Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Taking a break from coming-of-age stories

Ever since Holden Caulfield first decried the phonies surrounding him, the lives of prep school and Ivy League students and the experiences that lead to their eventual coming of age have fascinated authors and readers...except me.  Given the critical and popular support for these titles, I sometimes wonder if I'm missing something. Maybe it's because as a middle-class Midwesterner who attended the local public high school I just don't understand the lifestyle enough to appreciate it. Maybe it's because I'm from the wrong generation, as this New York Times article from few years ago suggests. Maybe I'm just old and cranky. Whatever it is that makes one appreciate stories about prematurely world-weary teens and new adults feeling rudderless and disaffected has skipped right over me. 

I've tried and tried to like them. After the obligatory high school read of The Catcher in the Rye, I moved on to Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons, which remains memorable only in its cartoonish depictions of college life. I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt that it was because I'm not a big Tom Wolfe fan in general (I find his characters' frequent disdain of women more than a bit off-putting), so I moved on to Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep. Prep was so popular among some of my friends that I thought it would surely be the one to break through my block against this type of book. It wasn't. It read like the younger sister of Charlotte Simmons. This year alone, I tried some of the year's most popular titles, The Marriage Plot and The Art of Fielding along with less well-known books like The Starboard Sea and How to Buy a Love of Reading. Still, no matter how good the writing, it felt like I was reading the same book over and over.  And let me clarify, in some cases the writing was very good(Jeffery Eugenides and Chad Harbach, I am looking at you). Lest you think I'm just biased against books set in schools, The Adults and The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac stepped in with their disaffected 20-somethings who were no longer in school but experienced the same kind of ennui and lack of direction as the kids in the ivy-covered halls and provoked the same lack of empathy in me.

Ultimately, I think it's time coming-of-age stories and I take a little break from each other. We need to give each other some space, and I need to take the advice I give others: there's no right or wrong thing to like when you read.  If you like it, read it; if you don't like it, don't. Even when you're swimming against the tide (oh, how I wanted to like The Art of Fielding more than I did), there are too many good books out there to waste time reading ones that just make you feel old and cranky. 

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