The shelving suggestion on the back cover of The Art of Reading categorizes this book as a gift book or as belonging to the category of literature. The second category is completely appropriate. The first is puzzling. Gift books, in my experience, tend to be light reading; there is seldom a need to have a dictionary handy when reading them as there is this gift book. Two of the cover blurbs use the word “erudite,” and that describes not only the content of the book but could also be used to qualify potential readers.
I wish I had finished and paid better attention to all of the assigned reading in high school and college. I wish I had taken a class in philosophy. Either might have helped prepare me to grasp Damon Young’s arguments on the first reading. His writing is clear enough, but it asks the reader to draw on prior knowledge that I simply do not have. The premise, though, is straightforward. The art of reading is empowered by disciplines that the reader must bring to each work: curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance, and justice. Young cites examples from literature, mostly twentieth- and twenti-first century works, of how these disciplines are applied.
Some passages are surprisingly confessional. Consider this passage from the chapter on temperance:
More than a third of the fiction archived on my tablet is from the _____ franchise. All purchased over eight months, and most deleted once finished. There was a criminal tidiness to this: cleaning up the scene of the crime. The transgression was not in the genre, but in my reading of it. Buying sequel after sequel, pausing for Earl Gray but not for thought, I felt addicted, and this habit was ugly to me.
Through such writing Young reveals his own literary misdeeds and encourages his readers to admit theirs. Thoughtful and erudite readers will enjoy this book.
The most recent book I completed before reading Wild Things was Damon Young’s The Art of Reading. Several of the promotional comments from the cover of The Art of Reading use the word “erudite” to describe the author’s approach to and presentation of his subject matter. The same word could be used to describe Bruce Handy’s approach and presentation for Wild Things. The biographical and historical information he presents is substantial and obviously well researched.
The book itself is largely a pleasure to read. References to Portnoy’s Complaint and a supposedly erotic story from Maurice Sendak are a bit disturbing in a book about children’s literature. More so the references and quotations from some of the fairy tales collected by the brothers Grimm, but such is the history of children’s literature.
The adult’s eye that Handy casts on the classics of contemporary children’s literature uncovers such gems as this observation about The Cat in the Hat: “Every reader of The Cat in the Hat will feel that the story revolves around a piece of withheld information: what private demons or desires compelled this mother to leave two young children home all day, with the front door unlocked, under the supervision of a fish?” The follow-up observation about The Cat in the Hat Comes Back is equally funny: “Sally and her brother have been abandoned once again by their mother who, blithe as ever, has skipped off ‘down to the town for the day.’ Worse, she has added Dickensenian cruelty to her arsenal of bad parenting skills by forcing the siblings to dig out the house from what looks to have been several feet of snow.”
Not all of children’s literature is filled with such fun that is funny. In the final chapter Handy discusses several books—E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web in the most detail—that deal with the subject of death. He cites White’s description of Charlotte’s Web as being an “appreciative” book and not a book that is intended to convey a moral of some sort. Wild Things may be the same as well, and that is Handy’s aspiration for it. His research and his years of reading children’s books to his own children have given him an appreciation for the genre, and he conveys that quite effectively.
I have two minor quibbles with this book. The first is with the use of the word “Joy” in the title. I realize that titles are not always assigned by the author, so maybe my beef is not with Handy but with the publisher. After having read this book I will certainly have a different approach to the children’s books that I read to my grandchildren and others, but the approach will not be one of greater joy. Joy might come to a child who learns that Wilbur is forever spared from the butcher’s knife, or Knufflebunny is safe and sound after all. My experience will be one of pleasure at knowing what the author’s life was like and understanding the difficulties that the author had to overcome, but not of one of joy.
The second concerns his chapter on C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia. Handy treats Lewis and his work with the utmost respect, but he takes pains to state that he will not reread the books as an adult. It seems that he wants to keep faith, the faith that Lewis is hoping to kindle in his readers, at arm’s length. In 2018 it is understandable that people want to keep Evangelical Christianity at arm’s length or even further away, but I am concerned that Handy uses the opportunity afforded by this book to model such avoidance.
I did not read many of the classics of children’s literature, or have them read to me, as a child. I have made a point of including them in my regular reading as opportunities arise. My children and grandchildren have also provided many opportunities to read them. My sense of affection for Horton Hears a Who, for instance, is therefore different than it might be if I had grown up with such books. If you grew up with Dr. Seuss and Beverly Cleary, or if you are reading some of their stories for the first time as an adult, Bruce Handy’s appreciation of them is worth your consideration.
In my two most recent reviews, for The Art of Reading and Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, the word “erudite” is used to describe the authors and their work. Alan Jacobs looks at erudition from a slightly different direction. He mentions erudition as the goal of a reading program that includes books from some authority’s list of must-read books. “The conviction,” he writes, is that “you just need a bit of guidance—a single volume’s worth of recommended strategies and tactics—and you can take it from there, following your own path to erudition.” (pp. 3–4)
While he mildly disparages the notion that any single authority can prescribe a reading program that will deliver this erudition, Jacobs clearly believes that it is possible for individuals to read their way to greater wisdom. If wisdom is not the goal, simple delight is not a bad alternative. The key is to read “at whim,” and not because of some constraint or sense of guilt.
Interestingly, especially because he is a professor of English at a prestigious private college, Alan Jacobs suggests that reading should be decoupled from education. “Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about . . . skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.” (p. 114)
What does Jacobs write about reading in “an age of distraction”? He cites Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows in describing how our attention spans and ability to read for long stretches have been affected by our exposure to the Internet. Although I don’t recall any suggestions for how to accomplish these goals, Jacobs suggests that we cultivate habits of reading slowly, reading in quiet spaces, reading in community, and reading critically to enhance our enjoyment of and ability to absorb what we read. He returns to the theme of reading at whim, of reading things that we truly want to read and not things that we feel constrained to read, as a strategy for improving our enjoyment of reading.
Alan Jacobs enters the discussion of ebooks versus printed books in a chapter entitled “True Confessions.” He comes out in favor of ebook readers, partly because he believes being able to store and carry multiple large books on an Amazon Kindle restored his own love of reading. In the same chapter he suggests leaving behind the devices that connect us to the Internet and its many distractions when we enter our reading places. The original Kindle (and Nook, for that matter) might have been single-purpose devices, but later versions include Web browsers and other apps that are still active anywhere a WIFI connection is available. iPads have always been able to connect to the Internet.
Although footnotes adorn many pages, they are asides or explanatory notes and not references to sources. Instead, a chapter-by-chapter “Essay on Sources” is included at the end of the book. The sources are many and varied. The dates on the sources start in the fourteenth century and continue until 2009.
If you find yourself believing, as I have, that a truly literate person must have read most or all of the so-called Great Books, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction might just set you free from that belief and set you on a path to a more enjoyable reading life.
Thanks as always for stopping by!