“Adults Should Read Adult Books” — Why?

A few days ago, New York Times columnist Joel Stein declared, “The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.”  Basically, Mr. Stein is embarrassed by the ranks of adults who read such literary phenomenons as Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter simply because they’re labeled children’s or young adult’s literature.  After reading the column, rolling my eyes, and tossing around some sarcasm, I came here to point out why I feel Mr. Stein is more likely to embarrass himself with these narrow-mindedness than by showing up on a plane with a copy of Breaking Dawn.

First, I want to point out, Mr. Stein, the major logical fallacy your column commits:

You have not read these books.

Any adult who can make a rational argument should be able to understand that you cannot judge, justify, defend, or really even engage with any sort of material until you at least know the bare facts.  Considering that, in your eyes, The Hunger Games has been ridiculously oversimplified to “games you play when you’re hungry,” I’d say you haven’t got even those.  Assuming value based on an arbitrary genre or age group only used by publishers and booksellers to organize thousands of titles is not only logically flawed, but really, it’s just stupid.

More importantly, however, such blatant and unfounded disregard for something flippantly termed “for kids” demonstrates a lack of understanding about not only the nature of literature, but also of its history and evolution as well as the nature of humanity’s intellectual and emotional development.  Were literary critics to constantly toss out what they might deem too juvenile, mainstream, or simply incompatible with their age or gender, we wouldn’t have the vast majority of our greatest classics.

My shining example of this is William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare wrote for the masses.  He wrote plays that would appeal mostly to the groundlings in the Globe Theater and would give his noble patrons a break and a laugh.  He was called “an upstart crow,” rarely paid for his work and rarely credited properly.  Today, he is the bread and butter of every English teacher from 9th grade to graduate school, and for good reason (I think).  In his Essay on Dramatic Poesy, John Dryden (whom I hope you hold in high regard, Mr. Stein), called him “the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul” and stated that “his magic could not copied be.”

Beyond Shakespeare, we have other writers who were disregarded by literary critics in their time for being too simple for “real” literature.  Geoffrey Chaucer.  Jane Austen.  Edgar Allen Poe.  Henry David Thoreau.  Mary Shelley.  Franz Kafka.  Emily Dickinson.  Charlotte Bronte.  Not to mention a host of artists, thinkers, and revolutionaries throughout the ages.

This might seem like overkill on the subject, since the only clear objection to “kid’s literature” is that it’s for kids, but I think this objection speaks volumes for ignorance and literary snobbery.  And sadly, Mr. Stein, you’re missing out on some really great books.

Why reject something that may be beautifully written just because it’s for kids?  You state that “books are one of our few chances to learn,” and you can learn from the kid’s literature you look down on so ridiculously.  The other day, my kid brother taught me a neat little trick for adding fractions that he learned in school.  He’s eleven, yes, and has an intense fascination with a mystical wizarding computer game and is very much a little kid still.  But that didn’t mean his ideas, his knowledge, and his input didn’t have value for me as an intelligent and educated adult.  His fractions trick isn’t the Pythagorean Theorem, but it helped me.

If “kids” literature has the potential to be as wonderfully written, intellectually stimulating, and universally wise as adult literature, why shouldn’t I read it?  It’s a dumb rule, to be blunt, Mr. Stein.  It doesn’t make sense.  I’ve read my chunk of the world’s “adult literature” and will certainly continue to read, but I can say right now that I learned a lot more about life, the world, and about writing from one go-around with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows than I ever did with half a dozen discussions of “My Last Duchess” orMadame Bovary.

Related Reading:

“Adults Should Read Adult Books”

“Authors Taking Risks Isn’t Kids Stuff”

Joel Stein and Literary Snobbery (fueledbyscotch.wordpress.com)