I’ll second Siobhan’s comment about the avidity of the avid reader. That box of 1900-1930ish kids’ books I read around 1954 didn’t slow me down, even when the cycling chums called their bicycles “wheels” or the football games didn’t match what I saw the big kids doing on our local field. When I read the chapter of Treasure Island titled “I Strike the Jolly Roger,” I was puzzled that anybody would want to hit a flag, but I plowed right on. (I got better.) Books were full of stuff I half- or flat-out misunderstood, but stories and interesting settings kept me going. (Even the Bobbsey Twins‘ world–we never went to the seashore for a vacation.)
I suspect what Gardner is seeing in his son’s contemporaries and his grandchildren is what my wife sees every day in her university English classes: a multi-generation decline in basic reading skills, with an accompanying impoverishment of imagination. There were always college students who didn’t read for pleasure (our combined teaching experience reaches back to 1966), but now there is a significant portion who can’t read for pleasure–or, sometimes, for simple content.
If the educational system has failed, it’s been in a much more fundamental matter than requiring texts that young people will find palatable–it’s been in setting tasks that will require them to develop adult-level reading and analytical skills.The art of teaching literature and literacy is to find texts that engage and challenge–though no amount of pedagogical skill is going to have much success in a general culture that scorns even moderately complex art or thinks that a diploma is the same thing as a brain.
Karen Joy Fowler
I still haven’t read the Heinlein juveniles so no opinion on that.
But I read Kidnapped aloud to my kids and was astonished at how hard it was. They loved it but they wouldn’t have understood a word if we hadn’t kept stopping and talking about the Stuarts and the line of succession and various arcane points of religious doctrine as well as dealing with frequent, as in every other sentence, difficulties in vocabulary. And yet I did read it all by myself as a kid. I’d previously read A Dog for Davy’s Hill, much much easier but with some tangential discussion of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Plus the Disney TV show had just shown “The Fighting Prince of Donegal,” which is actually Ireland, but I confused the two in a helpful way that gave me confidence navigating the landscape. And I’d seen Treasure Island, the movie.
So maybe there was just a kind of support in the popular culture that isn’t there anymore.
And then I was, as most sf readers I feel must be, less fussed than some about understanding every single thing in a book. I could tolerate considerable confusion as long as I followed the plot.
In another lifetime, I wanted to write a series of short films, sort of Monty Pythonish sketches, that would go to schools in support of different books. I pictured a family — always the same actors — but in many different places and times — something a class might watch about Roman times if they were about to read Julius Caesar, for example, or the Scotland of Kidnapped, or the England of Pride and Predjudice. A short film that would fill in the background for you. But funny!
And I did like Death of a Salesman when we read it, which seemed to me to be all about how your parents were not so great as you’d once thought, and therefore, was full of wisdom for the ages. Also The Crucible, which was clearly about the high school mean girls and their inexplicable powers.
Okay, this is slightly off-topic, but Death of a Salesman is my exemplar of what’s wrong with high-school required reading lists. I was made to read it, and speaking as a voracious reader who has devoured many things with pleasure . . . am I allowed to swear here? Let’s just say I HATED it. With the burning heat of a thousand suns. I hated every character in it, and not in that productive, narrative way; I was rooting for them all to die so the story would be over already.
I was sixteen when they made me read it. Why in god’s name should a sixteen-year-old read a play about a guy in the 1940s, working at a job I was pretty sure had gone extinct since then, having a mid-life crisis? What part of that is meaningful to me in any way? Okay, I was no more a telepathic dragonrider on an alien planet than I was a travelling salesman — but a telepathic dragonrider was a life I could enjoy dreaming of; every minute spent in Willy Loman’s imaginary company was a minute that sucked a bit more of the life out of me. There was absolutely nothing in DOAS I could look at with pleasure.
But y’see, it’s a classic: the sort of thing people think you ought to read at some point before you die. I was a junior in high school; they had only two years remaining in which they could require me to read it before I died. So in it went, regardless of whether that was a good time for me to pick up the play. (That’s my theory, anyway.)
Guy: If the reading lists are just going to be fun stuff, where does that take us? When do the fifteen year olds GET to Miller? By way of Jack Vance?
Because Miller is my usual punching bag, I’ll play the devil’s advocate and say: why should I get to Miller? Is it really a terrible loss for society if I don’t? We have to eventually accept that some classics cease to *be* classics for later generations; if we don’t, then the list of Things People Ought to Read just gets longer and longer, leaving less and less time for reading new material that reflects the conflicts and concerns of later ages. We can find material in Jane Austen that speaks to modern concerns, even though she wasn’t writing about our own society; however, that’s us doing the work of making that connection, rather than it being there from the start. Which is important work — but there’s a point at which I think it’s okay to say, you know, this book is valuable for what it says about its own time period, but not so much for what it says to readers today.
Or, to put it another way: if we’re talking about teaching empathy through reading, I think I’d rather have today’s teenagers learn about it by reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or Justine Larbalestier’s Liar than reading Death of a Salesman. Those kids know people like Alexie’s and Larbalestier’s characters; they don’t so much know Willy Loman.
(Austen, btw, is another one who was wasted on me in high school. I came back to her later, through the A&E miniseries, and took much more pleasure then, because I had the context that made her society come to life in my mind.)