How An Early Love For the Dark Arts Showed Me That Taste Matters
By REBECCA, June 11, 2012
Last week, I attended BEA (BookExpo America) for the first time. It was exciting, it was crowded, and I felt like the only person in the entire world without either a smartphone or an ereader, but still! It was great. I got some wonderful books, filled my to-read list to a dangerous capacity, and got to nerd out with the amazing book bloggers Em from Love YA Lit, and Judith and Ellen from I Love YA Fiction!
But what BEA really drove home was how incredibly unique taste is. I talked to a lot of people in lines for the same books as me, but who were excited about them for totally different reasons. And I met a lot of people who were googly-eyed for books that I couldn’t have cared less about. So, of course, I found myself thinking about my own taste in books: how did I learn what I liked to read? when did I start to have strong tastes in books? has that taste stayed the same?
Now, at 30, I have pretty diverse tastes—I love a poignant or angsty book that will make me cry, a gruesome mystery, a lighthearted romp in which people overcome obstacles and dance, a monster story, ANYTHING about gymnastics, etc. But, if there’s one thing that I’ve internalized about my taste throughout the years, it’s that people seem to think I’m, well, morbid. I know what you’re thinking:
“lovely, delightful Rebecca morbid? It simply can’t be!” “Duh.” And, well, I guess it’s a little bit true. I am really fascinated by things that other people seem to think are depressing or gross or weird—I mean, I have a Ph.D. in modernist literature after all; obviously something‘s wrong with me.
But, did I always have a taste for the macabre? Where do such things come from? Who clued me in to this fact? To answer these questions we have to rewind about . . . 22 years or so to when I was a little kid wandering the
streets libraries of Ann Arbor. My parents weren’t strict about what I read, and they certainly never censored me (except for that time they found me watching My Own Private Idaho at, like, age ten) so I pretty much had run of the library and gravitated toward what interested me. Which was, I realize now, death, vampires, diseases, ghost stories, the Holocaust, and death. What?!
The thing is: I wasn’t trying to be creepy. I didn’t have any idea that what interested me was uncommon for an eight year old, or that it might suggest to someone that there was something wrong with me (there wasn’t!). I just knew that it interested me. So, it was really kind of shocking when my dad first expressed some . . . concern that perhaps I might not want to exclusively read books where people were dying, or that perhaps I would enjoy trying some literature that wasn’t about the Holocaust. I mean, he had read me The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings when I was little, and those are chock-a-block with death, evil, betrayal, and genocide, right?
My dad never tried to stop me from reading what I wanted, but his suspicion that my reading preferences were somehow out of the ordinary was the first inkling I had that there was such a thing as taste and that it was an important expression of my interests—that is, a way of thinking about the things that were important to me. My dad referred to my collection of Lurlene McDaniel books as my “dead teenager books” and asked whether my latest Anne Rice novel was also “all about dead things like vampires and witches.” Duh, dad, witches are totally not dead!
Sure, it made me feel a touch self-conscious, but not in a bad way. In fact, it really opened my eyes to why taste can be so important, especially to teenagers and young adults—and why expressing that taste in how we dress, do our hair, etc., is so essential in announcing to others where we’re coming from. Just as the books we want to read are an expression of what we think is interesting, important, beautiful, desirable, worthwhile, so too is the way we portray ourselves to the world.
Once I started thinking about taste in this way it was easy to look around me at school and see which people’s tastes in books, music, and movies seemed to match their social group, clothes, and personality, and which people’s seemed like a mismatch. It brought up questions like why does J— dress like a boring preppy kid when he actually has really interesting taste in movies? Or, how can T— have such terrible taste in music when she has such awesomely colored hair? I started drawing lines between what people liked and how they liked to be seen. These questions are, of course, hugely reductive! But in a teenage world where there are only a limited number of ways to create a external profile that might express your likes, desires, and interests to an otherwise undifferentiated hormonal, scared, irritable mass, of course it’s important.
None of this is to say that having your taste in books match your taste in t-shirts is any more necessary than matching your shoes to your belt. But as a teenager, it was always an issue of trying to express to the world (or hide from it) what you thought was important, whether it was music or social justice. It was a way to connect with people who might share your values and tastes before any of you even opened your mouths—it was like a hanky code of taste. Of course, this shorthand disappears the older we get and, of course, it’s a code that’s quite easy to misread where it exists at all. Lesson learned when I awkwardly tried to talk dystopia with someone wearing a shirt with “1984” on the front who looked at me blankly and then explained that it was her high school reunion shirt. Oops.
Years later, in college, I was thinking about the way my dad gently teased me about those Lurlene McDaniel books. Home for winter break, I asked him why he had thought it was so strange that I was interested in teenagers dying of diseases. After all, I pointed out, he was a doctor—didn’t he ever think that maybe this early interest was a sign that I might want to be a doctor too? He only had to consider this for about a second before answering sincerely, “no; I just thought you were morbid.” And he’s right. I never wanted to be a doctor or a medical examiner or a historian, or any other occupation that would retroactively contextualize my taste for death, disease, the Holocaust. But how did he know? What was it about me that made my dad so sure that those books were an expression of my interests, obsessions, questions? Easy, I guess: he knew me.
And, of course, what I realize now is that I wasn’t morbid, per se. I was a kid with thoughts, opinions, and questions that simply were not really addressed by fiction like The Boxcar Children or The Babysitters Club (although don’t get me wrong; I read those too). Books that dealt with what a character feels like when someone they really admire dies, or the inexpressible emotions surrounding genocide, or how it feels to be very afraid, or what it might be like to be immortal; books that challenged taboos, pushed boundaries, and explored issues—these were the books that spoke to the deep questions I had as a kid. These were also the topics that I didn’t hear other kids (or adults) talking about on a regular basis. I found them the most nourishing questions and the most satisfying answers. It’s no surprise, then, that I still do.
So, in honor of my morbid little self and in celebration of all the other folks out there who were looked at askance when they answered the question, “and what are you reading there, hon?,” here are a few of my favorite childhood morbidities!
Lurlene McDaniel, One Last Wish series (1992-1995). Each book features a teenager dying from an illness who is given one last wish (by the One Last Wish Foundation, the origin of which is explained in one of the books).
Cherie Bennett, Good-bye, Best Friend (1992). Star and Courtney are both sick when they meet in the hospital and become fast friends, but disease makes Courtney uncomfortable so Star plays down the seriousness of her cystic fibrosis. This book, along with A Time To Die (above) made my ten-year-old self obsessed with cystic fibrosis, and since my dad is a lung doctor I’d always ask him to tell me more about it, which he thought was very weird.
Piers Paul Read, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (1974). I was totally obsessed with this book in sixth grade. The story is incredible! Also it’s the only reason I know words associated with rugby, like “scrum” and “hooker.”
Jane Yolen, The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988) and Briar Rose (1988). Both deal with the Holocaust—The Devil’s Arithmetic finds a young girl sucked back in time to a concentration camp, and Briar Rose is a re-telling of the Sleeping Beauty story set in the German forests during World War II. I read each about a million times and Briar Rose remains one of the only fairy tale re-tellings that I really love.
Lois Lowry, Number the Stars (1989). Another Holocaust book, this one features two friends, one of whom is Jewish and moves in with her friend’s family when the nazis come, forcing her friend to go on a mission to save her.
Julie Reece Deaver, Say Goodnight, Gracie (1989). Shy Morgan and outgoing Jimmy have been best friends since they were little kids. Now, in high school, they support each others’ dreams—Morgan’s of acting, and Jimmy’s of dancing. But when Jimmy dies in a car crash, Morgan is thrown into a tailspin of grief.
Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park (1990). Dude, velociraptors are so scary. That sound that they make . . . my cat sometimes makes a sound like that when she’s looking out the window at birds and I’m afraid she’ll tear my throat out.
V.C. Andrews, Flowers in the Attic (1979). Incest, child murder, locking people in attics, love, hate, incest, poison, ballet, sex, hate, incest, love, child murder, parties, sequels.
Alvin Schwartz, with illustrations by Stephen Gammell, Scary Stories series (1981-1991). The Scary Stories series bloody terrified me, and the illustrations are the scariest illustrations I’ve ever seen (don’t look, mom!). But, but, but, they’re so spine-tingling! I cannot believe they’re reissuing them with new illustrations—mistake!
Anne Rice, Interview With the Vampire (1976) and the rest of the Vampire Chronicles. The tortured musings of Louis’ immortal life were the refrain for most of sixth and seventh grade. It’s like I had never anticipated how horrible life could be until I thought about it never ending . . .
Michelle Smith, Michelle Remembers (1989). I can go ahead and say that this is the most fucked up book I have ever, to this day, read. When Michelle is five, her mother joins a cult of devil worshipers and offers her to them to try and summon the devil. She is, in no particular order: buried alive, locked in rooms, sexually assaulted, bathed in the blood of babies, put inside a statue where bugs swarm all over her, forced to watch murders, and more. Michelle “remembers” these things later in life, in therapy (the book is co-written with her therapist). I mean, I think it’s pretty much been debunked as being a true story, but who cares: it’s totally bizarre and fucked up and I must have checked it out of the library like twenty times.
Louis Sachar, Sideways Stories From Wayside School series (1978-1995). These are the books that first made me realize that we live in an absurdist world. If you never read these as a kid you missed out on a major life-changing experience. They are so, so amazing and I still leave them in my bathroom at my parents’ house so that I can read them every time I go home . . . and pee.
So, there you have it: a tour through the perhaps twisted taste of 8-12 year old Rebecca. And you? What morbid jewels are you hiding in your childhood bookshelf? Tell me in the comments!