Mrs Stoyle* started it. It’s not her fault, but she certainly started it. All around school you will find little posters advertising what people are reading. It’s a simple idea, the book title and a comment that follows the prompt ‘It is…’. The scheme has issued forth in a bewildering array of titles and comments that are as different and as beguiling as the readers. The scheme and the emphasis placed on reading in schools made me think.
‘Third boy, what’s horse?’
‘A beast, sir,’ replied the boy.
‘So it is,’ said Squeers. ‘Ain’t it, Nickleby?’
‘I believe there is no doubt of that, sir,’ answered Nicholas.
‘Of course there isn’t,’ said Squeers. ‘A horse is a quadruped, and
quadruped’s Latin for beast, as everybody that’s gone through the
grammar knows, or else where’s the use of having grammars at all?’
‘Where, indeed!’ said Nicholas abstractedly.
‘As you’re perfect in that,’ resumed Squeers, turning to the boy,
‘go and look after MY horse, and rub him down well, or I’ll rub you
down. The rest of the class go and draw water up, till somebody
tells you to leave off, for it’s washing-day tomorrow, and they want
the coppers filled.’
Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens, Chapter 8
In his commentary on Nicholas Nickleby, GK Chesterton wrote that “Romance is perhaps the highest point of human expression, except indeed Religion, to which it is closely allied.” He is making the point that story/fiction or ‘romance’ (not the amorous endeavour but the retelling of human experience) is important because it brings the essentials of being human to a point, indeed according to Chesterton, to The point. This explanation is what is required when the truculent teenager asks why we are reading this or that. Perhaps it is my own experience of such questions as a student that when I heard the teacher say “we are reading it because we have to” that my heart sank.
Why do we read? Of course, the answer to this depends on what we are reading. The instructions for Scandinavian home furnishing are not so much read as interpreted through a series of illustrations; the Haynes manual for my ST1100 is read to allow the removal and refitting of components and to check tolerances as is Squeers’ reliance on ‘the Grammar’: when you know what a horse is, you go and rub the horse down. But this doesn’t explain why we read fiction. That of course is for pleasure, to escape or some such.
Dickens parodies the education system above and its utilitarian functionalism. We read much the same as we read the Haynes manual to allow us to do purposeful work. The industrial revolution spawned an approach to teaching children to read and write that served the machinery of industry – no bad thing. It allows a workforce to be skilled and productive, but is there anything else? Jean Piaget the educational theorist points to the cognitive developmental role that reading plays in children as they grow. Piaget saw all learning as an active process and, in the context of reading, a child (and indeed you too reader) confronts a series of lines and squiggles we call text. The decoding of the lines and squiggles develops cognitive processes that allow us to understand each other. Chomsky would argue that they allow us to create meaning.
Just pause for thought: as you read the text, you are making sense (or not) of the words and in doing so a bridge of understanding is being established between the writer and you the reader. The solipsists would argue that this is not possible, that the world is knowable only to the individual and that shared meaning is impossible. I don’t think we can agree on that. There may be gaps in our understanding and there may be mistakes, misinterpretations about what we mean, but there is at least an approximation of understanding. St Augustine wrote that human understanding may be akin to a man hobbling with a stick, but that it is better to hobble than not to walk at all.
Is this what literature exploits? It is not an instruction book, unless you decide to make it so. There are some who would see Lord of the Flies as a commentary on youth: it is certainly an invitation to consider the thin veneer of civilisation that may keep humanity from the worst excesses. 1984 seems to be taken as a ‘how to guide’ by some politicians, though Orwell would be spinning and pale at how the lessons of ‘The road to Wigan Pier’ have not been learned. Rather it is more like Chesterton argued, a high point of human existence.
Literature enlightens our minds with the experiences of others. It informs our understanding by the sharing of those experiences – and perhaps Aristotle was right, that it has a cathartic effect. Writing in the Poetics, he comments that Tragedy is a high art because it touches on the experience of us all and in doing so civilises and humanises us.
Of course there are challenges to this. The magical realism of Allende or the post modernism of Finnegans Wake present their own challenges, the latter especially so. But keeping in the Joycean vein, Ulysses shares more than a Homeric epic narrative. It deepens our understanding of the humble epic that is everyday life and living. At a personal level, the joyous intimacy of reading with your children or reading bedtime stories to them creates its own wonder-filled narrative, beyond sense and sound.
Through Lewis Carroll’s ‘smiles without cat’ and Lear’s ‘Jumblies’, nautical adventures in a sieve, we have opportunities to challenge the deep structures that Chomsky saw being developed in children and through them, as with Finnegan, we have the opportunity to go beyond text, beyond language toward meaning; toward the human understanding literature affords through the looking glass.
(*Mrs Stoyle is our Head of English at the Senior School)
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Hampshire Collegiate School (@HeadmasterHCS)