Friday, August 21, 2009

Book Review: "Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading"

When I first heard about Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading on NPR, I was very intrigued. The book, which is based from Lizzie Skurnick's articles on, bills itself as a "reading memoir," in which Skurnick and other female authors discuss their favorite young adult books from their teenage years. Since my research is looking at how adolescent girls respond to popular young adult literature, this book seemed a natural read for me. All signs pointed towards me liking the book. When I called my local bookstore to reserve a copy, the bookseller told me that it was sold out, which I took as a good sign. After finally securing the book, I entered it into LibraryThing and the "Will You Like It" function (a fun if often wrong predictor of book tastes) said that I would love the book. With all of these positive indicators, I picked up the book, curled up on my sofa, and started to read.

So were all of the signs right? Yes and no. On one hand, I found the book enjoyable, and the general idea is pretty inspired. On the other hand, there was many a time I wanted to hurl the book at the nearest wall or fling it from the subway in frustration. If it is possible to have a dysfunctional or schizophrenic relationship with a book, I have found it.

Let's start with the positives. Perhaps one of the most successful outcomes is that it inspired me to revisit some of the books mentioned. Most of the books discussed were published during the late 1960s to the early 1980s, which many consider the golden age of young adult literature. Not only did this period see a considerable increase in the number of YAL books for girls, but the quality of the books went up as well. Authors like Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary rose to fame during this time, and many of the books written during this period, like Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, remain popular. Furthermore, Skurnick does not just talk about the most popular books or the most well-known authors. Instead, she manages to find a good balance between the immensely popular and the more obscure works. Her fond memories and obvious enthusiasm for her all of these books are palpable, and reading Shelf Discovery made me want to go out and read (or reread) the books Skurnick mentions.

The book's other notable strength is that it talks about a lot of the issues and characteristics that stand out to girls reading these books. Some of my favorite parts of the older YAL novels from my youth were the lush (bordering on pornographic) descriptions of the food and clothing. While I would never admit this strange obsession, Skurnick discusses it head-on. She also touches on the allure of dirty books, such as V.C. Andrews's Flowers in the Attic, thus alleviating a little bit of my Catholic guilt when I remember sneaking peeks of these books at the grocery check-out. Skurnick's willingness to address these topics shows her understanding of teen girls (and adult women) and their reading habits.

So far, so good. Based on the prior paragraphs, it sounds like the LibraryThing predictor was right on the money. However, despite the book's strengths, I often found it a maddening read because of the writing style. Besides YAL, this book showcases Skurnick's obvious love for CAPITAL letters and parenthetical phrases. While both of these things can be very effective in writing, particularly in less formal writing such as blog posts or magazine columns, it gets damn annoying when they keep popping up in a book. The closest metaphor I can come up with is that it is like getting together for drinks with a boisterous, opinionated friend. The evening starts off well enough; your friend is fairly coherent and her outbursts can be witty and humorous. However, after an hour or so, she is starting to make less sense, her stories are becoming increasingly disjointed, and her shouting is starting to give you a headache. Although this style does vividly show Skurnick's excitement for her topic, the asides and the words and phrases in all capital letters drove me batty (and made me itch for someone like Anne Fadiman to come and edit the hell out of this book). The excellent sections written by authors such as Meg Cabot and Cecily von Ziegesar only serve to showcase how aggravating Skurnick's style can be.

All in all, Shelf Discovery is a generally entertaining and occasionally enlightening book that will undoubtedly thrill women who remember their adolescent reading experiences fondly. If you can tolerate Skurnick's writing quirks, then I have no doubt that this book will be the perfect end-of-summer or Labor Day read for you to take to the beach. If you are like me and her style sometimes makes your teeth itch, then perhaps you can at least appreciate the effort and enjoy her more lucid sections.