"I can't believe you haven't read ______"
Sometimes I say this to (or more often, think it about) a student. But just as frequently, a student says this to me. Sometimes one of my sons says it to me. When both of the latter happen, I read the book, almost any book they've mentioned. Especially if, a student (especially a twenty-something or younger student) writes something into a piece of creative work that I will never understand in a nuanced way unless I have read the book.
Which brings me to why I recently read The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.
What happened was a college-bound teenager wrote a sentence, in a personal essay about how friendships were ending as the narrator moved on to a new phase in life, and that sentence included the phrase, "…about the time we felt infinite…" When I first read it, I thought it was simply an innovative, original way to use the adjective infinite, and said so in class, and was met by incredulous, dumb-founded looks.
"It's from the movie," one of the students (not the writer) piped up. "You know, from Perks of Being a Wallflower."
I didn’t know, and said so.
"It's in the book too," another offered. "It's one of the most famous lines."
Now I was cornered, and my interest was piqued, and I immediately put the book on my mental to-be-read-sooner-rather-than-later list.
I thought about the fact that staying current with books and their influence on younger writers is a losing proposition—the to-be-read pile grows dangerously high and at a rapid rate, and probably everyone's inclination (okay, my inclination), is to first read what speaks most to my own position in the world. On the drive home that day—and trust me, 45 minutes is quite long enough to be thinking about this stuff--I realized that regardless of one's reading load, or how curious one manages to stay about books that might fall just outside one's selfishly self-interest zone, one can never really catch up. Or at least, I can't. But I can try.
By the time I got home, I was rather rabidly curious about what it means to feel "infinite." And something else. Something niggling at the back of my brain about this book (not about the movie, though of course I had been aware when it was first released, of its popularity); but I was remembering something about the novel in connection with my younger son, who is now 17.
As soon as I walked through the door of my home office, I realized the book was already (buried) in my to-be-read pile. Because my son had recommended it, oh about two years ago.
So I read it. And I was charmed—maybe infinitely so, by the tone, voice, structure, characters, story. (I also automatically like all paper books that are small enough to slip into a not-so-big purse, but that's another story.)
I finally get the infinite quote. I began thinking about when in my own younger life, I'd once felt something like infinite with a particular group of very important friends. There were so many passages and sentences I loved and remember (many of which are included on this list, or this one if you're on Goodreads), and include: “I am both happy and sad at the same time, and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be,” and the one that for me, sums up the core, the heart of the book and its wise young narrator: “Just tell me how to be different in a way that makes sense.”
Then of course, there's also this: "It's strange because sometimes, I read a book, and I think I am the people in the book."
Of course he does. Of course I do, sometimes. Especially if the book is both happy and sad. Which brings me to my next to-be-read book…
You can read the others 17 installments of Stuff My (Writing) Students Say here.
Images: Book cover - Wikipedia; Opened book - Flickr/Creative Commons/duh.denise; other - mine.