Saturday, January 02, 2010

Dumbing down and not

A customer review on AMAZON criticized THE TREASURE SEEKERS by E.Nesbit for having "lots of not-understood references." I find it odd that a book should be faulted because a reader doesn't understand all the references. For me as a child, puzzling out what phrases like "Let dogs delight" meant was fun -- even when I never did figure it out, or didn't figure it out until years later when I came upon the source. That was fun, too: to be reading something else or traveling in England and suddenly get the reference -- and think "So THAT's what she meant!"

But the references are a minor detail.

This was one of my favorite books as a child and I now think it is one of the greatest books ever written for children: funny, insightful, well-written, inspiring -- and unexpectedly moving in places, too. I still laugh out loud when I read it, and I still admire the children enormously: for their imaginations, resourcefulness, kindness to each other, loyalty, and, perhaps most of all, for their very English courage -- the way they deal with what drearier people would complain about.

Philosophically, I very much object to the idea that everything in a book should be easy to understand and known already to the readers. Surely one of the joys of reading is to be exposed to new ideas, people, places -- to learn?

Another great writer for children, PL Travers, the author of MARY POPPINS, writes about the enormous pleasure and stimulation she (as a child) derived from trying to puzzle out the meanings of phrases in adults' conversation, such as "she lived on her capital." (She phrases it better than I do here -- but she as a child imagined this aunt as a sort of ogress, nibbling on her own fingers and toes during an afternoon nap.)

It's probably true that E.Nesbit's writing is not for everyone-- but what is? I for one think it's great that children still love her -- and despite all the efforts that have been made to dumb their books and everything else down,that they still enjoy puzzling out (or simply accept and move on from) what they don't understand at a first glance.

Many authors -- Noel Streatfield and CS Lewis to name two more - have paid tribute to E.Nesbit. Noel Coward kept copies of her books by her bed. She still makes me laugh out loud, and very few authors from any era can do that.

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