Friday, January 20, 2006

An experiment in reading

There's a great article in the Guardian by Francesca Simon (of Horrid Henry fame) and her sixteen-year-old son, Joshua Stamp-Simon.

They made a deal. Francesca would read Joshua's favorite fantasy title and Joshua would read Trollope. Francesca Simon was reluctant and explains why:
  • "All right, I admit it, I'm biased. I hate fantasy. All those adjectives and elves and weird names. The moment someone says fantasy, I know I'm in for 'The three blood-red moons rose over the dusty sand plains of Ut-Tajik as the bald jackal priest of Sidt placed the sacred silver urn of Caldon on the broken altar of the blind god Fifff.' I got bored halfway through The Lord of the Rings; why should I endure Tolkien's imitators?"

Her assignment? Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy, volume one (Assassin's Apprentice). Verdict?

  • "I am hooked. Hobb is a remarkable storyteller. There are no elves. Fitz, the assassin's apprentice and the king's bastard son, has quite a good name. Hobb even keeps her adjectives on a tight lead. (Adverbs are more frolicsome.) What particularly gripped me was her exploration of the consequences of magical powers."

Joshua's assignment? Barchester Towers. And the results are not so successful. Young Joshua is clear about his preferences from the outset. He explains, "To me fiction should be enjoyable first and 'worthy' second. Although it's nice to think that classic literature will enrich the mind and broaden the horizons, this prospect fades into insignificance when faced with hours spent bored rigid."

And how does Trollope fare? Not well. Joshua writes,

  • "The problem is ... nothing happens. The Reverend Obediah Slope gives a sermon that no one likes. The other characters then spend 50 pages discussing this. Trollope (or Anthony, as my mum calls him) writes as if none of his readers have anything better to do - all characters are introduced by means of lengthy and irrelevant description. The basic doctrine of 'show, don't tell' was obviously not around in the 19th century, nor the notion that character and plot work best in tandem, rather than in isolation. Trollope constantly interrupts his already boring descriptions with his own views on various subjects, including the nature of literature, where he discloses that there is not, and will never be, any suspense in his fiction."

Too funny. I laughed my way through this article. The greatest part of this article are Joshua's conclusions: "But the best thing about this experience is that it proves I was right all along. I assured my mum that she'd love the Farseer books, and she does. She assured me I'd love Trollope. I assured her that I wouldn't. Victory is sweet."