Archive for March 13th, 2023

When I was in library school in the early ’90s, one of the topics of discussion of interest to students training to be children’s librarians was the problem of classic children’s literature becoming inaccessible to modern readers.  There are two factors in determining the proper age range for a children’s book: the first is of course its level of difficulty, and the second its subject matter.  If a book is too difficult for most children of the age it’s intended for, few will be able to enjoy it, and if the subject matter is too mature or too childish for the kids who can read it, it will languish unread.  Children of the period in which children’s literature first flourished, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, read at a level well above that of their average modern peers, with the result that by the time modern children are able to read a book, its subject matter and/or tone is too juvenile to hold their interest.  As a result, many books regarded as classics are now mostly read by nostalgic adults.  And as I recently discovered, the problem has only worsened in the past 30 years:

The Scarlet Letter is not remotely difficult to read for people who have a normal high-school level of literacy; Hawthorne’s style is pretty clear and direct by the standards of Gothic literature.  But I suppose it’s difficult for people who think “your” and “you’re” are both spelled “ur”, capitalization is optional, and punctuation is “rude”.  If it’s been years since you read Hawthorne, judge the clarity of his style for yourself with this example, my favorite of his stories.  And then consider that if Harvard students can’t read something so simple, we’d better hope politicians start making immigration easier so people from countries with functional educational systems can come here to do the brain work.

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