Saturday, October 18, 2008

To Read or not to read

''The Streets, Morning'', illustration by George Cruikshank for ''Sketches by Boz'', p. 68, London: Chapman and Hall (1839).

Eleanor Bourg Donlon in First Things discusses why nowadays the classics of English literature are no longer being actively taught as before, despite the fact that reading often and reading well are prerequisites for achievement in areas far beyond literature and literacy alone.

In particular she discusses the present teaching of the works of Charles Dickens.

"With all of this said, there are three basic rules that must be established before one encounters Dickens. First, one ought not to read a three-volume novel expecting it to be short. Second, one should not expect the deep, dark secret of a Victorian thriller to be anything less than utterly predictable (this caution is reiterated, in particular, to a group of young students of my acquaintance who seriously expected the deep, dark secret of Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White to be that the villain was really a werewolf). And third, one should not read Dickens hoping he will not introduce a cast of thousands.

How then should Dickens be taught? As with all of literature, he must be taught with affection, with enthusiasm, with patience, and with a taste for eccentricity. A more fitting introduction for young minds might be found in the reckless youthful energy of Nicholas Nickleby, with its hero who descends to fisticuffs in defense of a downtrodden drudge or attacks strangers in defense of his sister’s virtue. It is perhaps easier to relate to the trials and tribulations of young Oliver Twist than to sympathize with Pip. The death of Nancy is far more dramatically accessible than that of Sydney Carton, and with the former there is the advantage of a cast of colorful, evocative characters—Fagin, Bill Sikes, Nancy, Jack Dawkins, Charlie Bates, and, above all, Bulls-Eye, unite to make the novel one of Dickens’ greatest achievements.

We need to recover the lost art of enjoyment—enjoyment that is not simply mind-numbing intoxication or drooling appreciation of a television hero.

Through the classics, a proper appreciation for virtue (classical and moral) may be effectively cultivated.

In other words, students should put down Pride and Prejudice and read Mansfield Park instead. Teachers should so infuse their students with sympathy for little Paul Dombey that they bawl their eyes out at his death. They should learn together to value the full depth of the character of Fagin—not as a kindly old man (as some film studios have attempted to portray him), but as a creature of deliberate, calculating wickedness. And they should empathize with Nicholas Nickleby’s righteous indignation at the infamous treatment of his beloved sister, Kate.

When they are finished, they may be able to appreciate Mr. Darcy for his full worth, and the character of Sydney Carton will become ever more wonderful. They may even feel the spontaneous urge to pick up Our Mutual Friend on a quiet Sunday afternoon."