Sunday, April 17, 2005

Words to ponder ...

"A real book-lover looks with infinite indulgence upon the simplest person's choice of books. He has the wit to know that this flood of second-rate invention upon which so many feed their fancy and by which so many endure the monotony of their lives is something quite different from what it seems to the person who just glances at it as he passes by. He has the wit to know that every page of these second-rate books as it impresses the mind of the living reader is transmuted by the alchemy of the imagination into something beyond the literal meaning of the words. All readers are imaginative readers. They wouldn't be readers at all otherwise."
This is from The Enjoyment of Literature by John Cowper Powys, one of my favorite writers. It expresses well my own latitudinarian critical stance. One of the things that most prevents people from enjoying great literature is that they have it shoved down their throats at the wrong time and under the worst circumstances. I first encountered Jane Austen when I was a 15-year-old working-class kid going to Father Judge High in Northeast Philly. Pride and Prejudice was required reading. But the world portrayed therein was so far from the world I knew that it could have been written in Martian. To this day I have yet to warm to the charms of Miss Austen.
Readers should, like water, follow their own course and reach their own level. Nothing does literature greater harm than snobbery.


  1. Couldn't agree more, Frank. Too often we try to force a love of literature instead of nurturing its growth (like your marvelous tulip). Some people are born to read (I include myself in that category), but most have to learn to love it. Throwing Wuthering Heights at them when they're sixteen isn't going to get it done most of the time.

  2. If the teachers really do "throw" Wuthering Heights at students, or "shove" Jane Austen "down their throats," then the kids do have something to fuss about.

    That not teaching! That child abuse!

    Yet even if the Heights were gently tossed and Jane chopped into bite-sized morsels, one suspects the number of complaints would not decline.

    No one, I assert, has ever been turned off to books by being "required" to read great literature, or turned on to reading by being weaned on mush. Those who claim the former would always lack the capacity for book-reading, and those who claim the latter have had their fuller development unnecessarily delayed.

    As a tough working class kid who fell in love with Jane Austen thiry-five years ago (at fifteen when I was required to read Pride and Prejudice) and on behalf of tough, smart, working class kids everywhere, I reject the implication that working class teens are incapable of navigating the foreign territory of a 19th century novel. Yes, Austen's world was strange to me. That was not a hindrance, but an attraction. And then I discovered that her world was not strange at all, when I began to discern the traits of her characters in the flesh and blood nobility and foolishness of the people around me.

    How misguidedly romantic it is to assume that children, left to their own devices, will--by some mystical process--discover art, or music, or literature on their own. These things must be put in their way so that there's no getting around them--yes, with subtle persuasion, adept encouragement, etc., but also with at least some gentle element of compulsion, i.e., as a requirement. Please don't get me wrong. Although I've never actually seen it done, I concede that shoving books down throats is neither subtle nor effective.

    Book-reading is becoming a lost art, not because we require too much of children, but because we require too little.

  3. Please note, Bathus, that I did not say that working-class teens are incapable of grasping Jane Austen. I said that the working-class kid that I was couldn't. Nor was I suggesting that instead of great literature, students should be offered mush. I remember when my stepdaughter was going to Germantown Friends School and simply could not follow the convolutions of Henry James's prose. So I read to her what she had been assigned while she followed along with another copy. That worked. For every kid who, like yourself, took to Jane Austen right away, I suspect there are many more who are turned off forever. I suspect also that you had already developed the habit of reading. What I am talking about is developing that habit. And I think that is best done by letting students read books that already hold some appeal for them -- not just anything, and certainly not mush, but science fiction, adventure, romances. And once that habit is formed, the sky is the limit.