Friday, February 1, 2008

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Watching Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debate last night reminds me of the surprising number of books I have read for this project that represent not only a divided, or fragmented, world but also divided or fragmented personalities. The Thirteenth Tale was one of the first books to catch my attention in this regard, with its depiction of disparate twins and parallel writers, but curiously all of my more recent reading, focused on the 2007 Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, seems to follow along this same path. The Sleeper Conspiracy, with its representation of a part-time assassin, part-time teenager, is the most obvious example, but other books such as Played, Street Pharm, and What Happened to Cass McBride? represent identity fragmentation as well.

For those of you who enjoy reading about fragmentation, I recommend Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Cohn and Levithan--both successful young adult authors in their own right--set in motion an unlikely relationship between two disparate teenagers, Nick, a budding musician and song writer of very modest means, and Norah, a music critic extraordinaire and the daughter of a wealthy music industry executive. Nick and Norah meet in a somewhat stressful situation: when Nick sees his former girlfriend walking toward him in a club, he turns to Norah--whom he doesn't know--and asks: "Will you be my girlfriend for the next five minutes?" This question sparks a relationship that takes all sorts of unexpected twists and turns over a period of about 12 hectic, fun-filled, and eventually exhausting hours.

In addition to exploring topics such as music, relationships, homosexuality, oral sex, and the advantages of sobriety, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist delves into tikkun olam, a concept integral to Judaism that more or less translates to the importance of making an effort to prevent social chaos and fragmentation. Cohn and Levithan's take on this idea is anything but corny, and they make a strong statement about the potential within every individual to affect change and create order out of clashing elements.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist is definitely too edgy in language and sexual content for use in most classrooms. However, the writing is excellent, and the story develops at a nice pace. This is terrific outside of school reading for older adolescents, and especially perhaps ones living in urban areas. As an adult, I enjoyed the talk about bands that I recall hearing as a college student in the early '80s.

In a recent article, Nicholas Kristof terms the current era the "age of ambition." In support of this claim, Kristoff cites various examples of young people engaging in "social entrepreneurship," or concrete and sustainable efforts to address serious social problems. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist does not model any such efforts, but it does provide a philosophical framework for exerting agency in a world full of disharmony. In other words, Cohn and Levithan suggest that it is possible to unify disparate points of view and ways of being in the world--something I find myself increasingly yearning for, especially as I watched the presidential debate last night.

Maybe unification isn't such a bad thing to root for?

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