February 25, 2009 Volume 2 Issue 5
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Janis Flint-Ferguson
Harry Potter left a muggled world of grumpy relatives and spoiled peers to enroll in the now renowned Hogwarts Academy. There he learned about wizardry, evil, and ultimately himself. Readers of all ages followed his adventures to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list and the mythic nature of the plot has been researched, discussed and analyzed in even the most elite circles. All of this to the delight of a publishing house most known for its young adult fare.
Still, there are many who simply fail to believe that any book for young adults is truly a work of literature-good books, good stories, sure, but somehow lacking in the values of classic literature. If literature is a reflection of who we are, then many might see young adult literature as incomplete; real literature moves beyond the problems and concerns of that age group. It just doesn't count. And the fantasy stuff? Wizards first and now the vampires of Twilight are fine for casual reading, but not really fit for literary study. What, after all, is their intellectual or moral value?
I'm not convinced we should so easily dismiss these novels. In fact, I would argue that the very best of this genre is solidly focused in that reflection and recreation of the human experience, both of which are the hallmarks of good literature. We study literature for what it says about who we are or who we would like to be. All literature is a bit "speculative," a bit of the "what if" and a whole lot of consequence. The classics touch upon the questions and concerns that are universal and timeless-the issues that make us human. We read them to remind ourselves of our humanity.
Consider Stephenie Meyer's Twilight--the novel not the movie--where Bella Swan is in love with a vampire who attends her high school but is not part of its social scene. Edward finds himself unexplainably attracted to Bella, in ways very different than his thirst for blood would indicate. In the romance that develops, Bella wants him to turn her into a vampire so that they can be together always. Edward refuses because he is concerned for her soul. He is concerned with the vampire's characteristic of evil and he does not want to be responsible for putting another person into that situation. He does not want to give Bella a romanticized notion of an immortal life that she does not and cannot fully understand.
Carlisle Cullen, the "patriarch" of the vampire "family," was first the son of a minister who turned into a vampire. Escaping persecution, he left England to live with vampires in Europe. But something in the life of the traditional vampire repulses him. Carlisle is no Dracula. He does not want to take the life of others, even though he has used his vampire powers to save several-including Edward-from certain death. Instead, he studies medicine, comes to a New World and develops the self-control needed to serve humanity. Fighting the temptations of the flesh, Carlisle works only for the good.
So it is that through this young adult novel, we can speculate on what it means to be human, what it means to be part of a community, what it means to fight our own base instincts. There is a true reflection of humanity portrayed through the Cullen clan, a reflection of how things might be if we, even without supernatural powers, set our minds on acts of goodness and the care for another's soul. Novels like this help us remember life's purpose.
Which is why it is particularly interesting to note that just last month (January 2009), the National Endowment for the Arts issued an amazing study. For the first time in the 26 years they have been surveying readership in America, there was good news to report. The percentage of Americans who reported reading "novels, short stories, poems or plays" increased from 46.7 percent in 2002 to 50.2 percent in 2008. Who contributed to the overall increase in literary readership? Young adults, who accounted for nearly 40 percent of the overall growth.
The report is a boost for English teachers like me who believe reading literature is inherently important for each of us-regardless of age-in our development as human beings. It is good news indeed that adults and young adults alike are reading and discussing their own humanity through the characters of wizards and vampires. How literary!
Dr. Janis Flint-Ferguson is professor of English and education at Gordon College. She and her family live in Essex, MA.