In this downtime before my 21st birthday and a move that will hopefully take me out of the basement for good, I’ve discovered what the folks and I really have in common. It’s the greatest skill they’ve taught me, the one that I value above all others. In spite of my generation’s short attention span, and thanks to a family full of readers, I still love to read books.
Our home is a home of books. We have shelves in almost every room of the house lined with everything from pharmaceutical textbooks to graphic novels. Reading has always been a thing of leisure in our house, for the pure enjoyment and curiosity.
The basis for my gratitude is that my parents never forced me to read this or that. It has always been a choice, a personal question of: Where do I want to go? My imagination has taken me down many paths, to other planets, and most often to the worlds of popular, genre fiction.
Genre fiction is often considered inferior to the ranks of literature. But as an appreciator of both, I feel a responsibility to make the ardent case for genre fiction. It has compelled me in my life, and remains the place I search to actively indulge in my daydreams, lost in their line-by-line realities. It is the place where outliers soar beyond the bookshelves and the banality of their kin; it is the place where our heroes live — and sometimes never die.
Popular fiction deserves reverence because reading is healthy — period.
Popular fiction reaches more fans, all of them readers, than other literature. It keeps its fans craving more, devouring entire series and collected authors’ works.
There are droves of Stephen King fans that have read every one of his novels. Even people who “don’t read” read Stephen King. Tom Clancy’s novels have cult-like following for his intense, staccato-style action writing and encyclopedic knowledge of war; his legacy will live on long past his death in 2013.
Literature is defined by its symbolism, its deeper meaning. So, take J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series for example. Strip away the global phenomenon of films and theme parks and paraphernalia. The books themselves that have been tagged as children’s fiction and fantasy (oh, and witchcraft) are also the subjects of college courses devoted entirely to analyzing Rowling’s literary genius.
Moreover, Rowling, the wealthiest author in history, is an advocate for global literacy, and the popularity of her books has not undermined their depth and complexity.
Accessibility is the key to popular fiction, but genres are comprised of stories that serve a purpose beyond popularity itself.
Steig Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” launched a global phenomenon, but his original manuscript was called “Men Who Hate Women,” denoting the dark underbelly of modern Sweden through the lens of Larsson’s feminist perspective. His trilogy belongs to a subgenre of thrillers known as Nordic Crime. Such stories have played an active role in social and political movements in northern Europe for a half-century.
Science fiction also aims beyond the bounds of its formula. Authors like Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut have produced works that stand among the ranks of “literary fiction,” but their life’s work belongs to science fiction, a genre that predicts what our future holds, often with the hope that the reading public might prevent it. It is the genre of innovation, embraced even by the likes of Mark Twain, christened by pioneers Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. It aims to make dreams reality — and, more importantly, lends readers the power to dream alongside the characters.
That’s the important part. Readers are the active ingredients of the literary world. And the authors who engage readers the most, who gain their following, the co-ownership of the experience, are doing a service to the world. Whether they engage our brains with puzzle-like mysteries, or speak to social issues, or predict the future, the authors that rally the masses the most are serving us with the vital pleasure and practice of reading.
On the simple basis that they are fun and enjoyable, popular genres impact us all by simply getting us to keep reading. That is the most basic and essential function that a book should have, and one for which I feel very fortunate.
I will lay my pen down with a message from Ray Bradbury: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get them to stop reading them.”
So, gobblers of fiction, for all of our sake: never cease. Read your favorites, whatever they may be. The pleasure of reading is never a guilty one.
Editor’s note: This is Alexander Sinn’s final column for the Tribune. He will soon be busy with school and other projects. We thank him for his work and wish him well.