You are what you eat (and read)

The following guest commentary was written by Nancy Piccione, a member of St. Mary’s Parish in Metamora. An avid reader, she has a B.A. in English literature and an M.S. in journalism. She is married to Joseph Piccione and they have three children — none of whom, she reports, are teenagers. Yet.

When Claire, the French 15-year-old visiting our family this summer, pointed out “Twilight” on a Barnes & Noble visit, and said she had enjoyed it, I had proof the Stephenie Meyer novels really are an international phenomenon.

The “Twilight Saga,” for those without teenage girls in your immediate orbit, is a popular four-novel series about the love story of Edward Cullen, an impossibly handsome and virtuous vampire, and Bella Swan, a kind of “everygirl.”

“Breaking Dawn,” the final in the series, and others are on the New York Times Bestseller list; a movie is slated for November release.

I found they are all quick, enjoyable, reads. They are mostly free of explicit sex and violence (the fourth crosses some lines), but there’s lots of heavy breathing and implied violence. “Breaking Dawn” is the best of the bunch, with a more mature sensibility, and even a pro-life theme of sorts, with Bella and another vampire trying to protect her unborn child.

Still, I have a lot of reservations, quite apart from the supernatural element that I know may give many pause. Let me just pick one: the way to practice self-control is not to put your beloved in mortal danger so you can “get stronger,” as Edward does so he can resist Bella. It might work for vampires, but it doesn’t work for humans. Some like to call the alternative “avoiding the near occasion of sin,” and it’s time-tested.

But that’s really not the point. Young women reading these books aren’t looking for role models or boyfriend tips, though I think some are. It’s all just escapism and fantasy and fun, right?

Yes and no. I’m not trying to spoil anyone’s fun, but . . .

An analogy might help. One of my other summer reads was “In Defense of Food,” Michael Pollan’s critique of the modern food culture. He recommends, “Eat food. Not too much. Plants, mostly.”

My new discovery (turns out I’m hopelessly behind) is that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is the new “trans fat.” In the same way we’ve all become aware of and avoid trans fat, HFCS is being understood now as bad for our bodies. In our family, we’ve been really shocked to see where it shows up. Rice Krispies? They’re not even sweet!

But while we’re gradually trying to make healthier choices at the grocery store, I don’t feel condemned by Pollan. We’re just doing the best we can, and glad someone is making us aware.

So what’s that to do with the “Twilight Saga”? If the novels were a food, HFCS would be the first ingredient, and trans fat the second. I haven’t sent them to the lab to be analyzed — that’s just my quick English major opinion.

So is reading “Twilight” going to kill you? Probably not; just as eating the occasional super-processed fast food meal won’t kill you. But you aren’t going to be very healthy if that’s all you eat.

And your mind and soul won’t be well-nourished or healthy if books like this are all you read. Especially if you read them without considering carefully what you want to take away, and what you want to leave behind. Or, a friend points out when we talk about a less-than-perfect book or movie, “Don’t forget to spit out the bones.”

And just like some food substances can alter your body so it becomes difficult to metabolize real food well, some novels might leave you not as able to appreciate good literature, and, more importantly, the real world.

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