N-Words

A friend in America asked me last week what I made of the new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry
Finn that takes out the 200 occurrences of the word ‘nigger’ and replaces them with ‘slave’. The book editor’s claimed that the censorship would encourage the book back onto school curricula from which it has apparently been edged off in nervous embarrassment. Sarah Churchill, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, specifically countered this argument in The Guardian back in January with the sensible comment that ‘the whole point of literature is to expose us to different ideas and different eras, and they won’t always be nice and benign’.

Churchill is right, as I see it, to insist that literary studies involve confronting the textual remains of the past. Pretending that Twain didn’t use the word inhibits sensitive analysis of how language shapes Twain’s treatment of race in the novel, and how it has acquired its highly offensive present-day connotations. A lesson on Huckleberry Finn could bring to light how the word fits into Huck’s discourse, what views about race its use promotes, whether they were sensational at the time, and how acceptable or not they are today. The text deserves to be bowdlerized only in those cases where the target readership or audience is incapable of such analysis; amending the book’s language makes sense for a pre-school TV adaptation. But on the whole, passing over such an awkward issue risks magnifying the misunderstanding. In this case, the discomfort makes it an even more pressing topic to discuss. It clarifies when use of the word deserves to be condemned, but a censored edition of Huck Finn prevents such dialogue. It encourages the conditions for the scary recent controversies about the word ‘niggardly’. Scarier still is that such discussion does impose a racial connotation to the word that it never originally had: I doubt any US politician has used the word in public recently.

This new edition of Huckleberry Finn reflects one viewpoint in the contemporary States. In fifty years’ time it could be taken up by scholars as evidence of cultural consciousness in early twenty-first-century North America (though making generalizations from one book would be rash). Editions of this ‘Great American Novel’ are affected by the editor’s conception of what a ‘Great America’ speaks like. The word history of ‘niggardly’ now tells its own story of racial sensitivity. Language is context-dependent, and literary studies help us to study text and context together. We learn about English language and its interactions with culture. Such study makes us more aware of the forces that exert themselves on our tongues, and gives us the mental strength to make new sounds.


Reading Speeds

How many different speeds can you read at? You browse a website, skim a newspaper, scan the back of a cereal box, glance at a signpost or leaf through a magazine. All these idiomatic phrases refer to reading quickly, but far fewer terms for reading slowly spring to mind. ‘Peruse’ can refer to quick and slow reading, but usually refers to the former in modern usage. If I take longer over a text, then the term I use risks making it sound like hard labour: I ‘work through’ a poem, or ‘study’ or ‘scrutinize’ it.

I’ve been asked before whether studying English means that I can read super-fast. My studies have helped me absorb information more quickly than I once could, but I’ve also got a lot better at reading more slowly. I’ve improved my focus, not just my speed. An English teacher once told my class that you could read more quickly if you ‘turned off your mental voice’. I found it strange that he didn’t mention anything about why the ‘mental voice’ is also useful, and why it’s good to ‘listen’ to writing. There is definitely a practical value in being able to pick up new information quickly, but education isn’t just about learning as much as possible in the shortest time possible.

When I was younger I read about an autistic savant (it may have been Kim Peek, the inspiration for the film Rain Man) who could read through Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace in an outrageously short time and remember every detail. I was impressed by this ability, but also felt that you would miss something even if you could recall all the factual information. Literary appreciation demands considered, concentrated attention to words. It requires an ability to allow words to resonate with those around them. You can read at a speed which allows words to echo in your mind. There are many different ways of reading a text. You could read a sonnet for an hour and keep having new thoughts, or race through Shakespeare’s Sonnets one-a-minute but stay clear of the poems’ emotional depths. Examination curricula often reward the second method more than the first.

A Cambridge University outreach website for English called Converse has a First World War Poetry Reader where you can set your reading speed for various poems (including numerous poets I’d not come across before, like Eva Dobell and Sybil Brinstowe). You use a slider to set the reading speed from slow to fast. The exercise makes you stop and think and weigh up the meaning of individual words and images. There’s clearly a great need for assimilating and processing information quickly, but this isn’t something new—there has been ‘Too Much to Know‘ for centuries (to quote the title of a book on early modern information management I just finished reading). It’s equally important to know how to analyse (a word which literally means ‘break down’), deliberate, disambiguate and appreciate speech and writing. English literature has not just taught me to read more quickly; it’s taught me a spectrum of different reading practices.