There’s a little board book called ‘Chickens’ (Priddy Books 2008) which many of my readers probably don’t know, but for my granddaughter, Agnes, aged 18 months, it is undoubtedly a great book. Chickens, to her, form part of the biological genus ‘ammals’, a genus in which she takes great interest, as she has mastered many of their names and sounds. She’s keen to read, and reread, and reread ‘Chickens’.
For all its diminutive size and strictly delineated subject matter, ‘Chickens’ seems to me a quality book, since it allows for thinking about different kinds of chickens and makes some wonderfully true distinctions, asking its readers to look hard at the reality it recreates in its pages and to notice some important variations. Some chickens are ‘white’, others are ‘roosters’, and yet others are ‘chicks.’ You can do a lot of thinking with Priddy’s ‘Chickens’, including a practical introduction to morphology, though Agnes wouldn’t call it that. She’d just call it ‘chickens’. Yet the book is teaching her about morphology – the study of different forms – even though she may never fully understand that big word. ‘White hens’ is one type of thing, ‘Rooster’ is another. This is a book that helps the mind create distinctions and patterns, create ways of understanding the world, meanings. That’s what the human mind can do. That’s partly what we are for, the making of meaning.
But not all eighteen month old children are into ‘ammals’ and so this book might not be a good book for everyone (thought I bet most would get interested for a while if you read it to them with enough intensity…). There are probably similar books, called ‘Vehicles’ or ‘Buildings’, aimed at toddlers with different obsessions. Hope so. These are good books, but by their very nature, somewhat restrictively specialist. Still, they point me to part of the distinction I wish to make. It’s about complexity.
Human experiences are rarely simple, and at the tough end, our most difficult problems are frustratingly knotty and hard to iron out. To understand life – oh, to understand all us human ammals – we need complex language and practice in differentiating one thing (he hates me!) from another (he’s insecure!). We need to be able to make careful distinctions and to match our current experience against prior models of experience we have stored up from real life or from stories. If this – understanding humanity – is the subject matter, then I am looking for a complexity in my reading matter.
I was introducing the concept Shared Reading to a woman working in an Arts Centre a few years ago, when she said to me, ‘But we want to work with unemployed working class men. Great literature isn’t going to appeal to them. I was thinking of starting with fishing magazines.’
Now, there’s nothing wrong with Carping Weekly but will every ‘unemployed working class’ man be interested in it? At that level, the level of the obsession, the hobby, reading subject matter is individual. Some will want Autotrader, others The Hindu Times and still others Grazia. All fine. All good reads, if you are interested in reading them.
But what I’m looking for, when I look for good or great or quality literature is something people will be able to connect to, whether their thing is chickens or heroin, motorbikes or the need for love. Because four people with those personal obsessions could be sitting round a table together in a Shared Reading group, each as different from the other as white hens are from roosters, and I’m looking for something that is complex enough to speak to everyone.
As white hen and roosters are to chickens, so lives of heroin or motorbikes or the need for love are to humans. Imagine Priddy’s little board book of ‘Humans’. That’s Shakespeare, isn’t it? Or Poetry?
Is that why poetry turns out to be, often, the most loved and useful reading matter in a Reader Leader’s library?
Here’s one, by Robert Herrick, for such a group, but oh dear, I am almost out of time. What have I been doing this morning?
The Coming of Good Luck
SO good luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless snow, or as the dew of night :
Not all at once, but gently, as the trees
Are by the sunbeams tickled by degrees.
Lovely title – I’m immediately thinking, what does good luck feel like in a life, and how long was the bad luck run going on? Love the way the poem starts with ‘so’, as if we had been the middle of something. There was a long time before that word ‘so’ came, but now that good luck has come, we turn from it. We just feel the luck, like light. We bask in it.
It seems more than personal, this good luck time, because it lights on his roof, as if it touches the whole household. Light here must mean ‘alight’ – descend. It came down, it settled on his roof.
Late, must go…