“The fashion for [historicals] is gone, and nobody wants to bring it back. It was better in its time, and will wear better, than the smart cackle, cynical humour at second-hand from America, cruelty at second-hand from France, and gabble about so-called problems, which are the fashions of today. At any rate the style forms only a subordinate part of a lively and kindly story, which does not preach, which was written to amuse, and not that the author might pose in any one of the cynical, cruel, daring, or other affected attitudes with which we are tiresomely familiar.”
From the intro to a library reject copy of Marryat’s Jacob Faithful written by one David Hannay for this printing, 1895.
So many people have dismissed the entirety of nineteenth century literature as a monolith of Victorian dullness. I expect that for many of those, the only 19th C novels they’ve read have been the so-called classics they were assigned in college.
I’ve already posted enough about classics, books one was supposed to appreciate but didn’t, or books that were supposed to be trash that we loved. The thing that this particular quote got me to thinking about was how we were expected to read (and discuss) said assigned classics while in school and college.
There was a dramatic difference, for example, when I talked to a bunch of fifth graders about the latest Harry Potter. Every face was intent on me, the problem wasn’t Teacher Me trying to pry answers out of them to prove their reading comprehension, the problem was keeping some kind of order because everyone was talking at once.
These discussions always started off with favorite bits, and whom did you hate the most, but if the kids were given enough time, those discussions spun off into speculation, interpretation, debate, with kids recalling the text as best they could to prove their points. If I asked them to bring their copy the next day and read the problematical bit, they would.
And yet at literature time, these same kids would sit there, bored spitless, or twiddling pencils, writing notes, staring out the windows as I proceeded through the mandated study guides.
A writer friend over at SFF.NET linked to this crack-up of a bogus book report on a much-assigned book now lauded as a classic.
While I was watching and laughing, I was thinking back to my own experience with To Kill a Mockingbird. In my day, it not only wasn’t assigned, it was forbidden to many young readers, I guess because of the rape aspect. That went totally over my twelve-year old head. I assumed that the victim had died of an extra bad beating.
But at no time did I then, or later, identify the rising action, or examples of dramatic irony, or any of the other stuff that so many book reports demand. I don’t recall even the most sophisticated readers among my acquaintance ever discussing the rising or falling action of any book. Does that kind of requirement make better readers?
My feeling is, no. What makes better readers is reading, talking about what one likes or doesn’t like, what was puzzling, and always, going back to the text to reread the words, then discover what those words mean to other people. But academics feel that these study guides are shaping young readers’ intellectual tools.
When I looked at a study guide for To Kill a Mockingbird, I was so grateful that I’d read (and reread) the book on my own because for sure, those pages of tedious questions would have killed any possible investment in the story. I would have been forced to stay on the outside, watching for the bits the guide required.
This is not to say that all readers are the same. There are many readers for whom literature is a puzzle whose pieces need to be teased out. This reader is never inside the story, but gains pleasure from taking the work apart and then reassembling it via logic, or message, or intellectual process. Novels are mind games, and reading is playing the game.
No conclusions, here, outside of my conviction that most humans read for mental play. So here’s a question: what do you think shapes good readers—if you have a definition of what makes a good reader?