Monday, 26 August 2013

Warning: reading may seriously damage your prospects in love

One of my favourite ways to pass the time is listening to books while I cook. I am a great believer in reading aloud (itself a subject currently receiving some long overdue and interesting scholarly attention by historians) and love being read to whatever the circumstances. This month I was particularly pleased that Radio 4 dramatised "Sense and Sensibility" because for the forthcoming Reading Fictions conference I have been been mulling over how books present the relationship between reading and falling in love. Having an unexpectedly large number of cooking duties, I managed to hear the whole book. I hadn't re-read it for several years and was struck afresh by how, for much of modern history, women like Marianne Dashwood who read novels are regarded as unworthy objects of affection.
But perhaps it isn't quite as bad as that? Isn't it more the case that reading fiction is seen as juvenile, and growing up means leaving stories behind for more serious fare - but the effects of having read them make a woman more resourceful and better company in the long run? Think of Anne of Green Gables and the fine woman she becomes. And what of men? Marianne's romantic sensibilities are matched by Willoughby's who, like her, turns out to have more depths than at first seems possible.
My musings need to move into the twenty-first century, however, so I hope Radio 4 finds something suitable... Meanwhile,  I am going to test out the idea that early children's books that appear to disapprove of the effects of reading fiction on the formation of character and ideas about love in particular are less critical than they at first appear, and that these ideas are revolutionized in the twentieth century, when for a select group, at least, being an avid reader makes someone a prime contender in romantic contests.  

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

E-mail from America

Peter Hunt

Meanwhile, research continues worldwide!  

Out in the rolling (and currently extremely well-watered) hills of Virginia, I asked some of the graduate students taking the MA and MFA in Children’s Literature at Hollins University, Roanoke, how they saw the relationship between readers reading in books, and readers reading about readers reading in books. We are engaged in an experimental – and, it has to be said – mind-expanding (or boggling) course, in which each student produces (part of) an annotated edition of a classic children’s book. With an astonishing range of books being looked at in detail, I thought we might find some striking evidence about attitudes to reading – and we did – although the conclusion that it’s dangerous to generalise was not exactly helpful for my thesis.

In general terms I expected that the portrayal of readers in books might gradually decline over the 20th century, as reading  habits changed. But it ain’t necessarily so. 

I would have expected that Pollyanna (Eleanor H. Porter, 1913), the apotheosis of the girls’ book of the late 19th century would have displayed a healthy preoccupation with books (after all, Little Women does) – but what little reference there is, is not entirely positive. On the other hand, in Thimble Summer (Elizabeth Enright, 1938), set in rural Wisconsin, books are a natural part of the landscape – two characters are locked in the local library; while Esther Forbes’s historical novel Johnny Tremain (1943) is totally suffused with the idea of the book and the virtue of the book.
Then again, it is hardly surprising that books and reading figure largely in Edmondo De Amico’s educational-political novel Cuoire (1886), one of the two great Italian children’s classics of the 19th century, or that respect is shown for the wisdom of books in Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three (1964). Equally, it was predictable that reading figures only marginally in Wilson Rawls’s Where the Red Fern Grows (1961) and Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970) and then as a means to an end (acquiring a coonhound or learning certain things from Playboy).
But three examples – which seemed, ironically, to prove my thesis – surprised me. I would have expected Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), written by an author from a very bookish background, to include readers and books; E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of  Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler (1967) is an outstanding example of the of the ‘smart kids’ novels of the 1960s and 1970s and yet when the child characters do encounter books – for research purposes - they soon get bored; and, despite Roald Dahl’s claim that he would do anything to put books (presumably not just his own) into the hands of children, as he demonstrates in Matilda (1988), there is no reference to books and reading in The Witches (1983).

It would seem that any over-reaching thesis is going to be seriously undermined by specific examples, and the Hollins students were on the whole quietly surprised by my overall idea that books were less important in books than they had been. Among a formidable array of evidence which they brought forward, they patiently pointed out that there was a very obvious example that contradicted my argument, which I might possibly have come across. Without the reading of books, and respect for books, which are repositories of wisdom and redemption and salvation, the ‘Harry Potter’ series could scarcely exist. (And, of course, where would Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University be without its multi-dimensional library?)

But are books-in-books now primarily aids to knowledge for the characters (and have they always been so), or are they the prime-movers of the plots? Is there, as some of the students suggested, a backlash against the multi-media electronic world, and a resurgence of the book as an object of genuine interest?

Watch this space.

With thanks to my amazing, intelligent, hard-working, and tolerant class: Cecilia, Courtney, Emily, Fatima, Gwen, Jennifer, Kacey, Kelly, Linda, Shannon, and Tara.