Boys don’t read Girl Books and other lies my Society Told Me

“It’s a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.” (Robert Lipsyte, “Boys and Reading: Is there Any Hope?“)

Toph GIF Avatar: The Last Airbender

Oh, Fuck, not this bullshit again.

(I hear you, Toph)

****
I like giving my younger brother (R) books. Correction: I really like giving my younger brother books. And he loves reading, so we’re quite compatible. Well played, universe!

Anyway. The last time I took R on a book-buying expedition, it took us three hours to narrow down the choices. By the end, we were down to two options: Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, which I described as “Jane Austen if all of Jane Austen’s characters were dragons! Tea time meets DRAGONS” and Malinda Lo’s Huntress, which I described as “Adventure! Fairies! Hunting! Lesbian romance! More adventure! HORSES!”

(My eloquence: admire it)

At some point in R’s difficult decision, I swooped in with big-sister wisdom: “You know, I’m worried you won’t enjoy Tooth and Claw as much. Don’t get me wrong – I love it. But it’s not really an adventure story. It’s basically a family story, and about people’s relationships and marriages. Except with dragons.”

My younger brother gave me a Look: “No, but that’s what I like.”

Me: “Whazit?”

Brother: “Those are my favorite kinds of books! I like reading about families, and about how people relate to each other.”

This would be the moment I massively facepalmed.

Zuko GIF angst Avatar the last airbender

AAAARGH

I’m a feminist. I think about idiotic gender roles a lot. I try to avoid perpetuating sexism as much as I can. I especially try to avoid perpetuating stupid gender roles around my brother. And I have always believed that there is no such thing as a “girl” book and a “boy” book.

Yet I assumed my brother would like an adventure book more than he would a family-drama book.

Because he’s a thirteen-year-old-boy.

Massive.

Facepalm.

Aang GIF Avatar headdesk

Me, to brother: “… just ignore me, I’m an idiot.”

Conclusion of the story: I ended up buying R. both books, because I am the best sister on the planet

(Yes! yes I am aware of how awesome I am! But more accolades are always welcome!).

He loved Huntress, like I thought he would. But he loved Tooth and Claw even more. He sent me an email from his vacation where he told me it was now “one of his favorite books.” And when I saw him again, he asked me if I could lend him my Jane Austen novels.

Because Tooth and Claw had inspired him to read Jane Austen.

BOOM, BABY.

Emperor's New Groove Boom Baby

(I really love Jane Austen, okay?)

***

This post is not about how gender stereotypes are incredibly difficult to unlearn – although it could be, since that is a true and important topic. Gender stereotypes are incredibly difficult to unlearn! Even for feminists! Tell your friends.

It is, as all my favorite posts are, about my brother. My brother read a lot. And as it happens, a fair number of the books he reads either a) are written by women b) have female protagonists, or c) center on “girl” issues like “family” and “relationships.”

This fact makes him the Miracle Boy Foretold By the Prophecy. Because boys can’t read girl books. Didn’t you get the memo?

[Note: In this post, I will use the term "girl" books to designate books that are USUALLY ASSOCIATED with women, either because they were written by women, have female protagonists, or tackle subjects that are coded as feminine (gossip! pink!). I don't mean to imply that there are actual "girl" books and "boy" books. Books are for everyone! I promise! They don't have cooties!]

***

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young boy who desires to read must be in want of a “boy” book. However little known the feelings or views of such a boy may be on his first entering  a bookstore, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding adults that he is carefully kept away from any book with the slightest whiff of the feminine about it.”

Okay, that’s not the first line of Pride and Prejudice, BUT IT COULD BE.

One of the most frustrating myths floating around the world of reading is the “boys aren’t reading because there are too many girly books, and boys can’t read girly books because EVERYONE KNOWS boys can’t read girly books.”

Cat and bath

How Boys Feel About “Girl” Books.

And sadly, this narrative just keeps popping up out of the fertile internet ground every thirty seconds. Like zombies! Or DAISIES. or ZOMBIE DAISIES.

Robert Lipsyte’s self-congratulatory and entirely unimaginative article for The New York Times deplores the explosion of YA aimed towards girls because “while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.” Meanwhile, YA author A. E. Rought called female protagonists a “trope” they hoped the publishing industry would get over. Then Sarah Mesle wrote an article for the LA Review of Books where she expresses concern at the proper lack of “male roles” for boys.

Hell, just yesterday, I was treated to an article that deplored the lack of male protagonists, because the author was sick of girls who only cared about gossip and instead wanted a boy protagonist who just wanted to put gas in his car.

Apaa Flying Bison Avatar GIF

Think about your life, anonymous author. Think about your choices.

Urgh.

SO MANY ZOMBIE DAISIES.

Okay, first off, I want to make sure our facts are straight. Because it is provably not true that there are no YA books “for boys.” In fact, there are still more male protagonists than female ones in YA. There are just about as many male authors as there are female ones. THESE ARE THE FACTS, PEOPLE (here is one study, among many). And it is depressing as hell that people look at women achieving parity in one field – ONE FIELD – and interpret it as men being blotted out.

Toph Earthbending Avatar The Last Airbender GIF

ON POINT

Let’s get to the important part.
Now that you’ve read all this “evidence” about how boys can’t read “girl” books and it’s a HUGE CATASTROPHE, OH NOES, let me remind you that my brother regularly reads lots of “girl” books.
BUT BOYS CAN’T READ BOOKS ABOUT GIRLS!  HOW COULD THIS POSSIBLY HAPPEN?
The answer, my friends, is the Great Feminist Experiment:
Azula GIF Avatar the Last Airbender

THE GREAT FEMINIST EXPERIMENT. Scared yet?

Ahem. So. The Great Feminist Experiment.
I have known about this whole “boys can’t read “girl” books” since I was… oh, eight or so? It’s been around for at least that long. I vividly remember reading an interview of Eoin Colfer where he claimed he specifically chose a male protagonist for the Artemis Fowl series because it would attract more male readers – and female readers would just pick up the book anyway. I also remember JK Rowling explaining that she used her initials (instead of her first name, Joanne) to avoid scaring off male readers.
I knew what was up.
And when I acquired a baby brother, I decided he would be an ideal Test Subject for a Great Feminist Experiment.

By the time I was ten, I had a plan. I would make it a point to give him books with female protagonists. On his birthday, on Christmas, at random occasions – I would give him books with girls. I would give him books about girls. I would give him books by women. I would give him books about “girly” topics like family and gossip and clothes.

Not to mention books with kickass women being kickass!

Katara GIF waterbending Avatar: THe Last Airbender Waterbending

Example Chosen at Total Random (I <3 you Katara!)

I wouldn’t force him to read them. And I wouldn’t deprive him of books with male protagonists either. I would simply make sure he had lots of access to “girl” books.

It was a deviously simple plan.

And it worked.

Tiny Fey Amy Poehler SNL GIF Bitches Get Stuff Done

Of the books my brother reads, I’d say somewhere near 50-60% have female protagonists. The first chapter book my brother ever read was Roald Dahl’s Mathilda.  His stuffed hedgehog is named “Wizard Howl” after Dianne Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle. He loves Lyra from The Golden Compass. He reads Tamora Pierce and Libba Bray and Meg Cabot and Diane Duane. He will talk for hours about Robin Mckinley and the Blue Sword novels. His stuffed hedgehog is named “Wizard Howl.” Right now, his favorite authors include NK Jemisin, Jo Walton, Octavia Butler and Mira Grant.

Don’t get me wrong, the brother reads a lot of “boy” books too (one of his other favorite authors is China Mielville, and his favorite novel is Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk). But R. has never complained about a book with a female protagonist. To him, they’re just as normal as books with male protagonists. And it would never occur to him not to pick up a book because the author was female.

And now he’s even recommending books by female authors TO ME. It was my brother who first discovered Mira Grant, and who pestered me until I read her (and I never looked back).

THE GREAT FEMINIST EXPERIMENT WORKED!

Azula Avatar the last Airbender GIF madness

MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

YES I AM THE EVIL FEMINIST ALL YOUR FRIENDS WARNED YOU ABOUT.

I can’t stress how easy this “experiment” was. I mean, it was easy because I started early, before all the societal sexism could sink in. But it’s not like my brother’s Y chromosome was allergic to “girl” cooties. So whenever I read a Robert Lipsyte, say, spouting the old ” teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters” line, I roll my eyes pretty hard.

You know what? I’ve got a teenage boy in my life, and he reads “girl” stuff just fine. My outlandish theory is that if boys aren’t belittled for reading books about girls, if they’re not taught that girls are lesser, if they’re not teased about cooties, if we don’t teach them to fear the feminine… they’d probably like more “girl” stuff.

Boys don’t read “girl” books because they’re taught, in a thousand small, subtle, insidious ways, that they’re not supposed to.

What if boys weren’t ashamed to read books that were coded “girly” because they didn’t think it was shameful to be a girl? (thanks, Iggy Pop!)

What if we taught them something else?

Iggy Pop

Think about it.

***

Quick story to wrap things up!

So, obviously I’m a feminist. And I read lots of feminist fiction. And since my brother steals all my books, he ends up reading quite a bit of feminist fiction himself.
On the other hand, I’ve never told my brother he *should* be a feminist, or that he needs to combat sexism or anything. Because I don’t want to tell him what to think.

Anyway!

One night at dinner a few years ago, my stepbrother started teasing my stepmother about the muscles in her arms. My father said: “Stepbrother! It’s rude to discuss women’s arm muscles.”

And I, the random feminist, replied: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with discussing women’s arm muscles, since there’s nothing wrong with women having arm muscles. But teasing people about their appearance isn’t okay.”

My brother: “Yeah, Dad. Because you know what me and Suzanne are into? FEMINIST SCIENCE FICTION. So if you say sexist stuff, we’re going to get super-mad!”

After I finished dying of laughter, I knew that giving my brother “girl” books to read had been worth it. MY EVIL FEMINIST PLANS HAD ALL COME TO FRUITION.

Avatar GIF Avatar the Last Airbender

THE FEMINIST BORG HAD ASSIMILATED HIM.

[No, but in all seriousness, I was super-proud of him. I mean, once I stopped laughing]

Azula Avatar: The Last Airbender

Scary Feminist Out!

Notes:

1. I should note that as I got older and more aware, I also made a conscious effort to steer my brother toward books with protagonists of color and queer protagonists. Which worked out quite well!

2. I want to be clear that just because this “experiment” (such as is) worked for me, it doesn’t mean it would work for everyone. There was a whole lot of privilege and luck that went into it! Like the fact that I started when the brother was super-young. And that he turned out to love reading. And that both he and I had lots of time and opportunities to read, and were both encouraged to do so. This is not supposed to be a how-to for how to get boys to read more. Nor is it meant to be a critique of people who can’t get the boys in their life to read more. If that doesn’t comes across, let me know, and I will fix it!

3. My brother has been fully aware of the “experiment” since he was seven or eight. I promise, I’m not manipulating him behind his back. We’ve had conversations about it, where I ask whether he’s okay if I keep giving him books by women/with female protagonists and he’s like “So… you’re asking if I’m okay with you giving me books? Is this some kind of evil trick?”

4. Hey, notice all the Avatar: The Last Airbender GIFs? The Feminist Philosopher introduced me to the show, and I just finished watching it. IT IS AWESOME, and full of awesome male and female characters AND YOU SHOULD ALL GO WATCH IT. NO, SERIOUSLY, DROP EVERYTHING YOU’RE DOING AND GO WATCH THE SHOW.

Katar waterbending Avatar The Last Airbender GIF

Stop Everything and GO WATCH.

Thank you, Feminist Philosopher. I will forever blame you when I tear up at GIFs of Zuko and Uncle Iroh hugging.

Further reading: 

The Book Smugglers: The Airing of the Grievances 
The Problem is Not the Books
Gender Balance in YA awards

Home is where the Library Lives (College Edition)

[Content note: I have put Cat Pictures at the end of this post in a shameless attempt to get people to read the whole thing. Then again, you could just scroll to the bottom. My super-evil plans would then be FOILED]

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who doesn’t buy a lot of books.

Oh, sure, I read a lot. But I don’t buy that much. Most of what I read comes from libraries. I do feel quite guilty about that (although NK Jemisin argues I shouldn’t) – I know authors need book sales, and it’s important to me to contribute to the book publishing industry.

At the same time, I read a lot of books. Like, over 150 books a year. And if I bought over 150 books a year? Yeah, I wouldn’t…eat. I’m a college student; I don’t have that kind of disposable income. And I like eating. It keeps me alive.

So yes. In the interest of eating, I don’t buy that many books.

You can thus imagine my shock when I was packing to go home for the summer, and realized that there were books on every single wall of my college-home room.

Apparently I do buy a lot of books.

I blame the major. You can’t be a literature major without buying a lot of books. Five books per class minimum, multiply that by four to five classes a semester… mucho books. And I do resell a lot of mine, because I’m callous and I need the money, but I keep ones that I think will be useful.

Just so you know? I think all the books will be useful at some point.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was so surprised. I’ve always accumulated books one way or another, mostly because I’m terrified that I’m going to run out of things to read. When I visited my family in France as a kid, I developed a super-secret (and effective) method of lining my suitcases with books (as I recall, I mostly took Tamora Pierce novels. You can’t travel without Keladry of Mindelan. You just can’t). I usually take three to four books with me on plane trips, even if the trip itself only lasts three hours. I never go anywhere without a book or two in my backpack. I start freaking out whenever my to-read pile dips lower than four books. And when it was time to move to college, I insisted on sending two huge boxes of books across the US border so I could fill the bookshelves of my dorm library.

Small, portable, giant, unwieldy, literate, speculative, diverse or juvenile, I’ve always had some kind of library with me. If only because my greatest terror in life is running out of reading material.

Then again, at this point in my college home (not a dorm anymore, thank the Lords of Kobol), I’m starting to worry that we could just take out the walls of my room and replace them with my books.

Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?

Exhibit A: the printer

Printer Books

I used to have a printer. Now access to it is completely blocked off by these two piles of books. Can you see my printer? No.

My point exactly. Trust me, it’s there.

At a glance, I’m pretty sure they’re all books from last semester. A book of Chinese history, two collections by H.D., a film textbook and Ovid’s Metamorphoses… yep, definitely the fall semester. I’ll give a quick shoutout to the one book that wasn’t from the fall semester for my Hardy-obsessed friend, JYP – Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, hanging around the far left with price-tag still attached. This section isn’t even that bad – it used to be triple the size, but I had to bring all my research books back to the school library. Which is good, because now I can open my closet without tripping over Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.

Speaking of my closet…

Exhibit B: The Closet

Book closet

I deny everything

WHY ARE THERE BOOKS IN MY CLOSET?

And why is my window-spray container leaning on top of them?

Yeah, that I have no good answer for.

Returning to the original question: WHY ARE THERE BOOKS IN MY CLOSET?

Oh, wait, I know why. There isn’t room anywhere else. Especially not for my giant textbooks.

Yes, I’ve become the kind of person who hides books in her closet. I’m not proud. I’m even less proud of the fact that there might be an entire suitcase filled with old books hidden in the back of this closet. Might. Might. I didn’t check. I had… other things to do.

Like feel shame.

The bad news is that I’ll probably have to put even books in my closet, since I’m running out of other places to put them. That’s going to be a problem because, you know, my closet actually serves a purpose: keeping my clothes off the floor. I feel like “book stashing” and “clothes stashing” are eventually going to clash. There’s only enough real estate for so much.

Now this! This is a good use of real-estate.

Exhibit C: The Wall

19th century science fiction

This is the wall space between my bed and my closet. Correction: this used to be the wall space between my bed and my closet. Now it’s a miniature library. Hurrah!

I’m actually mildly impressed with how organized my books are (famous last words). I know exactly what’s in this book-section: 18th century British novels, post-war British novels and (American) civil war textbooks. The pile on the far right is made up of my giant cookbooks (it’s not a super-practical arrangement, because I keep needing to use said cookbooks and thus disturbing the entire stack). It also contains two European women’s history textbooks and a History of the Book Reader (which is a great textbook, by the way. Highly recommended. Very interesting). When you think about it, there’s some sort of meta-ironic-commentary being made by the fact that I shelved the women’s history textbooks and the cookbooks in the same place (because obviously all that women did during the medieval era was cook! Am I right, ladies? /sarcasm/).

That was totally planned, by the way. It wasn’t just that the women’s history books and the cookbooks were vaguely the same size. *cough*

On top of the deeply ironic women’s history/cookbook section, I’ve got my small but awesome collection of 19th century British Science Fiction, from one of my favorite literature courses. It’s telling that I haven’t resold any of the books from that class, despite the fact that I had to buy them all new (and with Canadian prices, even the paperbacks cost $15-$20). Well – that’s a lie. I managed to get a great used copy of M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud. It’s from the 1950s; it’s got a buxom lady on the cover and a cigarette advertisement inside. I love it.

Now – here’s what’s interesting about the last three photos. All the books I’ve shown – excluding the cookbooks – were bought for class. Which, er, says something about the classes I’m taking, huh?

Oh, but you say. That’s not that many books (for school)! Only about fifty or so. And you’ve been in school three years now…

Fair point! Then let me show you…

Exhibit D: This Semester’s Books

Class Books Winter Semester

And that’s one semester’s worth of books

These are (almost) all the books I bought for this semester of college. ONE semester. My rough calculations say that I bought 28 books and checked out an additional five from the library (they were on the syllabus, but I was too cheap to buy them. Can you blame me?).

And yes, this is a pretty precarious bookshelf. In it’s defense, it’s not actually tilted – I was taking these photos with my computer’s photobooth (I don’t own a camera), and I couldn’t shoot an untilted photo without hanging upside down from teh ceiling. But I keep fearing that the poor shelf is going to collapse and send all of my school books crashing onto my desk. Which is why I never keep my computer at my desk.

Paranoia saves lives, people! (okay, it saves computer lives. Still)

A few times the books on the right have come unbalanced… and then they slide right into the trash can (I’m not even joking). It’s pretty hilarious. And sad.

Also, note the photo of Shakespeare right under the bookshelf. Hey, I’m a literature student. I have to have a photo of Shakespeare somewhere.

So yes. This is what one semester’s worth of class books looks like in my world (and yes, I did read all of them). My conclusion? Maybe I’m not a book-buying addict. Maybe my classes are trying to turn me into a book-buying addict.

And they say school is good for you.

The worst part is: what the hell am I going to do with these giant piles of books when I need this space for next semester’s books? There’s no more room in my room! GAAAH.

And I can’t sell all of them… they might come in handy at some point.

Maybe I should invest in another bookcase.

No! That’s just the crazy talking. Think of how many books I could buy with the money I would spend on a bookcase (even one of those cheap $30 IKEA bookcases). LOTS of books.

And I do, in fact, sometimes buy books that aren’t related to school. Case in point:

Exhibit E: The To-Read Pile (with an appearance by Mr. Calvin and Mr. Hobbes)

To-read pile

This is my to-read bookshelf (located right above my bed). Usually it’s a lot fuller, but since I was on the point of leaving my college home when I took these pictures, I returned all my library to-read books. Because stealing library books = not okay.

Anyways. The central pile? Those are the “Thank Maud I finished another semester of college without jumping off a building, now let’s go buy some science fiction and fantasy and pretend we never heard of “literature,” shall we?” books. All those books I’ve been eyeing for months, but couldn’t read because I had to finish Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park? Yeah, I… went a little crazy and bought most of them.

THERE WAS A SALE! It’s not my fault. Also, I’d just finished my last final, and I was in a really bizarre state. Nothing I did in those hours can be held against me.

Okay, I have no defense. I’m a horrible person. But look! Martha Wells’ The Cloud Roads! Seanan McGuire’s Discount Armageddon! More Seanan McGuire (A Local Habitation)! N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon! Sooo many good booookssssssssssss…..

I admit it. I’m a horrible, no-good, bad book-buyer. I’m an addict. Something must be done.

I actually read all of the books in the central pile between the time the photo was taken and the time I wrote this blog post (about two weeks). Well, almost all of them. I still haven’t gotten around to A Clash of Kings. My friends keep assuring me it’s great; I enjoyed the first book in the ASoFAI series. Besides, I have to read it so that I can get to the rest of the series and vote appropriately for A Dance with Dragons in the Hugos. But for some reason, I really don’t want to read it. I blame the yellow cover.

This shelf also contains my knitting books and my collection of Calvin and Hobbes comics. And my Firefly DVDs. And a bouquet of dried flowers my Marat/Sade cast gave me for being a decent Assistant Stage Manager (because they are awesome). There’s clearly a link between all of these things. Who says my library isn’t organized? *cough*

There’s also another picture of Shakespeare somewhere, if you can spot it. Literature student!

(oh, and yes, I did blur one of the photos under the bookshelf. PARANOIA SAVES LIVES, people. Especially on the internet).

Ahem. Moving on.

(yes, there’s more. Told you I had a problem).

Finally! FINALLY, after showing you all of my “secondary” libraries and book-storage areas, I will get to the central culprit. The true locus of readership and literature.

My actual bookshelf.

Exhibit F: THE ACTUAL BOOKSHELF

Bookshelf bottom

I love my actual bookshelf. It’s wonderful. It also contains no class books whatsoever – all the books here are ones I shipped from my regular home back in Freshman year. They are my very favorite books in the universe (or at least, my very favorite books back when I was in high school). My entire collection of Tamora Pierce books. My entire collection of Tudor history books (most of which are by Allison Weir). The Abhorsen Trilogy. All my Libba Bray novels. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Karen Joy Fowler. The Sparrow. Jane Eyre, The Professor, Wuthering Heights and the Austen novels. Also, all the Young Adult novels that kept me floating throughout my horrid high school years – Born Confused, The Truth about Forever etc. And a bunch of books about US politics like The Nine and The Dark Side, because apparently, I find those fun.

I sent all of these books to my college because back when I was in high school, I didn’t read a lot of new books. I mostly re-read old favorites – and I expected I would continue this pattern when I arrived in college. So having 100 books I already liked that I could re-read was quite important to me.

I still do re-read now, occasionally. Mostly when the world is exploding all around me and I need some comfort. But I love having my old books around, even if I’m not reading them constantly like I used to.

The giant pile right by the bookshelf is yet another “book storage” area. These are my “read” books – the books I’ve finished. Every few weeks I do a purge and bring a bunch of those books back to the library, then freak out over where to put the other, non-library books. There’s no room left on my “for fun” bookshelf. No, seriously, I’m not kidding. Look.

Bookshelf top

Like I said. No room. I’m now stacking books on top of rows of other books, and I’ve still got tons of books in my “read” pile to store.

…I really have a problem, don’t I?

From this not-so-brief survey of my college room, I have concluded a few things:

1. I buy a lot more books than I think I do

2. WOW, I buy a lot of books for class

3. I am quickly running out of real-estate, and am going to need to find some kind of radical solution next year. Like selling books (NO) or buying a bookcase (maybe). Or getting rid of my bed to make room for more books (yes!)

And since you have made it to the end of the post, I shall reward you with some obligatory cat pictures.

Look! Cat!

Cat with Books

The Cat is Judging Me

The Cat has been sick, and as a result, she has been spending a lot of time in my room. I think it’s because I keep the temperature pretty high. The Cat is also a very, very black cat, so it’s hard to get a picture of her where she doesn’t look like a big black blob. She’s absolutely gorgeous in real life, and does not resemble a Big Black Blob. That’s the Photobooth’s fault.

The Cat was in no way amused by me frantically running around my room, taking pictures with my computer. She was particularly put out when I decided to step on the bed – the bed where she was sleeping, thank you very much  – to take a photo of my to-read bookshelf.

The Cat thinks this blog is a complete waste of time, particularly since it involves disturbing her bed (the fact that it’s also my bed is lost on her).  She thinks I should spend more time in worthwhile pursuits. Like petting her. Or acting as her pillow.

But for the record, The Cat also thinks I need a new bookshelf.

(those things are EXPENSIVE, The Cat. Even the cheap IKEA ones)

The Cat with Books

North America’s Next Top Cat Model

The Cat does not like me taking photos of her, because that takes time away from Petting. But she does think this is a satisfactory photo.

*sigh* I miss The Cat.

(I flew home – home home, as opposed to college home – last week. So I have not seen The Cat in a while).

I also miss my books. But the good news is, my home-home has libraries of its own. And I just made two trips to the city library. So I feel pretty good. I’ve got a pile of eight unread books… that should last me for a week, right? Right?

*starts to panic*

Related Posts:

France and The USA get something right in the Same Week! Celebration Ensues

A Letter to My Future Russian Bride

Eight Great Books of Science Fiction for Women

Reaction to the Hugo Nominations


“Always Wear Armor When Walking Through the Classics Department”: A Review of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Hello everyone, and welcome back to your regularly scheduled blog posts – the ones where I try to review all that is Fantasy And Science Fiction before the beginning of the summer. Because that’s totally possible, especially now that my workload has lightened and I’ve only got three essays and two finals to work on!

Oh wait.

But before I start to freak out, I’d like to remind everyone that the Hugo Nominations are coming out this weekend (OH GOD). I will be covering those sometime in the next few posts. I’ll also be posting some kind of rant about the Hunger Games/Trayvon Martin correlation, so watch out for that.

*****

Book: Tam Lin

Author: Pamela Dean

Publisher: Firebird Fantasy

Published; 1991

Tam Lin cover picture

***Mild Spoilers for the Entire Book***

In my University, there’s a tunnel between our Arts Building and our Library of Incredible Inefficiency.*

* (I’m not a fan of the main library. But moving right along).

I love this tunnel. It’s a road out of time and space, made of sharp turns that make you quickly lose sight of where you were, and where you’re going. There’s a hint of the medieval about it – a bizarre gate right in the middle that reminds me of torture chambers and ancient sewer systems. But it’s not all medieval either: the copper piping and the violent fluorescent lights give a 19th century Science Fiction vibe. This tunnel would be a great set for a remake of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Or Thomas Lewis’s The Monk.

And sometimes there’s graffiti.
Over time, I’ve learned not to look at the graffiti. It only disappoints me. It does not match the atmosphere of the tunnel at all, but simply repeats the usual “My Life Sucks” and “LOL’s” that are found at every graffitied location in the school.

Yes, in fact, I judge the quality of graffiti. Is originality too much to ask for in our public defacement?

Absolutely not. Consider the case of Blackstock College, the setting of Pamela Dean’s cult fantasy novel, Tam Lin. Students aren’t writing LOL in those tunnels:

“First ten lines of the Iliad. That’s been there long and long. Somebody ought to touch it up.” (52)

When Janet and her newfound college friends find an Iliad quote in a tunnel on their first day of school, they start arguing over the best translation of the greek, and then exchange quotations for a few lines, before ending with an impromptu recitation of my (second) favorite Keats’ poem: “On Chapman’s Homer.”

“His tone was rather sardonic; but it hardly mattered. Lost, thought Janet. He quotes Keats, too. Well, let’s enjoy it, then. She said, ‘Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo Hold.”
Robin rattled “But never did I breath its pure serene Til I heard Chapman speak loud and bold,” and began walking again. “We’ll miss dinner,” he added.

If the past paragraph or two bores you to death… this book is probably not for you. But if you’re the kind of person who goes through tunnels and buildings and matches them to the setting of your favorite novel; if you fall into friendships with people based on the books and movies they can quote in their sleep; if you long to find the free, passionate discussion that can only exist in a group of similarly obsessed people, the discussion where everyone trips over their words and jumps in on the ends of each others sentences -

Tam Lin is the book for you.

Janet, the main character of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, is a new student at Blackstock college. Her Advisor keeps pushing her to be a classics major, but Janet hears (and notices) that All the Classics Majors are Crazy. Besides, she know she wants to be an english major, because “if the thing you liked best to do in the world was read, and somebody offered to pay you room and board and give you a liberal arts degree if you would just read for four years, wouldn’t you do it?”

(there is only one right answer to that question, and it starts with a “y”)

Tam Lin follows Janet and her friends’ four years at Blackstock. On top of all the academic drama and the intellectual, quote-heavy dialogue, there is, of course, a supernatural plot – but it’s so subtle and quiet, you won’t notice it until it hits you in the face. Pamela Dean interlaces the “realism” of the plot with moments of absurdity – for example, Janet and her roommate Molly wake up several times during the semester to find classic books of literary criticism (and when I say classic, I’m not talking Roland Barthes – I mean literary criticism written during the Victorian Era) just outside their window.

They’ve been told there’s a ghost; they have no other explanation for how such rare texts keep appearing. There’s also something strange going on with the classics students, who are all terrified of Professor Medeous, the department head. But all of these mysteries are kept just below the surface, and allowed to grow into full bloom near the end. It is with no particular sense of urgency that we and Janet discover the truth – and by then, Pamela Dean has led up to it so organically that the revelation seems just as realistic as anything else in the novel. Pamela Dean is so skilled with her subtle allusions that the Star Trek Enterprise could have landed in the middle of campus, and I wouldn’t have thought it out of the ordinary.

What makes this novel particularly appealing to me, to English literature lovers, and to nerds of all stripes is that the academic endeavor is the point of the story, not the backdrop. There are lots of movies, books and TV shows that are set in colleges or high schools, but there, the classroom is the setting, and the relationship drama (Gossip Girl), or the action story (Spiderman) is the focus. Here, the opposite is true: the characters are passionately, madly, lovingly enthralled by the work they do and their relationships (platonic or romantic) grow from their obsessions. Janet, for example, falls in “like” with Nick after hearing him recite Keats. Astute reader, meanwhile, note how much better a match she is for Thomas, who takes her to see Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis De Sade.**

(another reason I love Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin: I’ve been involved in productions of all three of those plays.)

Janet realizes Nick’s potential herself after watching a play “about two people named Thomas and Jennet (…) she knew perfectly well, that if examined with the eye of logic, these associations would unravel.” (408).

But in Tam Lin, as in life, the associations don’t unravel. Not really. Tam Lin never slips into the (popular) fallacy that art is somehow “detached” from everyday life, that it’s entertainment, that it doesn’t really matter. Instead, Tam Lin treats Janet’s forays into literature with as much seriousness as it does her forays into sex and relationships.

You shouldn’t worry, however, if you don’t have a strong English Literature background, or if you’re not interested in literature in the least. I’m an English Literature major, and I missed about ⅓ of the allusions in the novel. Doesn’t matter.  Despite the specificity of Janet’s dialogue, it’s her passion – her nerdiness – that makes her so easy to like. The novel describes, without mockery, the passions and obsessions that end up shaping our lives, no matter how obscure or “unimportant” they are.

In this vein, one of my favorite scenes in the novel depicts a conversation between Janet and Nick, Janet’s first boyfriend at Blackstock College. Nick has a strong pedantic streak, which leads to a memorable argument where Janet tries to convince Nick that the only writer who resembles Shakespeare is Keats:

“Keat seems so much like whom?”
“Shakespeare.”
“Keats? That querulous, agonizing little emotion ridden pestilence beffudled liverer’s son?”
“All right,” said Janet. “All right.” What in the would could she recite? He knew the sonnet “On Chapman’ Homer”, most of the rest he probably would have labeled querelous.”Not “Ode to a Nightingale” which had illnesses and drugs in it (…) I’ll give you querulous, Janet though, and cleared her throat:
“This Living Hand, now warm and capable of earnest grasping would, if it were cold And in the icy silence of the tomb, So haunt,they days and chill thy dreaming nights That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood (…)”
“Nicks hands had fallen to his side. Janet, looking straight at him now that she had done remembering, and feeling a little smug, realized witha  shock that he had turned rather pale. He pushed his glasses up his nose with a hand that shook. “That’s Measure for Measure,” he said, just audibly. “Or The Winter’s Tale. Or Troilus and Cressida. I always forget what gems are hidden in that dunghep. That’s not Keats, is it?” (…)
“Yes it is,” said Janet. To her fury, she sounded apologetic. “It was written in the margin of The Cap and Bell. His unfinished play.”
“I cry you mercy,” said Nick, getting up. “I’m unwell. No, it’s all right, don’t bother. I’ll call you later.” (116).

This is such a perfect scene. Of course an argument about Keats and Shakespeare is of critical importance. Of course one might need a bit of a lie down after realizing how much Keats does sound like Shakespeare. Of course such a fundamental shift in one’s worldview might take a few hours of bed-rest to get used to. It only makes sense.

Tam Lin understands the joy of finding people who share your language – the moment of recognition when you realize you don’t have to perform your life in a bizarrely constructed vernacular, but can slide into speech that reflects your thoughts.I’ve been lucky enough to be in a few groups like that – where we all speak the same language. Usually they involve theater, and only last a few weeks. Still, there’s something magical about them – about that intensity of communication. Who doesn’t want that?

Now, before you get the wrong idea, I should make something clear. Although I get quite sentimental writing about Tam Lin, and although Pamela Dean wrote it as a love letter to her college experiences, Tam Lin itself is not a sentimental novel. It’s clear and crisp and fast; there’s a sharpness to it that belies any sentimentality.

A big part of the reason Dean manages to prevent Tam Lin from sliding into an overwrought, overly indulgent novel is her brisk, no-nonsense prose. There’s a reason I’ve quoted the novel so thoroughly (and not just because I want to make some kind of obscure “meta” joke about allusion). Dean’s style is clear and concise and crisp. It pulls you along, demands your attention. No pausing, no stopping, make sure you turn the lights on as you go.

I knew I was in good hands when I got the description of Janet’s thrilling escape from her friends:

“Janet crawled along as fast as she could manage, bumping her head and cursing Nick Tooley and his children unto the nth generation, until she found a suitable hollow by catching her knee in it. She removed the knee, saying “shit, shit, shit,” under her breath because there was no time to think of anything creative, and scooped leaves and dry needles out of the hollow. She dumped Schiller into it unceremoniously, covered him over, limped on through the larch grove to the sidewalk, trudged down it to the bottom of the hill, and took off running in plain sight along the edge of the lake just as the chase came howling past the Fine Arts building.” (82)

Dean’s description is masterclass in efficiency, sly humor, and style. Let us all pause to consider how many more words most writers would take to say exactly the same thing (hell, let us all pause to consider how many CHAPTERS more I would take to say the same thing).

The other thing that makes the novel seem so grounded (and this is a supremely grounded novel) is it’s insights into the academic process. Especially if you are, or have ever been, in College.

For example, we have the (invisible, but at the same time completely obvious) fight between the Classics Department and the English Department. The whole thing starts to feel like two armies recruiting students to their cause. Every time Janet goes to consult her academic advisor, Melinda Wolfe, a classics professor, Wolfe tried to steer her into becoming a classics major. At one point, Wolfe goes “if you read science fiction, you’ll like Herodotus,” which made me howl with laughter. Because who hasn’t had a Professor be like “Come to the Biology/Latin/English/History/Dark Side Department. WE HAVE COOKIES/Herodotus/genetic experimentation/Shakespeare/Crazy Department Heads who Might Be Sleeping with Everyone.

Most Professors I know have been more subtle about it, but yeah, I’ve been there. And hey, I’m an English major because of two such pushy Professors. Not going to name names, but they know who they are (actually, they have no idea).

There’s also this brilliant moment from Janet’s father, an English Professor:

“Take it from me,” said her father. “It is possible to get a Ph.D in English while ignoring no less than three literary periods. You must have read something in all of them, so as to fling their names about, but you can be quite ignorance of at least three and still do very nicely.”
“Which three are you ignorant of?” said Janet.
“The moderns, the whole of the twelfth century and the jacobeans.”

Which just explains everything about every Professor I’ve take a class with, ever.

And that’s, maybe, what I loved most about Tam Lin. Every page felt like I was discovering a secret – a familiar secret. A secret I’d always known was there. It’s real life, but it’s real life with that extra-sharp twist of insight – real life with all the magical underpinnings revealed, from Professorial mysteries to the gossip between nerds. Tam Lin lets you in on the secrets. It’s a story that oozes with so much intelligence and acceptance and joy – joy of learning, joy of growing, joy of confusion – that it’s one of the few novels I actually made an effort to read slower. I didn’t want to leave its coy, secretive, joyous pages.

Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is one of the rare speculative fiction novels I recommend without pause to my English Major Friends. Or to my non-Science Fiction reading friends. Trust me. You will like it. Even if you don’t like magic. Trust me. You should read it. Everyone should read it. If the above review has you interested, drop everything and read it. Trust me, it’s a thousand times better than anything I could describe. You will like it. A lot.

And it’s a rare novel that can get me to engage in some public defacement of my own. But in no small part thanks to Tam Lin, there’s now a Shakespeare quote plastered between some of the LOL graffiti on the walls of my favorite tunnel. From Richard III. Maybe it’ll start a tradition (but don’t tell anyone. Can you get expelled for graffiti? Oh God.)

Pamela Dean on Tam Lin:

“It all reminded me of college, where the fear of getting pregnant collaborated with the conviction that you weren’t nearly as smart as you’d thought you were, that you would never amount to anything, even if all the Professors thought you were a genius, and the world was going to hell so fast that you’d be lucky to have a B.A. to show the devil when it got there to produce a sub-clinical state of frenzy; where juggling your love life with anything else was almost but never quite completely impossible, where we all did any number of foolish and peculiar things while surrounded by and occasionally even absorbing the wisdom of the ages.” (460)

Blackstock College, by the way, is based on Pamela Dean’s real college (at least in appearance) – a small liberal arts college in Minnesota called Carleton College. I visited Carleton as a high-schooler (I was deciding where to apply for University) and I can attest to how gorgeous a campus it is. Even under the pouring rain, it was absolutely beautiful.

Carleton College Tam Lin

*** We do have some great graffiti in my college. Mostly in the girl’s bathrooms (can’t speak to the boy’s). The best one is “Books Before Boys Because Boys Bring Babies.” Indeed.

Other Reviews of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean:

Tansy Rayner Roberts: The Lady’s Not For Burning - it was Rayner Roberts’s love for Tam Lin on the podcast Galactic Suburbia that got me to pick up the book to begin with (I owe her a debt of gratitude for that one) and her written review is equally good.

Things Mean A Lot: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tor.com: College as A Magic Garden: Why Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is a Book You’ll Either Love or Hate (Jo Walton). (I love Jo Walton)

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Frantically, Florally February: A Monthly Reading Roundup


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