Kid Stuff

The headline of the BBC report announcing the results said it all: “Top 100 books are child’s play.” In a poll to determine the nation’s favourite reads, children’s books made up over a third of the titles chosen. From classics like Black Beauty and Winnie the Pooh to all four installments (thus far) of the Harry Potter franchise, kid stuff ruled.

The news comes hard on the heels of a piece I wrote recently on the new popularity of children’s lit. What set me off then was a column by Philip Marchand in the Toronto Star on the gender gap among readers. What I found even more interesting was the age gap. According to Professor David Booth at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, “Boys stop reading fiction at the age of 12 or 13 . . . If they read a novel after that, it’s because they’ve been told to in school.”

There was probably some explanation here of why The Lord of the Rings and The Catcher in the Rye hold top spot on all of those “favourite book” lists. These may be the last books many people have read. And if reading is a childhood activity, is it any surprise that Britain’s Top 100 are “child’s play”?

It’s nice that so many of us have such fond memories of the books we grew up with. What is troubling is the thought that a love of literature and habit of reading is something that we outgrow. And yet, as Stephen Henighan has it,

After one’s late teens or early twenties, the capacity for absolute, unthinking immersion in a work of fiction diminishes. More mundane concerns – the job, the rent, the family – become harder to shake off when one opens a book. Concentration turns into a question of effort, a willed act. The teenager or young adult’s susceptibility to the swamping of life by fiction, to a yielding of self before an enchanted merging with people of other times and places, may never return in its full youthful resilience, but it does bequeath a vivid legacy to the perpetually distracted adult.

Is this all that our childhood reading can do, bequeath a vivid legacy? And Henighan, I hasten to inform you, is a professor of literature. If mundane concerns are getting in the way of his adult reading, who is safe? Not Bruce Wexler, who recently wrote a column in Newsweek complaining of the same thing. During his college years he was “hooked” on poetry, and then . . .

And then my interest waned. On the surface, I suppose it was because I had other interests that demanded my time and attention: I got married, had children, pursued my career, bought a house. With apologies to Frost, I began to find more relevance in articles about interest rates than essays on the sprung rhythm of Hopkins.

It is an interesting phenomenon. How did a habit of mind (not to mention a form of artistic expression) traditionally associated with maturity and intellectual depth get turned into an essentially juvenile activity? I never would have thought, as a young man, that a love of literature would be something I would grow out of. Was I wrong?

Perhaps. But here are some further thoughts:

In an age that values information and up-to-the-second “news”, fiction (indeed, most art), will always be viewed as something frivolous. This is nothing new. Hazlitt made Wexler’s argument, and then some (albeit with a wink), over 100 years ago in “The Four Ages of Poetry”:

Now when we consider that it is not to the thinking and studious . . . that poets must address their minstrelsy, but to that much larger portion of the reading public, whose minds are not awakened to the desire of valuable knowledge, and who are indifferent to any thing beyond being charmed, moved, excited, affected, and exalted . . . when we consider that the great and permanent interests of human society become more and more the main spring of intellectual pursuit; that in proportion as they become so, the subordinacy of the ornamental to the useful will be more and more seen and acknowledged; and that therefore the progress of useful art and science, and of moral and political knowledge, will continue more and more to withdraw from frivolous and unconducive, to solid an conducive studies; that therefore the poetical audience will not only continually diminish in the proportion of its number to that of the rest of the reading public, but will also sink lower and lower in the comparison of intellectual acquirement: when we consider that the poet must still please his audience, and must therefore continue to sink to their level, while the rest of the community is rising above it: we may easily conceive that the day is not distant, when the degraded state of every species of poetry will be generally recognized as that of dramatic poetry has long been: and this not from any decrease either of intellectual power, or intellectual acquisition, but because intellectual power and intellectual acquisition have turned themselves into other and better channels . . .

Which is to say, our intellectual power and intellectual acquisition will have grown up. It’s not a dumbing down, but just the result of our writers having to address themselves to a degraded audience. An audience that is described as being rather like a group of children.

Is this unfair? Not really. Today’s culture is youth culture. This is because young people (or wannabe young people) are its main consumers. Just last year, for example, the video game industry brought in more money than Hollywood. And this is a shift of the cultural plates beneath our feet. Do we really believe that if Jane Austen were with us she would be writing Emma Woodhouse’s Diary? It’s simply not true that she was a precursor to Chick Lit. Nor is Hemingway a proto-Dick Lit author, a macho figure who today would be helping sell “toys for boys” in the pages of Maxim. Literature may have been despised as frivolous, romantic nonsense two hundred years ago, but back then there was nothing approaching the juvenility of today’s hipsters.

And who can blame the industry for knowing its audience? Reading is a leisure activity, but despite the impressive growth in higher education (including the rise of literature as its own field of study) throughout the twentieth century, where today might we find an educated reading class capable of sustaining a mature literature?

You see, the problem isn’t that there are more kids reading Harry Potter than there are adults reading Philip Roth. It’s that there are more adults reading Harry Potter than reading Philip Roth. In fact, there are more adults than kids reading Harry Potter! This is taking the kiddie cult too far. It’s of a piece with George W. Bush naming The Very Hungry Caterpillar as his favourite boyhood book. (In fact, it was only written the year after he graduated from college.)

Any adult reading a Harry Potter book ought to be at least a little ashamed of him- or herself. It’s all very well to say it’s just a lark, but our larks are what define us. If we insist on acting like children then we’re going to continue getting what we deserve.

It’s impossible to outgrow literature. But we may yet prove that literature has outgrown us.

Essay first published online May 21, 2003.


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