Intellectual maps are a cul-de-sac

October 27, 1994

Pamela King and Angela Barrs write (THES, October 14) that "An undergraduate course ought to inculcate a habit of independent critical reading". I could not agree more, but my heart sank on reading the next sentence, "Is it not more important that the graduate should be an efficient, responsive reader with an intellectual map on which to locate any text, than that he/she should have acquired the complacency attendant upon having read an appointed number of privileged texts".

Where does one acquire such maps? From one's tutor's pet theorist, I guess. A bit like old bogey-man Leavis laying down the route through Hardy's poetry, "only six poems worth reading". All maps are abstractions, for a purpose. They help you get from Bournemouth to Manchester, but cannot prepare you for the reality of Manchester.

Ms King and Ms Barrs are our old enemies, the policepeople of literature, pats for correct thoughts, truncheons for not being right on on race, women, the 20th century, syrup pudding or fast cars. I doubt that their "maps" are even that useful a navigational guide. More likely a template, and bugger the specimens that do not conform.

As for efficiency, what is an "efficient" reader? How long do they have to take to come to terms with King Lear, Omeros or Love Medicine? I expect to get years and years more reading and self-development out of these texts. Or is an "efficient" reader one who churns out three articles a year and gets two citations per article?

As for complacency, certainly there are people who wear their canonical syllabuses like old school ties, but who has given a footnote for them for decades? Striking the father dead is OK, but hardly "efficient" when his toes have been nourishing daisies for ages.

Ms King and Ms Barrs seem indifferent to the challenge of literature. They write, of teachers required to teach texts they have not been formally taught, that "for the educated reader the assimilation of new material should present few problems" -- not if your map has not fallen apart and you're firing on all cylinders!

Do they really believe that we "assimilate" new texts? Are they never challenged by what they read? Made to re-think important areas of their lives? To see things anew? If not, why bother with literature? If it is only slotting texts into some tired old mental map, why not croquet, or issuing tickets to traffic?

Real literature forays into the unknown; the map-makers struggle behind, reeking of the academy, pretending they are explorers.

MALCOLM POVEY Bournemouth University

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