in books, musings, reading

a family story, the roots of reading, and margaret atwood

atwoodThere is a story, in my family, that takes place when I was ten years old.  Although it’s about me, I don’t actually remember it, and I had to hear it the first time from my father.  He was using it to illustrate a point he wanted to make to a bookstore clerk who was…concerned…that my then twelve-year-old self was buying “older” books along with my young adult sci-fi and fantasy (I actually can’t remember the book that prompted the conversation, although I had had issues a few times at the library and at school with “reading about my level”.).

So, as I was standing there, my dad explained why he didn’t think I needed policing in my book choices:

Well, when she was ten, I walked into the den and saw her reading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  When I mentioned that she might want to read that book when she was older, and it would make more sense, she looked up and told me ‘Oh, it’s okay; this is the second time I’m reading it.’ At that point, I decided she could read what she wanted.

And you know what? I could.  I’m sure the first time I read Handmaid’s I reacted to it differently than I react to it now.  I do remember always being impressed and taken aback by the strength the female characters needed to survive in the world Atwood created. And, even if I may have missed (or just not given as much as weight as it deserved) the sexual politics in the book, I understood the struggle and the repression that was woven throughout the story.

Atwood aside, the idea that readers need to be vigilantly policed has never sat well with me. I think reading and books are such individual interests, and the choice of whether or not a book is *appropriate* is one that must be thought about with the individual reader in mind. Tradition and rose-coloured glasses create the image of children and young adults reading the *right* books, *improving* books, *good* books–but the explosion of amazing children and young adult literature should change that image a bit.  Little Women is lovely and well-worth reading, but any reader who misses out on Neil Gaiman and Robin Mckinley and P.C. Hodgell is missing out on some of the most amazing fiction out there.  Also, I think this *limiting* off books to what is *appropriate* can turn people of reading for life–why not let them try to read what is interesting to them?

Atwood is one of my favourite authors; I’ve read everything of hers I could get my hands on. I know I did not “get it all” when I read the book at age ten, but I wonder what I would have missed if I had been told not to read it?