Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Perspective on controversies

Thinking people always contest with one another as to whether they have all the facts, whether they are interpreting the facts correctly, or whether the facts are relevant to the decisions that need to be made. Unfortunately, we are often not well schooled in the mechanisms and cadences of effective dispute. Emotion becomes the energy behind a debate. Rationality, willingness to accept the incompleteness of our knowledge and humility give way to overconfidence and hubris. Sometimes it is science - what do we really know about global warming versus the wild claims from both sides? Sometimes it is economics - what are the appropriate actions to take in the wake of an asset bubble deflation? Almost always it is really just opinion and loud shouts.

It is refreshing sometimes to look back on past debates. Not how they were resolved, though that is of course interesting. Rather, what is interesting is what we have forgotten about how they began and what was thought to be known at the time with complete certainty.

Brian Switek has an interesting blog post, Ancient Armored Whales, on a long ago and long forgotten debate from the turn of the last century when paleontologists debated heatedly with one another as to whether ancient whales were armored. It makes us smile now, but these were not stupid people. Just overconfident in their facts or their interpretations. We can only smile if we are confident we have learned the lesson of humility about our facts and interpretations. Nothing I see suggests that we have.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A hopeful sentiment

Robert Ardrey, African Genesis
Our predatory animal origin represents for mankind its last best hope. Had we been born of a fallen angel, then the contemporary predicament would lie as far beyond solution as it would lie beyond explanation. Our wars and our atrocities, our crimes and our quarrels, our tyrannies and our injustices could be ascribed to nothing other than singular human achievement. And we should be left with a clear-cut portrait of man as a degenerate creature endowed at birth with virtue's treasury whose only notable talent has been his capacity to squander it.

But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Tintin Turns 80

Though just mentioned in the prior post, I think it worth drawing particular attention to this article in the December 18th, 2008 Economist, A Very European Hero. Tintin is a boy adventurer from Europe (Belgium actually) who might be characterized as a comic book version of a European Hardy Boys. However, there is much more to the success of the series and the development of Tintin as a cultural and literary icon of Europe than just being a well drawn cartoon with a hero having interesting adventures. The article is an interesting meditation on the role of culture and history and context in the shaping of a childhood favorite.

Socializing the creature

Just a coincidental juxtaposition of three articles that interestingly all deal in different aspects of how children are socialized and the possible role that books and reading play in that process. While I don't believe children can learn manners from books, they have to see it expected, practised, and reinforced around them, and I do believe books can make that process easier or more difficult by being consistent or not in demonstrating that manners matter.

The first article is from today's New York Times, January 13, 2009 by Dr. Perri Klass, Making Room for Miss Manners is a Parenting Basic.

The second article is from the December 18th, 2008 Economist, A Very European Hero about Herge's Tintin who turns 90 this year and who in part was originally created to reinforce certain admired personal behavioral attributes.

And finally an article by Dr. Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal, lamenting the passing of an older generation's quintessential "Britishness" in an article, The Quivering Upper Lip.

Through each of these articles runs a quiet desire that we improve the means by which we inculcate in our children the positive behaviours that not only benefit them but also the community to which they belong. There is also the less than explicit message that books can play a role in reinforcing those desired behaviors.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

TTMD Comunity Members forecast which 2007 books will endure

One of the things that fascinates all involved in the world of children's books is trying to figure out which books will endure (and why) and also to figure out why some well deserved books seem to fade from the scene. Through the Magic Door has had a shot at assessing the enduring popularity of past winners of major awards, (see Awards as Forecasts as well as Sic transit gloria mundi).

Through the Magic Door invites you to partake in a quick exercise in which you forecast which of the winners of recent awards will still be popular twenty-five and seventy-five years from now. You can vote on the titles that won major national awards in 2007 as well as log those books that you thought were great works published in 2007 but which may not have won a major award (or any award).

Use your own criteria for forecasting which ones will be around. I suspect your votes would be shaped by considerations of how universal is the message of the book, the nature of its emotional impact on a child, how much its current popularity is shaped by topical fads (e.g. vampires), how much is the language of the book colored by current styles, etc.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

Sic transit gloria mundi

From Slightly Foxed Winter 2008. Umbrellas at Dawn by Richard Hughes.
'I don't think he'll be remembered at all.' The hugely successful novelist sat in his apartment at No. 90 Piccadilly confiding to his diary. 'His only fault', he continued, 'was his pomposity about himself and his works.' The year was 1937 and the man of letters, within weeks of being knighted for his services to literature, was musing on the passing away - prematurely at the age of 55 - of the poet and dramatist John Drinkwater.

From his desk overlooking Green Park, the richest novelist of his age was commenting on the foibles of a less successful colleague and competitor. At this moment he seemed master of all he surveyed - the purveyor of best-selling fiction with a literary gloss that placed him comfortably above the Howard Springs and Warwick Deepings of the world; recently returned from a profitable period in Hollywood writing screenplays for several directors, including George Cukor; a man whose vast wealth had allowed him to become a respected collector of books and paintings, and a well-known and generous patron and benefactor of the literary circle of the day. But four years later he too was to die prematurely, at 57, and, more shocking and difficult to credit, he was soon to be as forgotten as John Drinkwater. His name was Hugh Walpole.

It is hard today to appreciate the extent of Hugh Walpole's success. Not only did his novels - which had appeared annually since his first triumph, Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traidill, in 1911 - consistently head the best-seller lists, but he was also a well-known public figure on both sides of the Atlantic. At the time of his death in 1941, he was giving a series of wartime propaganda broadcasts to the USA called 'Hugh Walpole Talking'. His views were sought, his opinions respected. Hugh Walpole was master of his game. Yet there has always been a problem about the reputation of this seemingly dominant figure.

Humanities Indicator

If you have not already seen this, The Humanities Resource Center has released an excellent study, The Humanities Indicator Prototype, which attempts to measure, as the name suggests, the nature of and degree of engagement between the humanities and the general culture. Follow the link to the main page.

Part V, The Humanities in American Life, is the section particularly pertinent to those of us focusing on the role of reading and children's literature. In particular, Section A covers Adult Literacy, Family Literacy, and Book Reading.

This is an excellent collation of information from disparate sources and the general observations and conclusions map well to research we have been doing at Through the Magic Door which is more concentrated on these same trends but with particular focus on young people rather than the population at large.

The one element I do not see addressed is the degree of concentration of reading. Based on only two studies some years apart, it would appear to me that in the US, discretionary reading is highly concentrated. Approximately 50% of the population read nothing for pleasure in a given year, 40% of the population reads about 20% of the books consumed in a year and 10% of the population does approximately 80% of the discretionary reading. The closest the study comes to shedding light on this issue is measurement of levels of prose proficiency. The US comes ninth among twenty-two OECD countries (and ahead of all the big European countries such as UK and Germany) in terms of prose proficiency but it also has one of the most bi-polar distributions. 21% of the population reads at the highest level of proficiency and 21% reads at the lowest level. Three Scandinavian countries (four of the nine countries that are ahead of the US) have similarly high levels of the population reading at the most proficient level but are more effective at minimizing the percentage of the population reading at the lowest levels. For Sweden, Norway and Finland, 24% of the population reads at the highest literacy level (compared to the US's 21%) but only 9% read at the lowest level (compared to the US's 21%).
Other interesting findings in this report:
43% of the population read no books for pleasure in the prior 12 months. That figure is for 2002. More recent studies for the US that I have seen all hover around the 50% mark not having read a book in the prior 12 months. In Europe the corresponding figure tends to average 55% but with marked national and regional variations.

While overall voluntary reading has been declining for a number of years, the most marked declines are among the younger demographics. Between 1992 and 2002, voluntary reading declined from 59.8% to 51% for 18-24 year olds and from 63.8% to 58.4% for 25-34 year olds. Remember, this is a measure of people that read at least a single book.

All demographics showed an increase in the habit of daily reading to children in their household, increasing from 53% to 58% between 1993 and 2001. Households with the mother having a college degree education or higher (about 25% of the population) had the highest rates of daily reading to children at 73%.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Awards as forecasts

A while ago I conducted an exercise with some interesting results. I wanted to know how well awards reflected enduring enjoyment by the reading public. This was not an exercise in criticism of awards. I think they are a critical part of the annual cycle of events among the literate public and they play an important function of bringing attention to new works in a fashion somewhat separate from the marketing hoopla of publishers. But how good are they as forecasters of future popularity? Pretty good in the short term, so-so in the medium term, and not so much in the long term is the answer.

I decided to look at a couple of different aspects of this. First I made the assumption that the degree to which books are still in print some years after they were initially published, reflects, at least imperfectly, enduring popularity. Second I decided to compile a list of most cited books in terms of popularity. I compiled this from some 80 sources made up of library lists, academic texts (dealing with the teaching of children's literature), awards, and independent lists (informed amateurs, newspaper contests, etc.). I then looked at how often the most critically popular books had actually received awards.

In order to answer the first question (how have past winners fared?), I looked back 75 years, 50, 25, 10 and 5 years to see how many titles picked as winners or runners up by six national awards (Newberry, Caldecott, Horn Book Fanfare, Kate Greenaway, Carnegie and Bank Street awards, not all of which were in existence for the full duration) were still in print. I did this at the end of 2007 and looked back to 1932, 1957, 1982, 1997 and 2002. Up to ten years after they won an award, between 80 and 90% of the titles were still in print. There then was a plunge to 45% still in print for the periods twenty-five and fifty years after receiving an award. At the seventy-five year mark (only the Newberry was then in existence), only one of the seven (15%) Newberry Honor/Medal winners for 1932 was still in print. It wasn't the Medal winner, Waterless Mountain, but rather an Honor winner, Calico Bush by Rachel Field. In fact, among the authors represented and aside from Field, I suspect only Dorothy P. Lathrop would garner a glimmer of recognition outside the most rarefied of experts.

So only 15% of winners from seventy-five years ago were still in print.

How about the second question, (how many of the most popular books were award winners in the year of their publication?) This was an interesting exercise and I will publish the results in more detail shortly.

From an overall perspective, Awards lists were the least accurate pickers of the most enduringly favorite books compared to academics, libraries and independents. Roughly 30% of the top 100, 500 and 1000 books failed to receive a single award (recognizing that some of the favorite titles were published before the earliest awards were given).

Finally I looked, not exhaustively, for any other titles from way back to see what other books published in 1932 (but which did not receive an award), were still in print. Among the books I found were:
Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks
Angus Lost by Marjorie Flack
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Little Family (now out of print) by Lois Lenski

So what does it all mean? Well, the sensationalist headline might be "Fewer than Half Award Winners Still in Print After 25 Years."

However, to an extent, it just quantifies what you might expect. Trying to sort through all the books of a particular year, to identify which are the most exciting or engaging works is a difficult task with incomplete lists of books, sharp deadlines, and all sorts of pressures, fads and influences. It is not quite the same as identifying at leisure which are likely to be the most loved books over time. If journalism is the first draft of history, then awards are the first draft of enduring popularity - somewhat hit or miss, but getting a reasonable number of the winners right and overlooking just enough to keep bibliophiles fussing and fuming.