Rant on Reading, ROW80 Delayed, and Gender Bias in Character Inspirations

Joy of reading.

Nathan Bransford recently talked about the strangeness of rereading older children's books.

He says that "The magic that made them classics still absolutely remains, but it's striking how much sensibilities have changed. ... I was struck by the very adult perspective in From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and the way A Wrinkle in Time starts slowly before veering into what I now think is a bit of a scattered plot by today's standards."

Also, the most recent Letters of Note features a letter from Harper Lee to Oprah Winfrey: "I arrived in the first grade, literate, with a curious cultural assimilation of American history, romance, the Rover Boys, Rapunzel, and The Mobile Press. Early signs of genius? Far from it. Reading was an accomplishment I shared with several local contemporaries. ...we children began to circulate reading material among ourselves until each child had read another's entire stock. There were long dry spells broken by the new Christmas books, which started the rounds again. As we grew older, we began to realize what our books were worth: Anne of Green Gables was worth two Bobbsey Twins; two Rover Boys were an even swap for two Tom Swifts. ... We were privileged. There were children, mostly from rural areas, who had never looked into a book until they went to school. They had to be taught to read in the first grade, and we were impatient with them for having to catch up. We ignored them."

Now, just last week I heard a parent say they wouldn't bother teaching their kids to read before they (the kids) started kindergarten, because otherwise "they would be ahead of the class and might get bored."

Cue appalled and disbelieving silence.

First of all, just because they might be ahead in reading doesn't mean they'll have caught up with everything else - there's always something new to learn.

Second of all, we're talking kindergarten, and maybe first grade. I'm sure the teacher can give them another project to work on while she runs through the alphabet with the other kids.

Third of all, bored? The whole point of learning to read, and loving to read, is that you will never be bored again.

I was trying to find a copy of the Non Sequitur comic that brilliantly illustrated that last point, but Googled for ten minutes without success. It featured one of the characters (Kate?) reading and, when questioned by another character (Danae?) whether she wasn't bored, there was a wonderful illustration of all the exciting adventures inherent in simply opening up a book.

And by that token, I'd have to disagree with Nathan. The books I loved as a child don't sound dated to me at all, any more than reading any other type of classic from before c. 1995.

Sure, some of the language and points of view might be dorky (as much as I love C. S. Lewis, his asides in The Elderly Narrator's Voice in The Chronicles of Narnia come to mind), some of the customs might seem too restrictive in places and too liberal in others, but the reader knows all that going in. The emotions, the growth of the characters, the excitement and adventure, are all there, and sometimes seem more real than those in books published nowadays. But then, I've always been attracted by the dusty patina of time.

A description like this always gets me excited: "There is no greater joy than picking up a new book without knowing much about it and being suddenly transported to a new world. This is what I felt after reading The Winter Pony by Iain Lawrence. This middle-grade novel, set in 1910-11, reads like a classic adventure story."

On the other hand, I don't know how anyone could study this many books in depth in one semester: here's W. H. Auden's syllabus for a class he taught in 1942. Yet I'd try it if I could have Auden lead the class. Off the list I've read Augustine, Shakespeare, Blake, Rilke, Eliot, Kafka, Lewis, and some Dostoyevsky, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Still haven't read Moby Dick!

I wonder what a modern version of that syllabus might look like?

Don't forget the Virtual Surrey Writers' Conference starting Friday morning! My ROW80 goal-catching-up-on might be derailed this week as I have to prepare to host the conference. If anyone wants to come over to the Forum from Friday to Sunday, there are lots of workshops and book promotion activities to take part in! Actually, speaking of Druid's Moon (only 10,000 words to go!), I took a look at my images for the story the other day:

Does anything look off to you? The fact that I only have one maybe-image for Lyne, but seven times that many options for Fred. I've got fewer images for her than I do of Beauty and the Beast related illustrations!

Do you have a gender bias when stumbling across images that remind you of your characters?


Misha Gericke said…
Not really. In Doorways I had the female lead and one of the male leads who just didn't look like a single picture I found.

Even now. I settled for a lot of resemblances, in the end. :-D
E.J. Wesley said…
"Now, just last week I heard a parent say they wouldn't bother teaching their kids to read before they (the kids) started kindergarten, because otherwise "they would be ahead of the class and might get bored."

WHAT THE WHAT?! I have no other words ...
S.P. Bowers said…
I've read most the books on that syllabus. No Kafka, and no Melville. Curse that Moby Dick and my inability to read it!
Sarah McCabe said…
I don't understand why you wouldn't expect a different experience when rereading books you read as a child. You as an adult should be a very different person from you as a child. If you aren't, there's a problem. I find that going back and rereading the books I loved as a kid is not an experience that makes those works seem dated or not up to today's standards. (Granted, I tend to shun today's standards.) I usually appreciate them in new and deeper ways because I am a more developed person.
I would think it would be advantageous for parents to teach kids to read before they start school. Not only will it help the kids keep up with their school work, it could also mean that they'll spend less time watching TV.
Anonymous said…
My son's in 5th grade and he doesn't really like reading yet. We read to him and encourage him to read too. About the only thing he likes to read, when he's in the mood, is non-fiction. Like who was George Washington, etc. But overall, he finds reading boring compared to other things he could be doing.

I don't think I have too much gender bias when it comes to finding pics for my characters. I normally find 1-2 pictures and I'm good. Then again, I'm a guy. We don't exactly like to "shop" as it were.
Angela Brown said…
I have to admit. I was a bit floored the moment I read the part of the post about the parent not teaching their kid to read. Boredom? OMG! I'm slightly stunned even still.
OMG! I'm always encouraging everyone to read. My two year old GD had a bookshelf full of hard page books. And whenever she would see me reading, she would bring out one of her books and start reading.

I have a Japanese homestay student- she came to study English and I keep encouraging her to read.

Deniz Bevan said…
I know what you mean, Misha. Sometimes it's not so much the looks as the expression in a particular photo...

Know how you feel, E. J.!

Someday I've got to read Moby Dick, Sara. Google tells me it was the book's 161st anniversary yesterday...

I agree, Sarah. As an adult, I notice a lot more in some of the stories that I reread. But the enchantment is still there!

That's what I thought too, Neurotic!

That can happen, too, Ryan - it was the parent's attitude that bothered me more. But yea, I was a voracious reader, and my sister, back in elementary school, wasn't. Even though we both learned at a young age. Different strokes, I guess :-)

Me too, Angela!

I love trying to read in different languages, Nas!
Talli Roland said…
I recently reread Anne, and I have to say it did strike me as quite dated. Not so much the content, but rather the cadence of the language and how long the sentences were!
Deniz Bevan said…
Well, I guess I can see that, Talli. Not so much with Anne, but some of Montgomery's other stories. They meandered a lot. But then, I didn't want to criticise them because I remembered how Jo March felt when she got rejected for flowery phrases!
And how Anne herself felt when her story was used to shill that baking ingredient (was it flour?).
Anonymous said…
I detect differences in writing styles that might make classics outdated, but I see the stories themselves as being timeless, with themes and plots that always seem familiar.

I would think most parents would want their children to be ahead. They really do a disservice to the children by not promoting literacy. I see the negative effects of this as a teacher.
Melissa Bradley said…
It appalls me how reading skills and writing skills in general have degraded among children today. My nephews have no love of reading. They prefer video games and instant, downloadable knowledge. They can read, they just don't want to. It's reflection of society. Everything has to be NOW. Terrific post and rant.
Deniz Bevan said…
I agree with both your points, Medeia!

Thanks, Melissa. I'm always frustrated by non-readers. I understand not everyone's built the same but even so...

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