Literature at School

Stacks of books

Long-form, short-form, I love them all…

If you were to sign up for a literature class in college, what would you expect? Other than the obvious political/social slant, that is. Wouldn’t you expect to be studying, well, words on a page? I’m here to tell you that is changing.

I don’t know how long ago this came into being, I am taking two literature classes this semester (full time student, here, will be graduating in 2 1/2 years with either a Nursing or Microbiology degree) and was rather surprised as I read the syllabi for those classes. According to one, we would be studying “texts” defined: “‘texts’ broadly defined as including literary, disciplinary, public, and popular texts; print and digital texts; and visual and aural texts as well as verbal print text.”

I had expected poetry, short stories, and a dollop of the professor’s self-interests, and that I have gotten. We have not so much as discussed any novels, nor do I anticipate that we will, being half-way through the semester. In the other class, although it is not defined in the syllabus like that, we have watched and discussed films along with articles, stories, and poems. I know from talking to my classmates that those who will admit to reading outside class assignments (and those, only when they cannot avoid them) that books like the Rick Riordan series, and Beautiful Creatures (a book about a family of witches, and one that my then 13-yo daughter enjoyed over a year ago) are popular reads.

Which all makes me wonder about the future of Literature. We all know, anecdotally, that “literary” works may get push, but few actually enjoy reading them. Goodreads has a fascinating summary of the five most abandoned books, both popular and classics, with reasons why. The author of the article asks, “What’s your stance on abandonment? Are you an always-finish-no-matter-what kind of person? Have you ever hated the main character of a book? Do you hide your book covers in the airport because your reading selection embarrasses you? And most importantly, has anyone (other than my sister whom I envy for her reading abilities) read Catch 22 cover to cover?” 

But does this mean, between what is taught in schools and what isn’t taught, that reading will go away in a generation or two? I have been reading H. Beam Piper, and re-read Null-ABC, which in light of my thoughts on the subject recently, seem terrifyingly plausible. By the way, that’s free on Amazon, follow the link, it’s worth your time! His fears then were more based on television and telephone, but now it is the internet, and videos, and very short texts that cater to a reading level that sometimes makes me muse on the demise of the polysyllabic vocabulary.

You see, I am well aware that I am not normal. I knew this even before starting college again, in my fourth decade of being-a-reader, and the somewhat awed discovery of my fellow (and much younger) classmates that I not only have a photographic (but not eidetic, more’s the pity, and then I have to explain what that means) memory, but can and will read an entire weeks assignment of short stories and poetry before the end of class, while actively participating in class discussions. But while my abnormality seems peculiar to them, I am more aware of their deficiencies, a matter of aroused pity for humans crippled by their inability to read at length. I don’t believe this is entirely their fault, they have been forced to read indigestible tomes full of despair and turgid prose on summer vacations, and in classes, short works more about messages and social relevance than anything which might have stirred their imagination and brought to life a love, or even mild affection for reading.

Can this be rectified? I’m not sure. We don’t — that is, we-the-reading-lovers, we the authors of what-is-good-to-read — have any weight in the classrooms of the masses. I can subversively slip a book suggestion, or a link to an e-tome, or perhaps even a physical book, to a young person, and I can raise my kids to read prolifically by encouraging them to do so at every turn. It feels like so little, but it is all I can do. Can I ask you all to join me in the reclamation of a “text” from anything but words (on paper, e-ink, or screen) and to join the resistance by recruiting a reader to the cause? Brother, Sister, can you spare a page?

And in my own short texts, you can find works like the mystery novella Memories of the Abyss.

“Violet is trapped in the prison of her own mind. Her body is dwelling in the insane asylum, but when her friend Walter is killed, she must make a decision to avenge his death, or stay safely locked in her own broken soul. He’d drawn her out of her shell, and she finds she still has honor left… But will anyone believe the crazy woman?”


The short story retelling the classic tale, where little Red Riding Hood carries a shotgun and the Wolf may not be all bad. It is Grandmother, or as she is known in her native Russian, Babushka, who has the biggest secret of them all…

44 Comments

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44 responses to “Literature at School

  1. Somewhat tangentially. I’m reading my way through your oeuvre. Is the list on your blog in any particular order? (I have this OCD/completist thing that I prefer to read an author’s works in the order of publication, although I also take delight in “discovering” them out of order — go figure.)

    M

    • No, the list on my blog is about as random as my works are… currently none of them have ties to one another. I am working on sequels for a couple of things, and a prequel for Stargazer. As far as order they were written in, The Twisted Breath of God is the first story I can remember finishing, and it was written about ten years ago. Red-Hood is a very early work, the most recently written are Snow Angel and Memories of the Abyss. I’d have to go look things up to give you a complete list! LOL

      • “Memories of the Abyss” is a great piece of work. When I realized you were going for a “cozy” in an asylum, I didn’t think you (or anyone) could pull it off. You did, though. And very nicely, too. Been a long time since I’ve been impressed *and* jealous reading someone for the first time!

    • Read Pixie Noir when it comes out. It is fantastic

  2. Hey! I thoroughly enjoy Catch-22! Despite the fact that I read about 70% SF and 25% fantasy, it’s one of my favorite books.

    • Nothing against it, myself, since I have never read it… it’s interesting that it’s one of the most abandoned books, though.

      • It is an extremely non-linear, surreal book — alternating with grimly real scenes of a dying man’s intestines falling out. I can understand how it could fail to reach a lot of readers. I generally prefer linear stories myself. But with this one, for me, the emotional arc is very linear; it just has to hop back and forth through time and space and character to follow that arc.

        • 1. It’s a book assigned for school. Plenty of people will drop it, whether or not they admit it!

          2. Catch 22 is well-loved by those who love it, but enormously hated by those who hate it. I disliked it; I didn’t find the “funny” parts funny, and the rest of it was just kinda bleh. I finished it, though, because I had to.

  3. I work for a university, in the maintenance department, and I was moving some furniture out of room 101 in one of the buildings. Joking around with a pair of faculty members, I asked if this was going to be Winston Smith’s new office.

    Blank stares.

    I went on to say, “From Nineteen Eighty-Four? Winston Smith and Room 101?”

    It turns out that neither of the instructors had heard of Nineteen Eighty-Four, or George Orwell, or Animal Farm. These people tech at a university level, and it takes a high school dropout to tell them about Nineteen Eighty-Four. What’s more, they seemed completely at a loss as to why I found that troubling.

    • Yes, I have introduced two of my classmates (one in Lit class) to 1984 now. It’s surreal. The teacher used “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Tick-Tock Man.” in class, but no mention of 1984 until I brought it up.

      • Martin L. Shoemaker

        1984 is a critique of things they would rather not see critiqued…

      • bearcat

        1984 was one of the best required reading books when I was in high school, and one of the few I actually read-read. I learned speed reading in 7th grade, and while not an enjoyable way to read, it works quite well for those deadly dull, incomprehensible, ‘enlightening’ grey goo the teachers liked to assign.

        • Yeah, I thought everybody had to read 1984, Animal Farm, and Brave New World. (The last was for sf class in high school, though.)

          I do have to say that 1984 makes even more sense after you listen to the Goon Show version, which hilariously highlights the book’s references to life at the BBC.

        • bearcat

          I bounced in and out of Honors or regular English classes, depending on which teachers I despised (or very occasionally, liked) more. So I managed to miss several of the normal required reading books, like Animal Farm. I had read it at a much younger age (second or third grade) however, and despised it at that time. I didn’t really understand satire yet, and just thought all the characters were to stupid to breathe on their own if they believed the pig. Brave New World I have never read, and never even heard of until it started being mentioned on this and Sarah’s blog, so I’m assuming it wasn’t required reading for any classes at my high school.

  4. You’re a brave woman. I’m not sure I could handle college now. They’ve changed in one direction, and I’ve gone the other.

    • Well, I can BS well enough, and sometimes I just ctand up and challenge their assumptions. I’ve found that doing that with enough data to back me up wins the respect of some professors. Others I don’t even bother with…

  5. we’re doomed. I was listening to an interview that was taped…back in 2011 I think, with some guy who actually loves economics as it’s studied BEFORE 1960, 1950. He points out that in college back then, when you studied economics you studied the history of it, for one. He said with this “liberal math” people are taught now, we’re fucked. He expects the human race to die out in the next 30-50yrs. Become a footnote in earths history…like the dinosaurs. And on my more pessimistic days….which is most of them, I agree with him.

  6. Christopher M. Chupik

    Riddley Walker for me. A short story written like that, maybe. A whole novel? No way.

  7. I abandoned a book last week. It was a murder mystery. I go out to breakfast about once a week at a place where the one waitress and I exchange bags of books. She gave this to me.
    In the first chapter the main character is awakened by his hound dogs barking. He tries to ignore them thinking it is a possum or ‘coon. They go into full bay and he worries it is a bear so he gets up.
    This supposed country boy gets a TRANQUILIZER gun to go confront a bear. A tranquilizer gun is hard to acquire, hard to use, and if you put a dart in a bear’s butt he has a leisurely half minute at least to tear you to pieces before he passes out.
    I tossed it in the trash.
    When the waitress asked how I liked it I confessed it was stupid and unbelievable and the author obviously thought guns were icky and her decent characters would never use one.
    She informed be it didn’t get better. Later in the book the same character beat a home invader bloody with a can of beans rather than grab a gun he had available…Can you say stupidity bias?

    • ** sigh ** That’s only funny when Jackie Chan does it.

    • Ooh, that’s bad. Yeah, I think we have all read stuff that made you want to fling the book!

      • Eric Hinkle

        Indeed. For me it’s when someone in a book goes on about the “Burning Times” when Europe killed a gazillion witches in the Middle Ages and… ARRGH!

        • BobtheRegisterredFool

          Yes, the witch thing was a big fad among the people of Europe. This filtered into the legal system because the legal systems were not rigorous and impartial enough, and there weren’t very many people prepared to give it a level of serious analysis appropriate to ‘we are adding a new capital offense’.

          Compare the vampire scare, and how that looks with the even the common layman’s knowledge of what happens to a body after death.

          If there were really such a thing as vampires or zombies, the vampire scare would have sense to it, beyond human nature.

          Likewise, if there were really such a thing as magic, the big witch scare looks a whole lot different. Especially if we are talking about a magic system designed by someone who could have a character use ‘the burning times’ without thinking that the character is a tool. Much less there being actual magic users involved in that mess.

          If a magic system is interesting to me*, it most likely has some application to criminal enterprise. As such, the mundanes of the setting would have some interest in their legal system regulating such.

          *I don’t care much for the ‘experimentally, no different than a bunch of people having psychological experiences’ school of design. I get bored by thinky, and I have a limited tolerance for mental illness in fiction**. It takes a pretty good execution to sell such to me.

          **I easily run out of the energy to deal with the stress and anxiety, and it takes other stuff in the story to make such work for me as an escapist joy.

          • Actually, a “working magic,” like ESP would be a “don’t tell anyone outside the family,” until the ’90′s. At that point, there was enough “public awareness” to make it safe to talk about quietly. Most don’t see the problems, only the power uses. Schmitz’s Witches of Karres (and Flint’s Wizard of Karres), are among the *rare* few that get it right.
            I’ve been an empath since about 12-13, and it’s like living in a stadium of blacksmiths, all working at once. I literally *CAN’T* judge solely on the basis of physical looks. To let someone get really close emotionally, means letting down very heavy barriers, with predictable consequences. I’m also a very good, _experienced_, “sheep dog.” So, my chances of finding someone who would actually Love me, isn’t very good. (Three times in my life that I would have considered marrying someone.) Now that I’m disabled (bad knees, and in a wheelchair due to a back injury), the chance is probably indistinguishable from zero.
            That’s the reality, not the fairy tale story. Among any real magic users, paranormal creature families, it would be similar. Potential spouses (anyone who can explain why that is spice?), would have to be compatible, willing to accept, and very special people. After all, you aren’t different, but *DIFFERENT.* It also depends on the family being willing to accept the “difference” of the person.

            • BobtheRegisterredFool

              Two views on this, since I am fundementally a jerk.

              One, supposing such a thing were biological and heritable, my guess is that it would be either very advantageous or very disadvantageous. Given the genocidal pressure cooker nature of the typical* human society, I expect that, barring it being a very recent development, it would be either be extinct, or pretty much everyone across all extant populations would have it.

              Two, as far as keeping it in the family goes, it seems more probable to me to say keeping it in The Family.

              *I use this word to describe a savage society, usual and normal to humanity. If you can attach a name to a society, it likely isn’t typical. See LeBlanc’s Constant Battles.

            • In Ireland or Scotland, it seems like everybody knew who had the Sight, whose family had the Sight, why they had the Sight, how long they’d had it, methods you could follow to get it, professions where you were supposed to have various prophetic or magical powers….

              But then, everybody’s family had bizarre legends, magical relatives, and uncanny powers, so I imagine it was hard to stand out.

              • BobtheRegisterredFool

                This was just the prodding I needed to help flesh out a Irish-American criminal family that I am working on.

                Thanks.

          • The witch scare was a Really Weird Thing, because the older version (that worked just fine through the “Dark Ages”) was for the Church to say that 1) Christians don’t really have to fear demons and magic because the Name of Jesus defeats them, and you can consult a priest or other professional if you need some kind of exorcism; and 2) anybody who thinks they can do magic is either afflicted by demons or wrong, and you should consult a priest or other professional to deal with it. Executions or any legal/extralegal punishment for witchcraft was strictly forbidden, and vigilantes could receive strict penalties. (If somebody was killing kids for nefarious magical purposes, they were prosecuted as childkillers, not as witches.) In Germany and other areas, it seems that some bishops were kept busy saving the lives of pagan priests, occultists, and unlucky people just getting the blame for bad luck.

            And then, things went very quiet for a long time.

            It was the supposedly “enlightened” people of the Renaissance, Reformation, etc. (and mostly only in certain regions) who were scared stiff of witchcraft and convinced of its dominating power. People didn’t trust Christ, the saints, and a blessing from the priests. A lot of people blame the bad climate and the religious wars for reducing people’s confidence in Christianity. There may have been a fair amount of occultism around, but what really drove governments insane was the kings’ and princes’ fear of magical assassination. Why did they suddenly start fearing that? Guilty conscience? An attempt to control away the threat of sudden plagues and poisonings? Nobody knows.

            Of course, the really weird thing is that Malleus Maleficarum, which oddly was taken as an authoritative guide by a lot of Protestant German witchhunters, even though it was written by a German Dominican — well, the author was a guy who was best known for his previous work with lay Rosary prayer clubs. And then he comes out with this virtual compendium of super-dark, grim German folklore taken as fact.

            So yeah, something weird was definitely going on with the hearts of people in those areas.

            • Eric Hinkle

              “(If somebody was killing kids for nefarious magical purposes, they were prosecuted as childkillers, not as witches.) In Germany and other areas, it seems that some bishops were kept busy saving the lives of pagan priests, occultists, and unlucky people just getting the blame for bad luck.”

              Ah, Charlemagne’s Salic Law — “If anyone says that a woman is a witch or flies about at night and sucks the blood of men and for this reason kills her, they have committed a crime and it shall be punished with death.” Or something like that; I think the full quote is in Norman Cohn’s “Europe’s Inner Demons”.

              And with the Malleus — it was written by Heinrich Kramer, a very bizarre monk who was obsessed with fantasies of demon sex orgies to the point of getting thrown out of every monastery he entered. He stuck the name of Jakob Sprenger on it (a highly respected Church scholar of the time) to give his work more heft. Sprenger was not asked, and he was NOT amused when he learned about it!

              • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                I’ve “heard” the author of Malleus was a member of one of the Inquisitions but was “kicked out” because his superiors thought he had an unhealthy interest in seeing women (accused of heresy) naked.

                • Eric Hinkle

                  As far as I know, Kramer was never in the Inquisition. But he did indeed have that obsession, and apparently talked about it so much that he filled everyone around him with a strong desire to strangle him to make him shut up already.

    • bearcat

      About a minute with a good hit on a bear for the trank to take effect. My dad helped out on bear study years ago and was quite disgusted with the biologists. He would tree the bear with his hounds, they would shoot it with a tranquilizer dart, and then stand around for a minute or so until the bear fell out, often falling fifty to seventy-five feet. He tried to convince the biologists to take a slingshot and pepper the bear with marbles after they tranked it, causing it to come down the tree before it passed out, but they weren’t interested. As far as they were concerned the bear was a live bear after they tranked it, and healthy too, because the blood samples they took said so! The fact that it fell seventy-five feet and hit across a stump, and a was bleeding out of both ends when they left it didn’t mean anything.

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  9. I agree with you that fewer and fewer people have the patience to sit and read, but I ascribe it to a lack of ability to focus on anything for more than a few moments (other than games). I started to notice it in corporate “training” seminars when attendees would be put into arbitrary groups to work on a project.

    Anyone Gen-X and younger had just the hardest time defining a goal, self-assigning tasks, and then working on those tasks. And nothing seemed wrong to them about that. My own-age colleagues were mystified, since we didn’t usually work as peers in a corporate culture with random people 10-15 years (or more) younger and hadn’t really realized this was happening broadly in the culture.

    I don’t know what the underlying problem is, but I think the old bugaboo “multitasking” is a prime candidate. Look how much trouble even we old farts (technical term) have with screening out constant interruptions.

    • TXRed

      I’d say multi-tasking, and things like Wiki-walking, where you start off trying to read an article and ten links later, you wonder what the article was about that you’d started to read. It’s so much easier to drift on the internet than it is with a book or books and articles, and there’s no (apparent) penalty.

      I saw it in the 20-something grad students. Even the 30-somethings could focus much better. We could also get the assigned readings done, something the youngsters had trouble with.

      • I’d say it’s that they’re not learning reading well enough. SERIOUSLY. I see it when I work with kids other than mine. They are not taught connotative meanings, only denotative meanings. This is a result of whole-word — and I don’t care what they’re calling it now, what they were trying to teach my kids (ask me if I let them) was STILL WHOLE WORD. I sent in kids who could read, they sent back kids who “guessed” We shouted “don’t guess, sound it out”, often with colorful words before guessed and sound, more often than we did “Stop hitting your brother.” — and I don’t know if it’s a bug or feature for its architects, though I think whole word is mostly laziness and trying to be “fun” in teaching. BUT none of these kids reads well enough to read for pleasure, period, much less to read anything deeper than a memo saying “back from lunch at 12″

  10. We need to stop calling it “Literature,” and start calling it by it’s real name. Litter achure (as in Achure, after someone poops). They’ve been selling poop sandwiches, wrapped in buffalo chips (NOT potato based chips), as fine steak sandwiches, since I was in my 20′s. No wonder young people don’t like to read.

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