You may have noticed – or perhaps not – that it’s a very long time since my last blogpost, but I came across this previously unpublished essay which I wrote several years ago then promptly forgot, so I thought I would share with you. It is really a reflection on the history of storytelling.

New Literacies and the Importance of Narrative

“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”

Ancient proverb

 

Think of what happens every time you meet a friend in the street, or in a bar, or when you speak on the telephone. You will almost certainly take it in turn to update the story of your life since the last time you met. The story may be embellished, or you may want to emphasise the more glamorous and exciting parts of it, but essentially you are updating the story of your life’s journey, and it is as much for your own benefit as that of the listener.

Will Eisner, the great American comic book writer puts it more eloquently when he says:

“The telling of a story lies deep in the social behaviour of human groups – ancient and modern. Stories are used to teach behaviour, to discuss morals and values, or to satisfy curiosity. They dramatize social relations and the problems of living, convey ideas or act out fantasies. The telling of a story requires skill.”

It is likely that oral storytelling has been around for as long as there has been human language, as ancient communities were  maintained and strengthened through stories that connected the past with the present and the future. Australian Aborigines did not have written languages until well into the 20th century but their songs, chants, legends, and stories constituted a rich oral literature, and, since the Aboriginal tribes had no common language, these creations were enormously diverse. Long unavailable to or misunderstood by non-Aboriginals, recent studies have suggested that this oral tradition was both subtle and complex.

Additionally, the oral literature of the Aborigines, as with other ancient cultures, is associated with non-verbal performance. Traditional song is very often associated with dance, and storytelling with gesture and mime. Stories are acted out in dramatic fashion; storytellers will traditionally announce who they are, where they come from, and what their relation to the story is, as though they are integral to the story as well as its messenger. They use the common devices of oral literature such as repetition and enumeration and formulaic expression. But they always take care with their songs and stories; they are as careful with imagery and symbolism, with the figures of speech, as they are with other aspects of ceremony.

 

Narrative IN learning/Narrative AS Learning

As teachers – and perhaps especially as English teachers – we are already aware of the importance of narrative, or storytelling, IN learning, but what I would like you to consider in the course of these few pages is the importance of narrative AS learning, the idea that all learning takes place through the creation and analysis of narrative, and that narrative is the vehicle by which we move towards an understanding of the world and attempt to explain it to each other, because after all, what is learning but an attempt to understand the world and all its mysteries?  If you accept this premise then you realise that every time you step into a classroom you are constructing a particular narrative for learning, a narrative which has infinite possibilities, and which will be understood to a greater or lesser degree by those young people for whose learning you have some responsibility. The extent to which they relate to, and understand that narrative, will depend on a number of factors, including the effectiveness of your communication skills, your ability to engage and to motivate them, and their own prior knowledge and experience, as well as cultural and family differences. In developing this understanding, you will also be supporting and nurturing their ability to construct and share their own stories with each other and with the rest of the world, as competently, as  confidently, and as creatively as possible.

The History of ‘Literature’

Before we consider the kinds of narrative and narrative media which are engaging us today, it is worth looking at the ways in which storytelling has developed through the ages, and whether in fact there is a limited number of story ‘types’. In his fascinating study of stories and storytelling, The Seven Basic Plots, the English journalist and author Christopher Booker sets out to examine a theory which had been suggested many times before, that there is a limited number of storylines in all of literature and that every story is a variation on one or more of these themes. Where Booker differs from many who had gone before him however, is that in examining his theory – and in a work that takes him over thirty years to complete – he reads extensively from literature covering several hundred years, and his texts include everything from the Greek classics and Shakespeare to the popular films of the late 20th Century, making very  little distinction between them in terms of quality or significance. In the introduction to this comprehensive study Booker talks about the significance of stories in our everyday lives:

“We spend a phenomenal amount of our lives following stories: telling them; listening to them; reading them; watching them being acted out on the television screen or in films or on a stage. They are far and away one of the most important features of our everyday existence….Not only do fictional stories play such a significant role in our lives, as novels or plays, film or operas, comic strips or TV ‘soaps’. Through newspapers or television, our news is presented to us in the form of ‘stories’. Our history books are largely made up of stories. Even much of our conversation is taken up with recounting the events of everyday life in the form of stories. These structured sequences of imagery are in fact the most natural way we know to describe almost everything which happens in our lives.”

Had The Seven Basic Plots been published even five years later than it was (it was published in 2004) the author might have added social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as the rapidly increasing number of blogs and bloggers, to his list of news sources,  as one of the consequences of the evolution of Web 2.0 technologies in the first decade of the 21st century was the phenomenon sometimes known as ‘citizen journalism’, whereby news events were being reported in ‘real time’ by anyone who happened to be present and had access to a smartphone and the internet. At the same time a decreasing number  people was content with passively receiving their ‘news’ from what had previously been regarded as reliable – often state-run –  sources, but were choosing instead to turn to turn to the growing army of online commentators for immediate information, and  becoming more likely to comment on or question the information they were receiving.

Having outlined his theory and named his seven plots, Booker devotes a whole chapter – the fourth and final part of the book, entitled Why We Tell Stories – to an examination of the deep psychological need for narrative in our lives:

“One of the deepest human needs met by our faculty for imagining stories is our desire for an explanatory and descriptive picture of how the world began and how we came to be in it. There is no culture in the world which does not possess at least one great story to account for how the world came into being, and all such stories have certain things in common.”

To put it simply, according to Booker the overriding desire for sharing stories, common to every culture across the globe and across the centuries, is the desire to find an explanation for the conundrum that is human existence. How did we come to be here, and what is our purpose? At least until the answers to these questions are found, the need for stories and storytelling will never diminish.

More than One Way to Tell a Story

Very few people would dispute that there are some texts which are universally recognised as ‘classics’, some of the works of Shakespeare being obvious examples. What educated person could regard their education as complete without some experience of the works of the greatest writer in the history of the English language, whose lines have entertained, enlightened and moved us to tears for over four hundred years? Yet no other writer in history has had their texts re-worked in so many ways, from stage to film, musical to rap, ballet to opera, film to graphic novel. In 2010 members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in association with Mudlark, an internet and TV production company, presented a version of the play Romeo and Juliet entitled Such Tweet Sorrow as an improvised real-time series of tweets on the micro-blogging site Twitter, during which the performers engaged with the audience as well as each other, using YouTube to communicate images and video text.

What endures through all of these re-workings are two things: the beauty of the language and engagement with the narrative; but while the poetry and the flowing prose is undoubtedly Shakespeare’s, the story almost always isn’t. Versions of the tale of ‘star-crossed lovers’ for example had been entertaining readers and audiences for centuries before Shakespeare ‘borrowed’ it from Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem – itself translated from the original Italian – and embellished it for the Elizabethan stage to mixed reviews (the diarist Samuel Pepys called it ‘a play of itself the worst that I ever heard in my life”).  

The attraction of the narrative of course isn’t simply that we find it entertaining or ‘dramatic’, but that we are able to recognise in it some universal truths about the world and about ourselves, whether that truth is about age, death, love, lust, family obligations, gender roles, loyalty, or any of the narrative’s numerous other themes. To put it simply, it has many lessons to teach us about the meaning of life.

The narrative of Romeo and Juliet itself dates back at least as far as Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe in the first century AD, a story of forbidden love which contains parallels to Shakespeare’s story: the lovers’ parents despise each other, and Pyramus falsely believes his lover Thisbe is dead. The Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, written in the 3rd century, also contains several similarities to the play, including the separation of the lovers, and a potion that induces a deathlike sleep, but the earliest known version of the Romeo and Juliet tale which we might recognise from the events of  Shakespeare’s play is the story of Mariotto and Gianozza by Masuccio Salernitano, in the 33rd novel of his Il Novellino published in 1476. As Christopher Brooker would have it, Romeo and Juliet ‘unfolds precisely through the five stages of the tragic cycle’ and thereby fulfils the criteria for one of the seven basic plots.

As the example of Romeo and Juliet amply demonstrates, there is more than one way to tell a story, but how many are there exactly? In 1947 the French poet, novelist and mathematician Raymond Queneau made a humorous attempt to answer the question in Exercises in Style, a collection of short narratives in which the author retells an apparently unremarkable story in 99 different ways. Standing on a crowded bus at midday, somewhere in Paris, the narrator observes one man accusing another of jostling him. When a seat becomes vacant, the first man takes it. Later, the same man is observed in another part of the city with a friend who is advising him on the style of his overcoat.

Using a variety of styles ranging from the sonnet form through cockney rhyming slang to mathematical formulae, Queneau’s work is both comical and experimental, a tour of literary forms and a demonstration of playful invention. The text became a cult classic and was the inspiration behind a similar experiment more than half a century later, when the graphic novelist and comic illustrator Matt Madden, in homage to Queneau, set out to explore the same idea using visual narratives in 99 Ways to Tell a Story. In a fascinating series of drawings which questions the very definition of narrative, Madden stretches the limits of the comics genre by telling the same story from different narrative perspectives and in a range of styles including maps, graphs, ‘Public Service Announcement’ and even ‘Paranoid Religious Tract’.

Experimenting with very short stories in the way that Queneau and Madden have done is a fun and engaging way to teach young  learners about narrative, and because the basic plot has to be as simple as possible, it is an inclusive exercise – everyone can try it. Similar success can also be found in setting young people challenges such as the Six-Word Story (where the writer has to compose a powerful story in only six words), the Six-Picture Story (the same exercise using six randomly selected pictures) and the 50-word mini-saga, in which writers have to compose a story of epic proportions in exactly fifty words, not a word more and not a word less.

Many educators still believe that there is a body of texts which are recognised as being at the core of our educational and cultural development, and which ideally should have been read by every child by the time they leave school, a principle implied by the expression ‘texts recognised as having enduring social and artistic value’ in the Literacy strand of the Australian curriculum. However, if the texts which ‘are chosen because they are judged to have potential for enriching the lives of students’ are to be chosen by the students as well as the teacher, which I believe they should be, then we also have to accept that they will not always fit our own particular definition of ‘literature’, so perhaps that is a definition which is also going to have to change over time, as we broaden our definition of ‘texts’. The issue is further complicated by the fact that in a rapidly-changing media environment, it becomes more difficult to predict which texts will have enduring social and artistic value, and the inclusion of ‘multimodal representations’ and ‘print and digital contexts’ recognises  that the shift from printed to electronic texts is irreversible. How long traditional (i.e. paper) books will survive is a matter of conjecture and, for some, of great concern. David Shields, writer-in-residence at the University of Washington, and author of the award-winning Reality Hunger, is unequivocal:

“The only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to wire texts in to this (the universal) library. The reign of the copy is no match for the bias of technology. All new works will be born digital, and they will flow into the library as you might add more words to a long story. In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail. On this screen, now visible to a billion people, the technology of search will transform isolated books with the universal library of all human knowledge.”

Concerns about the shift from print to online and on-screen reading have been voiced since access to the internet became commonplace, and a leading voice of those most concerned is Nicholas Carr, whose influential essay ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ appeared in Atlantic magazine in August 2008. Ironically, its influence was largely thanks to the power of the world wide web, and Google in particular. Carr writes: ‘For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded…But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.’

Carr’s concerns were not new, even in 2008. A year earlier, in the remarkable Proust and the Squid – The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Professor Maryann Wolf compared the current seismic shift from a largely written culture to one dominated by visual images and massive streams of digital information, to a similar cultural upheaval just over two thousand years ago, when Socrates warned that the creation of the Greek alphabet, and subsequently the written word, would have disastrous consequences for learning, as he firmly believed that it was through spoken discourse and the exercise of memory that real learning took place and knowledge was acquired.

Socrates’ concerns had three aspects. First, he contended that oral and written words play very different roles in an individual’s intellectual life. Second, he regarded the fact that the written word reduced the importance of memory as nothing short of catastrophic; and finally he warned that oral language had a unique role in the development of morality and virtue in society. In other words, he felt that writing was just plain bad and likely to lead to corruption, especially of the youth of Athens. (It is interesting to note that at the same time he was seen by the city elders as corrupting the minds of the wealthy aristocrats’ sons with his revolutionary views and unorthodox ethics.) It should also be remembered of course that we wouldn’t know any of this, but for the fact that Socrates’ words were being recorded in writing by that young rascal Plato, who obviously knew a thing or two about the future.

Wolf draws parallels between Socrates’ fears for the consequences of writing, and the effect of these ‘endless streams of digital information’ on the evolution of the reading brain, and like Carr, wonders whether ‘the rapid, almost instantaneous presentation of expansive information threatens the more time-demanding formation of in-depth knowledge.’ However, having examined the evidence in some detail she reaches the more optimistic conclusion that the two are not mutually exclusive, that one will not replace the other, but rather the brain will adapt and learn a new set of skills to add to our intellectual repertoire. In other words, our definition of reading doesn’t so much need to change, as it needs to expand to take account of the changing nature of our texts.

Comics and Picture Books

Maryann Wolf’s ‘culture dominated by visual images’, while undoubtedly accurate, is hardly a new phenomenon. The use of pictures to tell stories is as old as man himself, as evidenced by the discovery of cave paintings in Western Europe dating back up to 35,000 years. From 113 AD, Rome’s Trajan’s Column is an early surviving example of a narrative told through pictures in sequence, while Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek friezes and medieval tapestries such as the famous Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman conquest of England in 1066, combine sequential images and words to tell a story. The invention of the printing press in the 15th Century meant the temporary separation of words and images once more as they required separate printing techniques, but a mass medium had been born and the form could be delivered to a wide audience. As printing techniques developed, due to the technological advances of the industrial revolution, magazines and newspapers were established. By the middle of the 19th Century these publications were including illustrations – soon to be known as ‘cartoons’ – as a means of commenting on political and social issues of the day. Before long, many more artists were experimenting with establishing a sequence of images to create a narrative, and the comic strip was born.

The success of most of the early comic strips, and many of those still popular today, lay in their use of humour, yet still we underestimate the need for humour in our lives and the search for humour in our stories. One of the earliest forms of storytelling which young people learn about is through the medium of jokes, something which many carry through into adulthood but which is often frowned upon as a distraction from the serious business of learning and ‘growing up’. In the telling of jokes we have the perfect context in which to develop young people’s awareness of the key ingredients of successful narratives and the skills required to deliver them effectively.

From its origins in the daily newspaper strips in the USA in the first half of the twentieth century, publishers recognised the popularity and the potential of the comics genre, and comic strips began to appear in booklet form, first as reprints and then as original stories. Their popularity spread rapidly across the globe in a variety of new forms and formats, as readers began to identify with the cartoon characters and look forward eagerly to the next instalment of their adventures. This identification with character is key to the success of comics, as it is with other  narrative media, and lies, according to Will Eisner, in the peculiarly human need to step into another’s shoes, or to imagine oneself in another’s position:

“Perhaps the most basic of human characteristics is empathy. This trait can be used as a major conduit in the delivery of a story. Its exploitation can be counted upon as one of the storyteller’s tools…………..Empathy is a visceral reaction of one human being to the plight of another. The ability to ‘feel’ the pain, fear or joy of someone else enables the storyteller to evoke an emotional contact with the reader. We see ample evidence of this in movie theatre where people weep over the grief of an actor who is pretending, while in an event that is not really happening.”

Eisner recognises here the similarities between the comics genre and film, although as he points out elsewhere in his 1996 study Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, they also have their – fairly obvious – differences. While both comics and film rely on the interplay between words and pictures, film has the additional element of sound and the illusion of real moving action, whereas comics has to generate the same effects from a series of static images on the page.

Comics and picture books have long been associated with storytelling, and some of the comics of my own youth in the 1960s consisted of  a combination of comic strips and text-only narratives. In many ways they were a bridge between early reading and the ‘serious’ reading of adolescence and adulthood, but since comics were apparently easy to read and consisted predominantly of drawings, for a long time they were regarded as inferior and  a serious threat to literacy. Eisner believes that this reputation was partly justified, as for decades many writers in the comics genre pandered to the lowest common denominator in terms of the intellectual demands of their content, but it would be interesting to consider a philosophical question here – whether reading ANYTHING ever made a person less literate than they were before they read it.

By the end of the 20th Century comics had become something of a niche market, as they found themselves competing with more sophisticated media, though paradoxically the evolution of the graphic novel  had also revived the genre to the point where it became accepted as a literary medium worthy of discussion and study. When Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman  won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the first graphic novel ever to do so, the comics genre had truly arrived back in the mainstream. By now, however, the moving image, in the form of television or film was becoming all-pervasive.

Moving Image Education

Most young people have watched countless hours of film and television before they enter pre-school education, and already they have set about building  – in their heads –  a rich audio-visual library. Unfortunately, it is most often a library, to extend the metaphor, in which the texts are simply piled up in a disorderly heap in the middle of the floor. The viewing is almost always unregulated, and rarely do they have any understanding  that what they are watching and listen to is a sophisticated piece of work, something which has been painstakingly constructed and edited, not simply the result of pointing a camera at real-life events. Since it is unlikely that children are going to be taught to ‘read’ moving image texts at home any time soon, it seems that as teachers responsible for the development of literacy, we have a moral obligation not only to use moving image texts in our classrooms, but to teach film literacy as part of the mainstream curriculum. In order to do this, teachers themselves need to be familiar with some basic concepts relating to films and filmmaking, including a vocabulary which allows them to discuss – and possibly create – moving image texts with their students.

Living in a predominantly visual age, surrounded by moving image texts, it would be almost perverse to ignore the power these texts shape and influence our daily lives. Yet teachers still feel it difficult to justify to themselves and others why they should spend time watching films in the classroom when they should be concentrating on raising traditional literacy standards – despite the fact that it has long been recognised that working with moving image texts can improve those very skills. Digital Beginnings, an extensive study carried out by Jackie Marsh and colleagues at Sheffield University in 2005 reported that in England “the introduction of popular culture, media and/or new technologies into the communications, language and literacy curriculum has a positive effect on the motivation and engagement of children in learning”, that “practitioners report that it has a positive impact on children’s progress in speaking and listening….”, that “parents feel that media education should be included in the school curriculum” and  that “many think this should be so from when children are very young.”

Film is already commonly used in lessons of course, but often it does not extend beyond showing ‘the film of the book’ in order to supplement the study of the printed text, or it is used as an end-of-term reward for hard work or good behaviour. While there is nothing desperately wrong with this in principle, it reinforces the notion that film is not a ‘real text’ in the way that, for example, the novel is. Another of the traps into which even the most enthusiastic teachers often fall when introducing moving image texts into the classroom, is the temptation to focus on the current popular box office hit or full-length classic, since these are the texts with which children are already familiar, when in fact, as with printed texts, the key to success is to begin with short films.

A full-length feature film is a hugely complex piece of work and can be quite daunting to a teacher and students hoping to engage in critical analysis. On the other hand, there are many advantages to using short films in the classroom: a short film can be played in its entirety within one lesson while longer films lose their impact by being viewed over a number of lessons or by being screened only in extract form; the short running time of the films makes it possible for repeated viewings, allowing teachers and pupils to become quickly familiar with the texts and to explore them in more detail; short films, like short stories, are not governed by the same conventions as longer films, and often provoke stronger responses from their audience. Film and print, while different in many ways, are also very closely allied, so that the study of film can be used as a vehicle to improve the traditional literacies of reading, writing, talking and listening, and, importantly, film is an inclusive medium, often accessible to pupils who are more visual learners and who otherwise may feel that they have little to contribute.

Born Digital

Despite the ubiquitous nature of film and television, it is the novel which has been the mainstay of narrative in English classrooms for over a century, reflecting its significance as the main vehicle for literary prose fiction, and the close reading of a novel still has a central place in the examination syllabus of most formal educational establishments. So what is to become of the novel in the 21st century? The good news is that the development of new technologies, specifically in the form of electronic ‘readers’, has generated a revival in reading in general, and novels in particular. Where once it was common to carry a novel in your bag, it is now possible to carry around a library in your pocket.

At the same time, the availability of new media platforms and free computer applications has encouraged writers to develop new literary forms, of which the digital novel Inanimate Alice is a prime example.  Written  (interestingly, as many of the earliest novels were written) as a series of episodes, it tells the story of a young girl’s journey, both physical and metaphorical, as she develops through adolescence into adulthood. Over four increasingly complex and interactive episodes  – six more episodes are in development – we accompany Alice from the age of eight in China, where her father works in the oil industry and has just mysteriously disappeared, to her maturity at twenty-something as the ultimate games designer on a mission to save the world. In the words of her creator Ian Harper, Alice was ‘born digital’. In other words, it has never appeared in print, nor is it an e-book in the now commonly accepted understanding of the term, but a new concept in reading which combines elements of the written word, digital still photography, moving image, drawing, painting, puzzles, music, sound effects and elements of computer gaming. Unlike many computer game, however, it does have the linear progression of a book, and the reader ‘turns the page’ – by clicking on a double arrow icon which appears on screen – when he or she is ready to move on.

In educational terms, Inanimate Alice provides a hugely rich context for learners and teachers, with as many opportunities to stretch the imagination and challenge the intellect of the most academic student, as it does to engage reluctant readers at the other end of the educational spectrum. Put simply, from a literacy teacher’s point of view, the text can be used in a number of different ways, in a range of subject contexts, and on a number of different levels, with students from junior school through to university undergraduates. The immediate effect on most young people when introduced to the text is that they want to create their own episode, peopled by their own characters and in their own setting.

The creation of this new kind of digital text – and surely more will follow – would appear  to signal a further merging of traditional narrative genres and the arrival of a new form of storytelling for the digital age. If comics and film were multi-modal, then according to Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture, new texts like Inanimate Alice are the early arrivals in the world of ‘transmedia storytelling’, which Jenkins describes as ‘storytelling by a number of decentralised authors who share and create content for distribution across multiple forms of media.’ In considering the shift which new technologies have brought to the way we think of our relationship with media, and how the skills we acquire initially through play may have implications for how we learn, work, participate in the political process and connect with other people around the world, he dismisses talk of a ‘digital revolution’, and prefers that we think instead of a ‘digital evolution’.  In this new age of transmedia texts, popular storytelling increasingly takes place across different media platforms and passive consumers have been replaced by active  participants or ‘players’:

“Welcome to convergence culture, where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways. Convergence culture is the future, but it is taking shape now. Consumers will be more powerful within convergence culture – but only if they recognise and use that power as both consumers and citizens, as full participants in our culture.”

In the chapter entitled Why Heather Can Write, Jenkins examines the phenomenon known as ‘fan fiction’, and the ways in which it exemplifies the new media landscape. On fan fiction websites like Fiction Alley for example, the largest of a number of websites dedicated to fans of Harry Potter, young writers come together to write, collaborate and share stories about their favourite characters, and sometimes to invent new characters of their own. New writers are mentored by an army of unpaid volunteers known a ‘beta readers’ – a term derived from the world of technology where ‘beta’ means ‘in development’ – and criticism, while it is always positive and constructive, is also focused and direct, dealing with issues of grammar and style as well as plotlines. The beta readers are also contributing authors, and what all the writers have in common is that they are looking to improve their work, not simply to have it praised. This relationship between learner and mentor, based on the trust of peers on what is effectively a shared journey is, by definition, quite different from the formal teacher-pupil relationship found in school and allows the young writers to experiment with their craft within the safe confines of a pre-existing fictional world. For many of the writers who contribute to the fan community, the journey begins by simply reading the efforts of others, before they are comfortable enough to submit their own stories. Once they are committed however, the feedback provides the incentive for them to develop and improve. They quickly come to regard themselves as real ‘authors’.

Critics of fan fiction argue that it is unoriginal and imitative, but as Jenkins points out, this kind of ‘apprenticeship’ model is common in other cultural spheres, and historically young artists learned their craft by initially imitating the great masters, sometimes contributing to their work, before establishing styles, techniques and content of their own. Whether the same conditions for writing can be created within a formal school setting, is a different matter. Again, as Jenkins points out:

“Schools have less flexibility to support writers at very different stages of their development. Even the most progressive schools set limits on what students can write compared to the freedom they enjoy on their own. Certainly, teens may receive harsh critical responses to their more controversial stories when they publish them online, but the teens themselves are deciding what risks they want to take and facing the consequences of those decisions.”

Armed with this knowledge, it might be tempting for teachers either to write off fan fiction entirely as inferior or worthless (despite its massive popularity), or to encourage their students wholeheartedly to become involved, but the growth in such online communities and the collaborative nature of this new form of storytelling creates a challenge for those teachers who have always regarded it as an individual pursuit. One thing seems clear, and that is that unless teachers are able to provide young writers with a real and critical audience – possibly through blogging and online forums such as wiki-spaces – they may well decide that telling their stories elsewhere is a more fruitful alternative.

Although much of what I have written has been about the importance of narrative fiction, I believe that everything which holds true for fiction is equally true for non-fiction. Learning through narrative applies no matter the subject. Take the example of a friend of mine whose responsibility is to teach geography. The topic is ‘Landscape’ and he wants his students to come to a better understanding of how landscapes are formed. He has tried everything to make the topic interesting, but in his own words it’s the dullest part of the course. Then he is inspired. He asks his students to think of themselves as a river, and to tell the story of their lives from birth to death, or their journey from source to sea (employing Eisner’s central notion of empathy). The stories are written, digitally recorded using their own devices, and finally uploaded to the class wiki as a series of podcasts.  The topic is transformed and learning is much more successful, a good example of the effectiveness of learning through narrative.

Definitions of Literacy and New Meaning of Text

Given this new media landscape, and the infinite possibilities it provides for the creation of narrative, it seems reasonable to suggest that we need to re-think our definition of ‘literacy’. Imagine if you were to walk down your local main street today and stop the first ten adults you meet. Ask them what they understand by the term ‘literacy’ and I suspect their answers will include – and possibly not extend beyond – notions of reading (print), writing (continuous prose), spelling, punctuation, grammar and handwriting. Of course, no one would argue that all of these skills, or ‘traditional literacies’ as they are often described, would have to be included when we talk about literacy today (and in another age would have been the focus of the English teacher’s efforts) but are they sufficient in themselves to enable a person to live a productive and fulfilled life in the modern world? I suspect not.

According to James Paul Gee, Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, there are at least two reasons why we should consider literacy in broader terms than the traditional concept of literacy as the ability to read and write. First, in our world today, language is by no means the only communication system available. Many types of visual images and symbols have specific significances, and so ‘visual literacies’ and literacies of other modes are also included in Gee’s notion of new literacies. Second, Gee proposes that reading and writing are not such obvious ideas as they first appear. “After all,” he states, “we never just read or write; rather, we always read or write something in some way”. In other words, even if we are talking about traditional print-based literacy, it should be conceived as being multiple, since we need different types of literacies to read different kinds of texts in ways that meet our particular purposes for reading them. So what must our broader understanding of ‘literacy’ now include? Perhaps we should begin by looking at the stated aims of the ‘Literacy’ strand of  Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority’s  English curriculum:

to develop students’ ability to interpret and create texts with appropriateness, accuracy, confidence, fluency and efficacy for learning in and out of school, and for participating in Australian life more generally. Texts chosen include media texts, everyday texts and workplace texts from increasingly complex and unfamiliar settings, ranging from the everyday language of personal experience to more abstract, specialised and technical language, including the language of schooling and academic study. Students learn to adapt language to meet the demands of more general or more specialised purposes, audiences and contexts. They learn about the different ways in which knowledge and opinion are represented and developed in texts, and about how more or less abstraction and complexity can be shown through language and through multimodal representations. This means that print and digital contexts are included, and that listening, viewing, reading, speaking, writing and creating are all developed systematically and concurrently.”

This shift from traditional literacies to a broader understanding of literacy not only reflects the reality of the digital age, but is an important declaration in the face of opposition from those who would wish to maintain a narrow, rigid curriculum, in which a diet of reading from print-only texts is considered the norm, and superior to all other forms of reading.  However, a declaration is one thing, a shift in attitudes quite another. As if to illustrate the scale of the challenge, the Scottish writer, activist and intellectual Pat Kane, describing his ‘manifesto for a different way of living’ in the critically-acclaimed text The Play Ethic, suggests that the way literacy is currently taught actually militates against a better understanding of electronic media. Citing the Australian educational thinkers Allen and Carmen Luke, he describes the current public perceptions of literacy, and prevailing attitudes to the study of digital texts:

“This is not to deny traditional literacy as a necessary skill – but it is to reduce its overbearing emphasis in early education. We must decouple early literacy from the neo-Calvinist morality that currently grips it – casting it as a vital ‘inoculation’ against the seductive world of images, dialogue, simulations and all other kinds of semiotic promiscuity. The Lukes note that we have elaborate and useful diagnostic tools for assessing if children are succeeding or failing in their reading, whether in terms of comprehension or critical judgement. But why don’t we similarly identify “failure” at watching films, “poor” or “uncritical” television watching, deficiency at Web surfing and emailing’? Of course, this is exactly the role that media and cultural studies has tried to play in the Western education system over the last twenty-odd years – and never has a subject been more vilified, mostly by the remaining representatives of an industrial-age mindset.”

There is more than a hint of irony here in the fact that media texts, especially in the form of moving image, have been with us for more than a hundred years, yet despite their place in our everyday lives  they have generally struggled to find a place in the mainstream of the school curriculum, instead being consigned to specialist subject areas such as media studies, or – at the other end of the scale – regarded as unfit for serious study. Nevertheless, recent  attempts to provide a more modern and relevant definition of literacy and of ‘texts’ reflects a trend across most of the developed world, as education authorities struggle to ensure that their curricula keep pace with the changes brought about by universal access to the internet and rapidly developing technologies. Not an easy task when you consider that these were designed largely for another age, when a major function of the school system was to prepare young people for a life in the factory or the office.

Games-Based Learning

Just as a key feature of Henry Jenkins’ convergence culture is participation, Kane argues that not only should we regard new media consumers as ‘players’ but that we need to re-examine the purpose of education to reflect the realities of a post-industrial age:

“We need a new way to look at the complexity of the educational experience – one that regards the apparent ‘messiness’ and ‘imprecision’ of play as a deep resource for understanding, rather than something which has to be squeezed out of curricula tailored to deliver better performance statistics for short-termist politicians. I suggest that scholars might unite around a new notion of literacy – a ‘multi-literacy that ties together the deep humanism of the teaching profession with the ludic realities that face their pupils in the new century.”

If play is as fundamental to human nature as Kane suggests, then games-based learning may be the natural new home for learning through narrative – computer games designers are increasingly alert to the fact that in addition to the problem-solving characteristic which marked the early video and arcade games, a strong narrative element is necessary if a game is going to be commercially viable.

In Scotland, where research has already shown the positive impact of games-based learning through the work of Derek Robertson and others at Education Scotland, games like Professor Layton and the Curious Village, Pheonix Wright and Hotel Dusk Room 215 have been used successfully in the development of literacy in schools. There, the new Curriculum for Excellence, which re-defines ‘texts’ as ‘the medium through which ideas and experiences, opinions and information can be communicated’, ensures that teachers have the freedom to interpret the word ‘text’ more widely and gives them the opportunity to use a broader range of contexts within which to develop the literacy skills of their pupils. In many classes, even in lower primary school, youngsters are learning how to construct games using programmes like Scratch and Kodu. So not only do the games provide what Howard Gardner would describe as an “entry point” to learning, and a context in which traditional literacy skills may be developed, they are of course perfectly valid texts in themselves.

Tom Chatfield, gaming expert and author of Fun Inc., Why Games are the 21st Century’s Most Serious Business, contends that ‘narrative immersion’ is central to the appeal of gaming, and in language which sounds strikingly like that of the Quest, the third of Christopher  Booker’s seven basic plots, Chatfield suggests that it’s in the desire to become whoever we want to be, and the need for a happy ending, that the secret of the perfect gaming recipe can be found:

“It’s a strange, poetic idea, and yet it gets to the heart of something quite radical about gaming as a medium: its hold on the human imagination, and its ability to make you into a hero of any number of astounding – or modest – stories. The appeal is the sense of wonder that is conjured, but also the need for a kind of security: for, like any myth, the well-designed game always works out in the end, and will always remain there should you feel the urge to return.”

In education, as in life, we will always find new ways to create and to share our stories, but the need for storytelling itself is timeless. Every time you enter the classroom you have choices to make about the texts you use and the contexts for learning, but remember that you are co-constructing a ‘narrative for learning’ – be sure to consider all the options at your disposal.

 

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Ten Books For English Teachers

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.”

Charlie Munger

Ten Books To Give An English Teacher For Christmas.

 

 

booktree11This was first written as a guest blogpost for the lovely people at the Scottish Book Trust. Visit their website for some wonderful resources and ideas on how to inspire reading and writing in the classroom.

There is no shortage of books for teachers. In fact a huge industry has been created to produce them, and largely they are books whose aim is to tell teachers how to ‘do it’, to give them the magic ingredients which will turn their classrooms into beacons of organisation and efficiency, while all the time improving their students’ grades, with titles like ‘How To Teach Like a Demon’, ‘How To Prepare The Perfect Lesson To The Nth Degree’ or ‘How To Please an Inspector’. I have no doubt that many of them are informative, some of them are useful, and a few of them may even contain wisdom. I believe however, that all good teachers have one thing in common, and that is that they are readers (and by definition learners) first and foremost. So this is a short selection of some of the books I think all English teachers should read, not because they are about teaching, but because they are about books, and about the importance of reading and storytelling.

The Seven Basic Plots (Why We Tell Stories) by Christopher Booker

Stories lie at the heart of learning, whether we are trying to make sense of the stories which have existed in the world since the dawn of communication, or whether it is our own attempts to create, control and update our life stories. In this fascinating study, Booker explores the notion that there are only seven basic story ‘types’ and that all successful stories fit into one of the seven categories. Whether you agree entirely with his thesis is neither here nor there, but it certainly opens up for you and your students a whole new understanding of the concept of ‘genre’. As for the reason we tell stories, it is summed up best by the author in these lines: ‘One of the deepest human needs met by the faculty for imagining stories, is our desire for an explanatory and descriptive picture of how the world began, and how we came to be in it.’

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller                                                                

Donalyn Miller says she has yet to meet a child she couldn’t turn into a reader. No matter how far behind her students might be when they reach her 6th grade classroom, they end up reading an average of between forty and fifty books a year. Miller’s classroom is filled with books, all of which she has read herself, and her unconventional approach dispenses with worksheets and assignments that make reading a chore. Instead, she helps students navigate the world of literature, nudges them gently towards their next discovery and gives them time to read books they pick out for themselves. Her love of books and teaching is both infectious and inspiring. The book includes a list of recommended young adult literature that helps parents and teachers find the books that students really like to read. It’s an American-centric choice but useful nevertheless.

How To Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C Foster                              

One of the methods employed by sophisticated readers in the search for understanding is the recognition of pattern, memory or symbol (where have I seen this before?) and therein lies the curse of the professor of English, according to this lively and entertaining study by Thomas Foster, in which he gives us an insight into the crucial skills of ‘deep reading’. What does it mean when a fictional hero takes a journey? Shares a meal? Gets soaked in a rain shower? Good mechanics, he argues, the kind who used to fix cars before computerised diagnostics, used pattern recognition to diagnose engine troubles. Literature is full of patterns, and your reading experience will be much more rewarding when you can step back from the work, even while you are reading it, and look for those patterns. Comes with a very useful reading list as an appendix.

99 Ways To Tell a Story by Matt Madden                                                                              

In 1947 the French poet, novelist and mathematician Raymond Queneau wrote a collection of short narratives in which the author retells an apparently unremarkable story in 99 different ways. Using a variety of styles ranging from the sonnet form, through Cockney rhyming slang to mathematical formulae, Queneau’s work is both comical and experimental, a tour of literary forms and a demonstration of playful invention. The text became a cult classic and was the inspiration behind a similar experiment more than half a century later, when the graphic novelist and comic illustrator Matt Madden, in homage to Queneau, set out to explore the same idea using visual narratives. In a fascinating series of drawings which questions the very definition of narrative, Madden stretches the limits of the comics genre by telling the same story from different narrative perspectives and in a range of styles including maps, graphs, ‘public service announcement’ and even ‘paranoid religious tract’.

How Fiction Works by James Wood                                                                                  

James Wood is an English-American literary critic, essayist and novelist. Here he provides an ‘alternative’ history of the novel, by taking apart the mechanics of storytelling and looking closely at the main elements of fiction, such as narrative and characterisation. This is a slim volume, but using examples ranging from Homer (not that one), to beatrix Potter, the Bible and John Le Carré, Wood encourages us to look again at some of our favourite books with new insight, and to question our assumptions about the essential elements of one of the oldest forms of storytelling. Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is point of view, and how does it work? Why does fiction move us? What is imaginative sympathy? Both playful and profound.

Reality Hunger by David Shields                                                                                           

“I think of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, and all forms of storytelling as existing on a rather wide continuum, at one end fantasy (J.R.R. Tolkien and the like) and at the other end an extremely literal-minded register of a life, such as a guy in eastern Washington – named, as fate would have it, Shields, – who (until his recent death) had kept the longest or longest-running diary, endless accounts of everything he did all day. And in between at various tiny increments are greater and lesser imaginative projects. An awful lot of fiction is immensely biographical, and a lot of nonfiction is highly imagined. We dream ourselves awake every minute of the day. ‘Fiction’/’nonfiction’ is an utterly useless distinction.” A weird and wonderful cut-and-paste of a book that questions the meaning of everything.

The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell                                                                        

An extraordinary writing experiment as well as a challenging reading experience, this short ‘novel’ consists entirely of questions, a structure which should have you throwing it away in frustration after just a couple of pages, but which amazingly….er…..works. The book is clearly not a novel in the conventional sense, but manages to achieve what many novels set out to do but fail to achieve i.e. to create a character who is able to engage and move us in ways that have us examining our own lives more closely. While not strictly a book ABOUT reading, Powell will have you questioning what else might be possible when it comes to creating works of fiction. One of the quirkier choices on the list, you will either love it or hate it. Either way, it will make your brain jump.

The Art of Fiction by David Lodge                                                                                  

When one of England’s foremost writers and critics was asked to write a weekly column in the Independent on Sunday on ‘The Art of Fiction’, this was the result. Collected here into 50 ‘chapters’, each essay focuses on an aspect of prose fiction (The Intrusive Author, The Sense of Place, Magic Realism, Allegory, Coincidence, The Title………) with one or two extracts from modern or classic texts by way of illustration. Although the book is intended for the general reader, and can be consumed in bite-size morsels, the author has used technical terms where necessary, and without apology. Lodge argues, in the course of his ‘Preface’, that he always regarded fiction as essentially a rhetorical art, that is to say, the novelist or short-story writer persuades us to share a certain world-view for the duration of the reading experience. A good read for for experienced teachers and beginners alike.

The Storytelling Animal (How Stories Make Us Human) by Jonathan Gottschall     

In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall, of Washington and Jefferson College in the USA, explains how stories shape and define us as human beings, arguing that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems, just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations.This is a fascinating exploration of just how central the concept of ‘story’ is to the human animal, how much the idea of creating a narrative form is to our existence. Humans have been telling stories as long as we have been recognisably human: early cave paintings are telling a story of hunting and conflict, and Gottschall argues that the act of storytelling allows us to ‘act out’ or experience things without the inherent perils involved. At its heart, he argues, all story is about conflict, about overcoming obstacles, about triumphing over disaster or evil.

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf                                                                   

 ‘We were never born to read’, begins this story of the development of the reading brain in humans. Wolf describes the origins of reading and writing from early Egyptian and Sumerian scripts and fascinatingly likens concerns over the current shift from a written culture to one that is increasingly driven by visual images, to the concerns of Socrates in ancient Greece that the transition from an oral tradition to a literate one would lead to a lack of virtue and discipline in young learners. Professor Wolf contends that this is akin to the concerns of many modern-day teachers and parents who watch their children spend endless hours in front of the computer, absorbing but not necessarily understanding huge amounts of information. One of the more intriguing aspects of the book is her theory that dyslexia may be linked to ‘unparalleled creativity’.

You WILL Survive. Popularising Shakespeare.

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David Tennant in the stunning 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet

As it happens, I am one of those boring old traditionalists who believe that no school education is complete without some experience of the genius that was William Shakespeare. After all, if the purpose of formal education includes preparing young people for a rich and fulfilling life, helping them understand their place in the world, showing them that they are not the first person ever to agonise over the complexities of human relationships, then who better to turn to for guidance?

However, Shakespeare is a bit like maths at school. Badly taught, it can have a more profound effect than when it is taught well. ‘I hated Shakespeare at school’ is almost as common a refrain as ‘I was never any good at maths…….’.

Imagine the scene. As an English teacher you find yourself in the position of trying to convince a group of young people, many of whom wouldn’t know the difference between a sonetto and a cornetto – even if they did know that the latter was not originally an ice-cream cone –  of the beauty and relevance of Shakespeare’s sonnets. You will teach them, of course, about the Italian origins of the sonnet, its traditional structure of two quatrains and a sestet (14 lines in all), the regular musical rhythm that they will come to know and understand as ‘iambic pentameter’, and you will demonstrate along the way how Shakespeare was dealing with the grand themes of love and loss, of jealousy and revenge, of lust, hatred, fear and hurt. You may give them some very useful notes, or you may even ask them to make their own. God job done.

Well, sometimes, and for some kids, yes. But, consider the potential difference it could make if you were to ask them to ‘be Shakespeare’ for a while. Write a sonnet as if your life depended on it, which his almost certainly did.

‘Too hard!’ they cry.

Well, OK. The language is challenging, 400 years down the line, the themes a bit adult. But how about if you started by actually giving them the content, and asking them to ‘translate it’ into a sonnet? Which is exactly what Erik Didriksen has done in ‘Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favourite Songs’ from publishers Fourth Estate.  Starting with songs from modern-day pop artists like Beyonce´and Taylor Swift, Didreksen has re-written them as Shakespeare might have done. And here’s the real payback, one of the things we struggle to impress upon modern-day students of the great man – the themes don’t really change!

Gaynor

Gloria Gaynor is given a Shakespearean make-over in Erik Didriksen’s ‘Pop Sonnets’

This technique, which is sometimes referred to in film education as ‘generic translation’ (see previous post here), can be a very useful strategy when trying to develop a better understanding of any text, as it allows the reader to think about what it would look like from the inside, in a different context and for a different audience, while demanding that they look more closely at the conventions of the genre.

Footnote:- While writing this blogpost I just happened to discover this excellent collection of resources from TES for teaching Shakespeare in the classroom.

See also Shakespeare’s Words

 

 

 

 

Gone To Girona

viatgeresdetall_expoNext time I complain about the lack of space or the – inevitably futile – attempts of the crew to persuade me to buy lottery tickets on my cheap Ryanair flight to Europe, I may reflect on the fact that comfort is a relative term when it comes to travel, and I should be extremely grateful that from Scotland, for less than the price of a return train ticket to London, I can be almost anywhere in Europe within a couple of hours without leaving that (relative) comfort of my own well-padded seat.

Travel also happens to be the subject of a beautiful exhibition right now at the Museu D’Historia here in the heart of Catalonia. ‘Girona Through the Eyes of Women Writers (19th and 20th Centuries)’ is the brainchild of Cristina Ribot, whose study of the same name won her a scholarship from Girona City Council in 2013, and it provides a fascinating insight into the developing image of what is now a popular tourist destination. What makes it unique is that the picture is built up through the literary testimonies of 25 women writers of various nationalities, providing us with a snapshot of their own personal experiences and difficulties in an era when travel was a pastime almost exclusively reserved for men.

typewriterThere were few women writers in the 18th and early 19th centuries, education and writing being largely male privileges which required both support and money. The elite tended to view women’s writing as worthless, and consequently publishers were reluctant to take the risk of publishing them, thus setting up the classic vicious circle which women found hard to break. One exception to this was in the genre of travel writing, though even here books were often published anonymously or under a male pseudonym.The expansion of the railways at the end of the 19th Century had led to a sharp increase in the number of travellers around the world, but it would not be until the 1950s when the concept and the term ‘tourist’ came into the collective consciousness. Up until then it was the preserve of the rich, and the early explorers featuring in the exhibition were no exception. Many titled ladies, particularly French and English, travelled to the Iberian peninsula, usually with massive amounts of luggage and accompanied by several maids. Being aristocrats, leisure was their raison d’etre, and they would travel for months at a time, most often by donkey, mule or horseback.

However, in an era when ‘female modesty’ was also a requirement, the journeys were not without hardship, as some of the voluminous dresses and headgear in the exhibition bear witness. Often the women had to disguise themselves as men, and carried umbrellas, not only to protect themselves from the sun but from unwanted advances and potential robbers. As an extra precaution, many carried pistols in their hand luggage.

The exhibition notes inform us that the women were “easily recognised for their airs of superiority” and that “they arrived in Girona with preconceived ideas about the country….As well as the information these adventurers provide about the monumental city of Girona, their stories also speak of what surprised and shocked them while in the city. They write of vivid memories, intense sensations and powerful emotions; they record ecstatic or unpleasant moments, great friendships or ill-fated loves. The individual experiences may differ, but taken together they for a nostalgic image of the city as it was, while reminding us of the role of these pioneers, who broke the social norms of their times in pursuit of their most personal goals.”

One of these early explorers was a Scottish lady of means, about whom little is recorded, other than that she was a writer and an artist of some note. Lady Sophia Dunbar’s ‘A Family Tour Round the Coasts of Spain and Portugal’  published by William Blackwood in 1862, contains only a passing mention of the city of Girona (its remarkable early-17th Century cathedral), but is much more expansive on the tribulations of the journey from Girona to Barcelona:

“The roads now became execrable, full of holes, heavy clay and mud, through which our mules struggled and plunged. Our diligence (public stagecoach) lurched like a ship at sea and it became darker and darker. We felt very anxious as to our long lone road leading through rivers, mire and mud; at one time we came to a dead stop, caused by eight mules being all down at once. After much confusion and noise, they were got up, and constrained by thrashing and abuse to renew the struggle; for some miles we continued to go on in the same manner, making some tremendous lurches, from which we miraculously recovered our balance; at last fortune deserted us, we lurched, quivered in the air for a second or two, and went over.”

Fortunately, no serious injuries are sustained in the incident, except presumably to the poor abused mules, and Barcelona is eventually reached:

tour“The streets of Barcelona being extremely dirty, we looped up our dresses; this caused the old women to rush out of their houses or shops at us, and pull vigorously at our skirts; it was difficult to appease them, or make them understand that our dresses were purposely worn so. The woollen mantas of Catalonia are very handsome. The men wear these over their shoulder, much as Highlanders do a plaid. They are striped, the colours rich and brilliant, scarlet predominating.”

In the middle of the 19th Century bull-fighting is prevalent across Spain and Portugal and, as you might expect, our traveller has some observations to make on a subject which provokes an emotional response to this day:

“The picadors, or horsemen, the chulos or men on foot, with gay-coloured cloaks, and the matadors or killers, are dressed in gorgeous antique costume, and certainly have an imposing effect; but the poor bull, lately taken from his native pastures, in the prime of his youth and strength, being a four-year-old, is roused, and made to rush into the middle of the arena; here he halts, and stares with bewilderment and surprise at the assembled thousands, who greet his arrival with clapping of hands. From the middle of the arena, the bull was soon provoked to make desperate charges, right and left, at chulos and picadors, the former showing the greatest activity in vaulting over the palisades, or escaping into the narrow side-niches, where the bull cannot follow. The picadors receive the charge of the bull by meeting him with the point of their lance, which is a short knife on the point of a pole about eight-feet long. With this they meet or catch him on the shoulder, which always mitigates, and often completely checks, his charge. The bull sometimes avoids the lance, and it is then he gores the horse, or sends him and his rider sprawling in the dust. Cut and goaded with the lances of the picadors, and exhausted by fruitless charges at the gay cloaks of the chulos, he at last yields to the lords of the creation, and looks out for the entrance through which he had been admitted…”

A Family Tour.…’, one of the 25 works curated for the exhibition, was re-published in 2009. It can also be downloaded free from the Internet Archive by clicking on this link.

If you have the good fortune to be passing through Girona between now and the 27th of September, make sure you visit the exhibition at the Museu D’Historia De Girona, Placeta de l’Institut Vell, 1
17004 GIRONA.

Footnote: In 2010, the Catalan Parliament agreed, by an absolute majority, to ban bullfights involving the death of animals and the use of goads: banderillas, picas, and estoques. The law was passed thanks to a citizen’s legislative initiative (ILP) promoted by the civic associations that obtained hundreds of thousands of signatures in favour of animal rights. However, the approval of the law was strongly criticised in centralist media and political spheres, who considered the ban to be the result of anti-Spanish feeling.

Read A Banned Book Today

banned

Today is World Book Day.

Away back in the dark ages of the late 1980s, when I was a young and idealistic Head of English in a secondary school, I was taken aback when a story reached me of an act of censorship for which I was not prepared. Our headteacher, with whom I had a good relationship, had been driving across the country the previous weekend when he chanced upon a radio discussion about ‘Forever’, Judy Blume’s novel for young teens. The book was reportedly sexually explicit (it isn’t really) and was causing quite a stir. The following day he happened to walk into a class where one of the girls was reading the book, demanded that she hand it over, and returned it to the library with the instruction that it should be removed from the shelves. Word quickly got round, and within a few weeks there was hardly a girl, and very few boys, who hadn’t read it.

The banning of books is not new of course, particularly in those parts of the world where religious puritanism still has a strong grip. Perhaps the Headteacher who decided to ban the award-winning play Black Watch in her school (full story here) has friends in Kansas, where last week the State Senate approved a bill which would allow prosecutors to bring charges to teachers and school administrators for assigning or distributing materials judged harmful to students (read the story here). The bill was introduced by the Republican state senator Mary Pilcher-Cook, who says it is necessary to prevent the distribution of pornography in schools, a situation which ‘has not previously arisen’, while fellow Republican, senator Joseph Scapa, cited as an example of pornography a novel by Nobel Literature winner Toni Morrison, proving apparently that he is well-read and not-very-well-read at the same time.

Read the full text of this blogpost which first appeared on Bella Caledonia.

Many of the modern texts which have come to define America and American literature have been banned at one time or another. Here is a selection of them. A more complete list can be found on the Banned Books Week website under Banned Books That Shaped America.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884

The first ban on Mark Twain’s American classic in Concord, MA in 1885, called it “trash and suitable only for the slums.” Objections to the book have evolved, but only marginally. Twain’s book is one of the most-challenged of all time and is frequently challenged even today because of its frequent use of the word “nigger.” Otherwise it is alleged the book is “racially insensitive,” “oppressive,” and “perpetuates racism.”

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley, 1965 (Grove Press)

Objectors have called this seminal work a “how-to-manual” for crime and decried it for its “anti-white statements”. The book presents the life story of Malcolm Little, also known as Malcolm X, who was a human rights activist and who has been called one of the most influential Americans in recent history.

Beloved, Toni Morrison, 1987

Again and again, this Pulitzer-prize winning novel, by perhaps the most influential African-American writer of all time is assigned to high school English students. And again and again, parental complaints are lodged against the book because of its violence, sexual content and discussion of bestiality.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown, 1970

Subtitled “An Indian History of the American West,” this book tells the story of the USA’s growth and expansion into the West from the point of view of Native Americans. It was banned by a school district official in Wisconsin in 1974 because the book might be polemical and they wanted to avoid controversy at all costs. “If there’s a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it,” the official is quoted as saying at the time.

The Call of the Wild, Jack London, 1903

Generally hailed as Jack London’s best work, The Call of the Wild is commonly challenged for its dark tone and bloody violence. Because it is seen as a man-and-his-dog story, it is sometimes read by adolescents and subsequently challenged for age-inappropriateness. Not only have objections been raised in the US, but the book was banned in Italy, in former Yugoslavia, and burned in bonfires in Nazi Germany in the late 1920s and early 30s because it was considered “too radical.”

Catch-22, Joseph Heller, 1961

A school board in Strongsville, Ohio, refused to allow the book to be taught in high school English classrooms in 1972. It also refused to consider Cat’s Cradle as a substitute text and removed both books from the school library. The issue eventually led to a 1976 District Court ruling overturning the ban in Minarcini v. Strongsville.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1951

Young Holden, favourite child of the censor. Frequently removed from classrooms and school libraries because it is “unacceptable,” “obscene,” “blasphemous,” “negative,” “foul,” “filthy,” and “undermines morality.” And to think Holden always believed that “people never notice anything.”

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953

Rather than ban the book about book-banning outright, Venado Middle school in Irvine, CA used an expurgated version of the text in which all the “hells” and “damns” were blacked out. Other complaints have said the book went against objectors’ religious beliefs.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, 1940

Shortly after its publication the U.S. Post Office, declared the book ‘non-mailable’. In the 1970s, eight Turkish booksellers were tried for “spreading propaganda unfavorable to the state” because they had published and distributed the text. This wasn’t Hemingway’s only banned book – A Farewell to Arms and Across the River and Into the Trees were also censored domestically and in Ireland, South Africa, Germany and Italy.

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, 1936

The Pulitzer-prize winning novel (which three years after its publication became an Academy-Award Winning film) follows the life of the spoiled daughter of a southern plantation owner from before and the fall of the Confederacy to the decline of the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. Critically praised for its thought-provoking and realistic depiction of ante- and postbellum life in the South, it has also been banned for more or less the same reasons. Its realism has come under fire, specifically its portrayal of slavery and use of the words “nigger” and “darkies.”

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939

Kern County, California has the great honor both of being the setting of Steinbeck’s novel and being the first place where it was banned (1939). Objections to profanity, especially ‘goddamn’ and the like, as well as sexual references, continued from then into the 1990s. It is a work with international banning appeal: the book was also banned in Ireland in the 50s and a group of booksellers in Turkey were taken to court for “spreading propaganda” in 1973.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

Perhaps the first great American novel that comes to the mind of the average person, this book chronicles the booze-infused and decadent lives of East Hampton socialites. It was challenged at the Baptist College in South Carolina because of the book’s language and mere references to sex.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952

Ellison’s book won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction because it expertly dealt with issues of black nationalism, Marxism and identity in the twentieth century. Considered to be too expert in its ruminations for some high schools, the book was banned from high school reading lists and schools in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington state.

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, 1855

If they don’t understand you, sometimes they ban you. This was the case when the great American poem Leaves of Grass was first published and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice found the sensuality of the text disturbing. Caving to pressure, booksellers in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania conceded to advising their patrons not to buy the “filthy” book.

Moby-Dick or The Whale, Herman Melville,1851

In a real head-scratcher of a case, a Texas school district banned the book from its Advanced English class lists because it “conflicted with their community values” in 1996. Community values are frequently cited in discussions over challenged books by those who wish to censor them.

The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, 1895

Restricting access and refusing to allow teachers to teach books is still a form of censorship in many cases. Crane’s book was among many on a list compiled by the Bay District School board in 1986 after parents began lodging informal complaints about books in an English classroom library.

A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams, 1947

The sexual content of this play, which later became a popular and critically acclaimed film, raised eyebrows and led to self-censorship when the film was being made. The director left a number of scenes on the cutting room floor to get an adequate rating and protect against complaints of the play’s immorality.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, 1960

Harper Lee’s great American tome stands as proof positive that the censorious impulse is alive and well in our country, even today. For some educators, the Pulitzer-prize winning book is one of the greatest texts teens can study in an American literature class. Others have called it a degrading, profane and racist work that “promotes white supremacy.”

Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, 1963

Sendak’s work is beloved by children in the generations since its publication and has captured the collective imagination. Many parents and librarians, however, did much hand-wringing over the dark and disturbing nature of the story. They also wrung their hands over the baby’s penis drawn in In the Night Kitchen.

Art For Art’s Sake

There’s hardly a day goes by these days but I am engaged in a conversation with someone about ‘the future of the book’. The future of reading, not so much, which I think just goes to demonstrate how ‘reading’ and ‘books’ have become synonymous, despite the fact that most of the reading we do now is demonstrably NOT linked to a book. Personally, I find myself reading novels almost exclusively on my eReader, while I buy physical books for their physical qualities i.e. the look and feel of the book. You could say that I am increasingly looking at books as artefacts, or indeed ‘works of art’, but here’s someone who is taking that to a whole new level. Brian Dettmer is an artist who creates beautiful sculptures from old books, one form of recycling which definitely makes you sit up and take notice.