Ideal Reader: An Adolescent (Joyce Carol Oates quotation) -- Golden Age

Extollager

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---“Perhaps the ideal reader is an adolescent: restless, vulnerable, passionate, hungry to learn, skeptical and naïve by turns, believing in the power of the imagination to change, if not life itself, one’s comprehension of life. The degree to which we remain adolescents is the degree to which we remain ideal readers, for whom the act of opening a book can be a sacred one, fraught with psychic risk.” Joyce Carol Oates, “The One Unforgivable Sin,” New York Review of Books 25 July 1993, p. 3.----

I found this quotation, which I'd written in an old notebook. It jibes with that famous remark about the Golden Age of science fiction being 12 (or 14).

Worth discussing? Is she right? Does that sound like it applies to your own experience? What do we, or should we, gain as we get older? Has anyone read any of Oates's fiction (I don't believe I have)? Have you encountered that youthful eagerness in any person of mature years (e.g. a teacher)?

I was reminded of the remark someone made about C. S. Lewis as retaining a "boyish" quality. His letters and his scholarly writings convey a love of reading, an eagerness, a receptivity close to what Oates mentions, right up to the time of his death.
 

The Judge

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I've only read of hers The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, a collection of stories (one novella and six shorts). A note I made about it at the time (2015): "Death, general unpleasantness and family tensions predominate, but excellent writing, particularly in the title story where a young girl is abducted by teenagers who seek to recreate the Amerindian sacrificial victim." I can't now recall anything of them, though, not even that title story.

As to the general comment, I was certainly an eager reader as a teenager, but I'm pretty sure I wasn't an ideal reader for anyone's work. I thought highly of my own intelligence, but I very much doubt whether my youthful opinions -- on life, literature or anything else, come to that -- would hold up to my own scrutiny now. I'm reminded of the old gibe that if you're not a communist at 15 there's something wrong with your heart, but if you're still a communist at 50 there's something wrong with your head. My heart was certainly in my reading then, and burning indignation for all kinds of things, not least the utter stupidity of all adults, but my head...?

Something that's hit a nerve for me today is Hugh's comment in the reading thread as to his changing taste, in his case on Simak:

In my teens and early twenties he was just another writer as far as I was concerned. I'd read and liked City and Way Station, but I did not see him as anything that special. . . . In my 50s I began to pick up on Simak and realised that he was writing at much the same age as I was then and that perhaps because of this I could connect with him more than with other writers: he did not hit his stride as a writer until he was in his late 40s and then continued into his early 80s. I think that as a result there are no adrenaline driven rollercoasters, just a more measured mature pace reflecting a wonder of what it is to be alive. There are no blockbusters or bestsellers just a series of stories that gradually inveigle their way into your consciousness so that you feel better about yourself and others and the world around you.​

I hope I've gained more insight into people and humanity generally as I've got older, which I think is reflected in how I read and appreciate novels now. I don't know that I've any more patience for the slow-moving and ponderous, now though, nor for philosophical maunderings, and I certainly can't tolerate either teenage angst with which I might have once sympathised, nor cardboard characters I'd probably have loved in my teens.

But then, although I'm still an eager reader, I'm probably still not an ideal reader for anyone -- still far too opinionated, only now allied with grumpy pernicketyness!
 

Azoraa

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It was for me definitely during these years, between 13 and 18 maybe, that some books became foundational for me in a way that defined my identity. Like The Lord of the Rings, The Mists of Avalon (I know...), Wolfgang Hohlbein (German author), Tonke Dragt.
While I think in many ways I'm a better reader now -- resonating very much with what @The Judge wrote above, and there are many books now which I absolutely adore and admire -- they don't play that kind of role for my own identity now. Which is probably a healthy thing!

I did make the mistake to re-read the Mists of Avalon at a later age -- in my late twenties I think -- and found it absolutely horrible. I re-read Tonke Dragt and still absolutely loved her books.

It might be true that adolescents can open themselves so fully to another world as adults rarely can (or want) anymore, while at the same time understanding much more complexity than children. Maybe that is a special combination... hmm...
 

Randy M.

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It might be true that adolescents can open themselves so fully to another world as adults rarely can (or want) anymore, while at the same time understanding much more complexity than children. Maybe that is a special combination... hmm...

Yeah. That.

When I was in my teens, I could pretty much predict the direction an episode of a TV show -- western, crime, whatever -- within ten or fifteen minutes of the beginning, sometimes sooner. I'd learned that when younger (also which network the particular thing originated on from the film quality; there were only three networks in the U.S. at that time). The genre fiction I started reading -- mainly mystery, then horror, then fantasy, then s.f. -- was usually more sophisticated about revealing its direction at the author's discretion, and the wonders of s.f., fantasy and even horror were prime attractions, exercises in invention that could suck me in regardless of plot and keep me reading.

You get older and recognize what you once thought inventive was largely shiny gewgaws and tinsel, now more easily recognized as tinsel (see also, Oscar Levant, "Behind the phony tinsel of Hollywood lies the real tinsel."), so it's harder to be immersed by just anything. In compensation, when something really sings, when you find some depth and breadth in the work, there's a favorable probability of recognizing that, too.

So, yeah, for an awful lot of writers, adolescents may be the best readers. (Not sure that really applies to Oates, but I've read very little by her.) For readers, adolescence may be the most exciting time because there's so much left to learn by a mind that is still relatively unsophisticated, not yet distracted by the layers of adult responsibility, and so still capable of being fully absorbed by the wonders conjured by the written word.

Randy M.
 

Extollager

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This, the opening paragraph of George Steiner's Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? An Essay in the Old Criticism, seemed relevant to what Oates says, though Steiner isn't specifically writing of adolescents.

"Literary criticism should arise out of a debt of love. In a manner evident and yet mysterious, the poem of the drama or the novel seizes upon our imaginings. We are not the same when we put down the work as we were when we took it up. ...Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers."

Adolescents, I suppose, are (or, anyway, were) more likely than adults to say, "I love that book!" or "I love Tolkien!" I imagine many of us here believe we really were changed in some way by some of our early reading. But I think Oates as well as Steiner leaves open the possibility that an adult too may be really moved, in his or her imagination, by a literary work. Note, I'm saying "in his or her imagination," not "in his or her emotions" -- which might also occur, but is not the same, and I'm not certain that being strongly affected in one's imagination is always accompanied by intensely felt emotion -- though I wouldn't want anyone to think that I regards these two things that we distinguish, imagination and emotion, as separate components.

But love -- "Literary criticism should arise out of a debt of love." That sounds good to me. It also suggests that current academic practices are much at fault. They taken young people who, I suppose, are not usually out of adolescence yet, and train them to look at literary works e.g. in terms of how they have supposedly been used to oppress certain groups of people.
 

soulsinging

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As to the general comment, I was certainly an eager reader as a teenager, but I'm pretty sure I wasn't an ideal reader for anyone's work. I thought highly of my own intelligence, but I very much doubt whether my youthful opinions -- on life, literature or anything else, come to that -- would hold up to my own scrutiny now. I'm reminded of the old gibe that if you're not a communist at 15 there's something wrong with your heart, but if you're still a communist at 50 there's something wrong with your head. My heart was certainly in my reading then, and burning indignation for all kinds of things, not least the utter stupidity of all adults, but my head...?
...

I hope I've gained more insight into people and humanity generally as I've got older, which I think is reflected in how I read and appreciate novels now. I don't know that I've any more patience for the slow-moving and ponderous, now though, nor for philosophical maunderings, and I certainly can't tolerate either teenage angst with which I might have once sympathised, nor cardboard characters I'd probably have loved in my teens.

But then, although I'm still an eager reader, I'm probably still not an ideal reader for anyone -- still far too opinionated, only now allied with grumpy pernicketyness!

To me, this more so lends support to what she's saying. If you characterize adolescence as "restless, vulnerable, passionate, hungry to learn, skeptical and naïve by turns, believing in the power of the imagination to change, if not life itself, one’s comprehension of life" as she did, the ideal reader's tastes and reactions SHOULD change over the course of their life just as the reader does, and particularly as we all do in adolescence. One of the more rewarding reading experiences of my life has been discovering how my reaction to certain works has changed with age and experience (maybe even a bit of wisdom and a dose of humility). You can be opinionated and push back on the opinions you read along the way, because it's the willingness to engage with books in a way that acknowledges them as potentially powerful agents of change that makes one the ideal reader. There's nothing wrong with a good beach read, and some people have no interest in going beyond that and that's fine. But the ideal reader feels they're not just fun or escape, they really MATTER and they can have meaningful impact on people's lives, even if it's reaffirming their grumpy persnicketyness.
 

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