Have you been inside a Barnes and Noble lately? When I walk into my neighborhood Barnes and Noble their YA sections look like a New York Publisher’s marketing dream. An entire large section labeled “paranormal romance.” Really? Even more disheartening is this fact: ninety percent of the books on their shelves are written and marketed for girls. Honestly, in that sea of Sarah Dessens and Stephanie Meyers and Lauren Olivers it’s hard to find books for guys. Even sports books are hard to find, buried in rows of love and vampires. This is not to knock those books or authors. They’re popular for a reason. People like them and they’re reading, and that’s a good thing. And there's certainly nothing wrong with some love and romance. Working in education I see firsthand that boys are just not reading books like girls, and that because of how our schools teach reading (and what they make them read!), they are literally teaching boys to hate reading. Rather than solving the problem our schools are perpetuating it and bookstores have become their partners in crime. But hey, we know there are lots of good books for boys and we know boys will read them. How about putting some of them out? How about making some of them visible?
So, I thought for this month I would go back a few years to the better days when bookshelves actually had some variety and a boy could walk up and rather easily find a good book. The book today will be the masterful Feed by M.T. Anderson. This is a dystopian novel published before teens knew what “dystopia” meant. We’ll call that BHGE: Before Hunger Games Era.
Like all dystopian stories it is the future. People have brain implants to get all of their media directly into their heads. Who needs Tivo when you can get 700 channels fed directly to your brain? That’s the “Feed.” But people don’t just get TV; they get advertisements, news, and even the ability to talk to each other “mentally” through their feed. And like all media use – and incredibly prescient by Anderson given the scope and controversy today regarding the use and abuse of GPS tracking – everyone is tracked through their feed. It is Madison Avenue’s dream state; if you go to a lot of sports stores, let’s say, you get lots of commercials in your head for sporting goods, and so on. And the Feed of course, knows all about you. They have a personal profile, like a Government and Wall Street Facebook permanently linked to your brain.
Like all teenagers Titus has a Feed. He loves it and does not question it. The Feed is life and life is the Feed. But then he meets Violet who is an iconoclast; in fact, she begs people, including Titus, to “resist the Feed.” She’ll even do nasty things, like walk into stores she has no interest in just to screw with the Feed’s mass marketing program. How do you sell endless products to people who resist the Feed?
But Violet got her Feed a bit later in life, so it doesn’t quite work well, and slowly her health begins to deteriorate. She needs a new Feed. Her family doesn’t have the money to afford one, so they need FeedTech to give her free repairs. But they don’t want to give her a new Feed because Violet is a bad investment. She’s a lousy customer.
There are some remarkable yet subtle scenes of a very real potential future in Feed. When Titus and Violent walk through a pasture on a cattle farm, all of the cattle have been genetically engineered to remove all of their “unnecessary” parts. Without heads and legs, they are just slabs of meat with feeding tubes. Welcome to industrial farming 2.0. And there is this wonderfully evil touch: every time someone mentions school the word has the little TM next to it, meaning "school" has become trademarked, that is, a business. Welcome to schooling 2012.
Reading Feed is a frightening, haunting, exciting, thrilling, and an astonishingly imaginative experience. Like all dystopian fiction it is not about the future at all, but about our media-saturated lives and our consumerism run amok and our anti-thinking society. It is a deeply political book that will excite teens – boys and girls – and as they make their way through this terrific story, they will no doubt being doing something else: thinking.
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