Random Ruminations #6

A New Thack(eray) on the Dumbing Down of Reading and Culture... Or Just Rewrite the Guy


Faith Literature

A New Thack(eray) on the Dumbing Down of Reading and Culture

In a recent Facebook post, Joe Bottum commented on a 1915 lecture in which the speaker threw around multiple literary allusions to William Makepeace Thackeray’s characters as if they were obvious to everyone. Truth is, a lot of them probably were.

Bottum’s observations on “the decay of Thackeray” note that he’s gone from being on the A-List of the British Literature canon to… gone. Bottum notes we’ve “turned away harder” from him than any other previously canonical writer.

That made me start thinking: maybe because a child today couldn’t read Thackeray. Let me provide an example. As a high schooler (1973-77), I decided to read a “great novel” every summer. My sister went to college 13 years earlier, so I had her books in the attic for ready pickings. It must have been the end of freshman year when I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (OK, I’ve always had a moralist’s interests).

I started my children on the “Great Classics Abridged” and they enjoyed them, getting the major literary allusions (e.g., Robinson Crusoe and Friday). But I’ll admit: I thought of giving my youngest the unadulterated Scarlet Letter, leafed through the first few pages, and concluded he’d probably spent more time with a dictionary than the book. Patience is not a virtue among young readers. My middle son’s critique of Crime and Punishment was “another Russian bellyache by a writer with too long nights and too much paper.”

I’m not even going to propose my sophomore year summer book, Last of the Mohicans.

Let me compare that with another memory. Because my father’s family lived four hours away in Connecticut, I learned early to write to my Aunt Jean, who regularly wrote back. I have some of those letters, along with those to my father.

I wish a young person today could write like her. Aunt Jean basically attended school through eighth grade, maybe a touch of high school, i.e., she probably finished school in 1930. A college graduate today wouldn’t manage some of her correspondence.

When I started writing essays for NOR, I was introduced to WordPress as the platform into which I should insert text. In addition to making the text ready for posting, it also offers various editorial services, including a “readability” assessment. I regularly get a frowny face from “readability,” am told I am “difficult” or “very difficult” to read. At first, I took it seriously. But then I dumped it. I’d get a smiley face if I reduced things to “See Dick run! Run! Run! Run!” (No sentence with more than 20 words or passive voice!) I won’t, because I think NOR readers find value in intellectual argument.

We’ve dumbed down reading and our culture. One last story, with a Church angle. In second grade, we had the First Communion Baltimore Catechism. We had lessons (even pictures), questions, and answers. We were expected to have a given lesson’s questions down for next Monday. I liked it.

In third grade catechism, the nuns had moved to the Sadlier series. No questions, no even real ideas, just stories and pep talks and mental cotton candy. The good Felician I had saw I was frustrated, but couldn’t abandon the stipulated text, so she went in the closet and gave me an old book, “Bible Stories for Children,” which was a “Bible Classics Abridged” version of the Old Testament, along with pictures and questions. She told me to read the lesson I wanted and we could talk about it after the next class.

That book opened my eyes to terra incognita, the Old Testament. (Yes, John, there was more in the OT than the creation story!) I’m grateful to Sister for that exposure, and I regret so many kids’ time was wasted with the catechetical equivalent of “See Peter run! Run! Run! Run!”

Which is why they can’t read Thackeray either.


Or Just Rewrite the Guy

Of course, another way to deal with language illiteracy is just to rewrite the author. But that usually doesn’t mean just dumbing down language, a kind of reverse-thesaurus. Rather, it’s often changing ideas.

That controversy erupted earlier this year with efforts to “edit” Roald Dahl’s books. The edits didn’t just sanitize Dahl’s own language, now deemed “offensive.” (Mark Twain is frequently on that road). They extended to literary-guilt-by-association, e.g., a Dahl reference to Kipling was replaced by one to Jane Austen.

Now, in my summer reading days, I attempted Jane and, to adapt a phrase applied to a French film director, I found her about as exciting as “watching paint dry on a wall.” But she’s in. If you’re looking for the nearest Jane Austen Reading Circle, one clue is to find a street with lawn signs starting with “In this house we believe…”

The Dahl censorship suffered pushback, but the humanities are now infested by censors. (I wondered what happened to all those unemployed text trimmers who, when the Iron Curtain fell, found themselves out of work). Their other trick is to turn the literary canon “transgressive.” Commenting somewhat satirically on Shakespeare, Yale lecturer Drew Lichtenberg counsels not to fixate on what we traditionally have but to discover the less-known Bard, e.g., the writer of what might be taken as a homoerotic sonnet, because “if you’re looking for sex, gore and the unspeakable absurdity of existence in Shakespeare, you will definitely find it. That’s the genius of Shakespeare. And it’s precisely what makes his work worth studying.”

Producers have, of course, busily been rewriting original texts for years, ostensibly to demonstrate their own “creativity” (or, more often, lack thereof). Do a cursory read of plays on offer in Manhattan, Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off Broadway; rare is the original work, but “reinterpretations” abound. This summer, DC’s Kennedy Center led off the Fourth with a “female, minority, break the sexual binary” staging of 1776. Sorry, but I’m not inclined to pay triple digit ticket prices on PC revisionism masquerading as a take on history. No wonder the theater is dying. And the solution of these iconoclasts? Make the taxpayer subsidize it [see here]. News flash to Isaac Butler: contrary to your claims, your empty audiences aren’t the work of Jesse Helms and Jerry Falwell. They’re just not into you or your dreck anymore.

Remember: intellectual “transgressivism” stands on its head. What the Left likes is salaciously promoted as “transgressive,” what it dislikes is censored. So, “good transgressivism” is commended and shoved down your throat; “bad transgressivism,” censored and hidden. Up is down and down is up. And you thought only Humpty Dumpty was cracked.


Translation Lost

The more common phrase is “lost in translation,” but that presupposes a translation was done. My concern is rather that translations aren’t being done.

I’ve been around Catholic theology long enough to remember how publishers regularly brought German, French, and Italian theologians to American audiences. There seems to be a lot less of that, and fewer references by theologians in the United States to non-U.S. sources.

Some theologians have tried to justify this state of affairs by claiming Catholic theology in the United States has “grown up,” neither needing nor feeling the need to “lean” on foreign thinkers. I’d argue that in a Church that calls itself “Catholic” (i.e., universal), parochial navel-gazing is never healthy.

I’ll voice two of my own gripes. In 2018, on the 50th anniversary of Humanae vitae, one foreign bishop wrote a defense of the encyclical: Michel Aupetit of Paris. His thinking was impressive and I translated the book. As far as I can tell, nobody else seemed interested. One small Catholic publisher reached out to me to express interest, only to string me along for more than a year and then go silent, especially after Aupetit’s resignation amidst disputed circumstances.

Theology in Germany today is largely bizarre, but there are very good things still appearing in France, some in Italy, and a fair amount of solid stuff in Spain which, unlike Latin America, was not infected by various “liberationist” modernities. It’s not coming out in English.

My second gripe: the Slavic world is utterly closed to Americans. Solid, orthodox theology is still written in Poland, but it never sees the eyes of English readers. The late Ján Chrzysostom Korec, former Archbishop of Nitra, Slovakia, practically wrote a theological library of his own, but only his history of the repression of the Church in Czechoslovakia has come out in English, from a tiny publisher. Croatia also offers some interesting pickings.

Lots of translation is lost.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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