Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Stuck on Sherlock

So I finished watching the new Sherlock Holmes television movie I was talking about yesterday. I was watching the final few frames in which Holmes is looking all moody and thoughtful after having attended the wedding of his middle-aged buddy, Watson, to his middle-aged fiance(She appeared to be widowed or divorced as well as a professional woman.), and I thought, How did the Sherlock Holmes stories end up on student reading lists? Who decided these were books for kids?

By no means do I want to suggest that Holmes is inappropriate for kids. My question is, what's the attraction? Everything I know and believe about kids and reading says to me that there's nothing for them at 221 Baker Street. Is the main character a child or teen? Is there a child or teen's voice? Do the themes deal with child or teen issues of separation or identity? Are there child/teen problems that the child/teen reader can resolve while reading the book.

No, no, and no. And no.

So how did Sherlock Holmes become associated with kid reading? I will make a couple of guesses.

First, in the late 19th Century when Arthur Conan Doyle began writing the Holmes books, there wasn't a great deal of children's literature. Children's literature became more popular in the 20th Century when it became possible to mass produce color illustrations and when "specialization" became popular. (You no longer just had doctors, you had specialists; you no longer just had literature, you had specialized literatures). At the time Holmes was created, the various generations tended to read the same things. (By the way, I heard all this at a lecture a few years ago. Unfortunately, I can't remember who gave it.) So late 19th Century young people were exposed to Holmes and probably found him far more readable than, say, the works of Henry James. In that way, Holmes could have become canonized as literature for young people.

Second, young people have traditionally enjoyed reading mysteries. There's a logical reason for this. Up until the late 20th Century, mysteries followed a pattern--social order was disrupted by a crime, the detective solved the crime, social order was restored. (Not so much now, when fictional crimes may be of a particularly horrendous nature and the criminal may avoid justice in some way.) But that restoration of social order was comforting for readers. Young people may particularly appreciate that comfort as more and more of life's problems are being revealed to them.

This would explain why, as a teenager, I read not only Sherlock Holmes but Miss Marple.

I read him as a teenager, but are teenagers reading him now? The British are constantly doing new television versions of Holmes' stories (they also like to keep redoing Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice), so he seems to be part of the public consciousness. But who reads him now?

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