Thursday, June 5, 2014

The 'Great Books' of today

 Lately, I have been reading some of the latest best-selling ‘young-adult’ books that have created waves among the readers of our generation. They have brought up certain questions and observations in my mind, which unfortunately are in great contrast with the worldwide enthusiasm and praise that have been showered on these books.

Take the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins for example. This I read on the raving recommendation of someone whose taste in books I used to admire. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future where a totalitarian government formed by the rich upper class rules with an iron hand. The society is divided into ‘Districts’, each of which specialises in certain specific economic activities. Intermingling is not allowed, and while some of the districts which are closer to the ‘Capitol’, the city of the ruling class, receive favours and mild treatment, the majority of the populace lives in poverty and under varying degrees of tyranny of the local government officials. The most defining – and the most horrifying – aspect of the society is the ‘Hunger Games’: an annual ‘sporting event’ reminiscent of the Roman gladiatorial games in which one girl and one boy between the ages of twelve and eighteen are chosen from each of the twelve Districts to kill and survive the others until only one living winner arises in an arena designed and controlled by the Capitol. This event is held as an enduring punishment to the districts for a revolution that had been carried out against the Capitol during the early days of the formation of society. The story revolves around Katniss Everdeen, the girl ‘tribute’ from District Twelve and her male counterpart Peeta Mellark. As they both go through the Games, an astounding and dangerous twist in the Capitol’s plans occurs which makes another revolution imminent. Over the course of three books, we see the journey of emancipation of the people led by Katniss and her friends, as well as the development of the relationship between Katniss and Peeta.

After finishing this trilogy, I was disappointed, mainly because the person who had recommended it had led me to expect a lot more from it. The idea was interesting, and with a little more graceful handling of the characters and the language, the books would have been much more praise-worthy.

The series that I read next was the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. This one was quite a disaster. To say that the plot was predictable would be a major understatement, and if one happens to read it while the Hunger Games are still fresh in one’s mind – as I did – one will be disgusted by the number of similarities between the two plots; Ms Roth can easily be blamed for plagiarism. This series too is based in a post apocalyptic world, not quite as dystopian as Panem of the Hunger Games, but still regimented in strict groups. At the age of sixteen, girls and boys take aptitude tests that help them decide which faction they want to belong to for the rest of their lives. At the risk of giving out spoilers, I cannot help but describe at least some of the glaring similarities with the HG series and the utter predictable-ness of the books.

·         As soon as the factions are described, it becomes obvious to the reader which faction the protagonist Beatrice Prior is going to choose, so the author’s attempt to build up an atmosphere of uncertainty becomes rather boring.
·         Beatrice shares an uncomfortably formal relation with her parents, which is eventually softened as the dangers of the world come to light and through tragedy, quite like Katniss and her hostile attitude towards her mother.
·         Both girls are special – Katniss is the ‘Mockingjay’, Beatrice is a Divergent, and this makes them leaders, though both are unwilling to step into their roles.
·         In both books, the protagonists suffer a number of ignoble defeats and setbacks before they manage to come into their own.
·         The fear landscapes of Divergent are uncannily reminiscent of the Games arena of HG.
·         In the war that builds up, certain factions gang up against the others, just as certain Districts fight in favour of the Capitol till almost the very end.
·         Beatrice’s love interest Tobias ‘Four’ Eaton can easily be replaced by Katniss’s childhood friend and eventual crush Gale.
·         Four is two years older than Beatrice, and the fuss that has been made about this two-year age gap is frankly ridiculous, and if this is what happens in American society today, I have to say we Indians traditionally have had a much healthier attitude towards such issues (though the American attitude has greatly affected today’s youngsters).

In fact, I was so disappointed in the Divergent series that after finishing the first two books in a hurry, I decided to give the final part a miss. Maybe at some point when I feel like some chick lit again, I will eventually get around to reading it. In fact, I must admit that the only reason that I went through book two was because I had a fleeting crush on the character Four, and once I was past that, the book seemed little better than childish action thrillers.

The last in my list of YA fiction was the current worldwide rage, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Generally, I steer clear of teenage romantic dramas, but everyone in my class seemed to be talking about it. Even one of my old friends from my previous school – who never read books before I introduced her to the Harry Potter series sometime in class nine – was gaga about it. I wanted to read it just to understand what it was that was sending the girls of my generation – and women much older, I hear – over the edge.

The book is about two young people who are suffering from cancer. The girl Hazel Grace is terminal and knows it. She gets into depression, is forced by her parents to join a cancer support group which she initially despises, but eventually meets another boy who was a cancer patient a year ago but is now certified ‘cancer-free’ by the doctors. This boy, Augustus Waters changes the world of Hazel Grace and of so many women readers’, apparently. For my part though, I find nothing exceptional about him. He is described to be handsome, yes, but then most protagonists in teen fictions are. People keep talking about the ‘Augustus Waters experience’, but I did not have one. I found him to be exactly what he is: a young boy with a poor taste in books and who is a video game addict and given to bombasting and philosophizing about weird and completely unnecessary things. In fact, the writing style of the book is something like that, but more about that later. Hazel Grace is completely taken up by a book called An Imperial Affliction, the gist of which seemed to me rather unfathomable, and I cannot for the world understand why anybody would be so greatly fond of it. She recommends it to Augustus, who promptly falls in love with it. Any charm that the character of Augustus could have held for me was irrevocably destroyed when Augustus sends a text message to Hazel something to the effect of “OMG please tell me what happens next!” while discussing the book with her. OMG? Really?!

Eventually the two set out for Amsterdam to meet the author of the said book, who turns out to be a pompous drunkard with a marked lack of civility. They visit The Anne Frank House where they finally realize and accept that they are in love. This part of the book was what interested me the most, as I could imagine myself moving inside the historic place, which I surely will one day. And I am pretty sure I already watched the videos of Anne Frank’s father and other Jews mentioned in the book during our workshop with AFH last year.

Later, Augustus acknowledges to Hazel that his cancer has metastasised all over his body, and he is about to die. Hazel continues to stand by him through his deterioration and eventual death. A few days before he passes, Augustus arranges for a pre-funeral, where his friends Hazel and Isaac, another cancer patient, read him eulogies where Hazel acknowledges her love for him. The book ends with Hazel making a surprising discovery which serves to increase her love for him. That’s about it.

It is an okay book, and there are many others like it. The people in the book are if not positively unlikable, then thoroughly ordinary. I will not make judgmental comments, because I believe that people who are at death’s door have the right to behave as they please so long as they are not disrupting social order. However, my question is why will others want to read about such behaviour? Now about the language of the book. I am one for refined language. It does not have to be flowery; however, consistent use of colloquial language does nothing to enhance the quality of the book. The book is written from the perspective of a typical American teenager, and their manner of speaking has been depicted, and reading about the dialogues and thoughts of a typical American teen (or a typical big city English-speaking teen anywhere around the world, to be fair) is not a very entertaining or educating experience. The thoughts expressed are often obscure, and I got the feeling that the author has made a poor attempt at being philosophical, something like in the book Sophie’s World. This book, people are saying, shows us human love and suffering. But those exact emotions have been explored and expressed with so much more depth and variety in A Tale of Two Cities, How Green was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, A Thousand Splendid Suns and scores of other books like them. So why this brouhaha about a chick lit?

After reading all these books, the real question that kept bothering me was the levels to which the general tastes of people have fallen. Many of those who are raving about these books have very likely not heard of the books that I mentioned, much less read them. Most will not want to read them, because reading and absorbing these books take so much toll on one’s mental and psychological capacities, unlike today’s young adult fictions. What is so saddening is that all that is called ‘great’ by today’s standards will never be able to hold a candle to the real classics, the really great books. Unfortunately, today’s sensation seeking ‘live-in-the-moment’ crowd had severely undermined the meaning of superlatives through gross overuse. Now, The Fault in our Stars is a great romance, just as Romeo and Juliet. A time will come, I suppose, when the John Greens and Stephanie Meyers will be replacing Shakespeare and Shaw in school and college syllabi. God-willing, I will be done with the education industry by then!


Unknown said...

For starters, I am a huge fan of all the books mentioned in your post. On reading your first review on Hunger Games and then the one on Divergent, trust me you made me believe that fiction had reached it's Apocalypse.
But as you started your review on 'Fault in our stars' i became instinctively defensive. It definitely depends on individual human beings regarding how one's mind reacts to words, but preference or not, i had to reciprocate. I believe in love stories, not ones like those of Chetan bhagat or Mills and boon, but those like Romeo Juliet and Love story. If John Green decided to take a modern take on a love story, the why not embrace the idea of 'falling in love like falling asleep' as he says. The story, as you described perfectly, deals with no sentimentality but a faint sensitivity. I might differ with your opinions, but I'm not exaggerating one bit when I say that I value every breath and every day of my life more since I finished the last line of the book.

P.S. Your writing is beautiful.

Urbi Chatterjee said...

Dear Rai,

Welcome to my blog. I'm glad you read books; that in itself is a rare hobby among our generation. If you ever get around to reading some of the books that I have mentioned in this post as references, you might find yourself agreeing with me about TFIOS not being a 'great' book. Only a couple of days back one of my friends - who even a month ago was practically John Green's disciple of sorts - told me that after reading some of them she has begun to come around to my point of view. But of course, to each her own. And if this book has really made you value your life more deeply, then it has definitely been a worthwhile read for you.


Suvro Chatterjee said...


A few observations:

1) I wonder you forgot baba's injunction not to read 'current bestsellers' (most especially of the teen-lit variety) until long after the brouhaha has completely died down! That way you can avoid wasting a lot of money and time on trifles.

2) Until very lately, historically speaking, schools worldwide compelled all pupils to read at least a small portion of what used to be called the Classics: that gave them a certain standard against which to judge all new creations throughout their lives. Deprived of such a compass, it just had to happen that young people today grow up clueless, and cannot help cheering for everything that has caught the public fancy for the passing moment, never having had a chance to develop their own cultivated tastes, and terrified of standing apart from the crowd...

3) Literature cannot remain unaffected by the dominant spirit of the age. As I hope I have sufficiently explained to you, all things - books as much as clothes and cellphones - are now produced with rapid obsolescence built into them, and the public is powerfully encouraged to 'use and throw'. Notice how the Harry Potter books themselves are already on the verge of being forgotten. Want to lay a bet on how soon these books you have discussed will go the same way? How can the world as we have made it survive and thrive if too many people dwell too long on things that endure?

4) As the number of comments on this post will surely have told you, you will never find too many people who can talk about good books seriously with you, or even want to. Learn to be content with that state of affairs. Write this kind of essay chiefly for yourself. And maybe for a few readers like baba... at least until you have found a circle of people who share both your tastes and your mental level.

5) Allow me to remind you that there are a lot of great books waiting at home still to be read, and time passes like water through your fingers!

Much love. And I cannot tell you how proud I am of you, knowing how few fathers can boast of a daughter who can write like you about things that matter.