Through an acquaintance I became aware of www.coursera.org, a site that provides free university courses across a wide range of subjects from biology to computing and writing. I decided to begin a 10 week course entitled Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. It uses video lectures between 4 and 15 minutes, short weekly essays on set readings, discussion forums and peer assessment.
The first week was a critical reading of the Bros Grimm Children’s and Household Tales.
I was read these stories as a very young child in Holland and in the Dutch language. In fact, it was following the words in these tales as i heard them I learned to read. I remembered those tales as often being dark and scary to a young child. Over time, the Disney versions became more standard and to me, had not real connection to those I heard as a child. This time, reading the translation and seeing the original artwork, I was taken back to my childhood and the original stories.
However, this was not the intention of the course. I had to ‘write an essay that aims to enrich the reading of a fellow student who is both intelligent and attentive to the readings and to the course.’ I now need to read each story and then analyse it and that could include symbolism such as colours or the meaning of food, historical contexts, any overarching themes and so forth. So instead of simply reading the stories I had to read more slowly, read for other meanings in either the stories, the words or the way they are put together, make notes along the way and then do some research.
Now I know this is what any English literature student does but I had always avoided this type of reading or work because I believed it took away from the pleasure of the writing and, it seemed to me, often read into the reading things the author had no intention of putting there. To some extent I still believe that. I am waiting to be convinced otherwise.
Nevertheless, after week 2 and reading both Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, I realise there is a lot more to the simple stories than I imagined. Specifically, realising the age in which they were written, Victorian England, really put a different view on it. Initially thinking the nonsense made no sense, I found that it actually did in terms of spoofing Victorian English society, taking a shot at the mores of that time and, in fact, decrying that young and innocent girls have to grow up into an unfair and harsh world. It certainly made the reading more poignant.
On top of that, researching Charles Dodgsonaka Lewis Carroll
was an interesting process. So much of what is accepted about the man is myth and has little resemblance to his reality. An interesting paper by Edward Wakeling to the Lewis Carroll appreciation society in 2003 a case in point. The whole idea that he was a pedophile is questioned and, to my view, turned on it’s head.
So, whether I really like critical reading or not, I have taken on a course that makes me read differently, allows me to interact with a very broad range of students around the world, young and older with different views and, most importantly, give me insight into history, different authors and what these stories bring to the modern world. More on that later.
By the way, the next reading is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is already quite a challenge because, having read it several times, I now need to re-read it as if it were a new story.
Wish me luck.