I’ve Seen You Naked

It was kind of an accident, but not really.

Most people get squeamish at the thought of being caught that vulnerable and, well, naked. It’s well outside of most people’s comfort zone and if each of us were really brutally honest with ourselves, how many of us willingly step outside of our comfort zone unless an outside force prompts us to do so? My guess is that not many do. It’s not easy, and in the beginning, it’s not always fun, but it is how we grow and how we learn.

All of this came to mind when I stumbled over a Freshly Pressed blog post a month or so ago and I’ve been mulling over the topic since then. Here’s the source of my inspiration, and it’s made me think about the times when I’ve challenged myself with my choice of reading material.

When I think of books that are outside my comfort zone, there are really two kinds that come to mind: those that were revolutionary, and those that were only beneficial because they taught me what I didn’t like. For a long time, I refused to bother with books that didn’t immediately appeal to me, much to the chagrin of a teacher who (lovingly) harped on me to read something other than “that trash” written by Stephen King. I’m stubborn enough to still respectfully disagree with the departed, but I will admit that Kae LaRoche was right in part. I needed to read more than the handful of authors that caught my attention, and I’ll admit that she was dead on when she told me there was more to writing than just my narrow perception of what was good. Until I find one that surpasses him, I’ll say that King will remain the Master of horror, but that my literary world view encompasses other giants now as well.

Broadening my scope has taught me that there are other ways of seeing the art and craft of writing, and has exposed me to styles that, while I may be able to appreciate the skill and effort it takes to create them, I don’t enjoy. But I’ve read a lot to discover those things, and some of them were well outside my comfort zone. Here’s the most memorable 10.

10. The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer. As I’ve said before, I have significant nerd rage over this series and I have philosophical objections to this one as well. While I appreciate the premise, the manipulation of a trope to the point where it breaks is irksome, and the indoctrination of an impressionable audience into the philosophy that a girl is only defined by her relationship is dangerous. The subject matter and even the age group weren’t a stretch for me, but after reading the entire series back to back, I can say that the only benefit of this series is it creates the habit of reading for a new generation.

9. The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling. Just as Pottermania was a burgeoning craze, I was working in retail, specifically in a Hallmark store. As some may be aware, the Hallmark Christmas ornaments are a Big Deal and the display goes up in July. Yes, that’s right, July. In addition to the appearance of Harry Potter Christmas ornaments, Hallmark introduced a significant collection of Harry Potter tchotckes that were intriguing. I recognized something that looked like Cerebus, and I’ve never been opposed to fantasy or the appearance of magic in fiction and I was curious. The people that came in to purchase the water globes, statues, bookends and other miscellaneous stuff that we had raved about the books or couldn’t say enough about how much their kids loved it. My curiosity strong-armed my pride and I couldn’t take not knowing any longer. So, I trotted over to Target on my lunch break, spent what precious little I had at the time on the first two paperback books, and I’ve been hooked ever since. This was the icebreaker series for me, and since then, I’ve bought or borrowed other children’s series to read and enjoy as an adult, including the Inheritance cycle by Christopher Paolini and the Lemony Snickett books.

8. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. This is one I read well before I was ready because the adults around me who cringed when I pulled out some horror novel were convinced I could handle it. And handle it, I did. I just hated every dialect-mauled word of it. It was so far beyond my comfort zone and perhaps my interest level that I know I didn’t get out of it the lessons I could have, nor did I enjoy the drama of it (the way I did The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough later on). It’s one of those I should probably go back and read, but I’m not sure it’s high enough on my priority list to do right now.

7. The Flowers in the Attic series by VC Andrews. This was my introduction into the world of the taboo, forbidden and I couldn’t believe that my parents and my grandmother both allowed me to read it, then SUPPORTED me reading it by buying them for me. (Though, now that I think about it, they collectively supported my reading habit with little oversight. My mom brought me to the used bookstore at the beginning of summer to cart off a paper grocery bag full of theatrically blood-spattered covers, and my grandmother probably purchased as much Stephen King for me as I have as an adult.) There were some seriously fucked up lessons in this series and I read them compulsively. Seven times all the way through, if I remember correctly. Given the way my warped little brain puts characters together, I’d venture this series had a greater influence on me than I’ll realize for a long time. I’m not sure if that’s something I should be proud of…

6. Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre by HP Lovecraft. For years, I’d heard about Cthulhu and heard the name “HP Lovecraft” batted around. I knew that he was one of the giants I should read, but like knowing you should floss your teeth so your dentist doesn’t lecture into your open mouth as he pokes your gums, no one really wants to do what they should just because it’s good for them. I admit that I was WRONG. WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG. After the first dark, twisted story, I was hooked. Take a look at the 2012 Reading List to see just how hooked… Obsession, thy name is Lovecraft.

5. The Stand by Stephen King. At 13(ish), I learned that even the ones you love can fail you. I was used to the quick and dirty horror that was easy to digest and understand like Carrie, or Christine or Cujo. This was beyond me, perhaps because I didn’t understand the horror behind the idea of an apocalyptic illness and what it would mean to me. I didn’t “get” the nuance and while I could understand the basic premise behind the good and evil, I didn’t see how all of these diverse story lines wound together. Frankly, I was bored by the story and read it simply because I was too stubborn to admit defeat to a book. Little of it stuck with me and it sat on my bookshelf staring at me and tempting me to read it again to see if I really disliked it or to see if there was something I missed when I read it the first time. I’m glad I re-read it. As an adult, I found it chilling and I’d agree with the sentiments that it is one of his best pieces. Also, this is probably the best example I’ve come across of how perspective and experience change the reading experience and the power of reading material when you’re ready.

4. The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. This was the first book that made me cry. No, not cry. There were no quiet tears streaming down my cheeks. I’m talking full-on, body-shaking sobs of distress and emotion. This book left me raw, an exposed, bleeding nerve and I’ve never forgotten it. The only other time a story has made me cry this hard was when I saw My Girl for the first time. Ok. Make that every time I’ve ever seen My Girl. This book was a suckerpunch to the gut, and I’ve never met its equal as an adult. Never. This one showed me the power of writing and how it can be used to reach the very core of us, and while it’s not always pretty, and it can hurt like a bitch, it can be a precious, cathartic memory we’ll carry for the rest of our lives.

3. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The dreaded question my grandparents and parents asked was whether or not I liked school. The answer was usually a wordless shrug, though inside, the response was a vehement “no.” There were many reasons for it, but first and foremost was that the things I was assigned were rarely enjoyable. These two stories caught me off guard. I was prepared to hate both of them, and at the beginning of each of them, I was pretty convinced they were going to be torture. What surprised me most was that by the end, I loved them and they were probably my favorite assigned readings that I’ve continued to enjoy as an adult. I don’t think I’d have picked them up if they hadn’t been assigned, but since then, I’ve become a huge Austen fan and I’ve got more Salinger in the TBR pile.

2. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. I think I am more proud of reading this book than I am of any other. I was living at home with my parents, unable to go back to college because of a lack of funds, and I was bent on utilizing the time to better myself. I’d heard about the controversy surrounding Rushdie and I was curious. I decided that even though the text was an imposing size and what I knew of the story seemed to suggest there’d be way more religious material than I was familiar with, I had to give it a shot. I got a lot of flak when I read it – partly because of the title, partly because the size of the volume, then for the material after I’d begin to explain the premise of the story, but it was all worth it. It opened up an entirely new vein of reading for me, exposed me to an author I might not have otherwise encountered and I believe I’m richer for the experience.

1. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. This one is a little bit of a cheat, because I’d been reading for myself for quite some time before I’d started going to the school library once a week, and I didn’t really have a “comfort zone” at the time, but this list is not complete without this story. This book introduced me to the freedom of reading and the power of being able to choose my reading material for myself. I had to tell a lot of adults no when they tried to sway me towards something else, and maybe that’s what was discomfiting to me, but it was memorable and without this book, I wouldn’t be the reader I am today.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this list, and I hope you’re thinking about what you’re going to read next that’s outside your comfort zone. What’s first on your list? What book’s intimidated you more than any other?

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