Friday, June 9, 2017
"Just because a book is old that doesn't make it interesting." This is something we say nearly every day to people selling their used books. Not strictly true, that sentence. It's an oversimplification offered to explain why we won't be buying most family Bibles, sets of James Whitcomb Riley, or library-bound issues of Popular Mechanics. The reader may think at least one of those sounds interesting, and indeed, I would not necessarily disagree, but who is going to buy any such thing and what are the odds that that buyer will happen into the bookstore where I work in search of same? That's the point. Still, unsaleable isn't always the same as uninteresting, at least for the fifteen minutes it may take to thumb through a book abandoned in our donations pile.
Witness: English Literature (Four Years), in the Oxford Review Series, by K. W. Wright, M. A., of De Witt Clinton High School. M. D. Ryan, M. A., of Bay Ridge High, et al., and "All of New York City", published by Oxford Book Company, Educational Publishers, New York, 1929.
Great libraries burn, rare books are lost, classics turn to dust, but someone kept... this. Why? There is a history here that we will never know. No one wrote their name in it. Nothing to say how it came to Seattle, presumably from New York, and across the Used Books buying desk.
I picked from the pile because the obvious age of the thing did indeed make it interesting, at least in passing. When I opened it to the table of contents, I was intrigued by two things: the date of publication, and the list of the works thought necessary to review for a high school student in 1929. It starts on page one with The Odyssey -- still unsurprising -- and then goes on to the following categories of literature: Novels, Dramas, Essays, Poetry, and Oratory, before ending with "Recent Examination Papers." It was not the obvious subjects then that proved of interest, but rather the works listed in each as necessary for review. Here are the novels:
A Tale of Two Cities
The House of Seven Gables
The last three were still on my high school syllabus roughly fifty years later. No idea if any but the Dickens are still being studied in high school.
All of Drama turned out to be Shakespeare:
As You Like It
A Midsummer Night's Dream
The Merchant of Venice
Again, much the list as I knew it in high school, but for As You Like It which was swapped out by then for Romeo and Juliet, on the assumption presumably that the kids would "identify" more with the doomed teenagers than with the witty lovers.
But really, it was the Essays that got me:
Sketch Book (which proved to be Washington Irving)
Sir Roger De Coverley Papers (Addison and Steele)
Carlyle's Essay on Burns
Macaulay's Life of Samuel Johnson
My kind of list, but I would bet not one of these has been mentioned in an American high school since my parents graduated in the '40s.
At first glance, I thought I might want this book for brief things to read aloud. The format seemed to suggest excerpts from the essays etc., but no. According to the preface, this is a book of "concise but comprehensive summaries" presented to "refresh the memory of books long since read." So, not an anthology as I'd assumed. No, this little volume was basically an early example of Cliffs Notes, a study guide or crib for high school students facing exams.
Here, for example, from Poetry, subsection Keats, rather than To a Nightingale, this:
"... Man is destined to death; but not the nightingale -- she is ageless. As she sang in the days of Ruth, and before the magic casements of faery land, she sings today. In the midst of his revery, he is called back to the realities of life, finding that the illusions of fancy are not so permanent as the heart might wish."
Indeed. Nice. Still, one can almost hear the flies buzzing about the remains of the teacher's sack-lunch in the waste-paper-basket, no?
There is surprisingly little quoted, even in the Poetry section, even of Shakespeare in Drama. All is brief summary; plot, theme, point, act and scene. It is all seemingly in order and, read to no better purpose than idle curiosity, weird. What was this meant to do for the examination student? How did this help?
This stuff is not sometimes without a sort of borrowed glory, as in, "Irving rejoices in the lingering holiday customs recalling ancient English life. They hold together the traditions of their country as ivy supports the crumbling cathedral ruin..." But more often it is just the straight-forward statement of the obvious, "Two poems, To the Cuckoo and To a Skylark, are among the many which are suggestive of Wordsworth's love of birds." Why, sure.
As it turns out, only three Americans included: Irving, on England, please note, and, in Oratory, Washington's Farewell Address and Webster's first Bunker Hill Oration -- the remaining selection for summary being Burke's Speech on Conciliation, so America if not by an American. No Poe, no Dickinson, no Twain.
The only stumper for me was in Poetry where "Sohrab and Rustum" is described, seemingly without the need to so much as mention Matthew Arnold's name. Had to look that one up.
Perhaps the most interesting bit in the book proved to be the actual exam questions at the end, few if any of which would seem to have a damned thing to do with what came before. The exam, and the book, closes with the following:
6. Write a composition of 250 to 300 words on one of the topics below:
My candidate for 1956
Music for many moods
The importance of student government
Sports coverage on TV (or the radio)
The manners of young peopkle
Near East trouble spot
Securing more teachers
Thev role of the vice president
The city in early dawn
The pleasures of convalescence
The surprising appearance of television and the 1956 election tells me that at least the sample examination is clearly of a later date than the title page leads one to believe. Beyond that, how does "flood control" figure in, say, "The Poems of Milton" or The Merchant of Venice?! Come to that, where in any of the above might one insert that fascinating business of Wordsworth and the birds?
Nevertheless, I remain impressed with the idea that all the literature described was assumed to be familiar to anyone in America, let alone a high school student, even in 1929. And I am even a bit envious of the graduates of the prestigious De Witt Clinton High School, circa the day, who would seem to have had Hazlitt off by heart.
Otherwise, this poor thing reminds me of two things:
First, how very fragile a thing is literacy,
And, nobody ever went broke reducing literature to pap.
And now to contemplate the pleasures of convalescence and the city in early dawn.