At last, a book exploring the impact of literature on the non- academic reader, writes Chris Jones.
Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem
By Catherine Robson
Princeton University Press
312pp, Pounds 30.95
Published 24 September 2012
It's taken a long time for English studies to get here. When, in the 19th century, the discipline was being formed, there was much anxiety within and without the field that English would consist of nothing more than "idle gossip about literary taste". English responded by making itself as rigorous-looking as possible, almost "scientific" in its methodology. After all, if studying English wasn't difficult, why should it have a place in the modern university?
This meant that English first bolstered itself with the science of philology, then with the self-professedly objective principles of "practical criticism", and then the specialist terminologies of "theory". All these approaches have concerned themselves with creating a class of trained, professionalised readers - readers who, having been through the academy, can read differently from those who have not. While there's nothing wrong with that in itself, somewhere along the way non- professional readers have got left behind. What does literature mean to those hundreds of thousands of readers who turn to it as a source of value and meaning in their lives, but who have had little or no academic experience with it? There is a wealth of "real-life" engagement with literature that researchers in social anthropology and the medical humanities have sometimes busied themselves with, but about which English studies has been curiously quiet.
I hope that books like Catherine Robson's brilliant Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem will mark a turning point in the history of our discipline. Written with a lightness of touch but a depth of commitment, Heart Beats considers the practices of memorisation and recitation of poetry in schools in the UK and the US over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the effects these practices had on the lives of those who committed poems to memory as a result.
Robson takes a twin approach to her topic, dividing Heart Beats accordingly. In the first section she gives a historical overview of the use of memorised poems in UK and US public education. Her primary sources include inspectors' reports, government commissions into curriculum development and the many manuals and textbooks produced explicitly for classroom use. …