Step one, read Saul Bellow’s lengthy masterpiece, The Adventures of Augie March. That is this fall’s selection for One Book, One Chicago, the 10th anniversary of the Chicago Public Library program. I read Augie March years ago, and was amazed to find that I remembered most vividly the sections set in Mexico, and recalled little of the numerous and intense Chicago scenes. That was before I moved to Chicago. Reading those scenes now brought one shock of recognition after another, in between my swooning over Bellow’s prose. I was reading with purpose, having been asked to moderate a discussion as part of the library’s fantastic series of One Book, One Chicago public events. The library invited two powerhouse YA writers, John Green and Benjamin Alire Sáenz , to talk with me about Augie March and their young adult characters and the entire endeavor of becoming who we are.
This necessitated more reading. I was not familiar with the work of Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and soon found myself deep in his powerful, disturbing, and beautiful novels for young adults (Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood, Last Night I Sang to the Monster), poetry, and short stories, all rooted in the borderland between the U.S. and Mexico. John Green used to work right outside my office, and I had read his first two books, but I needed to read Paper Towns and Will Grayson, Will Grayson.
It’s always a challenge to speak with two authors who, on the surface, appear to write such different books. And I wasn’t sure if either had had time to read or reread Augie March. John has been thrilling his fans by signing every single pre-ordered copy of his novel due out in January, The Fault in Our Stars, while Ben (who has a new novel due out in February, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe) has been busy writing, painting, teaching, and serving as chair of the creative writing department at the University of Texas El Paso. But as soon as we gathered in the green room at the magnificent Harold Washington Library Center in downtown Chicago (and the walls are truly green, and adorned with photographs of some of the many writers who have spoken there) I discovered that they had both read The Adventures of Augie March, and loved it. And they had read each other’s books! On stage, both were remarkably forthcoming, passionate, funny, compelling. And the rapt and enthusiastic audience was full of high school and college students. Many of whom know John Green’s work so well that when he said that his mentor was in the house, Booklist’s own Ilene Cooper, there was a great gasp, followed by applause. Every wannabe writer out there dreams of finding her or his own Ilene.
I grow so frustrated with all grim statistics and negative prognostications about the future of literature and reading. Sitting on stage with two such caring, creative, zealous, and generous writers who are so attuned to and connected with young people, and seeing all those young, avid, thoughtful, caring readers affirmed the irrefutable fact that stories are intrinsically human and profoundly nurturing. Stories transcend all business and technological complications. We are not going to give up reading and writing. Language and stories are our air and water, gravity and light. Like Augie March, so many of us are “struck by the reading fever,. . . feeding on print and pages like a famished man.” Or on screens. Whatever. What matters are the characters and their feelings, mind-expanding metaphors and insights, the immersion, the illumination. Ben’s character Sammy, living in a New Mexico barrio, loves books so much his friends call him the Librarian. John Green’s character Colin says in An Abundance of Katherines, “books love you back.”
I can’t rave enough about Ben Sáenz and John Green and their work. Invite them to your library. Recommend their books. Your patrons will love you back.