A glowing report

9th June 1995 at 01:00
CAMBRIDGE LITERATURE series: A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 10 12 CHAPTERS. By Julian Barnes. Edited by Ron Middleton. Pounds 4.50. - 0 521 48462 2.

SIX POETS OF THE GREAT WAR. Edited by Adrian Barlow. Pounds 2.95. - 0 521 48569 X.

THE AFTER-DINNER JOKE AND THREE MORE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS. By Caryl Churchill. Edited by Lib Taylor. Pounds 2.95. - 0 521 48571 1.

SILAS MARNER. Edited by Mary Bousted. Pounds 2.95. - 0 521 48572 X.

THE JOY LUCK CLUB. By Amy Tan. Edited by Richard Andrews. Pounds 3.95. - 0 521 48562 2. Cambridge University Press

Brian Slough gives a worm's eye-view of a new literature series. The omnipresent character in A History of the World in 1012 Chapters is a woodworm. In my sequel, about the history of English in 11 12 chapters, it will glow optimistically about developments in study texts. It will see more wood than holes, not least in this Cambridge Literature series. Each text is physically attractive and excellent value. The initial selection of authors is equally enticing. Not only Julian Barnes, Caryl Churchill, and Amy Tan, but Robert Cormier and Graham Swift, plus television's latest rediscovery in Edith Wharton.

Moreover, Six Poets of the Great War is no rehash, the kind of anthology that raises Jeffrey Bernard's blood pressure. It questions assumptions about "war poems" and "war poets", recovers writing in danger of disappearing (Richard Adlington is one of the six) and encourages comparisons of poems and poets. There are memorable supplementary poems to the featured six, notably from women.

Each text is complete and uninterrupted, excepting an occasional asterisk against words deemed "unfair because they have a particular cultural or linguistic significance". Explanations appear in a separate glossary. Margaret Thatcher is asterisked in The After Dinner Joke. I dare not comment, apart from admiring the editor's bravery.

The brief introductions focus on pre-reading reflection and advice: Why 1012 chapters? What is the Joy Luck Club? A sentence from Henry James on Silas Marner. Caryl Churchill's own thoughts, appropriate for a theatre programme, form an interesting departure. Nothing intervenes between text and reader to clutter or predetermine the individual's first response.

A similar intention permeates the study section, here called "Resource Notes". Students should be "actively exploring" and making fresh sense of what they read. Amen to that. The pursuit of this ideal is through structured questions: Who has written the text and why? What type of text is it? How was it produced? How does the text present its subject? Who reads it and how do they interpret it?

Each section generated by these questions contains expected background information (biography etc) but also other imaginative features, not readily accessible to students or teachers. Examples are reviews (Sunday Times, New Statesman) and interviews (South Bank Show) on Barnes; cross references to other media and literary genres (Wayne Wang's film of The Joy Luck Club); contrasting criticism (on Silas Marner); an innovatively designed date chart of the Great War; and insights into the processes of television commissioning and scheduling.

The "activities", intended for individuals, pairs, or groups, aim to develop understanding as readers, actors, researchers, critics, and writers. Their range and quality is gratifying. "Golden oldies" foster easy sniping in any sphere. The familiar methodology - simulations, sequencing, pastiche et al - is still valuable, however, if it serves rather than rules the learning process.

Expectations are high. Students, who apparently need Pinter asterisked, are asked if "works of art help us make sense of what often seems like a haphazard and meaningless universe". The research suggestions are no sinecures either. Try your local library for the repercussions of the Chernobyl disaster. Mind you, an in-depth study of concubinage should activate certain students of my acquaintance.

Two particular compliments: Lib Taylor's material on the Churchill plays and the use of original sources (letters, diaries etc) in Six Poets. In each book the editor's judgment is commendable. They stimulate an awareness of differences between first and subsequent readings, that men and women often read differently, that texts do not exist in cultural isolation. The treatment is suggestion not prescription. The woodworm and bookworm will find plenty of nourishment.

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