I’m writing about reading right now; a response to a (draft) essay Mark Bauerlein has written about the NEA’s Reading At Risk survey. I’ll quote a bit from Mark:
These findings [steep decline across the board, especially among the young] won’t surprise those who have spent any time in an average college classroom. Professors have always griped about the lassitude of students, but lately the complaints have reached an extreme. English teachers note that it’s getting harder to assign a work over 200 pages. Students don’t possess the habit of concentration necessary to plow through it. Teachers say that students don’t comprehend spelling requirements. Spelling is now the responsibility of spellcheck. Last October at an MLA regional meeting, a panelist who specializes in technical writing observed that while his students have extraordinary computing skills, they have a hard time following step-by-step instructions for an assignment.
I tend to be a sunny optimist in the face of this bad news. First, I assume profs have been grousing extremely about students since forever. (It is such fun I can’t believe any generation of pedagogues has had the will to forego this perk of the job.) Second, I tend to assume that somehow the rich, strange new cognitive shapes young minds assume are all right in their way. Yes, they can’t spell. (I had always assumed Matt used voice recognition software and was dictating his posts. How else to explain his homonym trouble? Matt has a brain like a planet. If he can’t spell, that means spelling can’t be that important.) But mostly I am just so bookish, and everyone I know is, and everyone I grew up with was, and my schools were crammed with bookish teachers and kids clawing after books … I guess I just can’t quite believe that it could be true that less than 50% of the population has read any literature in the last year. (The idea that you can’t assign a 200-page novel in a college class? Preposterous. Can’t be.)
In this vein, Matt Cheney has a fascinating post about teaching Neil Gaiman’s American Gods to high school students. (And Gaiman is duly fascinated.) Matt hits upon the same hard limit as Bauerlein: "I knew that few of my students would ever have read a book of more than 200 pages." But the really interesting and baffling hurdle actually came next.
The students got into it (what else is going to happen, reading that book?). But:
The more they read, the more I noticed many
students were completely lost. Not because they had trouble keeping up with the reading (a few did), but because they had trouble figuring out how to read a fantasy novel. It was a minority of my students that knew how to read a novel that mixed reality and fantasy, history and fiction, myth and the mundane. The handful of kids who had read other fantasy novels did fine with the book—indeed, devoured it, finishing a week or more before the rest of the class. But the majority of students, kids who would have no trouble suspending their various disbeliefs for the most fantastic products of Hollywood, told me again and again that the book was nearly incomprehensible.
Now this is extremely counter-intuitive to me. You say you understand Sky Captain or The Incredibles or The Chronicles of Riddick or The X-Men; you can read English. But you can’t understand American Gods, even if you are enjoying reading it? Matt explains:
In the first half, they loathed and often skipped the "Coming to
America" sections, but by the second half [thanks for the power of being made to take quizes] they were able to tie these seemingly unconnected parts of the book to some of the ideas fueling the main story. One of the things I like best about American Gods is its scope – Gaiman’s bold willingness to tackle American history (whether mythic history or real) from 14,000 B.C.E. to now, and to do so on the outskirts of the primary story, allowing the book the virtues of popular plot-based literature along with the virtues of philosophically serious literature (the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive, though they often are). That scope and breadth, though, is also what makes the book particularly challenging for people who are used to much less ambitious books, never mind people who don’t read many books at all.
That’s quite interesting. Young minds, video-game strong, capable of processing and integrating multiple streams of visual and audio data – I have no doubt – who find American Gods to be an incomprehensibly thick stream of data, coming at them from too many angles. Too busy around the edges. Weird. I was reading stuff that complicated when I was 10-12. But I guess what goes around comes around. I remember going to see Star Wars with my bookish mom. She’d never seen anything like it. The space battles almost overheated her brain, she confided in me afterwards. She didn’t really like it, but she agreed it was very good.
Speaking of that Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ve just read a great collection of essays about the age that comes before. The Golden Age of Comics – which is eight – is fondly memorialized in Give Our Regards To The Atomsmashers! I’ll just quote the opening of Sean Howe’s introduction, about learning to read.
I learned to read from comic books. The first world sequence I ever sounded out, as my eyes moved from left to right, was "red" followed by "tornado" – an outrageously odd pairing that named a member of DC Comics’ Justice League of America. Burned immediately into my four-year old mind was this equation: reading = comic books. For a whole decade, I didn’t look back.
I spent nearly every dime that came my way on superhero comic books, memorizing origin stories, first appearances, and creator’s names. From comics I learned geography; I nearned the names of Norse gods, Greek gods, and Roman gods; I learned to draw; I learned scientific principles (though comic book science would turn out to be pretty unreliable). When I was eight years old, I bought a comic book price guide, and got a crash course in the rules of supply and demand (this was the eighties, after all). But more than anything else, I learned about language. I learned the meanings of dozens of extracurricular words like "invincible," "incredible," "astonishing," "uncanny," "quasar," "peregrine," "celestial," and, best of all, "tatterdemalion".
There you have it, I wager. What I had that Matt Cheney’s students evidently do not. Fascination with origins, mythology, geography, weird language for language’s sake.
Consider this an open thread. What words did you learn from superhero comics?
I will tell you a story. I can tell you where I was and what I was doing when I learned the word ‘tatterdemalion’, although I didn’t know yet what it meant. Just that he was slugging it out. I was sitting in a pizza parlor in Florence, Oregon. We were on our way to the cabin. It was raining outside. I was sipping a root beer out of a frosted mug. That word just electrified my brain. Must have been 1976 because I think was reading Ragman #1. (Of course, Marvel has a villain by that name. Easy to get confused when it’s a relatively common name like Tatterdemalion.)
You can’t leave ‘eldritch’ off the vocabulary list either. This is an adjective I associate primarily with the Scarlet Witch. But also the Black Widow, because, if memory serves, she is described as being like an ‘eldritch wraith’, on account of her acrobatic prowess (‘prowess’, there’s another) in a Marvel Team-Up issue in which she appeared with The Thing. I think they were fighting someone on an oil rig. (Oh, there it is. Hey, Claremont wrote and Janson inked.) ‘Eldritch’ probably appears in superhero comics more often than ‘dog’ or ‘cat’; a basic word you have to know.
Also, ‘Nazi’, although it was several years before I connected the Naw-zees Cap and Nick Fury fought with the boring old Not-sees my father taught people about.
‘Armageddon’ is an basic superhero noun that I pronounced Ar-MEDGE-uh-dawn. I once used it in a sentence. I don’t remember whether the occasion warranted. My mother was very puzzled as to what I could possibly be talking about. How embarrassing.
Ergo, the quote I’ve come across this past year that means the most to me may be this one from Bruno Schulz, about why the seduction of the innocent is such, such, such a good idea:
I do not know just how in childhood we arrive at certain images, images of crucial significance to us. They are like filaments in a solution around which the sense of the the world crystalizes for us …. They are meanings that seem predestined for us, ready and waiting at the very entrance of our life … Such images constitute a program, establish our soul’s fixed fund of capital, which is allotted to us very early in the form of inklings and half-conscious feelings. It seems to me that the rest of our life passes in the interpretation of those insights, in the attempt to master them with all the wisdom we acquire, to draw them through all the range of intellect we have in our possession. These early images mark the boundaries of an artists’s creativity. His creativity is a deduction from assumptions already made.
It’s about Dostoyevsky, if you like. Or the importance of knowing what ‘tatterdemalion’ means. This passage would make an excellent epigraph for Atomsmashers! A volume I recommend to all who feel as I do about all this.