I read a buttload. I track it, and last year alone I completed 37 books. So far this year, I am halfway through Blue Mars, Blood Meridian, and Les Jours Etranges de Nostradamus and have finished Green Mars, The Reivers, and Feed. That last book is the one I want to talk about today. It is a young adult science fiction book, which is a double-whammy of literary marginalization. The same style of thought that leads serious readers away from science fiction also has them skip YA fiction. It’s a shame, not only because YA is vital to the vibrancy and growth of our literary culture, but because it is worthwhile in its own right.
I mention how much I now read by way of comparison. When I was young, I did not enjoy reading. Why sit around and look at pages when there’s so much other shit to do? My discovery of Goosebumps changed everything. Young Adult fiction builds generations of readers. 10-year-olds probably can’t be interested in Cormac McCarthy, much like you probably can’t step outside and run a marathon right now. It takes practice. Progress happens in increments and the process has a beginning and an end. The path that leads to successful completion and enjoyment of Infinite Jest starts with The Berenstain Bears. I discovered Goosebumps when I was 10, and I now have a heroin-level addiction to reading.
Who needs reasons when you’ve got books?
If you never read any Goosebumps, I question whether you are a normal human with a childhood or if you sprang full-formed from a cultivation vat. By fifth grade, I’d moved on to my first semi-adult book, Tyrant’s Test, book three of the Blackfleet Crisis series in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. At the time, I didn’t really understand the problem of starting with the third one. Anyway, I read it, and there were a lot of words I had simply never seen before. One of my clearest reading-related memories is running across a new word and asking my dad what “ad-juh-kent” meant. He responded that “adjacent” meant “next to.” That was the first of many exchanges that made me an etymological nut, to the extent that I can tell you that “buttload” is not in the same class as “fuckload” or “metric shit-ton,” but actually represents 126 imperial gallons of liquid, as that was the size of a “butt,” something used to store wine. YA fiction entices and cultivates new generations of readers, without which American literary culture would be in worse decline than it already is, but that’s not all it does. The best YA fiction does some heavy philosophical lifting in the formation of young minds. One of the best examples of this is The Giver, which teaches middle-school age kids that nothing can be perfect without a price. That is a huge concept. If you are not familiar with The Giver, again, you are probably a clone.
It’s a boy!
Feed, like The Giver, attacks big issues in bites digestible by young minds. The title of the book comes from its main concept – about three-fourths of citizens have “feeds,” which are like Google Glass but implanted directly into the brain and entwined with the limbic system. Corporations can advertise directly to people with banner ads that scroll across feed users’ field of vision. Think of how annoying pop-up ads are, and then imagine them being inside of your brain. Data mining is prevalent, with corporations using purchase history and even biological information to target their advertisements. In one particularly surreal scene, a character is in a life-threatening situation, and because she is sweating, Feednet shows her an advertisement for deodorant. There are a lot of dystopic elements to this book, one being that most people live in environment bubbles because the actual outdoors is mostly too toxic to survive in. However, the main focus of the book is the effect of the feed on society. It is the creation and the sustainer of an overwhelmingly lazy culture of consumption. People with feeds are capable of buying anything they want at any time and having it flown to them. People with feeds can look up any piece of information they want at any time, leading to a general decline in critical thinking, memory formation, and language. The decline of language and thought instigated by the Feed is clear throughout the book. One example of character speech: “It was meg big big loud. There was everything there.” This type of dialogue really turned me off of the book for the first few chapters, but you get used to it, and besides it’s just another symptom of the social decline set off by misuse of technology, so it actually serves to strengthen the themes of the book.
The vanguard of civilization’s downfall. Also, it makes you look like an asshole.
The unifying plot is very simple. Boy and girl meet, boy and girl kind of like each other, things go wrong, things end badly. The complexity of the story comes from the setting and from character interactions with the feed. The simplicity of the plot merges with the complexity of the social milieu of the story to create an artifact science fiction is very good at manufacturing: the intellectual beach read. Sentence wizards are great, but it takes a special kind of person to read nothing but DFW, Joyce, and Faulkner. In science fiction, there is an emphasis on clear and direct speech, plot, and characterization. Sure, there are still books like Dhalgren (the Ulysses of science fiction. I only got 200 pages into it because I took it to an actual beach, which was not the best decision ever), but Hemingway-clarity is a feature of most science fiction. The text itself represents very little challenge, yet the ideas discussed therein are intriguing and nourishing. This alchemical melding of simplicity and complexity trigger a lung-gom-pa style of reading in which, unimpeded by overwrought sentences and spurred on by intellectual interest, a reader can consume vast amounts of text in a short amount of time. In this state, reading is exhilaration. This feature makes Feed is a great entry into the constellation of young adult literature. If we want to build a strong reading culture, we need authors who put out literature that can stimulate and exhilarate young minds. Feed is the gateway drug that creates the addicts that would do anything for just one more hit of The Brothers Karamazov.
Image credits: Wiki and IMDB.