Monday, May 16, 2011

On Reading Trash for Fun and... Fun

Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do. You know -- like use toilet paper in place of coffee filters because you've run out and it's 6:30am and there's no way you're capable of getting ready for work without that first cup of the morning.

I don't drink coffee, but I've seen this in a movie, so I know it's real.

Along those same lines, sometimes you just gotta read what you gotta read.

The summer before my senior year of college, I remained at school in order to take a couple of requirements I'd put off during the school years. Sometimes it was easier to do the more difficult classes during summer term, since you went to the class every single day and the information tended to stick better in your brain for what was usually a weekly test. I think this particular summer I took a class called "Math in the Social Sciences," which was math for idiots who couldn't handle normal math (you know -- English and History majors, and maybe the occasional Art major) -- mostly we did things like "map the optimal route for the postal worker," but there was one section on probability that the entire class of 60 collectively failed. I also took Grammar. Not like the grammar shit you learned in elementary school and your junior year of high school, but Grammar for senior level English majors -- people who might actually become professors of Grammar someday. That shit was difficult. I barely scraped a B. That class brought down my 4.0 in-major GPA. I was pissed.

But not as pissed as I was about the third class I took that summer: American Literature of the Early 20th Century. Or something like that -- it was all Dos Passos, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, with a dash of Willa Cather and a light dusting of Gertrude Stein. The professor we got stuck with for this class was a classic professorial douchebag: over 70, drunk, hated women (except, you know, Willa Cather and Gertrude Stein), hated students in general and teaching in particular. My classmates were half fellow English majors, and half not -- the second half consisted of three perpetually confused but game Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers; a bitter, argumentative girl named Willow who seemed to own a week's worth of orange shirts; and some other quiet people who mostly sat in the back and tried not to fail. The professor was, yes, a douchebag, but he did end up grudgingly liking me and the frat boys because we four always, without fail, picked up on the sexual euphemisms in the books. English lit professors appreciate that sort of thing, but sadly never test on it.

There was a shitload of reading to be done.

I don't even know how to define "shitload" as it pertained to that class, but the term was 10 weeks long, and we read about 12 books. So I guess that's the definition. 12 books, 8 of them really difficult, only half of them really enjoyable -- it was through this class that I learned to loathe with every fibre of my being the hell that is a William Faulkner novel (and don't let Oprah trick you! Faulkner sucks!). I did learn to love Hemingway, though, and that love endures, so I guess that's something. It was a lot of reading, and a lot of work.

This particular summer was not really about having a good time. Not reallyat all. I can count on one finger the number of parties we went to.

I was sharing a house with four other friends that we sublet from one of my Sigma Kappa besties, and since there were five women in their early twenties living in one small house, one could always find one of the following three things if one needed them: expensive shampoo and conditioner in the shower; Ben & Jerry's ice cream in the freezer; and multiple copies of Vogue, Elle, and Cosmopolitan magazines lying around in the living area. And I don't know about now, because Cosmo is trash, but back then, they used to publish excerpts from romance novels every month. And one day, I picked up the latest Cosmo (brought into the house by someone else - I suspect the other Shannon but it might have been Tish) just to rest my brain for twenty minutes or so. And came upon the most delightful book excerpt I've ever read in a magazine: the third chapter of Judith McNaught's Paradise.

Now, up to that point in my life (I was 21 years old), I had actually never voluntarily read a romance novel. Period. End of story. I had been forced by my older sister to read the ever-so smutty book Lace when I was a mere sixth grader, but I barely understood a third of what went on, and I'm not sure it qualifies as a romance novel -- it doesn't really seem to follow the proper conventions. But this excerpt from Paradise -- oh, it gripped me. It just sucked me right in with its promises of drama and romance and sex. And I did what I had to do: I drove to the mall, marched straight to the bookstore, and picked up a copy of the book. In hardcover. I was a broke college student and I bought it new, in hardcover. In order for this book purchase to appear less embarrassing, I purchased A.S. Byatt's Possession and a Star Wars novel, Heir to the Empire, at the same time (also in hardcover, and I'm not sure how I thought that was less embarrassing than the romance novel, but whatever, right?).

And then I went home and immediately started reading Paradise.

Now, this was not a short book. And I did have other shit I needed to do. So I really couldn't allow myself to read it the way I normally do: give up all other responsibilities or interests for the next several hours and read it straight through in one sitting, maybe two if I exhibited some sort of self-control. No, I had to treat myself to it, a chapter or two at a time. You know -- get x amount of work done, and then you can read a chapter. If you're really good, you can read two. So I took to carrying it around in my backpack so I could bust it out on campus if I had spare time. And one day, I got to the American lit class early and had some time to read, so I took it out and read a few pages before others began to show up, then closed it when someone engaged me in conversation.

And then this one quiet bookish girl I'd been in classes with all through college looked over at the book sitting on my desk and asked, "What's that book?"

And I got all embarrassed -- I mean, it has flowers and a string of pearls on the cover -- and said, "Oh. It's just this romance novel I'm reading."

And she looked all envious and said, "You mean for fun?"

Other people had begun to pay attention to our conversation by this point. I nodded. "Yes. For fun. I needed some light reading." And everyone nodded. They could, of course, relate.

And then she asked, "What's it about?"

We still had ten or fifteen minutes before class began. So I gave them a synopsis of what I'd read so far. And let me just tell you: they too were gripped by the tale of the Chicago socialite who falls in love at the age of 18 with a dashing oil rig worker ten years her senior, gets her heart broken, and then has the opportunity for a second chance several years later (in fact, as she's turning 30, which is a romance novel convention, apparently -- not too old, but not too young, I assume is the thinking).

And so it was that a strange thing happened: By unspoken mutual agreement, almost everyone started showing up to class twenty minutes early, and the book got passed around and read aloud over the next several weeks. Even the frat boys joined in. It was crazy -- I mean, English majors had never exactly been known for our camraderie. But here we were, practically friends. We were all addicted to this book. We needed it. We needed it as a break from the serious, difficult and sometimes tortuous required reading. Yeah, we all laughed at it, and snickered our way through the only-slightly steamy sex scenes. But we did love it. Every single word. As much as we loved Hemingway or Fitzgerald.

Because sometimes, you gotta read what you gotta read.

I've been going through this a little bit lately. I'm working really hard, writing a novel, and already making outlines for a sequel. It's difficult. Rewarding, because I know I'm going to finish, and I know it's good, but still really difficult. And you know how much I read -- three or four books a week, usually, depending on length. And I just can't read anything serious right now. God knows I've tried. I have four books with bookmarks sitting anywhere from 1/4 to 1/3 of the way through and I just can't pick them up again right now. I don't plan to abandon any of them completely, but they're just going to have to wait.

They're going to have to wait, because I've been really busy reading Rachel Gibson's romance series about a fictional Seattle NHL team called the Chinooks. I even bought one at the Tattered Cover on Saturday, because it's not available on Kindle, and I actually apologized to the woman working the register. But the fact is, these books are awesome. And the biggest question they leave me with is, are there really this many uber-hot guys on any one hockey team?

And sometimes, that's all you want to know.

1 comment:

Bob Knight said...

I can relate to your reading light enjoyable good stories. I love to sit around with Ellen, Amanda and Patrick and read aloud such a treat. Can't wait for your novel.