Tag Archives: News

The state of literature

I read this today.

I really just wanted to say that I agree with this article, and this perspective on literary trends. I would also like to say that contemporary best-seller status does not necessarily reflect long-term classic status. Books that sell incredibly well very quickly (which are the books that hit the best-seller list, whether they stay there or not is irrelevant) are not always remembered even a year after publication, and books that do not sell very well at first are sometimes the ones that are lauded and studied in generations to come (The Great Gatsby is a common example of this, but not the only one).  Literary history is just like any other form of history: the full impact of events cannot always be seen until years or decades later.

Just for example, take a look at the bestsellers from 1910-1919, and see how many of the titles or even the authors you’ve heard of.  I am fairly well-read, and I haven’t even heard of that many; and some of the authors I have heard of in other contexts (Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, and Arnold Bennett). The only titles I know on the list – a ten-year list – are Pollyanna and In Flanders Fields.

So, while the state of modern literature in all its forms is wide-ranging and sometimes frustrating, this is not a new thing, and in fifty or a hundred years no one will remember the books that are complained about now, except perhaps as a footnote in a literary encyclopedia.

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Dickens, Dorrit, and Davies

I have been in a vaguely Dickensian mood for the last little while, for a few reasons:

  • There is a new biography of Dickens out now – I have a few of the reviews of it bookmarked but haven’t read them yet.
  • I just watched the recent version of Little Dorrit (which is what I really want to talk about).

I freely admit that the main reason I wanted to watch Little Dorrit was because of Matthew Macfadyen, who I love. (He has a beautiful voice. Mmm….) But I also wanted to watch it because I like Andrew Davies as a screenwriter (more on that below), I really liked Bleak House both as a book and a film/series, and I don’t hate Dickens in general. And Matthew Macfadyen was really good – all of the acting was really good, as expected – even if Arthur’s realization of his true feelings for Amy was a bit out of the blue.

It didn’t sparkle, though. There was nothing in it that made me want to go out and actually read Little Dorrit – which, for me, is very, very unusual. When I see an adaptation of a book, I usually want to go out and read the book for myself, either because the movie was so good that I want to re-experience it through the book, or to find out if the book was as good as the movie, or to see what they changed between the book and the movie, or (if the movie was bad) to see if the book is better than the movie. This adaptation was good, but really didn’t make me want to actually read Little Dorrit. And it seemed like every other Dickens tome ever.

I use the word ‘tome’ specifically, because there are certain works of Dickens that are long, complex stories that deal with specific social issues of the early-to-mid 19th century. A Christmas Carol is very different, as is The Pickwick PapersChristmas Carol is much shorter*, and The Pickwick Papers are really short stories or vignettes in one long collection. The others are all very, very similar. This is not news to me, but it was reinforced by watching this version of Little Dorrit and feeling like it was Bleak House but set in and around the Marshalsea instead of Chancery. I never really cared about any of the characters’ backstories – which is bad in a plot that relies so much on character history. The stock characters were flatter than I remember some of Dickens’s other stock characters being and, for the most part, were obviously only there to advance a storyline. [Signor Cavaletto was an exception to this, but I don’t know if that was the actor or the writing or both.]

I also don’t understand the concept of debtor’s prisons. If you can’t pay your bills, why was it a good idea to lock you away and keep you from working to earn money to pay your bills? The idea of Georgia or other transport makes more sense to me – put them in a situation where they have no choice but to work off their debts instead of racking up more.

Anyway, to touch on Andrew Davies’s reaction to the BBC – ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. And the comment about only doing ‘big, popular warhorses’ is kind of ironic from the guy who adapted Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, Emma, Vanity Fair, and several Dickens novels. Even if the Dickens novels aren’t the best-known ones, Dickens is by definition a ‘warhorse’. But mostly, ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. I would love it if the BBC or someone would do an adaptation of a Middle English poem – like one of the early Arthurian stories that are so full of blood and gore, or another version of the Canterbury Tales, or some of the more fantastical ones with magic, like Sir Launfal or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or even one of the ones that aren’t so commonly taught. Or go back to the early days of novels, if you must do a longer serial adaptation. Do something from the 18th century, like Evelina or Moll Flanders or something like that. Also, to go back to my earlier point, ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. The Great Gatsby is period drama. Lucky Jim can be period drama. The TV show Life on Mars – set in the 1970s – and Ashes to Ashes – its sequel in the 1980s – are period dramas. Anything not set in ‘the present day’ is a period drama. By some standards even science fiction could be considered period drama – it’s just that the period is the future. Basically, Andrew Davies, stop whining and shut up.

*A Christmas Carol is excellent. It’s my favourite Dickens book. It’s a short list – Dickens is way too wordy for me and I swear there are sentences in David Copperfield that don’t have verbs. Bleak House is mostly beautiful although falls into the trap of too many characters so that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on during the middle part. I still want to read A Tale of Two Cities one of these days, but doubt I’ll read the others without massive motivation (like having to teach it someday). But, yeah, A Christmas Carol is my favourite Dickens book. That being said, do we really need a new movie and/or TV version of A Christmas Carol every year? The story is played out. Give it a rest for a while. Please.

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Autism and adults….really?

Okay, granted, I have never studied autism. I don’t know much of the research and what I do know I get strictly from the news and conversations with people who have actually studied autism or deal with it on a regular basis (like my mom and my sister). I do know that one concern is over-diagnosis of autism and autism-spectrum disorders, which is why this article kind of disturbs me.

All that the article says is ‘new research funded by the Department of Health’ shows that 1 in 100 adults has autism. There is no link to the new research, no quotation from anyone who carried out the research, and no formal statement from the Department of Health. Just ‘new research’. What kind of research? What criteria are they using to diagnose? There are things that are part of responsible science reporting, and some of those things are missing in this article.

Also, ‘Mozart, Orwell, Einstein, Beethoven and Newton all had it’? Really? Again, by what criteria? When was this decided, and by whom? I’m pretty sure autism wasn’t recognized as a disorder when Mozart was alive, or Newton (anyone know when it was first diagnosed?). Posthumous diagnoses are tricky, because they are based on necessarily biased and incomplete accounts of a person’s behavior. My first instinct, when reading a statement like that lead, is to see it as nothing more than a publicity attempt, especially when there’s no further context for it. I’m not saying that the diagnoses are necessarily wrong, you understand. I just think it’s a troubling attempt to impose modern criteria on personalities of other eras, especially when it’s autism which is such a vaguely defined but highly public diagnosis anyway. I’d like to see whatever study came up with the idea that Mozart and Newton and especially Beethoven were autistic.

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But you don’t have to take my word for it.

Reading Rainbow airs its last episode

This makes me sad. Reading Rainbow was one of my favourite shows, and featured some of my favourite picture books. Like this one or this one.

What I think is saddest is the rationalisation for cutting the show. I have no problem with using television as an education medium to teach kids how to read, with emphasis on phonics or whatever the current vogue method might be. Literacy as an ability is important.

No, what I think is saddest is the implication that once you know how to read, you’re done. That it’s not necessary to instill and foster a love of reading for its own sake. That learning why to read is not important, at least not as important as knowing how to read.

This is patently untrue. Literacy is so much more than just the ability to read – something that I’m afraid the educational standards overlook far too often. Teaching kids that reading is fun and enjoyable is just as important as teaching them how to sound out words. One of the biggest obstacles that teachers face is students that don’t want to read. They don’t see reading as something to be enjoyed, just something to be endured. But if we can teach children that reading is not just required, but recreational, then we can create teenagers who can and will read outside of class, and then we have adults who read for pleasure as well. And adults who read can change the world.

Reading expands your mind. It gives you insights into other people, other lifestyles, other countries, other times, and other ideas. Reading teaches in a way that the classroom cannot. And people who don’t read tend to be more close-minded than people who do, simply because they don’t have the breadth of mental experience to understand that there are different perspectives in the world. Aliteracy is just as much of a problem as illiteracy.

We need adults who will read, not just adults who can read. And in order to have that, we need to have children and teenagers who read because they want to, not just because they have to. That is what Reading Rainbow provided. It wasn’t just about the featured book – although each episode had a fantastic featured book. It was also about how that book could connect with your life: Gregory, the Terrible Eater, for example, led to lessons on healthy eating and getting along with your parents and making compromises. And it was also about ordinary kids telling about the books they liked, showing that reading is something that kids just like you did even when it wasn’t a part of school, and giving a range of ideas for what to read after the show was over.

There is a hole in educational programming now; I only hope that something fills it before it becomes a hole in our lives as well.

The original theme song

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Some days, I wish I had studied science

Genetics was my favourite part of biology class, and is one of the reasons that I sometimes wish that I’d continued studying science past high school. I still follow science news, though, and was intrigued by this article about the Quagga. There are only 23 hides left, and yet from these 100+ year old skins they were able to extract enough DNA to analyse it and plan a breeding program. Thank goodness that there are still enough Plains zebras around to make such a project feasible. I doubt a similar program would work with the big cats or the rhinos (there’s a subspecies of black rhino, I think it is, that is near extinction): the gene pool just isn’t varied enough.

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