When I was in high school, my English teacher gave all his senior English classes an assignment: pick something you don’t like, that you’ve written off as “not for you”, and find someone who likes it to reintroduce it to you. After they’ve done their worst, write a paper on how/if your views have changed. It’s been over a decade, but I still think about that assignment often. I love the premise of it: that there’s value in liking things, and that understanding someone else’s enjoyment can help you enjoy it too. It flies in the face of that edgy attitude of defining yourself by what you don’t like instead of what you do. It says joy has value, and can be shared. The sound you hear just now, of wind whistling by your ear, is the sound of me fist-pumping in agreement. Yeah! says my furiously pumping fist. Finding what works in a narrative is just as important as finding things to criticise!
I thought about the assignment again last month when I read Austin Chant’s Peter Darling. I was utterly enchanted by this Peter Pan story. Something about a transgender Peter, who was just as gutsy and obnoxious as all the other Peters but had been named Wendy at birth, allowed me to connect to the narrative in a way I never had before. It was eye-opening. At long last the nostalgia and poignancy of Peter Pan made sense to me, instead of swinging wildly between too-childish adventures in Neverland and too-serious depictions of adult life outside of it. In Peter Darling I found my handholds into a world I’d wanted to like but never really managed to get into. It felt wonderful. And it was a reminder—again—that one person’s passion for a thing can induct others into it. The thousands of Peter Pan spinoffs in this world will be more accessible to me from here on out, and I have Austin Chant to thank for it.
I didn’t really go into Peter Darling hoping Chant could warm me to Neverland, however. I just thought the premise sounded entertaining—which brings us to the Goodreads review section. Most reviews start in one of two ways: either with the reviewer stating they love all things Peter Pan and have to read anything Peter Pan related, or with them stating they don’t really care for Peter Pan but this book caught their eye. It’s a reminder of why these retellings are so lucrative: either you tempt in people who already love the source material, or you catch people in some other way and they’re not put off by the link to the original. There’s probably a cap on how many retellings a person can take in a year, but on the whole it’s inoffensive.
Public domain classics aren’t the only thing I’m interested in learning to like. Over the past few years, exposure to one A. A. Lukens as one of my movie-watching companions has turned me into a person who can appreciate well-choreographed action sequences (what have I become?!) and outright enjoys horror movies. Their enthusiasm for good action and squeals of bliss over the little plot twists that happen within a hand-to-hand fight might not turn me into an action lover, but I’ve at least ascended to being an action appreciator. This improves my life even if I never actively do anything with it. Something that bored me now entertains me. Score!
It feels small, going through life and trying to find the little bits in everything that appeal to me, but it definitely keeps me going. It draws me out of my comfort zone and expands it. It doesn’t save or cure anything—but I like it, and I recommend it, and I think reading and watching and listening widely can only make for a more interesting world. Is there anything you’ve learned to like, after a tricky start?
2 thoughts on “An exercise in liking things”
This is lovely! I felt much the same about Peter Darling as you do – no strong opinions on the source material, but the retelling lent it a gravitas and complexity that grounded the whimsy. Couldn’t stop thinking about it for a few days.
This post reminds me of a conversation I had recently, about reasons to have or not have children. I’m leaning strongly to the “no children” side and it was interesting to hear friends dissect exactly what they liked about the idea of having children. I feel like it’s often posited as this generically joyful thing, which never really resonated with me. I found it much easier to relate to friends’ examples of “you get to see a human being experience the world for the first time and develop their own internal models of it, up close”.
Thank you Marrit! Glad you had the same experience. You put it perfectly!
Oh man, that rings true for me re: children. People will tell you all the difficulties of having/raising/dealing with children and then act surprised when you’re not chomping at the bit to have them. But you’re totally right, if you swap the generic promise of ‘happiness’ (hard to imagine as a non-parent!) with the privilege of getting to see a person form their whole personality, it feels very different. I get a bit of this seeing my niece and nephew grow up. Super fun, even from the sidelines! This is also what I loved about volunteering with preteens. Who they are as people is just developing, and you get to be there witnessing it at this important and weird time for them. It also helped me forgive myself for a lot of the stupid things I said/did as a preteen. Growing up is weird for everyone! (And occasionally hilarious from the outside. Not that you’d ever let on that someone else’s painful journey to adulthood is funny to you…)