Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sometimes the solution is just waiting to be found.

One of the issues with which we have wrestled at Through the Magic Door is the incorporation of an appropriate rating system for books. One that is meaningful, descriptive, reliable and not subject to gaming. A rating system that addresses the world as we find it, rather than the world as we might want it to be.

In the next iteration of our advanced search database on the site, we will be incorporating a rating system that we hope meets these criteria.

There has, however, been one unresolved issue. We have Highly Recommended (HR) books (with appropriate descriptions and examples of what that means), Recommended (R) books and Suggested (S) books. We even have a category of books, Possible (P). P books are those that are pretty pedestrian or flawed in some way and are unlikely to appeal to the average reader but might be happily read by individuals with a strong interest in the topic or genre.

But what to do about those books towards which we as parents raise a skeptical eyebrow? Books which our children may enthusiastically want to read but of which we are deeply suspicious in terms of taste or values? Books about gastrically impaired canines (Walter the Farting Dog), sartorially challenged kids (The Adventures of Captain Underpants), trans-species (?) romance (Twilight), socially twisted mean girls (Baby-Sitters club), the linguistically challenged (Junie B. Jones), etc.

Books which under most circumstances we would definitely not recommend except that they are books which kids love to read at a certain age. Books that, in their own fashion, do help build the habit of reading despite their content or nature. Which is the greater good, more reading or reading fewer, "better" books? Of course that is a false dichotomy. In fact, the raison detre for Through the Magic Door is in part to make sure parents can easily find the really good books that are likely to appeal to their children in place of the aesthetically challenged fare being hawked so indiscriminately. None-the-less, no matter how many good books you may make available to your child, like as not, there will be a phase (or two or three) when your child wants to read something that is highly suspect in terms of either aesthetic quality or in terms of behavioral norms that are being advanced.

The problem is compounded by the fact that we only review books we believe are likely to be worthwhile to some child and parent. We don't invest time in reading or reviewing a book in order to trash it. De facto, if there is no review then we either haven't read the book or we have read it and it is not one we would recommend.

So how to deal with books that we have read and don't recommend but recognize that children will want to read anyway because it is the hot item on the publishing circuit and being heavily promoted or because their friends are reading it or because it touches on the inappropriate? "Eskimo", to use Mrs. Gilbraith's euphemism in the wonderful Cheaper By The Dozen.

We don't want to necessarily promote these books by drawing attention to them but it is not appropriate to stick one's head in the sand and just pretend that they don't exist and aren't effective in getting some children to keep reading? That is the problem we have been wrestling with.

In this quarter's ever delightful Slightly Foxed, (the literary magazine that is dedicated to bringing attention to wonderful books from the past few years or century that have drifted from the limelight), there is an article, Nobody Ever Writes to Me, by David Spiller regarding the six volume collection of the correspondence, The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, 1955- 1962, between those classic old-school literary figures George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis. Their very names evoke a lost age that was only a blink of the eye ago.

As an aside, I should warn readers that Slightly Foxed is an incideous magazine for anyone infected with even the mildest strain of bibliophilia. In a house bursting at the seams with books and no place to put even the normal volume of new acquisitions that I make, the last thing I need is to be lured into new purchases. Collected correspondence between literati from fifty years ago, is, in the normal course of events, virtually at the bottom of my list of books to watch out for. More than at the bottom. Down the well. Way down.

And yet Spiller has done what all the writers in Slightly Foxed do. He has piqued my interest. He has ignited a spark. I know that, should I come across this set of books in my visit to bookstores, there is a high likelihood that, despite my prejudices, other interests and lack of space, those books will be coming home with me. Subscribe to Slightly Foxed if you wish but beware.

In his article, Spiller comments on how Lyttelton and Harte-Davis corresponded about many things but among other items, they wrote of literature and of books and how despite the differences in their ages, there was a high degree of agreement and judgement. He mentions:

Both men read Ian Fleming, whom Lyttelton described as 'bad and at the same time compellingly readable'.

I think we have there the answer to our rating dilemma. To HR, R, S, and P we can now add BBCR - Bad But Compellingly Readable.

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