Yeah, that’s right. I’m reading “The Hunger Games”

Not only am I reading “The Hunger Games,” but when I arrived at work this morning I found that the same colleague who loaned it to me had left the two sequels on my desk.  I plan to read them, too.

So perhaps you’ll understand my irritation when I read this snippy little piece by Joel Stein (h/t Sully) about how grown-ups shouldn’t read books that weren’t written for them.

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.


I appreciate that adults occasionally watch Pixar movies or play video games. That’s fine. Those media don’t require much of your brains. Books are one of our few chances to learn. There’s a reason my teachers didn’t assign me to go home and play three hours of Donkey Kong.

I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character. Maybe there are Pynchonesque turns of phrase. Maybe it delves into issues of identity, self-justification and anomie that would make David Foster Wallace proud. I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.

Let me see if I understand this.  Looking at porn in public is less embarrassing than reading a novel keyed for a younger demographic than the one one inhabits?  I… would not have guessed that.

For my part, I am rather grateful that “The Hunger Games” lacks Pynchonesque turns of phrase.  If it did, I would probably have hurled it across the room by now.  I think Pynchon sucks eggs.  I liked “V.” and “The Crying of Lot 49” well enough, but have had enough false starts trying to read “Gravity’s Rainbow” that I know it cannot be worth whatever effort it takes to get through it.  The book mark is still in “Against the Day” at the exact point where I flipped its author the metaphorical bird and put it permanently back on the shelf.  Conversely, I will happily bore anyone with my theories about the various unresolved questions in “Infinite Jest” — David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite authors.  If I write to Mr. Stein and tell him this, will he send me a special wristband to wear on planes so he’ll know I’m just slumming if he sees me reading “Harry Potter”?

Except, hang on a second.  First of all, I dispute that movies and video games don’t require much of one’s brains.  I don’t play the latter, and will defer to those more expert than me, but they certainly seem cognitively challenging.  And I defy anyone to watch “Russian Ark” without using their brains.  (Well OK, I guess one could, but why?)  There are more and less intellectually stimulating offerings in just about any medium one would want.  Mr. Stein seems to have an oddly homogenized, categorical view of them.

But even so, must we always spend our free time learning?  Is it not sufficient that I must prove to the American Board of Pediatrics’ ongoing satisfaction that I am continuing to learn at my job in order to remain certified?  Must I also dive into tome after tome on the weekends?  If I choose to read a book for the sheer pleasure of doing so, am I by definition wasting my time?  Because I’ll tell you right now that I would rather run into traffic than spend another minute with a Franzen novel.  God forbid I should crack a book open for the sake of a little fun.

And finally, isn’t it maybe just the eensiest, weensiest snobbish for Mr. Stein to imply that people who would enjoy the phenomenal pop culture juggernauts of Potter or Cullen must be doing so because they lack the intellectual heft to read something else?  Maybe there might be some value in knowing what it is that everyone else seems to enjoy so much?  Lord knows it’s actually kind of helpful for me, when I’m talking with people in my office (who seem to be able to read our educational material without moving their lips) about what they’ve been up to lately, to be able to chat about things like “The Hunger Games” without gloating about how proudly ignorant I am of it.  It makes me seem ever so slightly less out of touch, unlike the authors of certain Times opinion pieces I could name.

I’ve got news for Mr. Stein — he’s probably not going to make it through any significant fraction of the previous 3,000 years’ worth of material written for adults.  Hell, he’s probably not going to make it through a significant fraction of the reading material that was written in English.  Maybe he’ll seem like less of a preening prick if he stopped trying, or telling himself that he’s trying.  All work and no play doesn’t do Jack, or his readers, any favors.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. Yes. Stereotyping people is quite ignorant. A black man in a hoodie must be a thug. ALL person who practice chiropractic or holistic medicine MUST practice the hocus pocus mentioned in a previous blog. It’s sad and entirely unfortunate for the stereotyper and the one being stereotyped that our society as a whole still grossly stereotypes. It doesn’t help anyone but the ego.

    • Hm… lots of scatter in your comment there. Kristin. Is this your way of suggesting that I’m being unfairly stereotypical because I recently decried the use of applied kinesiology, and of inviting me to reconsider my opinion? I’m not entirely clear what point you’re trying to make.

      • Um, I was agreeing with you that it IS unfair to stereotype. In all fairness, you are right again that I should have responded directly to the post I was referring to but, usually, it is a complete waste of my time to try to educate people on things that they refuse to understand.

        I just thought that this new post was ironic and commented as so.

        BTW: I have had Kinesiology classes, which is the science of movement, and I have never learned any of the hocus pocus you were referring to. Just for the record.

        • Great! Glad we’re agreed.

          And yes, I’ve known lots of people in fields I’ve respect who’ve studied kinesiology. I put them in an entirely different category than the charlatans who “practice” the “applied” variety.

  2. Well, I think I’ve already argued that art can provide many valuable pleasures, not just aesthetic and intellectual ones.

    And I am perhaps not the world’s largest fan of the moving your lips line.

  3. I’ve read The Hunger Games. I’ve also read plenty of worse books that were nonetheless very enjoyable. I’ll read any book that I find interesting, whether or not it’s considered great literature; my recent reading has included the entirety of Les Miserables, several works from Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (which may or may not be considered a ‘classic’, but is wonderful), and am currently bogged down in Heinlein, who I don’t much like. At the same time, I read (and endlessly reread) plenty of pulp books.

    Everyone has hobbies and ways to relax. Some people watch movies, some watch TV shows, some read non-enlightening books, some knit things that have no real use or bake things that aren’t good for them or produce things they don’t know what to do with or make YouTube videos. Claiming you’re better than other people because they have different hobbies is the shallowest form of self-congratulation. (Adding to that – on a plane? On a plane you don’t want something dense and thoughtful, you want something that will distract you from your several-hour plane trip. It’s the perfect venue for frivolous pursuits.)

    In addition to that, the Hunger Games does have some intellectual value. It has morally complex characters and situations, a very unconventional heroine (she’s quite selfish, and she’s quite clearly caught up in events she can’t control and spends most of her time being manipulated, both things that aren’t generally characteristics of the typical Strong Female Action Heroine Role Model), an equally unconventional hero (it’s fairly rare to see a guy taking the part of the conscience in a group) and a main theme that is, to say the least, atypical for a young adults’ book about resisting an evil government (I won’t spoil for you if you’re just getting started). It’s not as well-written as it could be, but it’s certainly thought-provoking.

    • Heinlein is such a mixed bag. I’ve loved some of his books, and hated others. (I found “Stranger in a Strange Land” greatly overrated, for one.)

      And you’re absolutely right about what to bring on a plane. I’m trying to make my way (so, so haltingly) through Proust, and there is no way I could parse his incredibly dense sentences while cramped on a flight, with or without my preschooler.

      • Which ones have you loved? I’m trying to read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which is rather good but isn’t really pulling me in, and I’ve heard that’s one of his best.

        • I enjoyed “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” “Starship Troopers,” “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” and “The Cat Who Walks through Walls.” I found “Job” sort of so-so. And, as I noted, I found “Stranger…” deeply blah.

      • Heinlein? Have you read The Number of the Beast? I did it on a dare and was sick for a week.

          • Since you’re a gay man like me, definitly no. Though I’d like to think even straight nerds found his depiction of women in that book creepy.

          • There’s an expression in the SF community called “The Brain Eater”, which is a thing that attacks SF authors after a certain age. They get the urge to combine all of their settings into one universe, and their books get talkier and talkier. Thy also try to write sex scenes, and they’re terrible at it. Heinlein is the paradigmatic example, though Asimov fits too.

            Anyway, no RAH after TMiaHM is a good rule of thumb. But do try the juveniles. The first one (Rocket Ship Galileo) is laughable, but they get better as you go, and the last few (Have Spacesuit, Citizen of the Galaxy, Tunnel in the Sky) are as good as anything he wrote.

  4. 1). Without porn, the Internet would have died in the nineties.
    2) you need to borrow “battle royale” from me sometime

    • 1) That may be the case. However, there’s a time and a place for everything and I happen to think maybe porn aficionados might consider a brief hiatus during air travel.

      2) Bring it the next time you visit. Along with the bottle of Scotch you owe me.

  5. The fact that we consider Hunger Games a child’s novel is in itself remarkable. It’s almost like we can take any story, put a few children in the lead, and lo and behold, it’s a children’s story! Nevermind the blood and guts and wholesale slaughter. Nevermind the themes of totalitarianism and (particularly starting with the second book, though Peeta introduces it in the first) wading through not just morally ambiguous situation, but morally corrupt societies while attempting to keep your morality in tact.

    You’d have to change this book (or these books – I’m halfway through the second) in more ways to make them childish than to make them full-on adult literature.

    • “Young adult” isn’t a kind of writing – it’s a marketing category. Adults don’t in general like to read books with kids as protagonists, but kids do.

  6. It’s also worth noting that novels written for adults aren’t really educational either.

    • I agree, I’m very sceptical of the ability of fiction to educate. The trouble is that the author can make up whatever they want, that is after all what ‘fiction’ means. I read non-fiction for education and fiction for entertainment.

  7. A great post, Russell. I had seen the same thing over at the Dish and and planned on writing about it, but since you beat me to it and did a fab-o job I’m content jus tho read yours. I will say this, though – why do so many people argue that you have have to read only one thing or another? When reading all of the snippets from the Sully post, it didn’t seem like it occurred to anyone that people might well choose to read Harry Potter AND Thomas Pynchon.

    • Because if you’re not chaining your children in a basement and forcing them to read Dickens by candlelight, you’re depriving them of the wonders of the joys of reading.

      Okay, this isn’t actually about children but rather adult reading habits, but this is a pet peeve of mine. Forget reading “children’s books,” why read non-fiction at all? Except the classics, which has bragging currency. But beyond that, you should only read non-fiction because then you’re learning facts rather than about the lives of fictitious people. The former will teach you while the latter merely has entertainment value and, to the extent that you do learn something from it, you’d learn more by reading textbooks.

      • This reminds me of an Aristotle quote: “Poetry is a more philosophical and serious business than history; for poetry speaks more of universals, history of particulars.”

  8. I read The Hunger Games trilogy and was pleased that it proved so popular with kids. Maybe it will help them recognize the perils of totalitarianism, whether it exists to support a highly unfair and stratified social structure or whether it exists to enforce absolute egalitarianism (in the later books, the “good” guys leave stylists chained in a dungeon for stealing a piece of bread instead of being content with an equal share).

  9. Whats’s wrong with a little mind candy now and then. (By which I mean something read for the fun of it, not because you have to or are expected to) I’m about half way through Mockingjay and enjoying the series. I would not exactly classify this as a “children’s book”, young adult maybe but themes are pretty dark and dystopian. And as stated above some of Heinlein’s best stuff is his young adult books.

  10. The book mark is still in “Against the Day” at the exact point where I flipped its author the metaphorical bird and put it permanently back on the shelf. Conversely, I will happily bore anyone with my theories about the various unresolved questions in “Infinite Jest” — David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite authors.

    Hah! That’s funny. I’ve read and loved everything by Pynchon except for Lot 49, and I flipped Wallace the bird after 120 pages into Infinite Jest.

    But I agree with you about Hunger Games. My daughter recommended the series to me, and I made sure to finish it before the I went to the movie. I thought the first book was a really terrific story very well told. I’d recommend it to anyone.

  11. I just got back from the film, which my son and I both enjoyed a lot (even though many of its punches were telegraphed.) I asked him if the books were worthwhile too, and he said “No, Dad, You wouldn’t like them. Too childish. Not at all subtle.” Since we both read all of Harry Potter (even went to the bookstore at midnight together to get The Deathly Hallows), I’m taking that to mean significantly less adult that Rowling.

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