Reading Novels

The fog which lingers on every page of Bleak House is symbolic of the layers of cant under which the capitalism of the mid-nineteenth century concealed its ruthlessness,,. But the bourgeoisie... shielded itself behind the theory that literature did not really pertain to practical life....
George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky

"I mean, I never read one of these before in my life."
Adult Learner finishing his first novel

Tomorrow morning, late, I'll take some more novels over to my in-home learner. This is, apparently, an old fashioned - and possibly subversive - thing to do.

Actually, despite their old fashioned feeling, novels are a relatively recent form of art. The West European tradition of novels is usually traced back to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). "The novel arose... as the art of the housed and private man in the European cities", writes Steiner, explaining the distinction between "modern" novels and "ancient" epic poetry and drama in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. It was the genre of everyday, empirical reality; "first cousin to history."

Like Defoe's castaway, the novelist will surround himself with a palisade of tangible facts.... Where he finds a footprint in the sand, the novelist will conclude it is the man Friday lurking in the bushes, not a fairy spoor or, as in a Shakespearean world, the ghostly trace of "the god Hercules, whom Antony loved."

It took another 100 years or so for the novel to catch on. Early novels were published in the U.S. and British North America in the late 1700s and early 1800s, but the novel's maturing didn't happen until the period between 1860 and 1900. Since then, the genre has grown in scope without altering its basic form. (In this, novels share a historical space with Canada.)

By the mid-1800s, novels had become a dominant cultural force (still today they lag only behind music and film, and are far more popular than, say, painting, plays, dance or sculpture). That meant their appearance also began to have some political impact, and novels had to be taken seriously by the ruling class; though not perhaps in a way the novelists had hoped.

In scorn or indignation, such writers as Dickens, Heine, and Baudelaire sought to cut through the muffled hypocrisies of language. But the bourgeoisie took delight in their genius and shielded itself behind the theory that literature did not really pertain to practical life and could be allowed its liberties. Hence arose the image of a dissociation between the artist and society which continues to haunt and alienate literature....
I'm not a terrific fan of 19th century novels, though I understand their character, and have enjoyed them. Among my small, nice things is a two volume set of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, a 19th century French novel translated by Charles Wilbour in 1909, though my copy dates from 1919.

Still, my daily reading is more modern, and absolutely no threat to the bourgeoisie. Right now, on the bedside table, I have Payne Harrison's military drama Forbidden Summit and John Saul's horror thriller The Presence. Neither is remarkable, both are quite 20th century - as is John Morressy's sci-fi novel Starbrat which kept me up late two nights ago.

Not everybody thinks novels are important, thinks literature pertains "to practical life."

Not long ago, I listened to explanation of the merits of Workplace Essential Skills curricula over such artificial and impractical things as novel studies, essay writing, the parsing of poetry, or pure mathematics. I didn't make faces or throw my shoes or anything. I understand the funding pressures that tempt otherwise sensible people into pretending that a list of skills employers attribute to ideal employees should replace the touchstones of civic and human learning. Of course, understanding doesn't mean I have to pay any attention to it.

South of the border, something called the "Common Core State Standards Initiative" has been involving "commissioners of education from 48 states, 2 territories and the District of Columbia [in] developing a common core of state standards in English-language arts and mathematics for grades K-12." Apparently, this group has also been infected with WES-itis. A February 8th post on the literacyspace: literacy & library cightings blog reads:

A few weeks ago, I received an urgent e-mail: The National Council of Teachers of English is looking for volunteers for an ad hoc task force whose charge is to gather evidence about why literature should continue to be taught in the 21st century.

Apparently, the worth of book reading had become an issue among the work groups that, behind closed doors, were writing the K-12 “common-core standards” that promise to shape curriculum in U.S. classrooms.

...I was dismayed, but not surprised, that the NCTE was finding it necessary to lobby on behalf of literature.
I was also dismayed, but not surprised. Well, okay. I wasn't really dismayed either. This has been coming for a while now. (For some context, I recommend Denny Taylor's Spin Doctors.) But I was reminded to not take the value and joys of novel reading for granted.

"This is the first time..." said an adult learner one evening, gesturing when words failed him. "I mean, I never read one of these before in my life."

"One of these" was a novel: Agnes Hagen's Justice On Horseback, the second of the Jack Sloan novels (which he'd inadvertently picked before the first in the series).

He'd read "books" of a sort - the PageTurners series, the Grass Roots Press readers. But this was his first experience with a proper chapter book filled with a sustained story. Where he could spend 10 to 20 minutes on a PageTurner, he would spend 6 to 8 hours on the Jack Sloan novels.

At first, he had been reading a chapter, writing a paragraph summary (with lots of re-reading and looking backwards), and then reading the next chapter. That was his idea, you understand. I didn't assign it - though it's something I often encourage when people are stuck for something to write about. The theory, of course, is that a learner's reading vocabulary grows more quickly when they use the new words and ideas in writing.

Anyway, that was his plan. But when I checked in and found him on the second-to-last chapter of Justice On Horseback, he said, somewhat sheepishly, "I got too excited. I got too interested. It was exciting and I kind of forgot to stop reading. I'll have to go back now and read it all over again."

Well, I said, you could forget about making notes and just move right on to the next book.

"Naw. It would bug me. I'll go back and read it again. It's okay. It's pretty interesting."

And so he's been carrying on since then, reading and writing through books one and three. He's improving his literacy by reading prose fiction because reading prose fiction is something he wants to do, something he is learning to do.

It's a skill that has, in this moment, become "essential" to him.

It's true that Shotgun Revenge is no Bleak House. But, these days, silent sustained reading - or even the simple act of inviting learners to discover novels - seems to be something of which the bourgeoisie disapprove. Maybe that in itself makes the whole thing worthwhile.

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