“Sing, goddess, of the anger of Achilleus, son of Peleus/ the accursed anger which brought uncounted anguish on the Achains/ and hurled down to Hades many mighty souls of heroes”
The Iliad. 1:1-3.
Homer’s famous opening to his battle-epic The Iliad might seem like a curious note to open a discussion regarding children’s literature but they’re not as far apart as they might seem. Everyone agrees that the internet is changing our literary culture and we are struggling to define and develop the new culture left in its place. I think this elusive culture not only borrows from but is also returning to an oral culture.
Homeric oral culture is a vast area of discussion so my brief explanation will hardly do it any justice but a basic understanding is all we need for now. Historical facts about the figure of Homer are scanty but it’s generally accepted that Homer was a travelling bard travelling around Greece in the 8th and 7th centuries BC reciting his works for an audience. Homer’s epics borrowed heavily from folklore and mythology, using stories that his audience was familiar with. Because of the oral nature of his poetry, the Homeric bard could easily rearrange his narrative suiting the demands of his audience. This implies an interaction between the bard and the audience, these poems were performed for and hinged on the enjoyment of their audience. The opening lines of The Iliad and The Odyssey both stress the importance of the story-teller who begins each epic.
Children’s literature has its origins in folklore and mythology. Children were educated and entertained through folktales and mythology. It was only in the 1400s that books were produced and the idea of literature that could enlighten children would not emerge until the 1690s. But the interactive elements in children’s literature prevailed throughout every change in medium, two of the most famous children’s stories Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland were both composed as interactive texts. Peter Pan was originally written as a play and Alice in Wonderland as a collection of stories Lewis Carroll told for the entertainment of Alice Liddell.
As technology progressed, the oral culture was replaced by printed books. Literature has not always had an easy relationship with technology. Each progress is medium has led to concern over the loss of the previous form and this is true of the current age of digital literacy. Katherine Hayles describes how our basic process of reading is changing, the typical computer user is now reading in a ‘F’ shape across the page. She also describes how we have moved from the academic practice of close reading, to hyper-reading which is described as screen-based and computer assisted and eventually leading to machine-reading which is human assisted computer reading. This is a fundamental change to how we interpret and understand what we read.
“The digital native” is the name Palfrey and Gasser have given this new generation born into the digital age. The digital native’s dependence on technology has led to a growing concern about children’s declining attention-spans and the falling rates of literacy. An article in The Telegraph describes how children’s brains are being “rewired” and their minds have been so accustomed to darting between webpages, that they can no longer partake in linear disciplines like reading and writing. This is an extreme view but is it a groundless concern?
A survey carried out in 2011 by the National Literacy Trust found that 50.2% of young people enjoy reading which is a slight drop from 51.4% in 2005. But only 30.8% of young people interviewed read daily which shows a 7.3% drop since 2005. The survey also highlighted the gap between young female and male readership. The lack of young male readers is a troubling and consistent problem with the survey citing only 26.3% of boys reading daily. But in February 2012, The Guardian published an article which reported that boys were closing the gap between the genders in reading abilities. The problem is not that boys aren’t as literate as girls, but that they tend to read less challenging books as they progress through school.
Children and young people are not reading as much as we would like and they are not reading what we would like. Readforpleasure.co.uk is a website dedicated to the spread of literacy among British children and it suggests that the best way to motivate the reluctant reader is with “the simple act of storytelling”. The use of a storyteller brings us back to the idea of an oral culture when the storyteller engaged with their audience. Several of the writers on their list of most read books in 2013 all maintain very strong connections with their audience through the internet.
The most famous name on the list, J.K Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series launched a fully interactive website Pottermore which expands on the universe of the books with artwork of the settings, extra passages written by Rowling, interactive games and a community of fans that communicate with each other and with Rowling.
Twilight author Stephanie Meyer uses her website to include her fans in the process of writing, she lists songs that she listened to as she wrote, she posts unedited chapters and out-takes from her books and she lists the fan-sites dedicated to her work. As well as engaging with the audience that built up around his books, Rick Riordan, author of Percy Jackson and the Olympians series uses his website as an educational space, offering information about the mythology and history he draws on to write his books.
These authors also include interviews and appearances they made in magazines and on television, they include extra information about their books and they all maintain a presence online on sites like Twitter where they can directly address their fans.
In a recent interview, Jeff Kinney, author of the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, said that “kids are absorbing stories in a different way than they ever have before”. The process of reading has changed but it’s becoming a more rounded experience. Reading is about more than the story, it is about interacting with the writer and engaging in a community of like-minded fans. To me, this is the return to the oral culture of Homer when bards performed for audiences who knew the stories but enjoyed seeing the performance anyway. This is why I would call this new age in literacy the new oral culture.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Martin Hammond. England: Penguin Books, 1987. Print.
Norton, Donna E. Through the eyes of a child. Ohio: Merrilll Publishing Company, 1987. Print.
Palfrey, J and Gasser, U. Born Digital. Understanding the first generation of digital natives. New York: Basic Books, 2008. 238-253. Print.
Scodel, Ruth. “The storyteller and his audience.” Fowler, Robert. The Cambridge Companion to Homer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 45-52. Print.
Clark, Christina. National Literacy Trust. Children’s and Young People’s Reading Today. Findings from the 2011 National Literacy Trust’s Annual Survey. London: National LIteracy Trust, 2012. Web. 28 March, 2013.
Flood, Alison. “Boys closing reading gap with girls.” The Guardian, 28 Feb, 2012. Web. 28 March, 2013.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine.” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010): 62-79. Web. 28. March 2013.
“Students brains ‘rewired’ by the internet.” The Telegraph, 11 Feb, 2010. Web. 28 March, 2013.