As a lot of the rhetoric surrounding digital books and e-readers has shown, one of the most treasured aspects of physical books is their permanence and tangibility. The feel of the paper, the smell of the pages, the ability to accumulate and posses and share and lose them. So when I talk about a book being somewhat passé, it probably strikes you as a little odd. I mean, if we’re still reading Austen and Shakespeare and Aristotle and Gilgamesh, how can The Help, published an archaic two years ago, strike me as “over”?
With books like The Help or Harry Potter, there’s a structure of feeling surrounding its release and promotion where the book becomes almost impossible to ignore. Book clubs, movie releases, editorials in the paper…when a book gets big, everyone knows it, and everyone (read it or not) has an opinion.
With Harry Potter, I was definitely part of the in-crowd, and it’s one of those books where I can’t—and will likely never be able to—separate the story from the feeling of reading it. They’re almost like time capsules. Every time I read Deathly Hallows, I simultaneously remember the speculation and anticipation, waiting around in costume at midnight, staying up waaay past midnight on your spare bed struggling not to cry about Dobby because I knew you weren’t there yet, and the vindication/sorry-it’s-five-years-later-and-I’m-still-sobbing moments when I read “The Prince’s Tale.” I remember “NOT MY DAUGHTER YOU BITCH” and “all was well” and all of that will never go away, no matter how many times I read, or watch, or talk about, or find critique of it.
Harry Potter is (clearly) still around, and new readers are always being introduced to it and will have new ways of connecting to the book (I, for one, will accept nothing less than poorly-written-but-well-punctuated fanfiction from my children). But no matter how much they love it, they’ll never be able to access that same structure of feeling that we had—at once intangible and clearly present.
Eventually, this brings me back to The Help. Yeah, that’s right: there may be seven bazillion reviews of The Help online, but I’ll bet mine is the only one that puts it in relation to Harry Potter.
Unlike the Harry Potter series, it’s impossible for me to separate The Help from its critical context. By the time I came around to it, I was too far removed to react wholeheartedly, and without that kind of devotion—positive or negative—whatever my initial response was has been lost in the Open Letters, the Critical Editorials, the Scandals. It’s the kind of context that makes me want to take a stand—Yes! This book is moving and worthwhile despite the reductive stereotypes! or No! Despite raising consciousness, the book trivializes race relations to a harmful degree!—but I don’t feel like I have any stakes in the argument.
Coming to this book so long after the initial fervor and post-movie renewal has felt oddly irrelevant. What’s left to say that hasn’t already been covered many times over and from a million different perspectives? Most everybody has heard of it, knows the premise, and has made their decision about it: to read or not to read. I’ve clearly missed that ideal window where there are engaging discussions to be had and the debates are lively and passionate instead of tired and rote.
…Which brings up some interesting questions about why we read and review books in the first place: is it to engage with others or for ourselves? (and I’m sure you remember this is a pet topic of mine) But these, I think, are questions best left for another day.
P.S. As if I was going to stop there. More questions: is merely ‘liking’ something enough to recommend it after you’re aware of its flaws? I often like books in spite of their flaws, but this story (and the movie has exacerbated this greatly) has given profound offense to some people. Should a vague inclination override those deeply-held beliefs? Should it change my impression of the book? How important is a first impression—and is altering that opinion indecisive or educated? Is it cowardice to abstain from an opinion on something so divisive? Or elitism? Or prejudice?