I was at the supermarket this evening buying a few items essential to my writing. Items like soda and trail mix. Oddly, I miss that hustle in Israel on Thursday and Friday to buy the week’s groceries before Shabbat started. Tonight though, the store was pretty quiet and when I approached the cashier, I was the only one in line.
She saw my key chain which has a Les Miserables emblem on it. She asked me if the show was any good and I explained I have seen it four times so yeah, I liked it. Then, much to my surprise, she asked me what it was about. So, I found myself trying to condense a story that I always refer to as the first mini-series ever written, and consider one of the most moralistic tales ever put on paper, into a commercial length explanation. I know I didn’t do it justice.
Then, I discovered that she didn’t realize it was a based on a book. When I told her it was by Victor Hugo, the name didn’t ring a bell with her. I tossed out the fact that he’d also penned Hunchback of Notre Dame thinking she might have had at least rented the Disney version of that. No such luck. I ended up explaining that Hugo was one of the most famous writers of his day.
I was a little taken back by the conversation. The girl wasn’t dumb. She just didn’t know any better. There’s a difference. She had seen Phantom of The Opera one time on a rare trip to London. She thought that show was fantastic. Obviously, she was taken with musicals or she wouldn’t have pursued this conversation. It did make me wonder though, what is being read these days in schools.
Les Miserables was required reading for me in 7th grade. It totally changed my perspective on literature for the better. These days, it probably would be considered too tough if it was on the reading list and clearly, from this conversation, it isn’t. Reading has never been an American strong suit. It is one reason so many bad politicians can thrive here because the public is so ill-informed. The Founding Fathers would be ashamed at how little of our curiosity is quenched by books.
There has been hope though in the last few years. The Kindle – and now Ipad – has prompted many people to take up reading again. I’ve noticed a slight resurgence in people venturing online and even to bookstores. That bodes well for guys like me. As big box stores fail, like Borders, the country has seen an uptick in Independent bookstores for the first time in a long time.
Still, back to my question. What do they teach? I hope teachers remember books are meant to inform and challenge us, both at the same time. If a book doesn’t do that, then it has failed. Even a guilty summer read should pry open a corner of the mind that has been shut for far too long if only to let a daydream or two float inside. I hope that teachers realise there is an American heritage to be passed on in literature. While Hugo was French, he would’ve understood the value of placing Hemingway, Mailer, Uris, Bellow, Sinclair, Updike or Poe in a student’s course work.