Wednesday 8 July 2020

An honourable profession

Katherine Rundell is a Fifty Pound Fellow [for Eng Lit] at All Souls' College, Oxford. She also writes children's books. At the end of last year, Bloomsbury published another book by her Why you should read children's books, even though you are so old and wise. Well, she would say that, wouldn't she? And although it's bound as a book, looks like a book, it more of a pamphlet at ~6,000 words. But none the worse for that and I'm glad this memoir is out there and indeed glad that one copy is in my left hand now.  It was one of two books which were hand-carried, by a circuitous route, to me from Dau.I the Librarian for my birthday last month. Because of its length you can read it through in a sitting; and travel from a dusty public library in Harare, Zimbabwe to the second star to the right, and straight on 'til morning.  Which as any reader of children's books will know, and love, are Peter Pan's directions to Neverland.

I've mentioned Francis Spufford The Child That Books Built before: his memoir is about learning to read [he started with The Hobbit and it was dead slow for the first many pages] and then becoming a bookie-monster devouring everything that had pages and was within arm's reach. Rundell also mentions him and his book with approval. And she also quotes Martin Amis with less appro "People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book. I say, If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book". Which is just the sort of magisterial dismissal you'd expect from a self-regarding pretentious git like Martin Amis.

I was a late reader, but spent my teenage years ploughing through a school library which was heavy on  Penguin Classics  and light on froth. Although I read that too when I could find it. Heck, like Somerset Maugham, I read telephone directories, although that was a bit later. There is little to be gained from reading Ulysses at the age of 16; or Augustine's City of God. Because some life experience is necessary to find any ding-dong resonance there. But I was really glad that I found Mervyn Peake's fantasy Gormenghast and held that close to my heart while everyone else was doing Lord of the Rings. LOTR was the Harry Potter of my day and I read it through, twice, but I'm sorry I was too early to get off on the films instead: because there are chunks where Tolkien disappears through his own ring into tedious obscurity. Do we need Tom Bombadill? We do not.

As an Eng Lit academic  - an expert on John Donne, no less - Rundell's book is leavened with wit and literary references "As a child, I had no illusions that children were sweet: children, I knew from my furious heart, were frequently nasty, brutish and short". But she admits to cutting her readers some slack on the vocabulary side: facade, abundance and renunciation make it to the page but adamantine ends up on the cutting room floor. It's like me using the word "salient" in lectures at The Institute on the assumption that my read-nothing students had built up the same vocabulary as my over-educated self. Cutting young readers some slack is not synonymous for dumbing it down to reading age 9. It means thinking a bit about word-choice and not creating an impenetrable clever-me long-word blizzard. Children are quite able to process-or-skip new words as they are encountered. Between the age of 2 and the age of 12, humans acquire a vocabulary of at least 15,000 words. That's a rate of about 5-a-day. If you only read them, you blow the sound of some words. Like the same Dau.I indignantly denouncing her sister for fengeing [feign] sleep in the back of the car.

Should you read children's books? Absolutely, with or without pictures.

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