The Reading Experience

The Reading Experience

City_magI realize that I have been a bit MIA lately. With work and the holidays, I have had little time to post. Part of my New Year’s resolution is to get better about that, as well as to stick to my reading list. I want to be more disciplined this year in how I use my free time–if there is such a thing.

The Reading Experience has a good post today on the nature of reading literature. It seems that with the MLA conference comes the subsequent stories and discussion on the nature and value of reading: “In my opinion, that this happens almost every year suggests in itself that most academic scholars and critics don’t really know what that role should be, and the current drift in literary study simply reflects this underlying reality. Some would like to persist in their denial of this reality, dismissing the low esteem in which literary scholars are generally held to be essentially a public relations problem.”

The post continues as it asks the reader to consider just what it is we are learning when we are taught literature. What is the educative value in today’s society of literature?

This makes me think of another article I just read in City Journal of London called “The Classics in the Slums.” Writer Jonathan Rose quotes Barbara Herrnstein Smith, president of the Modern Language Association in 1988, who said classic literature was always irrelevant to underprivileged people who were not classically educated. Rose writes: It was, she asserted, an undeniable “fact that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare do not figure significantly in the personal economies of these people, do not perform individual or social functions that gratify their interests, do not have value for them.”

Rose uses his article to refute her claims, but he does say that such a view was accepted at the time–largely as a response “that the Western classics embody a worldview that somehow “marginalizes” the poor, the nonwhite, the female, the “other,” and justifies their subordination to white male hegemony.”

Rose argues that the classics were at one time very popular among the working classes (he’s writting about England of course). During the late 1800s, the Bard could still move roudy crowds to comment loudly on the quality of the performances. “In 1862, a theater manager provoked a near-riot when he attempted to substitute a modern comedy for an announced production of Othello,” writes Rose. “Shakespeare provided a political script for labor leaders like J. R. Clynes (b. 1869), who rose from the textile mills of Oldham to become deputy leader of the House of Commons. In his youth he drew inspiration from the “strange truth” he discovered in Twelfth Night: “Be not afraid of greatness.” “What a creed!” he marveled. “How it would upset the world if men lived up to it.””

This is a very interesting article; I encourage anyone with an interest in literature or books to read it. One more quick quote from the piece:

“Even more impressive is a 1940 survey of reading among pupils at nonacademic high schools, where education terminated at age 14. This sample represented something less than the working-class norm: the best students had already been skimmed off and sent to academic secondary schools on scholarship. Those who remained behind were asked which books they had read over the past month, excluding required texts. Even in this below-average group, 62 percent of boys and 84 percent of girls had read some poetry: their favorites included Kipling, Longfellow, Masefield, Blake, Browning, Tennyson, and Wordsworth. Sixty-seven percent of girls and 31 percent of boys had read plays, often something by Shakespeare. All told, these students averaged six or seven books per month. Compare that with the recent NEA study Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, which found that in 2002, 43.4 percent of American adults had not read any books at all, other than those required for work or school. Only 12.1 percent had read any poetry, and only 3.6 percent any plays.”