When we read a text, we hear a voice talking to us. Yet the voice changes over time.
The article's preface continues...
"...Yet the voice changes over time. In his new book titled Poesins röster, Mats Malm, professor in comparative literature at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, shows that when reading older literature, we may hear completely different voices than contemporary readers did – or not hear any voices at all."
Literature teachers who haven't yet, might consider allowing their existing paradigms and pedagogies to marinate in this thought-provoking article for awhile.
At the black and white level, perhaps the article questions the value to contemporary young (even older) readers of bothering with works that have become "too distant" from their "zones of proximal development." The faculty room tug of wars between the proponents of the sacred canon and YA literature (or "ethnic" or "global" or "women's" literature or the use of non-canon stories and storytelling such as Sci-Fi or graphic novels or "reading" via audio novels and now via digital eReaders) are frequently loud and contentious.
However, I found this article particularly interesting at the shades of gray levels.
It is an excellent point that a book's "voices change over time." That is, they may speak in what was at the time "accessible" vocabulary, using what were at the time accessible sentence structures and used what were at the time commonly understood meanings for informal language usage that we might recognize as slang.
Today's readers may find any of those "differences" or others in the use of language and related storytelling techniques to be quite challenging.
When terms such as "odds bodkins" appeared in stories, contemporary readers knew that "odds bodkins" really meant "God's body" and that "swearing on God's body" was a term used to emphasize the truth of what one had just said. There was no real issue for contemporary readers regarding what was being said or meant.
Today's student readers most often don't recognize the term"odds bodkins." Those who care then look it up, or pause to read the footnote, often to find a definition such as "God's body," only to be no less confused than they already were, wondering why a character would throw in a phrase about God's body, not realizing that it was not being used as a literal reference to either God or his body, but rather as "proof" that the speaker was not purposely being deceptive, as of course it was more commonly believed in days gone by that one might lie to another mortal, but few would lie while calling upon God to stand behind one's words.
And, even when the "translation" of "Odds Bodkin" is further explained by the additional phrase of "swearing by God's body," there are among current students those who find the addition of the words "swearing by" to only be further confusing assuming that the word "swearing" means to say socially unacceptable words.
What is a regular 21st century kid to do when older stories require so many pause points to work through such challenges that sooner or later, the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy and engage in a story is just too often shattered to maintain interest?
(for an interesting list of other "Minced Oaths see: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/minced-oath.html)
Yet.. we all know that in spite of the challenges to current readers those old voices have much of value to say and generally speaking say much, much more eloquently than other attempts to express those universal themes both before and since they were captured by authors who just plain "nailed it."
AN ASIDE: "Nailed it." Now there's an interesting phrase. I can't help but wonder whether if somehow the table could be turned whereby Elizabethan "readers" (well, consumers of Elizabethan literature) had to work their way through a story contemporary to today's students and stumble across this term, wondering what the heck it had to do with a debater's point, and guess perhaps that it might be a blasphemous reference to "something to do with" the crucifixion or perhaps a religious reference to "something to do with" the fact that Jesus had been a carpenter!
Having taught my entire career in California where ESL students are the norm, I've often wondered at the wisdom of required reading lists, particularly for those students whose command of contemporary English varies greatly. Yet, with older literary voices, the parallel challenges to many "native speakers" are more similar to those of ESL students than we may adequately take into consideration.
Truthfully, required reading asks not only the struggling native speaking student, but many "A" and "B" level native speakers to swim through the language that is foreign to them in Shakespeare as English is to our ESL students.
And speaking of Shakespeare, his contemporary audiences never read his plays. Even if they somehow had not become aware of the term "Odds Bodkin," they had the strong visual multi-sensory context that comes with "seeing" and "hearing" a story staged and choreographed by professional set designers and directors and presented by professional actors whose mastery of tone and rehearsed reading eliminated much of the issues associated with levels of text-based reading skill levels.
These considerations are often a major element of the argument put forward by proponents of YA lit among other contemporary writings not considered "sophisticated enough" by the proponents of the classics. Yet, YA lit perhaps to an even greater extent than the classics, "ages" quickly, in it's common reliance upon contemporary "slang, "lingo," "colloquiallsm;" to say nothing of the lightning speed at which technology terminology and references age. I still laugh out loud when watching an episode of Seinfeld every time Jerry (short for Jerome I might proudly add) answers his "portable" phone; a brick that almost requires two hands to lift!
I can not suggest that either the proponents of the classics OR those of the contemporary have the better argument. If either side actually "won" the tug of war in their local faculty meeting, the literature program would lose.
But rather than continue the tug of war, perhaps recognizing that the wisdom of the classics has a value not as commonly found in the contemporary YA literature (which I realize may be an arguable point), while at the same time that the classics pose challenges not posed by contemporary YA literature in their requirement to comprehend very different versions of the "same language" spoken by today's student readers, particularly when that language requires the learning of obsolete vocabulary.
And even worse, unlike students who study French or German or Spanish or Chinese or any of the "foreign" languages taught in school who might at least hope to someday have an opportunity to actually use that second language in the real world, students learning middle English or obsolete English in order to appreciate "older voices" often simply add that challenge to a growing obstacle course to finding literary reading relevant or engaging.
And, at the same time recognizing that the relevance of much contemporary literature relies heavily upon fleeting relevance quickly becoming as hilariously ridiculous in the minds of some young readers as the graduation photos in their parents' high school yearbooks.
Perhaps rather than selecting literary titles based upon their standing among the literati, we might ask what are the best titles to employ that push readers just beyond their current levels of appreciation so their appreciation expands, but not so far beyond their current levels of appreciation that discouraging reading experiences outpace encouraging reading experiences.
Yet, we all know that when students find relevance in a story, even stories that are written quite a bit beyond their current levels of appreciation, they become engaged in ways that trump even their perceptions of their own reading levels.
In that regard, when selecting literary titles we might weigh more carefully the percentages of our students who still struggle at the basic literacy level, the percentages of our students who are destined to become scholar-level consumers of literature, and the percentage of our students who we hope to assist in becoming the beneficiaries of a life-long literary reading practice.
I've found too often that it is not so much the age of the voice in a story that blocks young readers from engaging in reading, it's an almost universal baseline question, "What's this old story got to do with anything I care about?"
My goal was to respect where their care list was, but to also push the development of what they cared about by focusing upon how great literature is great because it gives us reasons to consider, re-consider and perhaps refine their existing perceptions of what it is that they should care about.
A closing thought.
Long ago when I began contemplating what I might have to say about this article, I was convinced that I was going to make a big deal out of the irony of suggesting that "old (text) voices" have changed. I thought about one of the distinctions between those who insist on facts (as history teachers do when criticizing The Grapes of Wrath) and those who recognize the ability of fiction to contain universal truths in ways that "just the facts" don't (as The Grapes of Wrath does).
Afterall, those old words are still the same black and white symbols requiring decoding as they were when originally written. They still are contained in the exact same story (translations perhaps being an exception). They are often still interacted with from within the same technology of paper or digital "paper" formats.
But, somewhere in my mental meanderings I thought about Huck spending the last several chapters cruelly recreating his life back in St. Petersburg where the story began.
It is Huck himself who has changed. He understands at the end his adventure life at levels he had not understood when his adventure began. The artifical "return" to St. Petersburg that Tom brings to the story creates a situation where Huck is not the same Huck he was at the beginning of the story and realizes he can't go back.
Our students are like Huck, they too are transitioning from their limited understandings of the world around them through their daily experiences. This is particularly true of our teenaged students who are essentially in the process of coming out of the cocoon of childhood, just beginning to see the world around them with a new clarity.
The voices in the books we assign do change over time per this article's thesis, however, in another sense so do our students' levels of receptiveness to the distance between the contemporary and the past.
As they read more and more that pushes their literary appreciation they become more appreciative of books they had previously found uninteresting.
In this sense, it might be good to consider that no student reads the same book twice even though they often read the same book twice. Because not only do the voices in the books change over time, but so do our students' abilities to "listen" to those voices.