Tag Archives: Narrative Exchanges

Books: a shrinking shelf life?

IMG_3991Books are getting more and more like loaves of bread.

Bakers and bread-sellers ply their trade in an increasingly crowded market, where all sorts of shops offer all sorts of of doughy products in larger quantities than ever before. Compounding their challenge is the fact that bread soon goes too stale to attract consumers, so unsold loaves must be removed from the retailer’s shelf within a day or two of baking.

With books, too, the clear trend is for a greater number to be published each year, while the turnover rate accelerates and the number being bought decreases. (Actually there may have been a recent pause in the pattern of declining unit sales, but they are still well down from their peak.)  So although a particular new book may seem, at least to its fond author, the best thing since sliced bread, its shelf life is likely to be just as pathetically brief. Book industry figures for publication and sales tell a discouraging story.

In 2014 (the most recent stats I’ve found) nearly 21,000 books of various kinds were published in Australia alone. That’s 400 each week! Though only a small proportion of these came from serious publishers producing multiple titles and using regular distribution channels, there’s no doubt that every link in the book chain from authors to readers is being overwhelmed by a glut.

A gigantic avalanche of loaves tumbling from bakery shelves? More like a publication tsunami. Taking a Darwinian view, you might think this swelling, swirling flood isn’t such a bad thing. Many books will sink, OK;  but won’t the fittest still swim and survive?

It’s probably not so simple. Saturation of the book market makes it harder and harder for a diverse range of fine new books, even work by highly accomplished writers, to get reviewed on the diminishing literary pages of major media. Similarly there’s such intense competition for a place on other publicity platforms, like gigs at literary festivals, that many potentially important titles won’t get a look-in. More often than ever before, a marketing ploy can eclipse merit.

Sure, a few will be fortunate enough to receive a fanfare of awards and acclaim, yet the welcoming moment will quickly be forgotten as another huge dumping wave of publications arrives, then another and another. Most authors learn to be grateful if they just avoid drowning.

We’ve all heard the sardonic forecast, attributed to Andy Warhol, that in the future everyone will be famous – for 15 minutes each. Will this soon be the fate of even the most celebrated authors of the most successful books?

Against that sombre background, against the odds, it’s an occasion for rejoicing when a book shows some durability. There’s a special pleasure in seeing any of one’s publlications reissued after a lapse of years. I’m delighted that two of my critical studies will have their shelf life prolonged, decades after their first appearance. Narrative Exchanges, a work of literary theory that came out in 1992, has a new lease of life in the series ‘Routledge Revivals’, and I’ve just heard that my book on English teaching, The Making of Literature: Texts, Contexts and Classroom Practices, is soon to be made available in digital form 32 years after its print debut. The publisher, AATE (Australian Association for the Teaching of English), tells me the book is continuing to generate ‘quite a bit of interest’ internationally. Its reappearance will be timely, as I’ve been invited to give keynote addresses on topics related to this book’s themes at forthcoming conferences of English teachers both at the state level (ETAWA, in Perth this May) and national level (AATE, in Adelaide in July).

In praise of rote learning

Hardly anyone has a good word to say for rote learning – except me. I regard it not only as an elementary basis for developing knowledge but also as a potential resource for advanced levels of reading and writing.

Learning things by rote is commonly associated with metaphors of imposing quasi-military discipline (like ‘drilling’) or inculcating subhuman responses (like ‘parroting’ or ‘repeating mechanically’). Countless people will tell you that rote learning is inimical to conceptual understanding and critical thinking. Some critics of NAPLAN tests in our schools, for instance, fulminate at the thought that rote learning could have any positive role in the acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Perhaps there are still a few classrooms where grim teachers oppress hapless students with dreary rituals of robotic recitation, though it’s unlikely you could find many disciplinarians nowadays as harsh as those Dickensian ogres Thomas Gradgrind and Wackford Squeers. At any rate it seems there’s a widespread worry that repetitive memorisation will make monkeys out of children, and that teachers who resort to spoonfeeding – supposedly akin to instruction by rote – must be simian throwbacks. I’m reminded of the following pair of illustrations (reproduced here on the ‘fair use’ principle) in an antique Australian anthology for kids, Coles Funny Picture Book:

cfpb4         cfpb2

But setting those caricatures aside, we should ask whether it’s always harmful to memorise information systematically and rehearse it routinely until its retrieval becomes automatic.

Surely not! On the contrary, rote learning is a necessary first step in several areas of learning. It’s the simplest and most effective way for most youngsters to become confidently familiar with the alphabet, phonics, multiplication tables… And indeed repetitive utterances – rhymes, songs, chanted mnemonics – are a time-tested foundation of  first-language learning in general.

What makes rote learning seem objectionable to many people, I suppose, is the sad spectre of mere repetition without an ounce of understanding. It’s often said there’s no value in reciting anything until you’ve grasped the concept behind it. Perhaps that’s sometimes true, but does it necessarily apply to getting an infant class to learn a poem in chorus even when it contains phrases that are utterly strange to them? I don’t think so. If sing-song repetition allows young children to carry in their heads a fantastic rhyming story about The Owl and the Pussycat, it’s unimportant that they couldn’t explain what a ‘runcible spoon’ or a ‘bong tree’ looks like. I’ve heard primary school kids chant Blake’s poem ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright’ without fretting about its ‘fearful symmetry’: the concept may reveal itself to them eventually, and in the meantime the words are like a dormant magic charm.

Rote memorisation establishes mental habits that equip us to go far beyond the foundational practices of early learning. Remembering a patterned sequence of words by reciting them in a group can be like a rudimentary form of choral singing. And with maturity there may come an internalised individual practice of memorisation, as we recognise the value in becoming so familiar with certain passages of verse or prose that we know them by heart. Knowing by heart is a mode of cognition that should be cherished, not disparaged – especially in relation to the reading of literature.

If we memorise passages and keep running them through the mind, we are re-reading them, and in the process we’re allowing ourselves to pay more attention to their texture and structure. ‘A good reader,’ wrote Vladimir Nabokov in his Lectures on Literature, ‘an active and creative reader, is a re-reader.’

In an article for English in Australia some years back, I wrote about an example from my own reading experience in secondary school: while studying The Tempest, I’d committed to memory a long passage from that play – a speech in Act 5 where Prospero evokes his power over nature only to renounce it. We weren’t required to learn these lines but I liked the sound of them enough to do so of my own accord. It’s the passage that begins:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves / And ye that on the sands with printless foot / Do chase the ebbing Neptune…

Many years later those words rose up from some murky cerebral recess as I was reading The Prelude, Wordsworth’s huge autobiographical poem (I think of it as his monsterpiece), and came across these lines:

Ye powers of earth, ye genii of the springs, / And ye that have your voices in the clouds, / And ye that are familiars of the lakes / And standing pools…

It dawned on me that what the little verbal echoes hint at is a fundamental relationship between the two texts. Wordsworth conducts parts of his account of ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’ (that’s The Prelude‘s subtitle) in the form of an oblique conversation with the Shakespearean play, just as other parts of the poem rework imagery from Milton’s Paradise Lost. His allusions to Prospero’s world – which I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t memorised that passage long before – have much more than a decorative function in The Prelude. They serve as a metaphorical framework that allows Wordsworth to draw out some latent implications of The Tempest, and restate them in relation to his own cultural situation. I’ve written in detail about this intertextual linkage in a chapter of my book Narrative Exchanges, so I won’t go on about it any further here. But for me that moment of recognition when I saw Shakespeare’s lines hovering behind Wordsworth’s was a satisfying reminder of the potential value of learning by heart – underpinned by early rote habits.

Recently I’ve come across a couple of essays by readers who share my view that rote learning can be beneficial. One is an article by Justin Snider in The Huffington Post; the other is a blog post by Erica Meltzer. If you’re not convinced by what I’ve said on this topic, perhaps you’ll find their observations more cogent.

Anyway, I’d be interested to know whether any of you who read my blog attach as much value as I do to learning things by heart.