There’s a book that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, rereading, and talking about. I read it over winter break this year, and I think it has become my favorite book; on par with The Night Circus, with Cloud Atlas, and with S. (I have other favorite books, obviously, but it isn’t fair to compare standalones to series).
It’s called Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel wrote it.
It’s about life, before and after an apocalypse that shakes humanity to its core. More than that – – it’s about the basic human condition.
One of the main points that Station Eleven makes is actually a reference to Star Trek. “Because survival is insufficient.”
The book examines the elements of life that make it worth living. The things about earth-that-was that are worth remembering.
And, since I can’t stop thinking about the book, I started thinking about what memories I would hold onto, and objects that symbolize them, if civilization as we know it were to collapse in a matter of hours.
And I came to one weird conclusion. Pretty much anyone who knows me knows that I would choose to save books. That’s not the weird part. What’s weird is which books I would pick (if I had to).
Yes, I would hold onto literature, the classics, the books that people loved decades or even centuries ago, and that I love even now. Shakespeare, Hugo, Dumas. All of it. Because that’s history, the stuff led to what life is built on for us.
But I’d also hang onto all of that YA stuff that I convince myself I don’t actually like.
Because I do like it, even if it doesn’t have a sign on it screaming PRESTIGIOUS LITERATURE. Because it can be really well-written.
And this is what really surprised me.
I spend a fair amount of time reading YA, not because I consider the books to be the best things I have ever read, but because they are good stories, written to appeal to my own demographic, and you know what? Sometimes I don’t necessarily want to have to think about whatever it is I’m reading.
YA is not thoughtless, nor is it careless, but I definitely do not have to study the books in order to read them.
However, that’s not the reason I would save them.
I would save the YA books because they tend to be about important themes that I think get overlooked from time to time, because we live in a society where they are so commonplace that people don’t really think about them.
These themes are pretty varied, but they all have this in common: If civilization as we know it were to collapse, those concepts would also disappear pretty quickly.
The first one that I would hold onto with desperately clingy fingers would be spontaneous love. Most YA books I know have that one character—not even necessarily the main character—who falls in love with somebody else, head over heels, and that love burns bright. In a world like that of Station Eleven, I suspect that bright spontaneity doesn’t really exist at all, and sudden love might not exist either. So I’d hang on to the written version of it, not necessarily as the example for what it should be, but as proof that something like that once existed.
The next theme of YA books that feels particularly relevant is something that is undoubtedly geared towards my age range. In a lot of cases, there are adults who refuse to believe that teenagers are capable of much of anything. A lot of YA challenges that, by being about sixteen-to-eighteen-year-olds who rail against the system, start wars, or fight for everything they love. In every case, the results that they have are gargantuan, leaving those protagonists as examples for the people reading it… who happen to be mostly fourteen-to-eighteen-year-olds. They symbolize empowered teenagers, often empowered teen girls. And that’s something I can’t help but admire.
Another concept that I would hold is definitely the suspension of disbelief that is an element of most YA books. I don’t want to ever let go of the idea that something magical could happen. Someone I know could be a demigod, or a vampire, or have magical powers. My Hogwarts letter could conceivably come in the mail next week—it must have gotten lost when I was eleven. I don’t want to forget about the magic that has permeated my childhood, and thanks to YA, much of my adolescence. In a devastated world, I would be slapped with cold, hard, reality everywhere I looked. And with that, I have a feeling that imagination would be the first thing to go. YA books are good reminders that I am a teenager. I can read things without reading too much into them.
And that leads me to the final reason why YA really is important. I’m old enough to understand some pretty darn adult concepts, but I don’t need to be whacked in the face with them every single time I pick up a book. YA doesn’t dumb down the bad stuff in life, and it doesn’t sugarcoat it or pretend that it doesn’t exist. But it does manage to put it all in context. No matter how mad life can seem, there is a future. A lot of adult books tend to feel very confining and depressing to me, because they take “reality” and translate that to “THE END OF EVERYTHING IS NIGH AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT.” They assume that facing reality is facing the possibility that there might not be a tomorrow. But I don’t believe that that’s ever the case.
There are other parts of life-as-it-is that I would try to save, of course.
But first and foremost, I would do my best to save the books.
And if those books include a surplus fantasy and dystopia about sixteen-year-olds, then so be it.