I read a news article today reporting on a million-dollar book contract just offered to a 17 year old woman in the UK.
The deal was for three books chronicling the adventures of a teenage girl who starts a kissing booth to make money. The first book in the series is entitled (appropriately) The Kissing Booth. She began writing the series through an online blog when she was 15.
What strikes me about all this is the quantity of cash being directed toward a 17 year old, destined to become a bestselling author. I’m sure she is a bright and talented young woman with a great future ahead of her if the fame and fortune does not succeed in destroying her life along the way as it has so many unsuspecting youth in search of affluent significance. But this brightness and talent is the light and capacity of a 17 year old. And that can only take you so far. No matter how gifted a person might be, literature reflects a deeper set of values (or lack of them) that cannot be manufactured by technique or obscured by an exciting storyline. Quite frankly, it says a lot about the level of sophistication and intellect the average reader in our age desires to pursue. And this is more than an indication. It’s an indictment.
All of this fervor reminded me when a friend of mine excitedly told me about the Hunger Games book series and raved about how wonderful it was. “I couldn’t put it down!” she gushed.
Always looking for a true classic in our time, I dutifully went out and purchased the books. As I read, what struck me most was the sheer superficiality of the characters, the flippancy with which the books dealt in the ethics of children killing children, raw social oppression, a manufactured and insincere love triangle, and a host of other blaring moral deficiencies. From a literary standpoint, the books seemed so childish, I could hardly imagine taking them seriously for more than an afternoon—about the time it took me to read each one. What was the attraction? What enduring value did these books engender besides a cleverly repulsive story line?
When I was in high school, we moaned and groaned about reading great novels and classic literature. It seemed like an exercise in irrelevancy and futility, a waste of time and effort for everyone involved, especially given the inordinate amount of time and effort required to read and understand many of these classics. Now I see more clearly how very wrong I was about such things. Reading contemporary novels is like eating a Snickers bar. It claims to really satisfy, but in the end, living on Snickers would send me to the hospital for nutritional emaciation and major heart bypass surgery all at the same time. It requires time and effort to prepare an eight-course dinner, and each course can only be taken in small portions. It’s the variety of flavors, smells, textures, colors and nutritional values that make the meal so magnificent and satisfying, versus a quick burst of flavor followed by a hollow bloated feeling deep inside.
I found over time that when I read Dickens, Lewis, Tolkien, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky–just to name few–I felt like I had been simultaneously fed and cleansed. I had entered a mysterious, multi-layered universe where a single reading could hardly have scratched the surface of an almost unfathomable depth and breadth. It was a ocean impossible to exhaust with new richness lurking not only around every twist and turn, but also right in front of me. It was the difference between a child’s sketch of the ocean surface and diving into the glorious abyss headlong in order to enter a realm of existence which was richly indescribable and nearly inexhaustible.
Now granted, I understand that true classics are only written once in a very long while. It is a blessed generation that gets to experience the birth of such a rare gem before their very eyes. But why would anyone take the time and effort in our time to write such a book when they could be making millions off guttural trash and sophomoric plotlines? It would take a rare genius with an independent source of funds and a heart set like flint against the temptations to “make a buck” and take the path of least resistance. I must admit, I wish I had the time, talents, and treasures to achieve such a feat, not so much because it would make me rich and famous—but likely only after I was dead and gone—but also because it would also give me something worthwhile to read.
In the meantime, I will continue my search and revisit the classics again and again that I might find what I have been missing and aspire to that from which I continue to fall so spectacularly short.