You like books? That's unusual

Many students are bored by classic texts because they lack any rapport with the authors. By Stephen Logan
PEOPLE COMMONLY suppose that teaching literature must be a delightful occupation. After all, the subject matter is so interesting and the students, presumably, so keen.

In principle, of course, these are fair assumptions. Literature deals, in the most diverse, ingenious and interesting ways, with the very stuff of life. It covers the entire span of familiar experience from birth to death and it speculates on what is (to author, reader, or both) unfamiliar or unknown. It tells us, as nothing else can, what it has felt like to be alive under an inexhaustible diversity of historical and social conditions.

Not to be interested in it is unthinkable, surely? Well, no. There is a difference between being interested in your own experience and being interested in what other people have written about theirs. But even though not everyone is equally given to reflecting on what happens, some capacity for being interested in experience is a basic human attribute. It seems reasonable to suppose that by the time students reach A level standard, they will be competent readers and that, by the time some of them go to university they will be well on the way to being literary critics. But again, this is only half-true.

In many casual discussions of reading, literature is assumed to be modern. But most of what we call literature is, in fact, old. And the further back you go in time, the more you need to know in order simply to make sense of a literary text, let alone understand why you should enjoy it.

I once taught Tom Jones (1749) to a very able group of sixth formers. They were interested in the basic issues that could be abstracted from the book and talked freely and fruitfully about whether having a good disposition is just luck, whether honour matters more than piety and whether sexual promiscuity wasn't more reprehensible in the 18th century than now.

The trouble started when we tried to discover more exactly what Fielding thought about such things by closely examining his words. It soon became apparent that these intelligent, well-educated students had difficulty in reading Fielding's prose: the syntax felt too complex, many words had undergone important changes of meaning and, the whole pace of the narrative was simply too leisurely for their tastes.

The linguistic impediments to reading old books are often more serious than with Fielding. Getting an able and willing undergraduate to read Chaucer, Malory, Spenser or even Bunyan with any degree of fluency is often very difficult. The popularity of the recent film of Romeo and Juliet depended not only on brilliant camera-work and direction, but on the excision from the text of nearly everything a modern reader might be stumped by. Fair enough; but the new film and the old play are only nominally the same.

My sixth form students had a deeper problem with Tom Jones. They could not easily imagine the system of values underlying the book. This, too, is a problem which gets worse as you go back in time. Most pre-Modernist literature in English is profoundly influenced by Christianity and by classical precedent. Most post-Modernist literature is not. There is thus often a serious disparity of assumptions between old books and modern readers.

Hence what really holds students up in their reading is a sense of a lack of rapport with their authors; and this, combining with more practical difficulties is often enough to dissuade them from further effort. They have, in a word, got bored.

Even modern literature has its problems. Ever since the publication, in the 1920s, of Eliot's The Waste Land, Joyce's Ulysses, Pound's Cantos and Woolf's To the Lighthouse, it has been assumed that the best books are the most difficult. Hence there is now a distinction in the publishing trade between "literary" or "original" fiction and the rest.

You know which books are literary from feeling simultaneously an urge to buy them with a disinclination to read them. This equation of literary sophistication with difficulty, occurring at a time when traditional standards of judgement are in disarray, has had disastrous results.

The worst, perhaps, it that bad writers are able to cheat diffident readers into submission by seeming clever. Hence you get the spectacle - still, unfortunately, common - of poets, novelists, playwrights and critics implying that if you can't be bothered to penetrate their obscurities, you must be thick. Youngsters tend to respond to this either by turning away in healthy retaliation, or else by becoming prigs.

Recent poetry and fiction shows signs of regaining its accessibility. And the dominant literary forms - not the novel, play or lyric poem, but the newspaper article, the screenplay and the song - are in good health. Nonetheless, traditional literature has been culturally marginalized and the dominance of the audio-visual media has fostered habits of attention unsuited to leisurely, careful reading.

The most obvious obstacles to good reading are lack of the necessary kinds of linguistic knowledge; remoteness from the underlying assumptions of old books and unreaderly habits of attention. Less obvious, but more damaging, however, is the loss of faith in reading as a potential source of wisdom. This has weakened the principal motive for becoming a versatile reader. The job of the teacher of literature is not to sigh appreciatively over masterworks the students have only to open to enjoy, but to promote good reading by encouraging students to recognise the difficulties that stand in the way of it.

The writer is Director of Studies in English, St Edmund's College, Cambridge.

Year of reading, news section, p3

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