Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Reading children, children reading etc.
This post is growing and taking on legs...
Despite Sven Birkerts on the coming loss of reflectiveness, I didn’t quite believe that the reading of what we call literature would be lost. But now I am beginning to wonder, although for an entirely different reason than those he offers. I knew so many passionate young readers—mostly girls—that I thought this fear just a tad silly. My feeling was that there were too many children who loved books, as I loved books when I was young. The result would be as many devoted, reflective readers as ever. The population willing to read literature has always been small. Perhaps the children I knew weren’t quite so rabid as I was, but they were addicted. (I didn’t bathe without a book, and I was one of those readers into the night that made flashlight-floggers happy.)
But I’m beginning to see a very different cause at work here. Today’s young readers have a plethora of “juvenile” and “young adult” books before them, and this leads to a curious problem. Here, I think that I must be talking about girls, for the most part. The boys I encounter tend to be readers of nonfiction, when they are readers at all.
When I was a child, I was stuck with the library and the books my parents owned. I did have a subscription to a book club—now and then I received a volume by Kipling, Swift, and so on. One of my happiest days was when I was at last allowed to have my own card to the adult library in sixth grade. I read many different authors, though Dickens was very big with me in sixth grade; Faulkner began to be big in the same way in ninth. By then, I had the freedom of the university library where my mother worked, and I spent afternoons poking around the literature section, sponging up novels and poetry.
I’ve begun to notice that many high school students fed on the nigh-infinite (often wonderful but not always terribly demanding) fare of children’s and young adult books have a tremendously difficult time confronting, say, a novel like Great Expectations. They are more at home with a children’s book (or the “cut scene” narratives of a video game, or a ‘graphic novel’). This goes for children who care about words and style, too.
Young men and women no longer need to “grow up” in their reading. There’s enough out there to hold them forever in the land of “young adult.” Perhaps that’s part of the reason why so many adults read children’s books now, and do not read adult ones. A student can, these days, be an English major without doing much "heavy lifting." One can avoid diving into any canonical deeps and stay on the surface, catching the waves near shore.
Perhaps I am wrong and simply “anecdotal” in my observations of one small village. Do you think so? I do hope you think that I am wrong, silly, benighted, even odd. Yes, I hope so.
Dave Roy has reviewed Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's Salon Fantastique at www.curledup.com. He singles out three stories, one being mine. Somehow his comments harmonize with what I've written above. Here they are, minus the plot summary: "Finally, there is 'Concealment Shoes' by Marly Youmans. . . . Youmans writes with an easy flow to her words, making the children intelligent but not overly adult (a mistake too many authors make when they have kids as protagonists). They're inquisitive, like to play and run around a lot, but they're also well-read and they think things through. Youmans gives the idea of a haunted house a fantastic twist, and I really enjoyed reading every word of it."
JEROME MURAT, ALSO FANTASTIQUE
Update, 10:00 a.m. 5 December and I should be working!
Poet Jeffery Beam sent me several videos today, one the famous soccer match between Greek and German philosophers (with Karl Marx warming up on the sidelines), one a marvelous piece by mime Jerome Murat. He found it at the blog of poet Dan Vera, and now I am passing it on.
That makes a 3-poet recommendation.
If you love Cirque Ingenieux and Cirque du Soleil and wonderful "new circus" magic, this little performance is for you. If you are a dreamer, it is also yours. If you are prone to metaphysical flights of fancy and are lured by the idea of doubles and mystical resemblance, it is yours.
MORE ON CHILDREN & READING: TEENS, SEX, & BOOKS
After this, I really am going to stop procrastinating!
Matt Cheney of The Mumpsimus has written an article about "literature and high school and sex." "What is Appropriate" appears in The Quarterly Conversation. I didn't comment on it, because I could feel a long-winded thought approaching.
Here's that thought, with a few silly embellishments along the way:
As a writer and a mother of three, I found your essay interesting—although I am of that weird ilk with no television reception. (We have a t.v. and watch movies, but we receive no channels.) I have never been afraid to talk about sex or violence or anything else with my children. I am not in the least afraid to let them read whatever they want to read.
But I would point out that communities are living organisms and vary wildly in how quickly their children grow up and in how quickly those children want to ask more "advanced" questions about sex—and that it’s doing no real favor to young people when you encourage them to exit the realm of childhood more quickly than they would without your help. Why are we in such a dratted hurry on this issue? (Of course, the community of an elite private school like yours is its own world, and tends to develop its own character. And yes, of course, there are teens going to it like rabbits in every corner of the world.)
Plenty of teens in the current generation simply aren’t interested in exerting their freedom to have sex—in this generation, there are many who have decided it’s not what they want now or even before marriage, and that there are other things that are important and even thrilling. This is rather a shock to some parents, particularly to those in the baby-boomer-and-after generations, who must deal with the fact that today's teens are--what a surprise!--not like yesterday's. (I also think that there are a good many young people who can see through consumer culture and political mumbo-jumbo, whether from the right or the left, so get some red chalk and color that herring!)
What I’m more interested in is the teacher who is not trying to convey a message about sex or anything else but who shines with passion for books, and who can help a teenager catch a little spark of that fire. The problem isn’t that our teens don’t get enough sex in their books and so aren’t ready to talk about it when they turn 20; it’s that too many of them don’t give a hoot about reading at all, or else can’t progress from book pablum and book candy to a more elegant and satisfying meal.
Credit: "Bookends 2" is courtesy of www.sxc.hu and the travel-loving Benjamin Earwicker (great last name! I must remember that one.) "Carved wooden bookends from the Phillipines hold up a few old books."