News – 2nd February, 2009

Jack London – is that a brand of jeans?

Or: the reading habits of Hungarian youth

News–2nd February, 2009


As we contemplated Jack London’s birthday on January 12th, we were curious to know the reading tastes of Hungarian young people. We discussed opposition between classic and contemporary youth fiction in Hungary. What is most popular among them today? Is it the rewritten classics, the trendy vampire stories or the favorites of their parents’ generation?

Is it true that “children these days don’t read enough,” that they are completely unfamiliar with the classics of juvenile literature, or at any rate those books that were popular among their parents and grandparents? Aware of the impossibility of finding straightforward answers to such complex questions, we nevertheless sought the opinions of researchers, teachers and students alike. Their answers supported our optimistic hypothesis: students today do indeed read. Not all of them, and not enough, but they do read. The question, of course, remained: What do they read?
In 2005, the result of the Hungarian television series The Great Book confirmed that as readers we often experience our most intense engagement with books as children or adolescents. The Hungarian public chose Géza Gárdonyi’s Eclipse of the Crescent Moon as the winner of the Great Book competition, and gave it the title of “the nation’s favorite book.” Gárdonyi’s tale, written in 1899, tells of the Turkish seige of the northern Hungarian fortress of Eger in 1552, and has remained a favorite with young Hungarian readers for generations. Cynical commentators maintained that Eclipse of the Crescent Moon’s triumph merely indicates that the majority of Hungarians cease reading after high school. We prefer to think that readers hold Gárdonyi’s book and others like it close to their hearts because they transport them back to their childhoods.
According to reading reseacher István Kamarás, one must first clarify the definition of "children" when discussing children’s literature. "Thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds are still children, even if they already listen to ‘teen‘ music and perhaps even watch ‘adult‘ action, thriller and horror films. There is seemingly no equivalent of ‘children's music‘ in the realm of novels." In 1964, Gárdonyi and Mark Twain were among the most popular authors with fifteen- to nineteen-year-olds, but by 1985, no "juvenile literature" appeared on this list of favorites. Instead, respondents named works like Henri Charrière's Papillon, John Fowles‘s The Collector, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, and Kenneth Roberts‘s Northwest Passage. In 2008, the list was different again: Robin Cook, Danielle Steel and Steven King took top honors. "I believe that there is a place for high-quality children’s, juvenile and popular literature in education," continues Kamarás. "There is no reason to disqualify a work just because young people happen to enjoy it. Television is no substitute for reading. The fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds today are suffering from the lack of ‘boys' novels‘ and ‘girls' novels‘, and from the problems of socialization that accompany the disappearance of these genres," Kamarás concludes.
Should works of classic Hungarian literature have a place in literary education today? "Maintaining the imporatance of these works without forcing the matter is an extremely difficult task," says Kamarás. "There are certain schools and certain pedagogical approaches that do offer a place for these classic works. Of course, one would choose very different works according to the socio-economic backgrounds of the students. Just like adults, children and adolescents read for a reason. In less fortunate instances, they read instead of or in opposition to something. Reading good literature has a much better chance of increasing sorely-needed empathy in today's society than film, for instance. But empathy is one of the most important conditions for the enjoyment of literature. It really takes magic to break out of this vicious circle. Harry Potter was somehow able to do it."
"Every year many novels for young adults are published," points out Eszter Kovács, head of the publishing house Pozsonyi Pagony, which specializes in children’s literature. "There is a very good selection. In this matter Hungary is more in step with western Europe than in the publication of picture books. Fantasy is the most popular genre right now, much more so than in our generation. And there are many novels for young people today that deal with real problems facing teens. Of course, this includes light fiction for teenage girls too, but this by no means makes up the majority. You’re just as likely to find stories about divorced parents, siblings with drug problems and alcoholic mothers, as well as books that deal with more common problems. Loneliness, for example, or the difficulties of fitting in. I think the classic Hungarian authors are less popular today, but you can always find them in the bookshops. That means that people are buying them, that they have need for them. Naturally, they just don’t create a big sensation."
Literary critic Zsuzsa Tamás points out that the very definition of "young adult literature" has been challenged recently. "In the past few years, several ‘adult‘ writers have written books for children, but I would call these ‘fairy-tale novels‘ rather than young adult literature. For adults they may be light reading, but often the world views, language use and length of these books go beyond the scope of a child's tale. These books try the patience of young people, their intended audience. In contrast, Jacqueline Wilson, the mother of the modern girls’ novel, knows how hard it is to be the child of divorced parents (The Suitcase Kid), or the only child of an older couple (Bad Girls). She knows how one can still love a mother whose anxieties and lack of self-confidence make her at times unbearable (The Illustrated Mum). Lois Lowry, to give another example, uses the language of utopia to write about diversity and acceptance. (The Giver; Gathering Blue; Messenger) She has also written a novel about the Danish resistance during World War II, in which the Danes helped almost the entire Jewish population of their country escape to Sweden (Number the Stars). The worlds these novels depict aren't any more terrible than the world our children live in, and in fact these books help readers understand the world around them."
Tamás would like to see these novels taught in schools. "The current list of required reading is seriously flawed," she says. "With the possible exception of Ferenc Molnár’s 1906 youth novel The Paul Street Boys, the books on the list don’t deal with real problems of young people. There’s a gap between the worlds depicted in literature and the world of the readers that is becoming unbridgeable. And it is also a huge mistake to think it is enough for a class to read one novel per school year. Young people are capable of devouring books one after another – if they are genuinely interested. It’s not tragic either if the books which offer them the peerless experience of the joy of reading are not the favorites of their parents and grandparents."
The recent announcement of the PetePite publishing house, that they will issue re-written versions of several classic works, has ignited great controversy. PetePite plans to publish abridged, more easily accessible versions of lengthy classic novels, aiming to make them "exciting and enjoyable" to read. Depending on whom you ask, this is seen as a destructive trend, the debasement of venerable works, or the natural result of current trends, and a useful pedagogical tool.
According to PetePite, "Students today find the classics difficult reading. For example, most young people are unable to read more than a few pages of Mór (Maurus) Jókai’s [great 19th-century Hungarian Romantic novelist] works owing to the archaic language, unfamiliar words and complex syntax." At the same time, PetePite representatives hold that these works remain necessary reading. "It is not possible to be a truly educated Hungarian citizen without reading these books." Literary historian István Margócsy takes exception, calling the initiative "barbarous stupidity." He finds it scandalous that Jókai’s name should be used in such profit-motivated ventures. Margócsy insists that the proposed "novels" are not equivalent to Jókai’s originals; the entire original plot cannot be substituted by the selected bits of dialogue retained for the new versions. According to him, students who read these books are not being raised as good citizens, as the publishing house claims, but as snobs.
Ágnes Szalontai, Hungarian language and literature teacher at the nation’s first foundation school believes that the widely held notion that young people today don’t read is false. Of course, finding those books that will capture their interest is a challenge. At her school, for example, Verne’s Two Years‘ Vacation and Gulliver’s Travels were recently replaced by Gyula Böszörményi’s tremendously popular Greg series of contemporary young adult novels. The students rave about Böszörményi’s books, and read other works by contemporary Hungarian writers as well: Trapiti by László Darvas, Prince Szuromberek by Ferenc Szijj, Poor Johnny and Arnika by Ervin Lázár, not to mention Dániel Varró’s verse tale Beyond Splodge Hill, which is a theme on the high school's final literature exam. (Incidentally, Varró was their student.) Szalontai believes that students are often reluctant to bring into class the books that they enjoy reading. But any book that ignites the passion for reading is valuable. For instance, many students begin reading longer works of fiction after enjoying Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, and end up reading Umberto Eco. Even among the classic works of Hungarian literature there are books that remain popular today. Such works include Frigyes Karinthy’s humorous Please Sir!, Antal Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend, Crime and Punishment, and the complete works of adventure author Jeno Rejto. Students love Asimov’s novels, The Lord of the Ring series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and P.G. Wodehouse’s novels, such as Leave it to Psmith. Girls are especially fond of Ann Brashares' Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. And last but not least, there’s Harry Potter, who, according to Szalontai, is so popular at school that even the "snobbish Harry-Potter haters" are able to quote from the novels verbatim. 
To learn more, we conducted a quick survey of approximately fifty students from two Budapest high schools. We asked them what they had last read apart from texts required for school, what criteria they use to choose books, and what were their favorite novels in secondary school. It’s perhaps unnecessary to say that Harry Potter won the latter category by a large margin. Second place was a dead heat between The Paul Street Boys and Jeno Rejto’s books. Gyula Böszörményi came in a solid third with his Greg series, along with The Lord of the Rings, the novels of Isaac Asimov and Gárdonyi’s Eclipse of the Crescent Moon. For the most part, the students' responses confirm the experts' opinions; the two groups name almost exactly the same titles. In addition, since Jack London’s birthday was almost upon us, we asked the students what they knew about the man. Approximately ten percent of the students we asked knew the titles of London’s novels. A few even named The Call of the Wild or White Fang as one of their favorite books. The majority, however, did not know the American author. (One response: "I have no clue who this guy is – sounds like a brand of jeans.") But there’s no need to panic: when asked to name the last book they’d read, students named such works as Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, Master and Margarita, Stephanie Meyer’s young-adult vampire-romance novel Twilight, Orwell’s 1984, books by Kurt Vonnegut, Anthony Horowitz (creator of the Alex Rider series), and popular science author László Méro, as well as Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, Yann Martel’s fantasy-adventure novel Life of Pi and Camus's The Plague.
In 2007, the Higher Education Information Service conducted a representative survey of 2,863 students from 512 middle schools. The results indicate that the classic authors remain the students' favorite up to this day. The three most popular authors – the poets Endre Ady, Attila József and Sándor Petofi – remain the same as in previous years; only their order has changed. Other Hungarian authors in the top twenty include Mór Jókai, Miklós Radnóti, Mihály Csokonai Vitéz, Kálmán Mikszáth, Magda Szabó, Dezso Kosztolányi, Sándor Márai and Árpád Tóth. The list of favorite foreign authors contains mainly contemporary figures, although Shakespeare occupies a honored place next to J. K. Rowling. Perhaps surprisingly, J. R. R. Tolkien did not make it into the top twenty. Instead, Paul Coelho appears, alongside Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe and Dan Brown, author of the best-selling The Da Vinci Code.
Anna Marczisovszky – Dóra Szekeres
Translated by Julianna Horváth Chen
Previously on HLO
From Jerome the Crab to Old Missus Fluff: Children's verse in Hungary
Two poems for children (by Endre Kukorelly and Dániel Varró)

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