Last year I happened across the Anne of Green Gables books in audiobook format. These were books that I’d pooh-poohed as a child purely because of their scratchy old covers and nondescript titles, and my eventual decision to read them was made with a sort of grim determination, much as how I might have approached an end-of-year examination or a vaccination. The end result might be worth it, but only time would tell.
But from the very first moment I became acquainted with Anne I fell quite in love. My husband wondered what had become of me as I excused myself for lengthy walks so that I might see what happened next to this dreamy, spunky girl and the magnificent island she called home. Anne accompanied me until the battery on my phone or my iPod wore down, and my husband found the whole thing quite the ordeal: he was in charge of the foot massages at the end of each of those walks.
Needless to say, he was quite bewildered by the whole thing. He asked me what the books were about, and why it was that I was so enraptured by them.
This was a surprisingly difficult question. With books like Anne of Green Gables, it’s impossible to put together some sort of pithy elevator pitch: ‘it’s Heidi meets Brave, but without all the stuff that happens.’ Or to reel off a quick plot synopsis: ‘it’s about a red-headed orphan who, well, grows up.’
These stories are so utterly divorced from the high-stakes, high-concept books that bristle from our shelves today, their moody emo covers suggesting that the typical contemporary teenage experience involves overthrowing an oppressive government alongside a vampire boyfriend, and all while wearing a formal (and designer) gown.
Anne might have wanted a dress with puffed sleeves, but her idea of saving the world involved donating a foreign aid charity or striving for a place at university. Questionable fashion choices aside, these aspirations feel a good deal more familiar to me.
This past week I’ve been reading The Story Girl and The Golden Road, again by L M Montgomery, author of the Anne books, and which unfold in a similar vein. After these I began Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did, which has echoes of Montgomery, but is sadly not quite as endearing. After this I plan to seek out I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. These books all have something in common: they’re quiet. They’re charming and lovely. And they’re relatable.
In my recent post about Pride and Prejudice I discussed what it means to be an introvert in both the literary world and the real world, and about how stressful boisterous social situations can be for a shy person. The same, I think, is true when it comes to books. Stuttering prose and machine-gun dialogue disconcerts me; the frenetic mess of action scenes alienates me; likewise I am intimidated by aggressiveness and gung-ho attitudes. I wonder how much this applies to the ordinary reader, as opposed to the non-readers that publishers seem to be trying ever harder to target.
When I travel I like to take my time, spending hours sitting on a corner watching people go by, whiling away my days in museums and galleries, strolling along lane-ways in search of a moment of beauty that is mine and mine alone. These are the same things that I look for in books: although a beautifully wrought plot can be a thing of delight, plot and story are not the same thing. Much as I would rather spend time getting to know a place through my own lazy wanderings rather than at the time-poor behest of a frazzled tour guide, I would rather make my own way through a story instead of being dragged along by the raging machinations of a plot.
And so, finding very little on the shelves today that appeals to me, I’ve been travelling back in time to an era where it was all right to become caught up in a world that is not so different from our own experiences. I have been thirsting so desperately for something that will dilute the emotional dehydration of all of these plot-heavy, take-you-by-the-arm books; a palate cleanser that might halt my quickly derailing literary explorations.
The Story Girl and The Golden Road are, like the Anne books, books in which nothing much happens, but by the end of which everything seems to have changed. Both are episodic in nature, detailing the mundane, innocent misadventures of a group of children as they tread that treacherous experiential quicksand of adolescence, where childhood is a mere step backwards, and adulthood is a mere step in the other direction.
The stories themselves are so mild-mannered that I can only dream of what a present-day editor’s reaction to them might to be. In one, the children decide to each write down their dreams to see who has the best and most vivid dreams. The human desire for competition takes over, and soon they are eating cucumbers and milk before bed in order to precipitate the most colourful of imaginings. It’s not quite The Hunger Games, although it does involve an upset stomach.
In another, the children learn that one of the boys in town owns a book containing an illustration of God. Having of course never seen God, the children are tormented by the what-ifs of this scenario, and pool together their money in order to purchase the illustration. God, they learn, apparently has quite the angry visage. This may seem like an utter non-event to the various YA heroes of today playing Christ figure roles or battling against god-like despots, but it is a life-changing moment for the children. Although an adult tells them that no one knows what God looks like, that the illustration is merely someone’s own imagining of God, this image will forever be a part of their memories.
These are books of what it means to be on that tightrope of adolescence, wavering this way and that, feeling in a sort of developmental purgatory. The narrative simplicity of these stories is what affords them such depth and complexity: the reader is given the emotional space in which to question Felicity’s blunt statements about proper comportment or the Story Girl’s deadpan epigrams regarding adulthood. These are stories that in their quietness draw the reader in as another character and ask for participation. Rather than having our emotions forced and our interpretations made for us by the winnowing force of a sledge-hammer plot we’re asked to make up our own minds about these things, to read between those lines of pitch black and stark white in order to find the multitudinous greys.
I’m a tango dancer. Tango nights generally play out in a series of tandas: a group of songs in either tango, milonga or vals style, separated by a brief break. Although the milonga tandas have everyone sprinting about the floor in gymnastic style, an entire night of milonga music would be both headache- and bunion-inducing. The slower tango songs are there for a reason. They’re beautiful and they’re expressive, and they provide musical contrast. The same is true not just for the tandas, but for the songs themselves, which alternate between fast and slow, and are famous for their complexity. Traditional tango, however, is making way for something known as neo-tango, a sort of techno-infused form of tango music. It’s a style that some dancers find fascinating for a little while, but almost without fail everyone returns to the traditional music for the interpretative complexity and emotional resonance it allows. I’ve never cried listening to a neo-tango song.
Writers are told not to write down to young adult readers, but I can’t help but feel that this is constantly happening today—it simply doesn’t take the form that we might imagine it to. By giving readers books that are all about taking down the state or fighting werewolves we’re implying that it’s only these problems that are of any value, that the everyday teenage experience is otherwise something that should be easily navigable. I can’t think of any worse way than putting down a reader than by suggesting that their lives do not merit reading about.
In addition, by excising all of the quiet space that exists in these classic books in order to make room, make room! for more attention-grabbing plot, we’re denying readers the thinking room to be able to truly experience all of the wonders of reading. We’re assuming that they want their reading experience to be as little like a reading experience as possible, and the result is books with narratives that stream by like tickertape. I can’t help but wonder whether they’ll be forgettable, these books that disallow readers the space that we need to reflect on a story, to engage with it, and to draw our own conclusions.
Not all readers read to escape, nor do they necessarily read in order to live vicariously as action heroes. Sometimes readers read to identify, to make a friend who’ll remain with them forever, and to be charmed. Sometimes they want to be able to read a book that gives them the space that they need to think about the questions posed by the book, and to answer them themselves.
Surprisingly often, too, it’s the quiet books that are the ones that change lives.
Your turn: Do you like quiet books? Has a quiet book ever changed your life?