Earlier today, one of the women in my office started a conversation with someone else about books. She reads a lot, I’ve noticed that, even during the 15-minute breaks that I find insufficient for getting anything useful out of a novel. During this conversation, she mentioned that she’d recently read Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked,” a book I read a few years before it became a musical and still own…I think. Wait. Yes, I just checked. I still own it. (I also own “Mirror Mirror,” Maguire’s take on the Snow White tale that I find superior to “Wicked” but anyway.)
This woman didn’t like “Wicked” but read it anyway because, she admitted, it was compelling enough that she had to know the ending. She explained that she’d loved the musical and “the movie” (um, this turned out to be “The Wizard of Oz,” which is of course the basis but about as similar to “Wicked” as a premium prime rib meal is to a Big Mac), but hated “Wicked” because “it was about gross and bad things and wasn’t nice like the movie and I just don’t want to read about that stuff.”
Okay. I concede that if you begin reading “Wicked” because you think it’s going to be about all the heartwarming parts you remember from “The Wizard of Oz,” then the story would be a bit of a shock. There’s the suggestion of carny sex, for one, and also some child neglect and at least one horrific injury that I can remember. But if you go into it with the memory of the fucked up parts of “The Wizard of Oz,” such as the flying monkeys, the dictator behind the curtain, or Dorothy just straight up murdering a lady out of the sky, then you know, it’s a pretty creative interpretation of events. It’s not a bad book, it’s actually a very good story, and even though this woman in my office is free to think whatever she wants, I take issue with why she thinks it.
She said she doesn’t read books that have “gross” or “bad” things in them. She will “only read books with happy endings” because it’s bad enough that life doesn’t always have those. For chrissakes, she hated “The Hunger Games” because it’s about kids getting killed and how unrealistic it would be for mothers to allow this, as she is seemingly unaware that it is a piece of fantasy fiction about a dystopian world, and the cruel absurdity of kids who get murdered by order of the government is the entire vehicle for the entire story.
This woman is in her 40s, by the way. And while she may read a lot, she reads garbage. As in almost exclusively YA and romance titles. And she’s weirdly obsessed with the Despicable Me movies (really any cartoons, but man does she love “Minions” or whatever), and yes, if you were wondering, she is the woman with the guinea pigs.
So I take issue not with her opinion, but why she holds it. For one, I mean, come on, lady, read something meant for your age bracket. For two, I was under the impression that a reader’s suspension of disbelief was crucial to literature, and that implicit in opening a piece of fiction is the understanding that everything within, no matter how bizarre or contrary or upsetting to the universe we know, is actually happening in the story. For three, allowing yourself only stories (or songs, or films, or knowledge about the world) that conclude happily seems extremely limiting to me, and also potentially harmful, both as a reader and as a person.
I once referenced an Atlantic piece about how reading makes us better, kinder, more intuitive people, and I stand by that completely, because there’s a unique and amazing sense of empathy gained from understanding the motivations of people you don’t know in a world you don’t inhabit. While I don’t know because I’ve never chosen to read exclusively happy stories or exclusively unhappy stories (or just stories with one type of ending), I imagine that it would be harder to achieve this empathy – as well as the kindness and emotional intelligence that goes along with it – if the information provided is incomplete.
I think it’s vital to understand the suffering of others, even if it has to be experienced indirectly and to someone who doesn’t really exist. It’s vital to know how a person suffers, how they react to pain, how they see and treat others in relation to it. It’s vital to know that it exists because that’s how we recognize it in real life, and if you spend all of your time avoiding unhappy endings, then I’m sorry, but you’re spending all of your time avoiding pretty much the entire world. And that’s not just limiting anymore. That’s ignorant.
And really, I don’t even see how that’s possible. Trying to convince yourself that the world is not a carnival of horrors built upon empires of blood and bones is insane, and anyone who’s been paying attention can tell you that. You can stop eating meat because you think it’s cruel to animals, but you also have to acknowledge the migrant workers who harvest your food for little pay in squalid conditions. Buy fair trade coffee if it makes you feel better, but you also have to admit that the machine you’re brewing it in or the cup you’re drinking it from or the clothes you’re wearing during the process were made by cheap slave labor in a Third World backwater. Every single thing in the world, from our food to our stuff to our history to the fact that we are alive today after our ancestors raped and pillaged and schemed and cheated and survived the time before us, everything is tied to the abject misery of living things.
Which is not to say you should only focus on this, nor should this give you a reason to say “fuck it” and live as harmfully and irresponsibly as possible. I buy organic food. I support local businesses. I recycle. But I also wear clothes I bought at Target. I have an iPhone. I get books from Amazon delivered to my house for free with Prime, a service I certainly don’t need and that I acknowledge might spew a few thousand more pounds of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, I don’t know. I’m contributing to the world being an ancient pile of cruelty and heartbreak and while I don’t really dwell on that fact (more like I think about it sometimes when I’m in the shower or brushing my teeth or driving to work), I’m aware of it, and I allow it to make me feel responsible and sad, and I can do this because I’m not stuck in YA novels or Hallmark Channel TV movies.