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Timestamps: Books Getting Dated (or Not) by Pop Culture References

November 3rd, 2009 (07:49 am)
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In response to the questions Cynthia Leitich Smith posed in her recent post, cross-posted at the readergirlz blog and here at Bildungsroman:

[D]o you believe that dating the book really matters? Does it bother you to read a book written for a contemporary audience that has a few tie-ins that seem a couple of years old? Or do you just assume that the story is a near history, set a couple of years ago, and go ahead with reading the story? Why or why not?

If a year is ever stated outright, or a specific historical event, then I'll know right when I am, just as I'll know right where I am if the characters are said to be in a specific town, state, or country. Otherwise, I'll figure it out from the narration and the dialogue. Books are different from film, TV, or stage productions, where the viewer typically can take one look at the fashion and, coupled with other environmental clues, know the setting of the piece. Books don't always tell you what the characters are wearing, or what posters are on the walls of their rooms, or what music is playing in the background; readers must interpret the words with their eyes, fingertips, or ears and their minds and imaginations, while viewers use the same or different senses in different ways, having more stimuli and a more instantaneous recognition of certain things.

I know that people often don't give kids enough credit for knowing things, be they related to academia or to pop culture. I heard it enough growing up: "You can't possibly know that," or, "That was before you were born," and every variation in-between, ranging from surprise to downright condescension when I would quote, sing, mention, or otherwise reference something.

Pop culture - the bits of trivia, gossip, and fact that populate the day-to-day in our society - are so much a part of just that, the day-to-day, that all ages pick up these trivia bits nearly by osmosis. There are the lesser-known facts, of course, but the shows, books, movies, and other forms of entertainment, politics, and history that are general public knowledge touch us all in some way.

- and this is true for all societies, all groups of people. Haven't you read a book or seen a movie that is set somewhere other than your mother country and, even if is contemporary, mentions something or someone offhand that clearly everyone in that story understands while you are left scratching your head, wondering what/who/how that is? :)

I don't mind so-called "dated" books. The story is set when and where it is set. That doesn't make the characters or their trials, failures, and triumphs any more or less important. It can change the impact on the reader, certainly, if that reader doesn't "get" it, but if that reader wanted to, I'm pretty sure that she or he could learn more about that era, town, state, society, etc in an effort to "get" it!

My favorite retelling of Peter Pan, Straight on 'til Morning by Christopher Golden, is firmly set in the summer of 1981. This horror novel was written for adults and published in 2001. Readers who were teenagers in 1981 "get" it because they remember that year, that summer, and can thus slip into the shoes of the main characters easily because they have already worn those shoes. (They are nice and comfy, aren't they, when they are already broken in like that?) However, modern teens can relate as well, because of the universal themes and relationships between characters: the unrequited crush; the bonds forged between brothers and between close friends, especially during after a life-changing event; the summer between middle school and high school; and so on.

When a book references a Top 20 hit or right-now story/gossip/whatnot every few pages, that bothers me, because what's popular and "hot" when the book is in its first draft will change by the time it is published. That just-missed dating can be worse, in a way, than a few years/a decade removed. A perfect example would be a YA title which shall remain nameless that referenced a celebrity marriage which, by the time the book was published, had dissolved. Even if you, like me, do not care a whit about celebrity gossip, you must admit that it is, to some extent, unescapable when it's plastered all over the covers of magazines that line the aisles in the grocery store.

The same goes for most popular media: If you have any sort of TV, radio, computer, or other form of entertainment or communicative device, you have a certain level of awareness about current films, TV shows, songs, political happenings, and celebrities, for better or worse. You may not have seen that movie or show or musician or used that product or eaten that food, but you may have heard of it, so you know something, albeit vague, about it: it's a horror movie, he's a rapper, she's on a popular TV sitcom, they are baseball players, that's a new brand of shampoo.

I do love when stories feel timeless, but it's rare that a tale is completely such, without any reference to song, fashion, or history that places it in a specific era. I love The Creek by Jennifer L. Holm for its timeless feel - and for many other reasons. I could name other titles, but perhaps I'll save those for another post at another time.

What do you think? Feel free to repost these questions and links at your own blog, and share your thoughts on the topics.

Lorie Ann Grover posted her thoughts at her blog.

Comments

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: November 3rd, 2009 04:17 pm (UTC)

I pretty much follow right along with you, LW. Well said! ~Lorie Ann

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: November 3rd, 2009 04:26 pm (UTC)

Thanks! :)

Posted by: Melissa Walker (mewalker1999)
Posted at: November 3rd, 2009 07:46 pm (UTC)

Nicely put!

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: November 3rd, 2009 07:53 pm (UTC)

Thanks, Melissa! :)

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