It Was the Worst of Times

One goal of the modern writer is to use as few words as possible to say what one means.  Now, while I like a straightforward read, it does make me wonder how much exercise my brain is getting when I read what the modern writer has written!

Back when Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities, it was just a normal book. Dickens was famous for his popularity with the masses, and this was the sort of thing that the masses were reading.

Much to my dismay, my book group decided to read A Tale of Two Cities a few years ago. I had read it in eleventh grade — well, I shouldn’t say that I read it, because I never actually sat down with the book except in class. I had a little habit of never doing any assigned reading. The class read it, though, and I got to participate in the discussion. Although I was able to discern enough of the plot to pass the test, nothing of the experience inspired me to read it.

I had no more interest in reading it for book group than I’d had for English Lit. Being an adult, however, I felt that I should probably do it anyway, so I got it from the library and forced myself to read.

I had to read about fifty pages before I got to the point where I was reading automatically instead of reading each sentence and then re-reading it to get the right flow. Once I did, though, it really started to be a good little book! As I read, things from the class discussions filtered into my consciousness, Madame DeFarge, the symbolism, Sydney Carton’s ultimate sacrifice. I expended more intellectual effort than I typically do when reading, but afterward, I felt as sharp as a certain pair of knitting needles.

When I was in fifth grade, I discovered my first Nancy Drew book in the school library, The Secret of the Wooden Lady. After I’d devoured it, I asked the librarian where I could find more of them, and was told that it was a fluke it was there at all. Nancy Drew books weren’t literature, and if a book didn’t enlighten the reader in some way, it didn’t belong on the shelves.

Over the years, that notion has gone the way of all things in education, and now it’s impossible to go into the children’s section of a library without having to wade through aisles of series (most of which, by the way, can’t even aspire to the caliber of Nancy Drew).

The well-intentioned theory behind the shift was that kids should read more, and they would be more likely to read things that were simplistic and entertaining. When those books started flying off the shelves, librarians (and publishers?) forgot all about edifying the reader. Now Junie B. Jones and The Magic Tree House rule the library while The Pushcart War and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase are sitting in landfills*.

In eleventh grade, I would have gladly subscribed to the current viewpoint; maybe I would even have read an assignment or two, but is it really a far, far better thing that the masses are predominantly reading commercial fiction?

* See my post, “You Can’t Tell a Book by Its Cover.” 😉

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “It Was the Worst of Times

  1. I try to balance both in my reading. I love a quick mass produced paperback for sheer entertainment value. I also adore the classics and other more brain-worthy reads.

    Yet as a mom of a dyslexic son, I would say that Yes, it is better to have a child strictly read commercial fiction than not at all. And if the only way is through The Magic Treehouse series, then so be it. With my blessings.

    As always, your posts make me think about the literary world in new ways.

  2. I agree that for kids with special needs, books that don’t create undue frustration are a must; one of my sons also has dyslexic issues. Thanks for posting!

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