Tuesday, March 20, 2007

"Boring" classics

I have Google Alerts set to send me anything about Charles Dickens and this Guardian article popped up today. It was honestly one of the sadder things I've ever read. I knew that education was bad, I knew it was going in that direction, but to have a free gift of some of the greatest books in the English language rejected for Japanese manga (no offense manga fans, there's nothing necessarily wrong with it, IMO) is highly depressing. Go ahead and read the whole thing. I'm adding commentary here.

Dozens of schools have rejected gifts of free classic books because today's pupils find them too 'difficult' to read, it has emerged.

Let's start here. They're free. These schools are not being asked to pay money, taxpayer or otherwise, to buy them. They're being donated. But today's pupils find them difficult. And heaven forbid we even think of challenging them a bit.

Around 50 schools have refused to stock literary works by the likes of Jane Austen, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens after admitting that youngsters also find them boring.

The worrying figures were released by the Millennium Library Trust, which donates sets of up to 300 books to schools across the country.

David Campbell, who runs the Trust, also revealed that a further 50 schools had sent back the gifts as they were on the verge of closing down and another 40 said they had no library to store the books.

This organization evidently sends not only Dickens, Austen, and Shakespeare but George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, and J.R.R. Tolkien to schools in England. Good grief, it sounds like a great idea to me! But then I doubt the idea would work here either.

The bottom line is getting the pupils to read, whether it's a newspaper, comic novel or magazine.

"In an ideal world, I would love it if the pupils came into my library and requested some of the classics, but the fact of the matter is that pupils today are living in a different world."

She added that pupils are more interested in Japanese comics rather than literary greats. "Kids love action and adventure," Miss Read said. "They want books that excite them and are current. They love fantasy.

"The books for nowadays are Manga, the Japanese comic books that you read from back to front."

It's funny how quickly that, "As long as they're reading, it doesn't matter what they're reading" argument has caught on. As far as I'm concerned it's absolute rubbish. It does matter what they're reading. I hate to say it, but there are good books and there are bad books. I'm not saying that manga is necessarily bad (I haven't had enough exposure to it to say) but it is not Jane Austen. It is not Charles Dickens. It is certainly not Shakespeare. It's not even really George Eliot. The article isn't really clear if Tolkien's books were among those sent back or not, but if they were then it's very odd that the librarian thinks they love fantasy. I suspect they weren't sent back, if only because the movies are still fairly recent.

Another school, which rejected the free 'Everyman's Library' books, wrote: "The paper jackets are ugly and unattractive and the binding is dull and boring.

"What is needed is the familiar paperback format with attractive jacket and abridged versions."

Strange, I own several Everyman's Library editions and find them to be very attractive. My "Rossetti" poems book comes with a nice dust jacket, good paper, and a ribbon to keep your place. That 1906 edition of Jane Austen I was raving about? An Everyman's Library edition. And let's see. They are free. They are not costing you a penny. If you don't have room that's one thing, but to send them back because they're too boring? Hmm. No sympathy here. A call for an abriged edition is ridiculous unless you are talking about War and Peace or Les Miserables. Abridgments only edit all of the beauty out of the author's prose. If these kids are used to abridged editions no wonder they haven't learned to love the books.

"These book were not considered too difficult. It is shocking that they are being described in this way and children who have been taught properly should have no problem enjoying them.

"It can only mean that standards of literary are much lower that the government claims."

Hmm, you think? Especially considering there are numbers of people out there who love them. Do you think they suddenly wake up in college and decide to love them? Some probably do, but there are others who have been reading them since age 10.

However, not all the responses were negative. One school librarian wrote: "We are a low-achieving high school, but we're improving. I would never have been able to find the money in my meagre budget to buy copies of these classics."

That is encouraging. At least there are a few children and a few librarians out there who will have the opportunity to be exposed to these books. Not all of them will learn to enjoy them, but perhaps one or two will. That's all right with me. I am unhappy that some adults seem to think that because children haven't learned to like something they have had little exposure to, they will never learn to like it. Did they like olives the first time they tried them?

If we put the bar low that's all anyone will ever learn to jump over. If we raise it, we will probably find that at least some will find it in themselves to jump over.

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