Tuesday, September 30, 2008

With affection and enthusiasm

At First Things, Eleanor Bourg Donlon laments the fact that most young people don't voluntarily read books anymore - something I noticed in my classes, even in the TAG class I used to teach. She believes, and I agree, that among the important reasons are which books are taught, and how they are taught:
In November 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts published a report titled To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence. .... Its findings are devastating. Teenagers are increasingly tossing aside books for other activities and a startling percentage of young adults (nearly 60 percent) don’t bother to pick the books up in the first place. ....

...Generations are rising who can only see Austen through the lens of schmaltzy Hollywood films—cannot see, say, Charles Dickens at all, unless they have a taste for gloriously interminable BBC dramas.

This distaste for Dickens is usually based on a single text, most often A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times, or Great Expectations. What is this source of this plague of prejudice? Can it be that (with the exception of the established yuletide phenomenon that is The Christmas Carol—a story that persistently comes back like one of Jacob Marley’s fellow spirits, sometimes to haunt, sometimes to delight) Boz no longer has the power to entertain?

The answer has to be no, but this is a problem with two insidious sources—television and the classroom, and the latter is far more dangerous. ....

The true stage for the anti-Dickens crusade is the classroom. The uninspired pessimism of high-school teachers blights the young receptacle, already numbed into thinking that the Harry Potter series is “quality literature.”

Jack thinks Sydney Carton is a sap, and Jill doesn’t have the foggiest idea what is wrong with Miss Havisham. They agree, however, that the assignment is boring....

How then should Dickens be taught? As with all of literature, he must be taught with affection, with enthusiasm, with patience, and with a taste for eccentricity. A more fitting introduction for young minds might be found in the reckless youthful energy of Nicholas Nickleby, with its hero who descends to fisticuffs in defense of a downtrodden drudge or attacks strangers in defense of his sister’s virtue. It is perhaps easier to relate to the trials and tribulations of young Oliver Twist than to sympathize with Pip. The death of Nancy is far more dramatically accessible than that of Sydney Carton, and with the former there is the advantage of a cast of colorful, evocative characters—Fagin, Bill Sikes, Nancy, Jack Dawkins, Charlie Bates, and, above all, Bulls-Eye, unite to make the novel one of Dickens’ greatest achievements.

We need to recover the lost art of enjoyment—enjoyment that is not simply mind-numbing intoxication or drooling appreciation of a television hero. .... [more]
FIRST THINGS: On the Square » Blog Archive » Hard Times for Great Books

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