The Malleability of Kid-dom

After writing about how no one has ever read a book that changed his/her life, I’ve come up with a slight amendment.

I prefer The Chronicle’s approach to influential books, by asking the question What Book Changed Your Mind. That question is much more accurate and gets at the heart of what books do for people. Books, aside from self-help guides and diet books, aren’t designed to change lives, they’re designed to change minds. Granted, there is plenty of just-for-fun reading (I read Twilight), but even those have the potential to change your mind (I was furiously disappointed with Bella’s I Had A Baby And Was Able To Fully Realize My Strength And Self-Worth revelation.). However, I do think a book is more likely to change the mind of a child/adolescent than the mind of an adult.

I think books have a greater power to change the way you think when you read them before the age of, let’s say, 14. I have no scientific evidence to back any of this up, but it’s my general understanding that our brains are malleable when we’re young. We’re also much more impressionable and much more willing to believe what we’re told, or what we read, or what we see, for that matter. And before 14, you have little life experience, and your neural pathways aren’t set, and just about everything has a chance to blow your mind because there’s just so much you don’t know. It all changes at 15/16 though, because that’s when suddenly you start to believe you know everything and nothing will make you believe otherwise.

I’ve posted about children’s books and my strong opinions about them already because, as an adult, I still have a strong emotional attachment to what I read as a child, and I don’t believe I’m the only person to feel this way. Those books tend to stay with us and have more of a lasting impression than a lot of what we read in high school or college. I, for one, am still looking for Narnia at the back of the wardrobe.

That being said, I’m not sure I can name, with any certainty, a book that changed my mind. But I do know there are books I read when I was young that helped shape my mind. C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle opened up wonderful magical worlds for me, and since reading them I hold a special place in my heart for fantasy novels and kids who have to face nearly insurmountable challenges. Angela’s Ashes was one of the first memoirs I read, and since then I’ve been hooked on the genre. Tuesdays with Morrie made a lasting impression and made me realize how much I hate carpe diem advice/self-help-esque books, and that I never need to read anything from Mitch Albom again. I also remember reading those Children’s Illustrated Classics as a kid and thinking I was so smart because I’d already read Little Women, and The Invisible Man, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Tale of Two Cities before I was even in middle school. Of course, I then later found out that those were severely abridged versions and that, no, I hadn’t really read those books. I still have a lot of catching up on ‘the classics’ to do. But that’s a post for another day.

The more we’re exposed to a variety of literary genres and a wide array of characters (weak and strong alike) while we’re young, the more we open ourselves up to, not just a equally wide variety of books as an adult, but the more we open ourselves up to becoming an empathetic person in the world. There is more to reading than vocabulary and comprehension and identifying the 6 elements of fiction. Reading has the potential to make you a better human being. And, sure, it’s never to late to start, but better to have an early start.

When Language Has No Value

We forget what books are for, apparently. And we all become sarcastic, irony-spouting hipsters.

Buzzfeed released a list from the Buzzfeed Community of 51 Books That Prove Reading Can Change Your Life.

Now, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration for me to say that I’ve read more books than the average person my age. And I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that’s changed my life. I have several favorite books: The Bell JarAs I Lay Dying, The Yellow Wallpaper (although I suppose that’s a novella), Song of the LarkThe World According to Garp, and there are others that I can’t recall right now, but I’m sure later someone will ask me, ‘What about this book?’ and I’ll say, ‘Oh yeah! That book! I forgot!’ But I don’t necessarily consider any of those life-changing.

For a book to be truly life-changing, it means you read a book and it convinced you to quit your job, or leave your husband, or move across the globe. Not to denigrate anyone’s feelings or experiences, but reading a book that causes you to be less sad sooner than you would have been otherwise, isn’t life-changing. That’s what books do. A book stays with us and becomes a favorite when it causes us to see the world from a different perspective, it challenges our preconceptions, it touches a nerve. Books are written to convey and to connect. The whole point of reading is to empathize with someone else, fictional or otherwise, to live in someone else’s skin. We love a book when we can relate, when the author is able to express in words our exact feelings, in a way that we couldn’t. This is why books exist. And, more often than not, a book becomes a favorite because we encountered it at just the right time, a time when we were particularly emotionally vulnerable, or needed reassurance or motivation or a compelling distraction. Most of the reasons people on this list claim a book changed their life have less to do with the book and more to do with how they were feeling at the time they picked it up, and how they then felt afterward. For some of these, it could have been any book. This is why people turn to books.

The problem I have with the phrase ‘life-changing’ is that it’s another over-used phrase, e.g., ‘The new Starbucks chestnut praline latte will change your life.’ Louis CK has an amazing bit about the way people talk and how we’re ruining language. ‘Ruining’ in the sense that our standards have drastically changed if a hotdog can be amazing. We’ve changed the value of words. Some just call this exaggerating. But it’s become ingrained in the way we describe things. Why are our coffee shops overrun with irony-spouting hipsters? Because our language has been devalued. It’s just too easy to be sarcastic. Our language is infused with irony because our adjectives don’t mean what they once did. Now just about anything can be amazing.

I’m not particularly bothered by the over-use of ‘amazing,’ ‘awesome,’ etc., because I have had amazing cupcakes and bought socks that are incredibly warm. But I do think there should be a line, and it should come just before life-changing.

Buzzfeed’s list should just be, ’51 People Who Understand Why Reading is Necessary, Why Reading Books, Hearing the Words in Your Own Head, in Your Own Voice, is Often Preferable and More Affective Than Watching any Tear-Jerker.’ Or, ’51 Books That Do What Books Do Best.’ Or, just, ’51 Books That Are Books.’ But I suppose their original list title is a bit snappier.

Bitchy Resting Face

Do you remember seeing that fake PSA for Bitchy Resting Face? Well, my name is Liz, and I have Bitchy Resting Face, or BRF. It is a serious affliction which causes me to look unapproachable, unfriendly, or down-right mean. The corners of my mouth naturally turn down; it’s not my fault, really.

Admittedly, the BRF thing has gone a little too far (and has since seriously cooled down #latetotheparty). I mean, we’ve now diagnosed dogs with this unfortunate condition. Incidentally, Karma has BRF too. I guess people really do start to look like their pets. Or is it that we gravitate toward potential pets who look like us?

Karma BRF

It is my personal belief that living in cities significantly contributes to the rise in cases of BRF. Taking public transportation and walking around a lot, you encounter people and situations you’d just rather not, on a daily basis. And some of us visibly broadcast this unsociability. It doesn’t so much bother me; I’m used to my face. But it sometimes bothers others.

There’s a regular at the bookstore where I used to work who came in one day and said to me, ‘Hey, Liz. I saw you walking earlier, and I honked, but you didn’t see me.’ My response was, ‘It’s not that unusual for me to ignore people who honk at me on the street.’ (I know this post is starting to sound like it’s going to involve @everydaysexism or #YesAllWomen or #DudesgreetingDudes, but it isn’t.) A few months later the same customer came in and said, ‘Liz, I said ‘hi’ to you earlier, but you ignored me.’ So, I felt the need to explain my BRF and that I tune most things out when walking down the street, because, I don’t really want to invite more instances of ‘Yo I got a big dick! You want some?’ or the woman loudly yelling ‘e-BO-la’ in my face. (I suppose, this post is @everydaysexism and #YesAllWomen and #DudesgreetingDudes adjacent.)

Walking around Boston or taking public transportation, I feel like my BRF is justified, understandable, even. But when I first meet someone or am consciously trying to make a good first-impression, I really overcompensate, because I’ve had more than one person say to me, ‘You know, when I first met you, I really thought you were a bitch.’ And, generally, that’s not the kind of persona I want to project. In an interview or on a date or at a party with people I don’t know, I smile and laugh far too much to sound intelligent or credible or interesting. My entire vocabulary falls out of my brain and I smile and ramble, just trying to be pleasant and approachable. I forget things about myself or opinions I have and just blather and try not to let my face go neutral. I can feel myself doing it, and inside my head I’m telling myself to stop being an idiot, and my face just doesn’t listen.

Maybe that’s it. It’s more than just BRF, it’s that I can’t control my facial expressions. Like Will Ferrell’s SNL character, Jacob Silj, who couldn’t control the volume or pitch of his voice, except me with my face. While I’m ok with my BRF and general, projected air of indifference, it doesn’t exactly convey confidence or dependability. Of course, it doesn’t help that my BRF is compounded by my Lonely Sarcastic Guy-esque quality. On a number of occasions people have commented that they can’t tell whether I’m being sarcastic or not. This is why I so often feel phony in social situations; because my normal, neutral state is that I’m not a people person, which, typically is not the way to get people to like you. So I fake it. And I know I’m faking it, and then I worry that others can tell I’m faking it and then why am I trying so hard? Aren’t I supposed to be ok with who I am? Which I am, except other people probably aren’t. And, meanwhile, while all this is going through my head, I’m trying to hold a conversation, the thread of which I have now completely lost.

On a related note, I’m thankful for the friends I’ve managed to somehow coerce into being my friend despite my BRF and sarcastic voice affliction.