Another surmise: They aren't reading "The Hunger Games" in China. Or in Finland. Or in any of the other countries that consistently beat us in standardized tests. Fair bet is that they're reading Shakespeare, Chaucer, Austen and Hurston (or their high-culture equivalents), all of which are on the Common Core standards for high school and yet, by and large, remain ignored in the American classroom, where the intellectual rigors of the fifth grade linger right up until college.The estimable Cheryl Bernstein posted this diatribe on Twitter for our edification, adding her opinion in favour of Captain Underpants.
So then, what they are reading in Finland? Let's take a look. Here is the Finnish bestsellers' charts for February. Cast your gaze down to Lasten ja nuorten kirjat (children's books) and you will see three books by Suzanne Collins. At number 10 is Nälkäpeli - The Hunger Games. At number 9 is Vihan liekit - The Flames of Hatred. At number 8 is Matkijanärhi - Mockingjay. You might also notice some other familiar names in the lists.
So how about China, then? What are the Chinese kids reading? Captain Underpants. And who, you might ask, is the fifteenth most successful foreign author in mainland China? Why, it is Jeff Kinney, author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Here's another one: who is the ninth most successful foreign author? You guessed it: Stephanie Meyer, author of Twilight. Try one more: number two. Yes, you're right again: it's J K Rowling. And (drum-roll) at number one is: Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Oh.
Well, as it turns out, One Hundred Years of Solitude has become a bestseller in China, becoming even more popular than J K Rowling, which prompted one Chinese writer to lament the quality of local fiction: "In comparison, most contemporary Chinese literary works simply charm readers with elegant words while failing to reach one's inner soul and resonate with readers' personal values."
At least Shi Yanping is interested in literary values. Alexander Nazaryan at the New York Daily News has more practical uses of literacy:
Trying to slog through Book 13 of “The Iliad” when you are 15 is probably a pretty good approximation of what it will be like to slog through a Wednesday afternoon at the office when you are 55."Here, son, read this; you'll thank me when you are older." In Nazaryan's library, books have social worth; they may have some intellectual benefits - problem solving skills, it seems - but the point of reading is to learn to deal with pointlessness: "the vast majority of life is doing really difficult things, solving problems that don't seem to have a point, and then doing it all over again."
If that is what it is all about, why bother with Homer? Give the little 'uns Italo Svevo's Una Vita, the collected poems of Philip Larkin, Strindberg's Indra and The Wasteland. That'll learn 'em.
Here's Orson Welles, reporting for the BBC in 1955, at the Librairie Fischbacher in St Germain des Prés, with the Lettrists: Maurice Lemaître, Isidore Isou and Jacques Spacagna.