Monday, November 22, 2004

Autodidacts among "the masses"

I've just read an amazing article, "Classics in the Slums" by Jonathan Rose (link via Teleread). If you're a book-lover, you ought to read it and admire what amazing intellectual curiosity drove 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century British working class autodidacts to discover and devour classic, intellectual, literary books:

Will Crooks (b. 1852), a cooper living in extreme poverty in East London, once spent tuppence on a secondhand Iliad, and was dazzled: "What a revelation it was to me! Pictures of romance and beauty I had never dreamed of suddenly opened up before my eyes. I was transported from the East End to an enchanted land. It was a rare luxury for a working lad like me just home from work to find myself suddenly among the heroes and nymphs of ancient Greece."
While studying Greek philosophy at night, Joseph Keating performed one of the toughest and worst-paid jobs in the mine: shoveling out tons of refuse. One day, he was stunned to hear a co-worker sigh, "Heaven from all creatures hides the book of fate." "You are quoting Pope," Keating exclaimed. "Ayh," replied his companion, "me and Pope do agree very well."

And just look at these statistics:

Even more impressive is a 1940 survey of reading among pupils at nonacademic high schools, where education terminated at age 14. This sample represented something less than the working-class norm: the best students had already been skimmed off and sent to academic secondary schools on scholarship. Those who remained behind were asked which books they had read over the past month, excluding required texts. Even in this below-average group, 62 percent of boys and 84 percent of girls had read some poetry: their favorites included Kipling, Longfellow, Masefield, Blake, Browning, Tennyson, and Wordsworth. Sixty-seven percent of girls and 31 percent of boys had read plays, often something by Shakespeare. All told, these students averaged six or seven books per month. Compare that with the recent NEA study Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, which found that in 2002, 43.4 percent of American adults had not read any books at all, other than those required for work or school. Only 12.1 percent had read any poetry, and only 3.6 percent any plays.

Welsh mining towns had libraries, the books being paid for by subscriptions out of the miners' meagre wages; members of the working class could go to night classes held at the university level that gave no recognition, only holding out the enticement of knowledge for knowledge's sake. The point of the article is that the classics aren't just for academics; they are for everyone; that literary historians should not only be concentrating on the reactions of academic readers, but also the "ordinary" reader - though these people weren't ordinary at all.


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