Monday, 10 March 2008

What's the point of reading all this old stuff?

When I read Sean O'Brien's excellent piece in Saturday's Guardian , 'Read poetry: it's quite hard', my first reaction was to memorise it word for word, so I could quote it verbatim at young persons (and, sadly, numerous older persons also) who routinely ask with a sigh what is the point of reading 'boring', 'irrelevant' works of English poetry and fiction when contemporary culture is, like, so much more cool and happening. The 'dead white males (yawn)' argument, in other words.

A quick surf around some of my regular blog-haunts over the past couple of days has revealed a tidal wave of agreement with O'Brien's arguments and general approval for The Guardian's publication (as from tomorrow) of a series of giveaway booklets on 'Great Poets of the 20th Century', including works by TS Eliot, Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath, accompanied by a CD of the poets reading their work.

Here are some of my favourite bits of O'Brien's article:

'The word "relevance" looms - that contemporary fetish, so often brandished to mitigate ignorance and justify a failure of curiosity. I would argue that my friends' daughter and many young people like her suffer a loss of liberty when the past is in effect closed down and the present becomes the measure of all things. Such young people have, in effect, no history, and this being so, their own significance is diminished. The problem is not whether Shakespeare or the Bible or TS Eliot is "relevant" to them, but whether they can see themselves as part of a continuum, a community extending across history.'

'In fact, the deafening roar of the contemporary is as elaborately rhetorical in its way as any other language-use, but just as readers sometimes mistake literary realism for reality, and find non-realist work intolerable in consequence, so they are encouraged to confuse the banal with the actual.'

'Autonomy and seriousness come under threat because they represent an obstacle to the progress of the kind of ignorance that prefers to suppose that everything can be consumed, excreted and replaced, that one thing is much like another, and that anyway nobody cares or has time to make their own distinctions.'


Ms Baroque said...

I love this! The pictures speak a thousand words...

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Juliet, for the link to an excellent article. Of course, that 'continuity extending across history' that O'Brien mentions is not (necessarily) English or British but extnds to the community of civil society in the broadest sense.
John Donne said it the best, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."

Unknown said...

Lovely post - and bonus points for including a picture of Burgess!
A very long time ago, I used to teach secondary schoolchildren, and we were constantly being urged to choose "relevant" books - which usually seemed to mean books about deprived urban kids having miserable times on their sink estates.
I thought back to my childhood- my favourite books were all set in places I had no knowledge of - Anthony Buckeridge's Linbury Court Prep school in the Jennings books was a very long way from Alfred Street Primary, North Manchester, but I loved those books. I also started reading Wodehouse at a very young age, and never once stopped to think that nobody I knew had a butler.
Books should broaden your horizons, not limit them. I remember being excited when reading Alan Garner's Elidor, because one episode takes place on an old bomb-site on Oldham Road, where I had played myself. But the action of the book is of course largely in, well, Elidor, and I never for a moment wished that Garner had set it all in Manchester.
It's now possible, as I know from my undergraduates, to get a perfectly decent A level in English Literature without encountering any nineteenth century novels, or any poetry more taxing than Carol Ann Duffy. What's more, a general knowledge of Literature - which would have been de rigueurR when I taught A level - has now been pushed out of the way in the drive to "deliver" units of work for the modularised AS/A exams.
The result is a generation of the type described by O'Brien. Drives me mad!

Juliet said...

Ms B - hi and thanks for the comment. I think just about everyone blogged about this piece on Monday, but . . . it was worth it! I discovered your excellent blog via 60goingon16 and will certainly be appearing on your hit-counter daily. My daughter loved the haz cheezburger post - I fear I am too old to learn a new language now!

Anon - hello and thanks, whoever you are.

Rob - I posted the Burgess pic and thought of you! Elidor was one of my favourites too - and I hadn't even been to Manchester (let alone Elidor) so it was entirely 'irrelevant' to Home Counties girl here. But of course I loved it passionately. And stories about boarding schools and children with nannies and butlers and children from the nineteenth century (eg those who waved their red flannel petticoats on the end of sticks). If kids read at school only fiction which reflects their own circumstances, then they miss out, maybe for the rest of their lives, on some of the chief joys of reading: broadening horizons; appreciating the vast range and depth of our language; sheer escapism - ugh, I find myself going grrrrrrr a lot just thinking about it. I can't imagine what it must be like at the sharp end - ie teaching. Well, I guess I can - it would drive me mad, too!

BTW, I stuck the King James Bible in the list, not because I'm a churchgoer now, but because I was brought up a middle-of-the-road Anglican and went to schools where 'daily worship' was not deemed politically incorrect, and the older I get the more I realise how deeply the language and cadences of the KJB and the BCP are ingrained in my subconscious and how frequently one picks up allusions in novels and poetry. And that is something which today's generation have already lost completely, for ever, and it won't come back, and the door's gone 'bang' shut. Which I find very sad indeed, even though it makes me sound like an old reactionary to say so!

Anonymous said...

Hi Juliet - loving all these comments about childhood reading ( I wolfed down all that stuff about ponies and ballet dancers!)not to mention the Bible. Where would we be without it, in literature if not in life. Almost equally attached to classical literature which I spent too much time studying a lng time ago but think it's so sad that a whole layer of allusion is lost to the new generation of readers.

Juliet said...

Hi Alison - yes, ballet and ponies (including a whole series based around the joys of fox-hunting [!!]) were my staples, too, at primary school. They didn't reflect my own experience in the least - I never had a pony and was too shy to go to ballet lessons, but I devoured such books by the dozen and I believe they did me lasting good rather than irreparable harm!

Most young people are astonished, I find, to learn just how MANY quotes (and misquotes) from the Bible and Shakespeare are interwoven into our everyday parlance even now - turns of phrase and cliches we barely realise we're using most of the time. But they are there, quietly playing away in the background, underneath the 'deafening roar of the contemporary'.