It’s Pick a Fight Day on LJ!
(No, it isn’t. Just on my LJ.)
So, I’m mostly okay with this article in the Telegraph about how it’s okay not to have read John Updike, or for that matter other literary greats. It’s certainly true that it isn’t possible for even the most well-intentioned of book lovers to have read all of the Great Literature that’s been published in the last two hundred years, even if you aim only for the top tier.
But here’s where the writer and I part ways:
This is not an argument against the literary canon. I do believe there are certain key authors – most of them Dead, White, European and Male – who jolly well ought to be studied at school by virtue of the quality and intelligence and depth of their writing. And I certainly don’t believe in the modern anything-goes approach to teaching novels to children in school where they’re served up in gobbets of “text” (whole books being considered too challenging for the Xbox generation) and where literary merit is thought of less importance than “relevance” or “accessibility”.
All I mean is that once you’ve had a reasonable grounding in sufficient “proper” literature to form your taste, you should never again read a book out of duty.
Okay, middle first. I’m with him on the distressing notion that a whole book is too much for kids to read; God, I hope there aren’t many schools doing that. But. But.
Dead, White, European, and Male. The blithe assumption that they’ve got a majority share on “quality and intelligence and depth.” Gyah. I won’t even waste space on arguing that one; you all can do that for yourselves.
The end; the end is where I start talking back to my monitor. The idea that you should form your taste by reading “proper” literature. That literary merit (as judged by, I presume, highly-educated White European Males) should be our primary criterion for handing books to kids — because “relevance” and “accessibility” are silly little concerns, not something we should be wasting their time on.
How the hell does he expect anybody to learn to love reading, with that approach? How does an education in which you’re forced to read books out of duty incline anybody to go on reading them when the duty is removed?
A couple of months ago, I finally managed to articulate one of the things that bothered me about high school English lit classes: I think they force-feed students lots of things the students have no particular reason to understand or care about, and they do it because this is the last chance society has to make you read those books. So who cares if Death of a Salesman is about a guy decades ago having a mid-life crisis and you’re a sixteen-year-old barely aware that traveling salesmen once existed? Who cares if you have any reason to find Willy Loman’s pain sympathetic or even comprehensible? You’ll read it because we think you should do so before you die, and once you graduate our chance to enforce that is gone.
I don’t think any power in the ‘verse could have made me like that play, but I’ve got a tidy little list of authors I should give a second chance, because I might enjoy them now that I’m ready for them.
But I formed my taste by reading books I liked, books I cared about. It probably isn’t the taste Mr. Dellingpole thinks I should have; it’s okay for me not to read Updike, but probably less okay if the reason I’m not reading Updike is that I’m reading George R. R. Martin. But I submit that quality, intelligence, and depth exist as much in one’s interaction with a book as they do in the text itself: all the literary brilliance in the world doesn’t matter if my eyes are glazing over as I turn the pages. You want to know how I learned close reading? By obsessing over Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books and piecing together the fragments of prophecy and foreshadowing scattered through them. And it’s entirely possible I never would have become an alert enough reader to survive Dorothy Dunnett had I not gone through those baby steps first. But if somebody had convinced me I ought to be spending my time on Zadie Smith instead of Jordan, it’s also possible I would have never picked up Dunnett in the first place — or, y’know, other books in general.
If I were in charge of high school curricula, you know what? Literary merit would not be my overriding concern. I would set out to give kids books they might enjoy, and then once they’re engaged, teach them how to pay attention to what they’re reading. Everything else can follow from there, because once you’ve done that, the chances of there being an “everything else” get a lot higher.
It’s a fine irony when Mr. Dellingford decries readers who pick up literary books only out of a sense of obligation — while also telling us we should obligate kids to do just that.