Philosophical Questions about Reading

As the year comes to a close, it’s natural to become more contemplative, evaluating your past and planning your future. Today I’ve rounded up some articles I’ve read online, which posited these questions about reading that are sure to get you thinking:

Image via Gawker Media

1. How can fiction help you live a better life? Lifehacker reports that reading fiction has tons of benefits, including learning empathy, breeding curiosity, and making you a better storyteller. So how has reading fiction changed your life for the better? Here were my favorite comments on the article:

“Game of Thrones taught me to not be a hero and to eat and drink more.” – ichiban1081

“LOTR taught me that the world is changing for the worse and Elves are leaving because of it.” – PeteRR

For extra credit, answer me this question, from a previously reported NYT blog: how has reading changed your life for the worse?

Image via The Frisky

2. What do you do when the things you love don’t match up with your politics? Rebecca Vipond Brink at The Frisky feels conflicted over her love for Kurt Vonnegut despite his poor representation of women in his writing. It’s one thing to love an author who lived centuries ago, when racism and sexism were more intensely upheld in society, but what happens when you find yourself admiring the work of a modern author who offends you?

I felt the same cognitive dissonance when reading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, a known homophobic Mormon author. I also love Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, even though I’m aware of the author’s reputation of appealing to misogynistic frat guys and MRAs. I guess my response to the question would be that I try to distance fiction from author when applicable, as not all stories are intended to be autobiographical. And when it comes to the especially offensive, if I must read their work, I find ways around supporting them monetarily by borrowing books from friends or libraries.

3. Have you ever had a relationship end because of a book? The New York Times does it again with another literary brain-teaser. One writer was dumped in part because her boyfriend couldn’t get over her distaste for Hunter S. Thompson, and another learned that many men can’t handle a woman being more preoccupied by reading at times than them. Whether it was a specific book or just reading in general, has anyone split ways over fiction?

When it comes to books, there’s nothing that turns me off more than a man who doesn’t read enough or unenthusiastically reads something just because you like it. Instead of trying to change yourself for someone, it’s best to find partners who share your values. This is why I would dump someone over a book, if need be. If you utterly abhor The Lord of the Rings, just see yourself out. It’s not me, it’s you.

Image via The Telegraph

4. Why does Nicholas Sparks suck so hard? Apparently I am not alone in thinking the king of the romance novel is a total ass. Turns out Jodi Picoult is not a fan, according to this article by The Telegraph. She laments that women’s fiction does not mean that women are your audience, but rather you’re just a women who writes fiction.

When asked whether she ever used a pseudonym, this was her response:

“I did once,” she says. “So let me tell you what happened. I wrote a book under a man’s name. It was years ago, my kids were really tiny. It was when The Bridges of Madison County [by Robert James Waller] had been published. Nicholas Sparks was becoming big [as a romantic novelist]. Please don’t get me started on Nicholas Sparks,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I haven’t had enough caffeine yet.” But anyway.

“I was so angry about these men who had co-opted a genre that women had been slaving over for years. There are some really phenomenal romance writers who get no credit, who couldn’t even get a hardback deal. And these men waltzed in and said, ‘Look what we can do. We can write about love. And we are so special.’ And that just made me crazy.” Her agent tried to sell her pseudonymous book, but was told it was too well written for the male romance genre. “So there you go,” she says, angry, and yet ever-so-slightly pleased.

A-to the freaking-men, Jodi Picoult. I haven’t read any of your books, but maybe it’s about time I started. It looks like we have at least one thing in common: our hatred of the suckage that is Nicholas Sparks.

So let me hear your thoughts on these philosophical questions! I’m all ears!

Book Review: Ender’s Game

Ender's Game

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I finally reached my goal of reading 20 books this year! And what a novel to end on! Like most bookworms, I had heard of Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game. I’m more of a fantasy fan than a sci-fi one, but I was intrigued by a book many called the best sci-fi fiction ever. And although I haven’t read enough sci-fi to make that claim, it was a pretty outstanding read.

Originally written as a short story but published as a novel in 1985, Ender’s Game is the first installment in the prolific “Enderverse.” The novel follows the journey of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a six-year-old genius who’s recruited by the government to join the Battle School, which is a space station used to train gifted children as galactic soldiers.

In this distant future, Earth has been in two wars with the insect-like alien race known as the Buggers. Now the planet is preparing their third invasion to defeat the Buggers once and for all. Ender leaves his beloved sister Valentine and cruel brother Peter to spend years excelling up the military totem pole.

Of course, none of this training is without consequences. His commanders isolate Ender from making close friends and submit him to grueling practices with absolutely no care for his psyche. Every time Ender believes he’s one step closer to freedom, they beat him down again. He soon suffers from bloodthirst and the incessant need to win at all costs; this in turn brings about many PTSD symptoms, such as rage, depression, illness, and nightmares.

What I loved most about Ender’s Game was that it did not rely heavily on sci-fi jargon and overly complicated world creation. You don’t need to be an expert on space travel to understand this story, which is more about Ender’s struggle to maintain his humanity while being molded into an emotionless robot whose sole purpose is to destroy (hence his nickname: Ender, one who ends).

Despite your personal views on war and the military, you can learn from this novel. You pity Ender, hate the adults pulling his strings, but most importantly you come to realize the other’s perspective in battle. For once, you see the aliens not as ruthless monsters (a la “War of the Worlds”), but as sentient beings simply lost in miscommunication.

I also loved all the symbolism, from the computer game taking Ender from the Giant to the playground to the “End of the World,” as well as Ender’s siblings working together as online demagogues under the aliases “Locke” and “Demosthenes.” I was surprised to hear earlier this year that many of my students were reading this book in high school, but now I agree that teenagers could learn a lot from this rich piece of literature.

Thanks to everybody who recommended this novel, and I’ll be sure to check out its sequels in the new year!

And if you’ve been following my blog in the last week, you know that I’m not a religious person, but I want to wish all of you a Merry Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, and just a happy weekend with your loved ones. And, of course, a happy new year filled with many, many books!

Do Novelists’ Personal Beliefs Affect Your Opinion of Their Work?

Orson Scott Card at Life, the Universe, & Ever...

Orson Scott Card (Image via Wikipedia)

So I’m about 50 pages into my 20th book of the year, Ender’s Game, and coincidentally I ran across this column on the Huffington Post about the author Orson Scott Card. Since I’ve never read Card’s books, I had no idea that he was a Mormon who was staunchly against same-sex marriage. Given what I knew about Ender’s Game, that it was a sci-fi story about a boy genius soldier, I didn’t think Card’s religious views would play much of a role.

And yet, in Chapter Three, Graff tells Ender that his mother was a Mormon and his father was a Catholic. Because of their upbringing, they love their third son even though most families are permitted to only have two children. But they also hate Ender, because he is an everyday reminder that their family does not fit into this society.

I admit that after reading the HuffPo column, I am more aware of traces of religious bias than I would be if I hadn’t read it at all. For example, when bully Bernard is ridiculed for supposedly watching the other boys’ butts, I wondered if this scene promoted homophobia by declaring that being attracted to the backsides of the same sex is somehow wrong and worthy of mockery.

Am I reading too much into this? I just started the novel, so those who have finished it probably have a better idea of its themes. But at least this article got me thinking: Do I like or dislike certain books, just because I like or dislike the author’s personal beliefs?

The answer for me is sometimes. I love pre-modern literature, which is mostly written by racist, sexist, homophobic men. But I just chock it up to the time period and take their words with a grain of salt. And because I can’t go back in time and get to know them personally, how am I to be sure that people like Joseph Conrad or Mark Twain were racists? Anyone who has taken any literature courses knows that autobiography definitely plays a role in a person’s writing, but that you cannot assume that every word of theirs is autobiographical.

On the other hand, I can either love or hate a story whether or not I like that writer’s opinions. My favorite novel is The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, who is a devout atheist. You cannot ignore his anti-religious messages in the story, which is exactly why I adore it. His modern adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost demonstrates that churches are corrupt and that there is absolutely nothing sinful about experiencing puberty and sexual awakening, despite what the clergy brainwashes children into thinking.

And because I’m secular myself, I am extremely wary of books with religious messages. I enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia as a child, but I agree with Pullman that the books send the wrong messages to kids. I refuse to read explicitly Christian literature now, even if it’s disguised as fantasy.

This is why I have a hard time swallowing The Twilight Saga. As a hopeless romantic, I gobbled up this forbidden vampire/werewolf love triangle. But anyone who claims that Stephenie Meyer’s Mormonism doesn’t affect the story is sorely mistaken. If I had a young daughter, I don’t think I would want her reading a story in which the female protagonist marries at 18 to have sex with her overly controlling, jealous boyfriend. Not to mention, Bella gets pregnant after said sex and refuses to terminate the pregnancy even though the vampire-hybrid fetus is killing her from the inside out.

Feel free to agree to disagree, but Meyer’s anti-choice, anti-premarital sex viewpoints, as well as Twilight’s inherent misogyny, do not an excellent novel make in my humble opinion. And I realize that Pullman’s atheistic epic turns a lot of people off as well. I guess the point of this post is that we should be grateful that we possess the freedoms of speech and press, because even if we disagree with an author’s values, that author has every right to include those values in their novels. And nobody’s forcing you to read books you don’t agree with.

So what about you? Do novelists’ personal beliefs matter to you? Are there certain books you can’t stand or just can’t get enough of on the basis of values alone? Let’s get a debate going, guys!

Vote for my 20th (and possibly last) book of the year!

Ok readers, I have a favor to ask of you! I’ve set a goal for myself that I will read 20 books this year. Actually, this goal wasn’t intended, but looking at my reading pace a few months ago, I figured 20 would be a nice, achievable number (I’m not including any non-fiction I’ve read this year). Many of you probably read 20 books in a month, but alas I have sacrificed most of my potential reading time to grad school.

Anyways, I’m currently reading my 19th novel, A Desirable Residence by Madeleine Wickham (aka Sophie Kinsella), which is a pleasant piece of chick-lit after my run of dsytopian classics. And now I’d like YOU to vote for my 20th book of the year! (Considering how busy I am writing my final paper and preparing for the holidays, it’s quite possible that it might even be my last book of 2011! *cue ominous music* DUN DUN DUN!!!

Here’s your choices:

  1. The Trial by Franz Kafka
  2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  3. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  4. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  5. Summer and the City by Candace Bushnell

So let me know which one I should read and why…My fate is now in your hands!

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving break, and–of course–thanks for reading!

Love, Book Club Babe