Saturday, February 23, 2008

Thirteen Reasons Why

A while back, I made an author visit to an English class that had read my book, Stranded in Harmony. We had a spirited discussion about the book, particularly the part where the main character, Lucas, gets the idea that his girlfriend, Sara, is pregnant.

Should there even be sex in books for young people?

The majority said, “Why not? It happens in real life.”

Others argued, "Isn’t it, in a way, encouraging sex to write about teenagers in sexual relationships?"

“What bothers me,” one girl said,” is that he wasn’t punished.”

“Punished?” I asked.

“She wasn’t pregnant, so there were no consequences for…you know.”

From there, the discussion went to the idea that consequences could be emotional, too. Lucas had behaved badly toward Sara and felt terrible about it. He’d created a rift with his sister. At least temporarily, he’d lost his best friend, Bill. He could never undo what he'd done.

“He was a good person who learned a hard lesson,” someone said. “He’s probably not going to act like that again.”

The girl who thought he should have been punished for having sex with his girlfriend remained unconvinced.

We were nearing the end of the period, and there was the usual shuffle of books in preparation for the bell, when a tentative hand went up in the back of the room: a mousy girl who’d spent most of the period looking down at her desk. Glancing at her once or twice, I worried that the frank conversation might be embarrassing her.

Now she said quietly, but firmly, “I’m pregnant, and I just wanted to say that reading this book helped me. It made me understand the way my boyfriend acted when I told him.”

The bell rang, and she was gone.

“Wait!” I wanted to call out to her. “Come back!”

But I knew what it had cost her to speak, I knew she wouldn’t have wanted to be singled out that way. Still, I so wanted to say, Thank you!”

There are way more than thirteen reasons why books matter, but none is more important than the fact that reading gives you access to the inner lives to human beings who are not you. If you don’t read, you might think you're the only person in the universe who has a whole other life inside your head, one that often doesn’t match up with the person you seem to be. William James said, “The greatest gap in nature is between two minds.” Books bridge that gap. Living inside someone else’s head for a while, vicariously experiencing the happy and not so happy consequences of that person’s actions, we better understand the real people in our own lives and may adjust our thoughts and behavior in a way that will help resolve the issues that trouble us. Good books make us more compassionate, better able to understand and process the troubling behavior of others.

Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why is a terrific example of how books make this happen. The novel opens when Clay Jenson receives a package containing several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker, who had committed suicide two weeks before. There are thirteen reasons why she killed herself, she explains, and when he’s played all the tapes, he’ll know them all. The reasons, of course, are people—the accumulation of hurts Hannah experienced as a result of their actions that ultimately became too much for her to bear. How is Clay, a quiet, decent guy who had a crush on her, complicit?

Regardless of your age, you can’t read this book without being painfully aware that the way you treat a person—in small or enormous ways, thoughtlessly or with intention—may tip some precarious balance in her life. The result probably won’t be as drastic as suicide, but what you do or say might have a huge effect, for better or worse, on that person’s sense of herself, her happiness. Forever. This is also true of the way people treat you.

Thirteen Reasons Why is a great read, with complex characters and loads of tension—the first requirement of any novel. It’s also a moral book—as in “…giving guidance on how to behave decently and honorably”—without hitting you over the head with its morality. I’m putting it on my list of “Books Teenagers Need In Order To Survive High School.”