Alexandra Lange | Essays

Shelf Life

Just calm down. That was my first reaction to Lizzie Skurnick’s Shelf Discovery, a new book with a premise I have to admit I wish I had thought of first: rereading classic teen and tween novels with an adult eye. Based on her popular Fine Lines feature on Jezebel.com, Skurnick’s book largely consists of two to five page “book reports,” stream-of-consciousness summaries of the delights, literary and otherwise, of 73(!) books by authors whose names probably float somewhere in the collective memory of all thirtysomething American women. Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, Madeline L’Engle and more traditionally Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder… If you don’t remember those names, you’ll undoubtedly remember the covers, dog-eared, soft-paged, sad-eyed heroines looking back at you from the rack near the check-out at the local library. The cover of The Grounding of Group 6, in particular, leapt out at me as an image I had studied for a long time (I think) trying to figure out which character was which.

Other memories came flooding back from the titles alone. An Old-Fashioned Girl, an Alcott book I thought no one else had read. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken, part of a spooky and evocatively titled series. Cheaper by the Dozen, my all time favorite, since it is both fun and teaches you about the important early-modernist discipline of motion study. The Gilbreths turn up in my dissertation. I have re-read most in the last five years and so, it turns out, has Skurnick.

Skurnick groups those bite-size reviews in cute categories like “Read ‘Em and Weep” and “Danger Girls.” But this organization, and her breezy, overly allusive and under-explained introductions to each set, doesn’t make up the fact that this book reads as a blog that never ends. The excited-to-share voice, the sprinkling of key quoted scenes, the loving embrace of each Meg, Vicky and Harriet, quickly palls when read in a row. What’s great as a work break is tiresome in a book. I wanted her to stop popping once and a while and write something thoughtful, with longer sentences and no sitcom references. I wanted her to reflect. I wanted some literary silence. When she does this, as with a sharp and sensitive reading of Burnett’s A Little Princess, I felt relief.

Yes, this is an occupational hazard of the blog-turned-book, and yes, this is perhaps not a book to be read at once, but Skurnick seems smart enough to have more to say than summarize. The sheer number of books covered, and the numerous titles by the same author seem like obvious places to cut or group. Why not a whole chapter on Judy Blume and other diagnosticians of the physical torments of high school? Why not more real classics, changing up the era of adolescence? Or a dip into other genres beyond Clan of the Cave Bear? Skurnick covers Almanzo Wilder, as well as All of a Kind Family, but I would have included the Betsy-Tacy books, female-centric science fiction like the Dragonriders of Pern, and maybe even Jane Eyre (How many rainy afternoons did I re-read this book? Too many to count). She talks about the pleasures of curling up in bed on a Friday night with one’s first paperback loves, but her book is no substitute for the real thing.

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