Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Good article came my way this morning. Thought I'd share it:

Please, I want some more Dickens
A fruitless search for the author at schools and on teen reading lists inspires a parent's literary crusade.
By Janine Wood

Do you know any seventh graders reading "Great Expectations"? If not, maybe you should. In his book, "The Educated Child," former Education Secretary William Bennett suggests the Charles Dickens novel be part of a seventh- and eighth-grade reading list. I referred to Mr. Bennett's list recently while helping my 12-year-old son choose a book.

"Great Expectations!?" Now that's expecting a lot, I thought. I remembered picking it up on my own in eighth grade. But would adolescents today read Dickens in their leisure time? Maybe Mr. Bennett's book, written seven years ago, had made an impression. I called a local librarian. No, she said, "Great Expectations" is not a hit.

Next I polled my neighbors' children. Seventh graders on my block weren't reading "Great Expectations." They weren't reading "A Tale of Two Cities," "David Copperfield," or the "Pickwick Papers" either.

"Classics are stupid," said one 13-year-old girl, whose desperate mother had tried paying her to read Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women." "I'd have to buy my son 17 North Face jackets before he'd look at a classic," said another mother.

Why did Bennett's recommendation seem so far-fetched? Yes, television, iPods, and computer games interfere with reading, but was that the only explanation? Maybe the Dickens novel was simply too hard to find. I wanted an answer.

First, I visited the children's section of the library. The books displayed most prominently in the center of the room addressed contemporary social issues such as anorexia, homelessness, divorce, and poverty. I finally found some by Dickens tucked away toward the back of the room.
I left the library and wandered over to the local bookstore. While I relaxed with a book by the 19th-century essayist Thomas De Quincey, a middle-aged woman entered and asked a saleswoman for a book recommendation.

"Do you want chick lit, a page-turner, or a romance?" the saleswoman asked. Oh, how I wish she had asked, "Do you want Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë, or the latest translation of 'The Iliad'?" I felt as though I were at Wal-Mart instead of the bookstore, and that prompted me to wonder what other adults were reading. I asked around at the bookstore's cafe. Nobody had read Dickens since college and even then it was a chore. "I hated all that detail," one woman complained.

Then I scoped out the bookstore's teen section. Risqué images graced the covers of books with titles such as "Skinny Dipping" (second in the "Au Pairs" series) and "Gossip Girl." For boys, there were paperbacks that looked more like computer games than books – glossy covers depicting space ships and intergalactic battles.

"It's all teen trash," said the mom who had tried bribing her daughter to read "Little Women." "I might as well buy her a 'Harlequin Romance.' " How could the little black and white sketches of chubby men smoking pipes that appear in the older editions of Dickens compete with sexy girls romping on beaches?

"The answer is obvious," said a local father of two high school girls. "Teachers don't read Dickens, so they don't assign him." And sure enough, I looked at my son's past summer reading list and Dickens wasn't there. Neither were Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, or Stephen Crane. It seemed clear: For students in junior high, Dickens doesn't exist – not in book groups, not in schools, not at the library, and not at home. "Bah, humbug," I growled, and went off on a search for Mark Twain.

Parents, start a revolution! Unplug all electronic gadgets and get your children reading great books again. Here are a few tips:

• If "Great Expectations" seems too difficult, read the first few chapters aloud. Ask your child to read the rest.

• Ask your child to read at least 75 pages before giving up.

• Listen to classics on tape.

• Ask librarians to make the classics more visible to children.

• Start a children's book group. Gather a few children together. Meet at a local bookstore. The discussion doesn't need to be long – 10 minutes will do.

• Get in touch with the Great Books Foundation, which offers a list of age-appropriate books and instructions for guiding discussions.

Together, we can save Dickens – and others like him – from extinction!

• Janine Wood is a homemaker and writer.


Monday, January 15, 2007

Henry Hitchings, Defining The World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary

Back in 1988 at Saint Xavier University, I took a class taught by Dr. John Buck (a visiting professor from Penn State University) on Reformation and 18th Century literature, which introduced me to the writings of Swift, Pope, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, Defoe ... and Dr. Samuel Johnson. Since then, I've always had a fondness for the well-balanced turn-of-phrase and satirical wit of those 18th Century writers.

Hitchings's Defining The World is a pure celebration of all things Dr. Johnson. The opening chapters are devoted to a thumbnail sketch of his biography (mostly via Boswell); the majority of the book focuses on Johnson's planning, writing, researching, and building of the Dictionary, and the final chapters discuss its publication, subsequent editions, and overall impact on lexicography. Throughout, Hitchings sprinkles an abundance of sample words and their definitions from the Dictionary as he discusses Johnson's method of composition, professional relationships, personal demons, etc. And the author does a solid job of documenting the various ways in which Johnson's methodology set the standard by which all later dictionaries would be made (for example, the hierarchy of definitions per word and the use of literary passages to illustrate differences in meaning were Johnsonian innovations).

What I enjoyed most here was how much Hitchings obviously relishes the Dictionary despite its many flaws (which Hitchings is pretty upfront about). To undertake the writing of a reference work of this magnitude is a challenge for a committee, let alone one man. But Johnson devoted seven years to its composition, and flaws are inevitable (some of the definitions he wrote were ridiculously obtuse, others just plain wrong, and still others were amusingly snide). But Johnson's Dictionary, for all its imperfections, was an impressive feat at the time and, until the OED came along in the late nineteenth century, was the foremost reference of its kind in English (recall that Becky Sharp even reacts against it in Thackeray's Vanity Fair).

A few years ago I read Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was excellent! If you're interested in the stories behind these two English dictionaries (which, I'll admit, might not seem to be all that "interesting" until you see for yourself!), I'd recommend the Winchester and Hitchings books.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Five Biographies of Charles Dickens

I might as well include these books on this list because for the past two years I've been in the slow process of reading five different biographies of Charles Dickens:

1. K. J. Fielding, Charles Dickens: A Critical Introduction (1965)

2. Fred Kaplan, Dickens: A Biography (1988)

3. Stephen Leacock, Charles Dickens (1933)

4. Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (two volumes, 1952)

5. Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (1990)

As I continue reading and teaching the complete novels of Dickens with my ongoing Newberry project, I find that I've settled into a pretty solid routine when writing my lecture notes on Dickens's biography.

For each pair of novels I teach (e.g., the 1849 - 1853 period that comprises the publications of David Copperfield and Bleak House), I read the appropriate sections of each biography in turn and take notes as I go. I then organize those notes into the appropriate number of sessions devoted to each book, and type up the notes accordingly. At the moment, I'm about halfway through each biography.

I usually begin with the Ackroyd and Johnson biographies because of their abundance of detail. I'm able to get most of my lecture material from those two, followed by the Kaplan bio (which is actually getting better now with the mid-point in Dickens's career). I then fill in the details by reading the Fielding and Leacock biographies which, though they aren't very engaging and are mostly cursory, provide a few anecdotes here and there. If time permits, I might return to scan each book in the weeks prior to the start of a seminar to ensure I have all the biographical info I need.

Of the five, I'd recommend the Peter Ackroyd biography to anyone who's interested in reading an entertaining and informative account of the life of Charles Dickens. It's the best of the five.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

It's been a long time since I've read any Jane Austen. I read this for our January book group selection.

Catherine Morland is a plain, average young lady who takes it upon herself to read lots and lots of Ann Radcliffe which, in itself, is pretty unfortunate. Like Don Quixote before her and Emma Bovary later, Catherine is so consumed with the images and circumstances of the fiction she reads (in particular, Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho) that when she has an opportunity to stay with friends at Northanger Abbey, she imagines all sorts of gothic-inspired mysteries and labyrinthian secrets that cloud her sense of reality. While the first half of the novel centers around her travails with the Allens, Thorpes, and Tilneys in Bath (offering the reader the typically Janite meditations on dances, manners, and fabrics in all their ironic glories), the latter section of the novel deals with her visit to the eponymous abbey and, eventually, her return home (and subsequent marriage).

I had forgotten just how much fun a Jane Austen novel can be, with her exquisitely fashioned sentences and subtle observations of just how ludicrous we human beings are. I had also forgotten how wonderfully she is able to extract the universal truths of human nature from such pedestrian activities as choosing a dancing partner, setting a table, or riding in a carriage.

Holden Caulfield speculates on the worth of an author, suggesting that the "good" ones are those which you want to meet after you've finished their book. Methinks Miss Austen would be a delightful author to meet!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We

This was recommended to me a few months back by a colleague. I scored a copy over the holidays and just finished it.

Published in 1920 (but suppressed for over sixty years in Russia), here is the Ol' Granddaddy of Twentieth Century dystopian literature. We is the first-person account of D-503, builder of the aeroship Integral in the futuristic One State controlled by the Benefactor. In the One State, all human emotion and imagination have been suppressed, and all thoughts and efforts are aimed at forcing the individual to act for the betterment of the collective. Everything from romantic encounters to elections are highly controlled and monitored, and D-503's aeroship will soon embark on its sole mission: to "subjugate the unknown beings on other planets, who may still be living in the primitive condition of freedom, to the beneficient yoke of freedom [...] and to compel them to be happy."
Everything is going smoothly for D-503 until he meets I-330, a beautiful young woman who inspires his imagination, awakens his passions, and introduces him to that most irrational of human possessions -- the Soul.

Long suppressed because of its commentary on Stalinism, We offers revolutionary ideas that even in today's political milieu might seem somewhat inciting. Nevertheless, it's pretty easy to see how this novel offered a template for Orwell's 1984, and it is said that it likewise inspired Huxley's Brave New World (which I haven't read since my own sophomore year of high school) and Ayn Rand's Anthem (and, having once read The Fountainhead, will likely remain the only Rand novel I read). We is a good read, and the final half of the novel is pretty riveting! Do check it out.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Rick Kogan, A Chicago Tavern: A Goat, A Curse, and the American Dream

The Billy Goat Tavern is one of the staples of Chicago tourism and cuisine, and this little book celebrates all that is the early life and heyday of a genuine Chicago landmark. From its humble beginnings as the Billy Goat Inn across from old Chicago Stadium to its current digs along lower Michigan Avenue and Hubbard Street, this book recounts the endless newspaper reporters, pols, entertainers, and goats who shared a late-night/early morning beverage and "cheezboorger" (not the least of whom was Pulitzer Prize-winner author Mike Royko).

Kogan's book reminds you of all the ways in which the Billy Goat Tavern has become interwoven with Chicago history over the past eighty years, from the famed "curse" placed on the Chicago Cubs to the Belushi-inspired Saturday Night Live skits. The interviews with owner Sam Sianis capture the immigrant-tinged dialect of so many Chicago bar owners, and Kogan's relaxed style makes you feel like you're sharing stories with an old friend over a beer and bowl of pretzels.

A Chicago Tavern is one of several books published by Lake Claremont Press, which specializes in books about Chicago history. Thanks to my wife for getting it for me for Christmas!