I wasn’t ready to tackle two ‘fridges. I couldn’t designate which was which. It seems so obvious to my reader that I should designate them “the fridge in the kitchen” and “the fridge in the garage,” right? Not so easy. For weeks, I couldn’t get out the words “fridge in the garage.” I would repeat, “the fridge… the fridge..” while a kid held a bag of zucchini in anticipation. They would shift the bag in the direction of the ‘fridge in the garage. “No, no!” I’d respond, ruffled by what should’ve been an effortless interaction.

I’m not sure if it’s part of having Bipolar Mood Disorder or a mental block or what, but it’s been a family game for years that everyone tries to guess what Mom is not able to say. In situations where I’m multitasking, like cooking in the kitchen or driving, I simply can’t get certain words to come to me. My daughters have lived with me long enough to know how to work around these lethologica limitations. They make nicknames for things. Like, we have two butter dishes I struggle to refer to individually. One dish is called “Philip” (because I often ask someone to fill up the butter dish), and the other is named “Melton” (because someone I’ll call “the son who didn’t consider what would happen” put its plastic lid in the microwave once and now the lid fits like a botched lip job). After offering all sorts of names for the ‘fridge, Dawn teasingly suggested, “How about ‘the fridge that must not be named’?” “Coldemort” was born, and now, I can tell the kids where to store the 2-ton barrel of cheddar and which gets the forest-like crate of broccoli. The minimalist in me is dead.

Smoke and Light Signals

The evening of Independence Day was explosive this year. Fireworks aren’t illegal in our neighborhood, so we were in the middle of what sounded like 18th-century cannon fire for much of the night. We participated in the celebration, too, and had friends over to the backyard. Realm set up two launching areas, so we could social distance. Our guests brought some serious “expodies,” as they called them.

Our next door neighbors started off the evening with some of the best, loudest, and longest fireworks. One particular type of firecracker gave us all a scare. It was called “Nine Lives,” and it made its debut in our backyard. It started firing horizontally instead of vertically and sent us fleeing for cover. Thankfully, we were all far enough away that it didn’t hurt anyone, and Pearl caught the action on her phone. So, just as we were reliving the excitement, and Pearl was preparing the video to send to our guests, our neighbors launched their “Nine Lives” and experienced the same results. They were running, too! We’re thinking quality assurance testing was still in lock down when “Nine Lives” came through the manufacturing line. Our guest and “expodie” expert said either the base of the firework was in need of extra integrity or the video demonstration was misleading. We wanted to keep all of our lives, so that wasn’t a favorite.

We had a beautiful, bright full moon with a glowing halo through the smoke. Its light made the night sky our own planetarium, and we counted six separate locations, not including our own, where the fireworks would burst out of the darkness and light up the night. When the sprays of color showered one side of our living theater, another side would quickly boom and thunder back. Pearl said, “This is how we communicate during quarantine now. It’s how we say, ‘We’re still alive and happy over here!'” We were surrounded in celebration, and it was like no other Fourth of July I’ve ever experienced.

Sister Trees

Here’s what I see each morning when I look out of my kitchen window into the backyard.

This is a White Rose of Sharon. It is also called Hibiscus syriacus.

What you can’t see are the myriad bees, both honey and bumble, blanketing its blooms in the summer sunshine. They are avaricious reminders that this tree is healthy and strong.

Here is its sister tree in my front yard.

This is also a Rose of Sharon. It has deep reddish/purple buds. Each spring and summer it leafs, but the bees don’t visit it because the buds remain tightly closed. When we bought our house two years ago, the previous owners told us it had never bloomed. We watched it carefully the first year. We tried cutting away at the undergrowth and giving it more nutrients. It doesn’t seem to have helped, probably because we have no idea what we’re doing.

I don’t know why one blooms and one doesn’t. I hope to find a way to help the Red Rose of Sharon bloom. Maybe, one day, it will bring as much delight as the flowering white blossoms in my backyard.