Cheap and quite exemplary

20th September 1996 at 01:00
LONGMAN IMPRINTS: Diaries and Letters Edited by Celeste Flower. Stories from Europe Edited by Geoff Barton. Ten Short Plays Edited by Geoff Barton. Highlights from 19th-Century Novels Edited by Linda Marsh.

Characters from Pre-20th Century Novels Edited by Susie Campbell Travel Writing Edited by Linda Marsh Longman Pounds 4.99 each.

THORNES CLASSIC SHORT STORIES: Guy de Maupassant Katherine Mansfield Thomas Hardy Edited by Mike Royston Stanley Thornes Pounds 3.25 each.

Much has happened to anthologies since Greeks used the word for a collection of choice flowers. The nadir was the 1993 School Examination and Assesment Council anthology for key stage 3, satirised by Geoff Barton as "a gruel thin literary diet masquerading as a feast".

Barton knows a thing or two about anthologies, as the new Longmans Imprints prove. He is series consultant and editor of Ten Short Plays and Stories from Europe, both exemplary and for less than a fiver.

Each Imprint, of around 150 pages, has a similar format: introduction; text; study activities; notes on authors; suggestions for further reading. Nothing new there, but the editing is special.

I can only hint at the varied menu in each edition. Thirteen highlights from 19th-century novels; 16 pre-20th century characters; 17 travel pieces; 25 letters and diaries - and few rehashed dishes, such as Pepys on the Fire of London or the sea chest from Treasure Island.

Most of the 15 European stories will probably be new to classrooms. Likewise James Fenton, Don McCullin and Helen Sharman in Travel Writing and the juxtaposed diaries of Jimmy Boyle and Alan Clark. Ten Short Plays (with its cross-section of genres) is a fine addition to the limited range of plays available at this level.

Expect rumblings about the use of extracts, especially when seen as a sop to pre-20th century statutory demands. "If you're not up to reading Dickens or Gaskell, highlights won't help." Well, they might, as G K Chesterton suggested. Moreover, there are editorial recommendations about reading whole texts. The problem, of course, is where the "repertoire" of the text seems irredeemably at odds with the reader.

Enter the study activities. They are likely to encourage students' responses to even the most demanding reading. Here, focus on the text and textual comparisons are what matters, not the nincompoopery of what can be done to it or with it. Converts to Imprints should know that further editions (including Stories from Africa) are promised for September.

Each of these initial titles in the Thornes series contains up to five unabridged stories arranged in order of suitability for lower, average and higher ability students. They are seen as "helping average to lower ability key stage 3 and 4 pupils meet the pre-20th century literature requirement".

Perhaps that laudable target determined the too-frequent intrusions between story and reader? Each page has a glossary and plot summary. There are periodic "pause for playback" boxes when readers consider questions in the study section before continuing, and "look out for" pointers.

Study guides on individual stories and an "overview", examining narrative, characterisation, themes, setting and atmosphere, are sparkily unpatronising.

These include inventive ideas for group and pair work, where reading becomes a social activity - particularly helpful for lower ability students.

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