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.
“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.”
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.