Setting the Standards: Vonnegut and The Baby-sitters Club

There are two issues in the news that I will be fussing over all day today. The first is the conflict in the Middle East, and obviously, I'm both disturbed and obsessed with that. Second is the fact that a certain Ms. Avril Lavigne has gotten hitched with her one and only Sk8tr Boi, Deryck Whibley of the pop-punk band Sum 41. I care deeply about both of these items, although it's obvious that the former significant and of a greater concern than the latter. From my perspective, though, they're both important. I adore Hollywood gossip. I follow the dating misadventures and marriages of pretty, young, strange Canadian pop stars with a vengeance. International affairs, though...well. Tomorrow I'll forget that Av's on her honeymoon, and I'll be worrying about Hezbollah and Israel's next move. But know I'll still be interested in whether she and D-dawg make it through the first year. And I expect to be told.

Which brings me to Gail Caldwell's rumination, "Beyond Measure," in yesterday's Boston Globe. Her Critic's View piece muses over last year's NYTBR's "Best" poll, which asked 200 writers and editors (fiction authors included) to choose the best work of the last 25 years. After receiving 124 responses, Toni Morrison's Beloved was deemed the winner. There were plenty of weird and annoying discrepancies in the poll -- the fact that Morrison only gleaned 10% of the vote, and Philip Roth split it between seven of his books. Some writers voted for themselves, and didn't select what is widely regarded as their superior work. Some writers voted for other writers. Some writers didn't bother to vote at all, or couldn't pick just one work, and tried to justify that with essays and alternative suggestions.

Caldwell's been a book critic for quite some time, and she's got the smarts and the perspective to prove it. Which is why even a year after the poll, her thoughts here are still awfully relevant:

"And with 150,000 books published each year, somebody has to thin the herd. That's where reviewers -- and booksellers, book clubs, prizes, polls, and your own Aunt Margie -- come in. I know one snobbish writer who, whenever a stranger would ask her for a reading recommendation, would smile thinly and reply, 'Try Middlemarch.' I hope my own response is broader and kinder: Read what you like, what your friends like, what a trustworthy critic recommended this season. Read Charlotte's Web, or Humboldt's Gift, or Parade's End, or Michael Chabon and Ian McEwan and Zadie Smith and Rachel Cusk and Claire Messud and Colm Toibin and...oh good Lord, even Irving, I suppose."

You'll like what you're going to like, right? If you want to rip through The Da Vinci Code one weekend, or on your morning commute on the T, why not let yourself enjoy it? Why hide the dust jacket from view? Then, if you want to tackle The Sound and the Fury the next day, there's nothing wrong with admitting you heart Dan Brown. It passed the time, it made you happy for a few hours, and it brought you pleasure -- maybe not the same level that reading a classic work by a beloved American talent would, but pleasure all the same.

When people ask me what my favorite book is, I usually either say one of four: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut, or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. It is difficult for me to choose one. But you know what I really love? The Baby-sitters Club by Ann M. Martin. Any of them. All of them. The whole series. The Super Specials and the Mysteries and the spin-offs.

I love them, and sometimes I reread them when I go home to visit my parents, when I get bored from their lack of cable. Just a few weeks ago, I watched The Babysitters Club movie for free on Comcast On Demand. And I enjoyed every last second of it. Stacy is my favorite character. She doesn't just dress the coolest. She IS the coolest.

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