Monday, August 17, 2009

A desperate retreat for the English language

When I worked in North Carolina I once carried out a survey on students' reading habits asking them if they has ever read a novel by Charles Dickens.
A few had "heard of the dude," and some even confessed to having ploughed their way through Great Expectations.
But some hadn't the dickens what Iwas talking about.
"He wrote The Raven, didn't he?" asked one girl, referring to the Edgar Allan Poe classic.
"Didn't he write Charlotte's web?" one student of Elizabeth City State University asked.
Over at Elizabeth City's library the woman looked at me blankly when I asked her when somebody had last taken out a novel by Charles Dickens.
I expected her to say: "Don't you know those books are just there to fill a state quota or to eat up space on the shelves."
It was further evidence, if any more is needed, that these are parlous times for the English language.
Those who care about language are now on the front lines of a battle that's looking about as desperate as Verdun.
Kid's don't write full sentences anymore. They text.
Maybe one say I will attend a meeting at a godforsaken library at the end of the world where we'll sit around a candle and talk in hushed and revential terms about vowels.
It's all a great shame. I recently rediscovered Great Expectations and managed to separate it from the bad experience I had at school.
There can be few novels of the 20th century that match Dickens for his clever characterization. And Dickens is genuinely funny.
Mrs. Joe who thunders around threatening Pip and Joe with a cane, which she has named Tickler, is the heir to a whole host of frightening matriachs depicted in subsequent TV shows be it Hattie Jacques' terrifying matrons in the Carry On Films or Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances.
Nor should other classics of the Victorian era be left rot in a jar labelled The Past. There are no shortages of cynical social climbers in the 21st Century but there can be few better depictions than Becky Sharpe in William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair.
Emily Bronte's classic Wuthering Heights may seem more disconnected from present times but it is really? In this era of broken homes many youngsters live with sorrow and the spectre of brutal and bullying father figures such as Healthcliff.
Nor should we leave out classic American authors. In the depths of the recession John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath serves to remind us we have been here before and it was a lot worse then.
So make for the library and grab as many classics as you can before it's too late.

6 comments:

  1. I must admit I am sorely lacking in reading the classics but I did read Great Expectations and loved it. And considering the topic I enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath as well.

    Thanks for the reminder
    xx

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  3. The Victorians probably had the same complaint about the new generation in their time. Look how English has changed over the centuries. I wonder what mish mash of letters will be put together in another couple of centuries

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  4. I live in Dorset (England) and 'classics' tend to be relegated to whirligig stands where they are randomly arranged along with other paperbacks. I would guess the idea is that we should come across them by chance but if you go in with the intention of borrowing something in particular - well, you're likely to be stuck!

    Re. Dickens - I struggle to find a lot of the characters funny. Instead, I find them surreal and irritating. I think I'm right in saying there was a lot more mental disturbance at the time he was writing than there is now, arising in part from industrial chemicals used in a way which wouldn't be tolerated nowadays - so hatters really did tend to go 'mad'. And that means some of the characters we might find 'funny' or 'surreal' are closer to life drawings than we might have thought at first reading.

    And as for Mrs Joe - I find her truly frightening; cruel rather than funny . . . And Pip's off-hand and callous snobbery is so excruciating it becomes almost impossible to read about.

    But, then, I often don't 'get' things first time round. When I read 'Vanity Fair' I assumed Becky Sharpe was the heroine and struggled to justify and like her!

    I realise I'm going-on-a-bit for a comment so I'll stop in a moment . . . but I think the key is often reading aloud. Lots comes to light that way, especially humour. When you are having to decide how to read a sentence, or what tone of voice to used for direct speech, you suddenly notice all sorts of things which would simply have drifted by if you had been rushing ahead to find out what happens next.

    As a complete ignoramus, I would guess this is how Dickens' expected his novels to be read - one person sitting near the light reading, the rest of the family listening. That way, it comes to life.

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  5. Thanks for the follow and your comments. Indeed, I think the humour of those times refected the grim social conditions and Dickens probably derived some pleasure when he decided Mrs. Joe should be hit over the head and left incapacitated.
    Dorset, lucky you - I'm a big fan of Thomas Hardy.

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  6. I've more recently LISTENED to than read the classics, but I do enjoy them (and even did in HS / college). I'm embarrassed 4 my fellow american's who confused Dickens with Poe & EB White. I think most HS English students would know the difference!

    keep fighting the good fight!

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