As the editor of this magazine, I get a lot of books sent to me free. (And I'm not complaining, so, please, don't even think about changing your ways.) In fact, free books, sent unbidden, is one of the many great perks of this job—I get books I want and books I never knew I wanted until I had them in my possession. Still, I make a point of visiting bookstores wherever I travel, for business or pleasure, and I spend plenty on books for my own use. (That even I, in my privileged position, still buy more books in a year than the average American, who buys two to six, depending on the study, is a depressing point, but one to be discussed elsewhere later.)
So I hardly have a “typical” relationship with books and book buying, because there's basically no limit to what I can and will read. The same goes for my 14-year-old son, who has a mother who (a) gets lots of freebies and (b) never says no to buying him a book. Also, there are no limits on what Charley is allowed to read—manga, YA, old-fashioned comic books, all are fine with me. And because he clearly knows the difference between turning pages of a novel and reading posts on MySpace, I'm not all that concerned about the time he spends online. (According to Motoko Rich's article in the July 27 New York Times, at least one 15-year-old spends six hours a day on the computer; well, I say, no kidding—when I was that age, I was spending those hours hooked into my generation's technology—a Princess phone.)
But what I find interesting was not discussed in the Times piece: which titles kids choose to read when they are required to read books.
At Charley's school, the requirement for incoming ninth graders is substantial but vague: everyone must read About a Boy by Nick Hornby, and the classic Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. After that, each student has to pick two books from a long list by the usual stalwarts—Austen, Dickens, Hemingway—and some more unusual ones, such as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. But that long list turns out to be merely “advisory”; in fact, the kids can read just about anything, presumably for adults, but there's no mention, pro or con, of what we call YA. There are so many options, in fact, that the school seems to be replicating for ninth graders a very adult experience: the sense of being overwhelmed by reading choices.
But, as I said, we're a book-friendly household, so after scanning our shelves at home for suitable reading material—Charley chose The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Lord of the Flies and, less predictably, The Pianist—we headed off to the bookstore to buy even more. After all, if this was going to be an adult experience, he should do what most book-loving adults do: load up on more books than he's likely to read. And anyway, I figured, it's about time I ponied up for publishing!
So what did he choose? Dear Reader, allow me to brag: the receipt I hold in my hand indicates that my little genius bought the following upmarket titles: Albert Camus's The Stranger (new translation), Scaramouche, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Don Quixote.
How much of which of them he's read by now, I cannot say. But I will tell you that he spent all of last weekend hunkered down with a book: the new novel by Stephenie Meyer.
He didn't tell me that directly. But I know it for sure. After all, I read about it on his MySpace page.
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