Ten years ago, zombie fiction was all the rage. Ten years ago, I read World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide, and Day by Day Armageddon with gusto. I taught a whole unit in my English classes on plague stuff: we read excerpts of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, followed up by the contemporary novel, Day by Day Armageddon, then compared them. We played Pandemic on the big screen, and competed between classes. The Walking Dead became a thing. Zombieland poked fun at the genre.
What a time to be alive.
Over the last few years apocalyptic literature has waned, and dystopian literature seems to be more popular. And then we have right now, in which we’re living in a dystopia, while a pandemic approaches.
In some ways it’s surreal. Right now it’s business as usual at my workplace, but we do a lot remote anyway. Of the four schools in the state’s university system, we’re the only non-residential school, and most of our classes are online. Face to face classes are one night a week.
But today we did get word from our recruitment coordinator that our outreach events for the next two weeks are canceled. We’re being asked to be ready to work remote if necessary. And this afternoon (after doing a two-day outreach event), I got a call that the Smol Human’s school district is canceling for the next two weeks.
Again, quite surreal, and takes me back to the books I used to read and teach. While we have a very limited occurrence of COVID-19 in my area, I think these precautions are to keep things from having the opportunity to become more widespread.
Our area doesn’t have the bodies in the streets, deployed military, and everything-is-a-weapon mentality of the apocalyptic literature, or even of Journal of the Plague Year, but even proactive measures throw into glaring relief the issues that… wait for it… plague our society. As it gets worse, we can’t afford to have people going out. And so many people can’t afford not to.
I went to my local grocery store today, and the last time I saw shelves that bare was when they predicted a nor’easter (we New Englanders and our snow). And it’s true, there really isn’t any TP anywhere. I did plan to do a big shop and meal prep this weekend anyway, as the prepped meals in our chest freezer are starting to dwindle, and I wanted to restock, but at the same time I didn’t want to look like I was feeding into the hysteria. Though… is it really hysteria?
I’m not quite sure where I’m going with any of this, but it just felt right to get some thoughts down. I suppose being cautious and proactive will be the best bet with everything.
How are you faring? How are you preparing? Are we too worried, or not worried enough?
I’ve read a lot of books in my life. I’ve had to–I was an English major, an English teacher, and now I’m an adjunct professor. Plus, I just enjoy reading! Of course there are a lot of books I haven’t read, which isn’t surprising; but there are some books I haven’t read that surprise people, given my background. “What do you mean, you’ve never read The Great Gatsby?” they ask in shock. I just… never had to. It was never on the syllabi for any classes I took, and I never taught it. Maybe I’ll give it a go next year, the whole 2020 thing and all. But another such book is Little Women.
This one tended to surprise people; I’m also a New Englander born and raised not far from the heart of early American literature and the cradle of Transcendentalism. “J, you’d love Jo!” they told me. “It’s so good! Didn’t you at least see the movie?” I didn’t doubt it, and no, I hadn’t. And I hadn’t given it much thought until a series of events that may or may not involve Timothee Chalamet *ahem* led me to decide to read it this year.
With the official trailer dropping yesterday, it got me thinking about my experiences reading the book earlier this year. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, and maybe not for the reasons I would have if I’d read it when I was younger. I was closing in on 40 when I read it for the first time, and I’m actually glad I hadn’t read it before then!
My experiences have shaped me; the people I’ve known, the things I’ve done, the choices I’ve made, all have molded me into who I am now. If I’d approached Little Women when I was younger, I wouldn’t have appreciated the different characters the way did this time. I went into the book expecting to like Jo: stubborn, willful, determined, a writer who doesn’t like to be told what to do. She reminded me of me; my very first library day as a child, some little girl told me I couldn’t take out a book about dinosaurs, because “those are boy books”. I took out that book, and every other dinosaur book I could find every library day thereafter–mostly out of interest, and partly out of spite.
But the more I read of the other sisters, I saw other parts of myself. While I initially viewed Meg as the responsible and dutiful eldest sister, trying to set a good example and sometimes quashing Jo’s free spirit, I realized that yes, she’s the eldest. She has a natural sense of duty, but that’s tempered by her occasional dreams of finer things that lead her to sometimes make poor choices. She’s able to grow from those times. Also, I saw a lot of myself in Meg’s struggles as a wife and new mother. She wants to do right by her husband and make a cozy home, but she still struggles and gets overwhelmed. She loves her family and the life she’s made, but she still gets tired and struggles. I mean, she ended up with twins, so yeah–I struggle with my one (who has the energy of two!). I don’t think I’d have appreciated Meg’s story arc had I read it earlier in my life.
While I definitely identified with Meg and Jo, I didn’t think I would identify with Amy at all; she’s young, and I spent a lot of the early part of the book more annoyed with her and reading her arcs quickly so I could move back to Jo and Meg. However, overall I appreciated her growth the most; I think she shows the most out of them, though I would say that’s because she starts off so much younger and has a lot of room for it, while Meg and Jo are older and working and pretty set in what they want out of life. When I think back on reading Amy’s storyline, it’s more than just her growth and maturation that makes her character great: it’s the fact that she doesn’t settle. She tries, because she thinks it’s what she should do, but realizes that she wants more, from then on doesn’t settle.
Which of course brings me to Laurie. Laurie holds his own really well with the sisters, and they each have a unique relationship with him. He needled Meg like a younger brother, and appreciated Beth’s gentle ways. And of course there’s his ill-fated love for Jo, and initially, I was upset when she turned him down. They were perfect for each other! Both intelligent, energetic, headstrong… and then because they were so much alike it made sense that it would never work out. Which was why I was pleasantly surprised to find myself rooting for Laurie and Amy! Amy won’t settle; Laurie is prone to a good fit of pique every so often, and she’s quick to call him out on it. I think because she always saw Laurie as ending up with Jo, she felt she had nothing to lose by being honest with him. And because he hadn’t ever considered her romantically, he had no pretenses around Amy. As a result, their relationship builds organically, and it becomes a really lovely partnership. His proposal in the boat, where they agree to row through life together, was simple and beautiful, and it makes for a great metaphor for their relationship.
What strikes me the most about the sisters and the way Alcott writes about them is that they each have a unique pathway and make their own choices, and Alcott doesn’t promote one over the other. Jo’s headstrong determination to become published isn’t any worthier than Meg’s desire to marry and start a family. Amy’s ambitions as an artist aren’t silly, and Beth’s generosity and compassion and empathy are strengths; she’s not a martyr or a tragic figure or cautionary tale–she’s Beth, who loves everyone and wants to help. No one sister is any better than the other, and all choices suit them all just right. In the trailer Meg tells Jo, “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” I feel like that’s the overall theme of Little Women: everyone has different dreams, and those differences don’t invalidate the dreams.
I don’t think I’d have appreciated this as much as I do now, if I’d read the book or seen the movie when I was younger. I think I’d have focused so much on Jo, because, at that age, that’s who I was. And before that, maybe I’d have seen more to identify with in Amy. And now, I see both, but also Meg, and even Marmee. Marmee is #goals–she doesn’t judge, she knows when to stand back and let her daughters figure it out, but when to step forward and let them know she’s still there for them. And I don’t think I’d have seen that about Marmee without being older and a parent myself, figuring out when to back off and let the Smol Human explore and experiment, and when to swoop in and make it all better.
I learned a lot from Little Women. I’m glad I finally read it, but glad it took me so long. Perhaps this fall I’ll take a trip down to the Alcott House; I’ll definitely be seeing the movie (with box of tissues in hand) over the holidays, and who knows: maybe eventually I’ll read Alcott’s other works. I do know that the March sisters and their lessons won’t be leaving me any time soon, and for that, I’m glad.
I feel like everyone has a thing that draws them into a book. Some people really enjoy the found family trope, or a particular character. Recently author Yolandie Horak wrote a great post about her favorite trope, the Lovable Rogue. Lately I’ve been reading a duology, and between that, and my own work, have come to realize that my trope? My thing? is Academia.
I’ve always been an academic to a degree. I love reading; I love the smell of books, and I love getting lost in a library. And when I stop to think about it, a lot of the books I love are set in schools or at libraries; they incorporate books and academia as a major part of the story and the world. When I sort myself into a Hogwarts house, I come up Ravenclaw more often than not. I love when fantasy books incorporate a library into their world, and when a game has an academic setting I can explore.
There are two games I played relatively recently that incorporate the trope of the lost library: Thief and Dragon Age: Inquisition (both 2014). Thief has a level that is a ruined library (that is almost ruined by a very frustrating puzzle, but that’s more gameplay mechanics than anything else). The game overall is very gloomy, but this gloom works well for this level, and the idea of seeking out long-lost knowledge. Strange things haunt the corners; staircases move; paths change. Which way is up anymore? It makes the idea of getting ‘lost in a book’ a reality.
In Inquisition the Shattered Library is lost beyond time and space, accessible only by the mysterious Eluvians. Spirits of Knowledge and Study, the Archivists, linger, preserving the last words of those who remained in the Vir Dirthara. Books remain, but will shock those who try to take them from the shelves, as if protecting themselves. The Librarians, once caretakers, are transformed into violent guardians. At one point, Dorian Pavus (more on him at a later date) says, “Look at this place! Now that we have so many samples, how hard would it be to build Eluvians of our own?” Even after he’s dissuaded by a very deadpan Iron Bull, he explains that he’d like to make something magical that is also helpful; most of the magical objects they’ve dealt with over the last few years have been tools of destruction, and Dorian, ever the scholar, wants to use this new research for something good.
Recently I finished Ginn Hale’s Lord of the White Hell Book 1; I will do a proper review eventually! I liked the characters and the plot, but I realized what I really enjoyed most of all was it being set at a school. I liked the discussions of classes and homework assignments, and students studying and complaining about professors. I liked the kind Scholars and the gruff weapons Master. I’m reading the second book right now, and I am enjoying it: the plot continues to deepen, and I grow even fonder of the characters. I’m about halfway through, and I actually really miss the school setting! This isn’t a failure of Hale’s by any means; but it’s made me realize that yes, academia is really my favored trope.When I first read the Harry Potter series I loved the magical world that Rowling created, but it was the descriptions of the school: the library with its forbidden section, the classes students took and the tools of their trade. Maybe I was even a tad disappointed when the final book didn’t (understandably) focus on the schooling…
I think, to a degree, one of the reasons I enjoy Tokien’s work as much as I do is that he was first and foremost a scholar. I love seeing that side of him reflected in Gandalf, particularly in that scene in the Minas Tirith library in Fellowship of the Ring, and I love that Gandalf’s initial reaction is to run off to Gondor to do some serious research. And maybe to an extent, this is part of what I centered in on in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. I saw a lot of myself in Cath with the fanfiction writing and all, but most of the novel was set on a college campus, navigating roommates, classmates, professors, and assignments. And of course there’s The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, two thirds of which are set at the University, centered around a precocious (if slightly wise-assed) first person narrator. I love it.
This is in no way an exhaustive list, but given that the University and its library, and the quest for lost knowledge, play a huge role in my current project, I think it’s safe to say that academia is my “thing”. Is there a “thing” you gravitate toward in your reading habits and/or writing? Share in the comments!