When I was a little kid, we had a deck for a special card game called Authors. It was designed for a Go Fish type matching game. There were four cards for each author, each with the name of a different famous work by him or her. It was pretty simple, but even as a kid, I thought it was an odd concept. Except for the Dickens card (which may or may not have had A Christmas Carol), we little kids didn’t know who any of these people were, much less what they had written. We had no idea what the titles on the cards were about. But they did sound like interesting titles, and the information did stick. Play this game with your kids, and they will at least possess certain kinds of general information.
The thing is, I still haven’t read all the works in the card game. Mostly it’s the New Englanders I’ve dissed, even though we covered them extensively in English classes. Sad but true.
1. Louisa May Alcott: I still haven’t completed reading anything by her. My mother did wake me up once in childhood to watch a late night showing of the Katherine Hepburn version of Little Women. I was enjoying it for a while, until main characters started dropping like flies. Criminy! This is not a comfort chick flick story to me, people! I did try her Gothic book, but man, that was dire. Re: Authors, do people actually read those other books?
I did watch the opera version, though. I’m okay with major characters dying of terminal illness in operas.
Possible Replacement: I read Little House on the Prairie books, which were much tougher and didn’t have so much pining over boys, although they had the disadvantage of not being set in the Civil War. I also read Emily Dickinson, which is much more the sort of female New Englander for me.
2. Charles Dickens. I really like A Christmas Carol, and I really like a lot of his side works. But words cannot describe my dislike of all the Dickens books assigned us in school: Oliver Twist, Great Expectations (Yay, South Park version!), and A Tale of Two Cities (which I refused to read). I know Chesterton loved him. I know his many virtues. But unless he’s in comedic or short story or non-fiction mode, we just don’t get along.
3. Washington Irving. I don’t think I’ve even seen Tales of a Traveler, unless over at Project Gutenberg, though I did sorta flip through The Alhambra. His history of Spain is really, really biased, although his framing device has the goodness to reveal this right away. But although I’ve read “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, I can’t say I really like them. I’m not really into horror or horror-comedy as a rule.
4. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Pretty much ditto, although I have more patience for him.
I could go on, but I haven’t found pictures of our Authors set. I’m sure it’s true for most of them, though. (I did find pictures of a Science Fiction Authors set. I’d read most of those. Maybe half of the Mystery Authors.)
The funny thing is, I’ve read and enjoyed any number of classics not assigned in school. I started Shakespeare early, thanks to my parents’ leftover college textbooks, and even studying Romeo and Juliet twice couldn’t make me hate him. I like pretty much all the major and minor poets until after World War I. I really enjoyed Moby Dick — it’s a hallucinatory techno-thriller, written by a natural blogger who loves to digress. I read Boswell’s Life of Johnson until my eyes started to cross. The unabridged Don Quixote was a bit of a slog for a sixth grader, but things do happen that aren’t all despairdespairdespair. And nobody made me sit in English class and discuss What Things Meant.
(Yes, I dislike close reading. No doubt this is some kind of moral failing. I’m okay with discussions of why the author did this instead of something else, but very rarely did we get to discuss books in English class in terms of writing skills and service of the story and Why It Works.)
But most of the books assigned in school are depressing, depressing, depressing. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. (Didn’t make it past the first chapter.) Earth Abides. (One of the top ten worst sf novels ever!!) Stupid Catcher in the Rye. Stupid Stranger in a Strange Land. That dang Bear story by Faulkner. (Also skipped.) To Kill a Mockingbird. (Okay, not stupid or hideous, but not exactly enjoyable.) Crime and Punishment. (At least when it gets into the investigation thriller part, there’s some relief.) We don’t teach schoolkids to enjoy wit and depth; we teach them that literature is about the mute endurance of literary suffering and despair.
Fortunately, I was a voracious reader before, after, and during my English classes, so even the horrors of assigned reading couldn’t convince me that all books were dull, stale, and unprofitable.
My major problem with English classes is that they don’t seem to do what the label says. If we just want kids to familiarize themselves with age-appropriate parts of the canon of literature, why don’t we just do that? Give the kids a big selection of selections to choose from, of various lengths, on various subjects. Encourage them to poke through and read the interesting bits. Don’t forget to have days when people read out loud. Make the kiddies learn poems by heart and recite them, alone or together. If kids have read lots of poems, with no pressure, they won’t be so mystified by reading a certain poem and being asked about what it means.
Then, if we want to teach close reading or other literary analysis skills, why don’t we just do that? “Okay, kids, we’re studying close reading today. Our victim is Story X.” That way, kids won’t hate the story; they’ll just hate the technique. Or like the technique, maybe. A lot of people do.
But studying literature, and making kids forget how to read and enjoy in favor of study only — that’s what’s been slowly killing the literature market in this country for the last fifty years.
The other advantage is that this would leave more study time for subjects that really require it, like languages.
UPDATE: A picture of the same Whitman Authors edition that we had! Isn’t it beautiful? Actually, I find that I have read most of this other stuff, except with three of Cooper and a couple of Scott.
I can see where you could definitely use more than one set of authors, though. Or group authors themselves in sets of four, as some variants do. There are a lot of great authors missing.