Bookends

Ah, parents weekend. Wonderful for some, dreadful for others, impossible for anyone attempting to maneuver a vehicle in the charming town of Lexington for the past few days. Washington and Lee’s most beloved baby boomers, i.e. those people who (thank God, Buddha, Zeus and a thousand other deities) pay our college tuition, have traveled home by now. Cue chorus of relieved sighs.

As my parents asked about my classes and I happily prattled on about my academic affairs, I began to think about what part they’ve played in the creation of my existing literary vocabulary. I was left with the remembrances of lengthy science fiction novels, investigative crime thrillers, and a smattering of Oprah’s book club choices scattered through our house. There are no dog-eared Hemingway paperbacks on my father’s nightstand, no heavy leather tomes on our bookshelves, no past issues of the New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly in our overstuffed magazine rack. And I wondered, how could two people I resemble so strongly in other capacities have literary tastes so different from my own? How did I discover Jane Austen and Henry Miller (two of my favorites, and probably fodder for another blog post’s worth of head-scratching) in the midst of Dan Brown, John Grisham, and a smorgasbord of cookbooks? Whose bookwormish mutant child am I, really?

No easy answers there.

Unless, perhaps, the act of reading is more important than the words on the page. Even if I wasn’t exposed to glittering examples of great fiction at home, there were plenty of books and magazines, a daily newspaper, and a working internet connection. My parents provided me ample reading material if ever I was looking for material to read, and I often was. I was instilled with a love of words, if not of proper literature.

As American culture becomes increasingly less intellectual, maybe we’re lucky if we’re given the chance to peruse a piece of printed text, period. Or maybe we need to redefine our conception of the “literary” novel. What merits “literature,” anyway? And are the worlds of popular reading and ambitious reading as separate as the literati would have us believe? After all, The Corrections has won both the National Book Award and Oprah’s seal of approval. Then again, author Jonathan Franzen caused a ruckus when he expressed his unease with Oprah’s enthusiastic response to The Corrections, as though her selection somehow made his novel less appetizing to his existing scholarly following. Can a piece of writing earn its place as a best-seller without sacrificing its higher purpose? How many more open ended questions can I ask in one blog post? I think I’ve hit my limit. I should probably hit the books, rather than ponder their larger significance.

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