Monday Miscellany

Because I was sick for much of last week, this week’s entry is short.

Stories don’t need morals or messages

Salon’s Laura Miller caused a flurry of comments recently with this article about a post on the New York Times education blog. In that post the parents of twins talked about taking their kids’ third-grade Language Arts test as a party game on New Year’s eve. The test contained a little story about tiger cubs and then asked, “What is this story mostly about?” The bloggers described this as a stupid question produced by an over-emphasis on the multiple-choice format of standardized tests.

Miller points out that “discomfort with fiction — with all its slippery, non-utilitarian qualities — goes back to the beginning of American culture.” As her source she cites Behold the Child: American Children and Their Books, 1621-1922 by Gillian Avery, which asserts “17th-century Puritans had big doubts about any kind of non-scriptural storytelling, for adults as well as for children.” The Puritans believed that children needed to learn to read solely so that they could read the Bible in order to get into Heaven. This Protestant work ethic, Miller argues, has completely overtaken the American view of reading, with the result that reading should serve the utilitarian purpose of getting ahead in life. Reading material containing facts or life lessons has thus supplanted reading fiction for enjoyment in schools. The result: “Reading books has become a kind of work, at least for children.”

The weakness of this approach to fiction should be obvious: If what you really want is a set of fortifying maxims, why bother with stories about feckless romances or foolish kings? Why not just go straight to the self-help section — the secular equivalent of the sermon — as so many American readers already do?

This “American mania for self-improvement,” combined with the emphasis on standardized testing, has led to

the belief that reading can only be the means to an end, whether that end is moral betterment or worldly success (two classic Puritan preoccupations). For some of us, however, reading is an end in itself, and what fiction has to offer isn’t lessons but an experience, a revelation, a sudden expansion of the spirit. Like any art, it can teach or motivate, but it doesn’t have to, and it’s often better when it doesn’t.

I agree with Miller that reading fiction is more “an experience, a revelation, a sudden expansion of the spirit.” But I don’t agree that such reading doesn’t impart lessons or truths. Reading fiction is a transactional process, as described by Louise Rosenblatt, that provides lessons in being human. But most of those lessons are communicated on a subconscious level, which means that we may not be able to consciously put them into words. But even if we can’t articulate the lessons of fiction, the reading experience has still expanded our knowledge of being human.

I encourage you to read not only Miller’s article but at least some of the many comments posted to get an idea of the many aspects of this issue.

Life Lessons in the Soapsuds

In a good companion to the previous article, Patrick Healy explains how television soap operas, a modern form of storytelling, helped shape his life:

THE November 1981 wedding of Luke and Laura on “General Hospital” was the moment when daytime soap operas broke out of the housewife’s living room and into the popular culture as never before. An unprecedented 30 million people tuned in to see no less than Elizabeth Taylor make a cameo appearance, as a vengeful widow cursing the young lovers in a doomsday tone shared by Greek gods, Shakespearean villains and soap characters. I was watching too, a 10-year-old who rationalized that I wasn’t out playing football because my sitter wanted company in front of the television.

In truth soaps were my secret shame by then, offering both an escape from real life and a mirror where I saw — for the first time — my own repressed feelings given voice by characters who were more fearless, shrewd and thin than I was.

He describes how watching these fictional, if melodramatic, characters helped him come to better understand himself and his life.

The Beauty of the Printed Book

This article just might make you want to take a trip to Amsterdam to see “The Printed Book: A Visual History,” an exhibition running through May 13 at the Special Collections department of the University of Amsterdam.

Some things seem to designed to do their jobs perfectly, and the old-fashioned book is one. What else could be quite as efficient at packaging so many thousands of words in a form, which is sufficiently sturdy to protect them, yet so small and light that it can be carried around to be read whenever its owner wishes? The pages, type, binding and jacket of a traditional printed book do all of the above, as well as giving its designer just enough scope to make the result look beautiful, witty or intriguing.

Obama honors achievements in arts, humanities

President Barack Obama on Monday honored several artists, writers and organizations for their contributions to the nation, and pledged to make the arts and humanities a priority for as long as he is in the White House.

Accessories boost light, sound and feel of e-readers and tablets

A guide to accessories available for your Nook, Kindle, Kobo Touch, Sony Reader, iPad, Kindle Fire, or Nook Tablet. Items include reading lights, screen cleaners, audio enhancements, and stands.

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