Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On books

Twilight and Other Bedtime Stories

The first time I read Twilight, it was un-ironically for me. The second time, I read it for Amanda, who was twelve years old and wanted me to take her home with me. She had been restrained by other staff nearly a dozen times that week for violent temper tantrums. These were because her older brother, who had been her best friend and then raped her, was just out of jail and spending Thanksgiving with her family. As for Twilight, she couldn't seem to put it down, and I couldn't seem to explain to her what was wrong with it. It wasn't just Amanda; most of the girls in the group home where I worked practically worshiped the book.

For me, the most interesting thing about books is almost never what they contain, but rather, what they mean to the people who read them. With the exception of Jane Austen, books that appeal to teenage girls receive little respect or mainstream acceptance. The disconcerting popularity of the Twilight books has made them impossible for anyone who seriously wants to understand this culture to ignore. That popularity has also crystallized some of the central questions of my intellectual life. How are stories like this so compelling to such a fragile—and recalcitrant—demographic? And what can anyone do to change that?

The first place I look for an answer to these questions is my own life; what's changed so much for me between my first and second reading? When I compare my life to Amanda's—though they have not been so different, in other ways—hers holds a glaring absence of constructive building blocks. My parents gave me scriptures as a habit and a way to think. The first answer to every problem was to study and ask God. Although my literary scope has expanded since then—and God and I are no longer on speaking terms—today I wander the library seeking answers in much the same way I once browsed the the topical guides and indexes of holy books. Systems to organize information offer a reassuring illusion of completeness; there's something soothing about the stacks. “Here's the information,” they promise. “Put together the right collection of references, read insightfully, and there's bound to be an answer.” And if there isn't, put together the puzzle pieces you can find and treasure them away till the rest of the picture is revealed. Maybe someday you will have another book to contribute to what's there.

Books have been the constant in my life. Even when I first read Twilight, my bookshelf seemed like a wall I might climb to escape the pit I was in. I volunteered at an organization that re-distributed used books for free, and with a reliable supplier I was constantly refining my collection. All those books I had not yet read represented untold possibilities, and promised me the kind of future Amanda never had any reason to dream about. This is not an exaggeration. I wanted to be the next Indiana Jones, but the best future Amanda could conceive of was to be a housewife—a respectable choice, if she had other options—and the statistics for children out of foster care retaining their sanity and becoming functioning members of society are dismal.

As time has passed and I've returned to Twilight, I've developed the theory that this is the fairy tale oppressed female children of all ages tell themselves so they can sleep at night. In Twilight, the rapist is a stranger, your disinterested and ineffectual parents are really good people, and when the guy you haven't started dating yet stalks you it's a good thing. Perhaps more importantly, in the Twilight world, there's a good reason to defer to your boyfriend, even a good reason for him to force you to do things: he's got a century of extra life experience, you're in danger, and he's invincible. In Twilight, if you are self-sacrificing, loyal, and domestic, you will be loved and vigorously protected until the end of time. Twilight is truly fantastical; it creates a world where girls can fulfill the role that's expected of them without violating their common sense.

The goal, then, is to build something better that fills that function. If we see Twilight as a catalog of conflicting needs, this anachronistic millstone turns into a to-do list. In my life, something better has emerged from a thousand other books. For Amanda and millions of others like her, most of that work remains to be done. It is hard because the storytelling most Twilight fans are immersed in is unlikely to criticize such a well constructed fantasy. Perhaps the real answer is in the building blocks. Perhaps when girls are given tools—whether books, or anything else—with which they can create for themselves a real future that gives their own interests a reasonable and honest weight, they will stop having such a need for Twilight. Unless, of course, they are deconstructing it.