Monday, March 06, 2006

A Tale of Two Books

I finally succumbed to the threats (that they'd visit me) and promises (barbecue!) and went to spend the weekend with my parents. It was a pretty calm, relaxing weekend. We ate, watched Sci Fi Friday, took a tour of the lawn to see all the nice springy stuff that's starting to happen, and sat around reading.

I had two books with me that probably fall at the opposite ends of the literary spectrum -- Life of Pi by Yann Martel and The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella. Both were bestsellers, but there the resemblance ends. Life of Pi is a prize-winning literary novel and bookclub favorite (the reason I was reading it -- for the city-wide "bookclub" project) full of metaphor within metaphor about survival and the nature of faith. And a tiger (or not. Maybe.). The Undomestic Goddess is fluffy commercial fiction -- chick lit, even -- about what happens when a high-powered young attorney loses everything and finds herself in the process of becoming a housekeeper at a Cotswolds manor.

One of these books was written specifically to make people think and ponder the mysteries of life while the other was written purely for entertainment. And guess which one has stuck with me the most after reading it, which one has made me think. Maybe I'm a shallow person, or maybe it's that faith isn't something I have to be made to think about through the use of extended metaphors, but it was the chick lit book that had me thinking about the choices I've made in my life, how I spend my time, and what the tradeoffs may or may not have been. It made me realize that throwing yourself into your work to the exclusion of all else might be a bad idea even if it is work that you love. I'm not about to ditch my writing career to go cook for people, but a writer does need non-writing stuff in order to refresh the soul and have more material to write about.

This made me realize that most of these distinctions we make between literary fiction and commercial fiction are highly artificial. It's the readers who find their own meaning in what they read, and you never know what will touch someone in a way that makes a difference in her life. It's not for the author to decide what readers should take away from a book. The author can certainly set out to say something, but I think it works better if it's almost subliminal. The literary snobs really need to shut up and let people read what speaks to them instead of forcing the book equivalent of broccoli at people and insisting they read something that's good for them. Let people read, and they'll find their own truths and messages.

I'm not saying I didn't enjoy the process of reading the more literary book. It certainly had some thoughtful passages and beautiful language, but it didn't have nearly the impact on the way I look at my life that the lighter book had. Go figure.

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