The Generosity of Young Readers.

Avva posts the start of an Esquire interview (in Russian) with Alexander Gavrilov about how reading changes from childhood to adulthood; this is my translation:

As a child I had plenty of favorite books, but Urfin Jus and His Wooden Soldiers is particularly engraved in my memory. I was completely under its spell, I roamed the flower beds of Moscow trying to find animating grass — because if Urfin Jus could find it, then I would easily be able to. I don’t even remember what it was I was going to revive, it was just clear that that’s how all of life should change completely.

And I remember my love for that book especially well because later, when I read Volkov’s many, many volumes to my daughters, I suddenly discovered how monstrously, unimaginably poorly they were written. I simply could not physically say with my mouth what I read on paper; I had to edit the text while reading so as not to spit.

It was at that moment that I grasped the difference between the reading of children and adults. Children are generally much more generous readers. I have the fixed idea that a book is created by its reader almost to a greater extent than by its writer. I have often heard adult readers say something like “There are no really good books left, it’s all crap, it was a lot better before.” At that point the reader is admitting that he no longer has the substance that makes all books magical in childhood.

So true! And although I had been curious about Volkov’s Soviet versions of the Oz books (I posted about them at MetaFilter back in 2005), if I had trouble finishing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone I may have to give these a pass. (I’ve translated вещество чтения as “reading substance,” but I’m not happy about it; вещество can be “matter,” “material,” and “agent” as well as “substance,” but those sound even worse. Does вещество чтения sound normal in Russian?)

Unrelated, but check out this interview with Lisa Hayden, who writes the indispensable blog Lizok’s Bookshelf about Russian literature and has translated eight Russian novels.

Comments

  1. AJP Crown says:

    Although the rest of it is only slightly precious and foreign sounding (‘the persistent idea’?) reading substance struck me as weirdly untranslated the second I read it. But I don’t even speak Russian, so I can’t help with an alternative.

  2. John Cowan says:

    I’d just leave out reading and let the reader interpret substance as something magical that kids have but grownups don’t.

  3. I’d just leave out reading and let the reader interpret substance as something magical that kids have but grownups don’t.

    Brilliant; that’s the perfect solution.

  4. вещество чтения is a made up collocation and is somewhat off putting. “reading substance’ translates it well maybe “reading medium” would be better.

  5. There is a conspiracy theory which says that Volkov’s series is actually an anti-Soviet and anti-Semitic pamphlet posing as a children’s literature.

    Volkov, the theory goes, was an anti-Soviet Russian nationalist who described in his books takeover of Russia (Magic Land) by an evil dictator Urfin Jus (not Stalin personally, but the Bolshevik leadership as a group).

    To a provincial Russian teacher like Volkov, the Bolsheviks were, of course, simply Jews.

    And that’s what the name alludes to – Urfin Jus is a rendering into Cyrillic of an English phrase – Orphan Jews.

    “Orphan” refers to the fact that Jews have no homeland (the theory says books were originally written in 1930s, but published only after the Stalin era ended).

  6. Whatever this “reading substance” is, how does losing it differ from gaining some critical faculty to distinguish bad writing from good?

  7. PlasticPaddy says:

    I think bad writing may not be exactly what is meant. I once brought a friend of mine to see Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People”. The friend had studied film and said something to the effect that the film structure, dialogue and technique were extremely simple and unsophisticated. “Simple pleasures for simple minds” ☺

  8. “reading matter”, “reading material”, and “reading medium” all sound like they’re referring to physical printed objects, so would definitely be no good.

  9. I deleted “reading” in that phrase and changed “persistent idea” to “fixed idea.”

  10. AJP Crown says:

    Those are easier for me to understand, less vague as well as sounding more idiomatic.

  11. What Gavrilov writes about children’s books pretty much sums up why I never revisit my old favorites. (Would I still love Harriet the Spy? I don’t want to ruin my memories of rereading it so many times as a kid.) It made me happy to see Gavrilov (continue to) praise Grigory Sluzhitel’s book further on in that interview, both because I also enjoyed the novel tremendously and because he discusses how it affects readers.

    Thank you for linking to the Press Herald article, Languagehat!

  12. John Cowan says:

    I agree.

    Rosie: I think the idea is that the critical and the uncritical both have value, and that all too frequently acquiring the first means losing the second.

    This effect is well known in the fantasy and science fiction community as the Suck Fairy, who sneaks onto your bookshelves and adds the suckiness to books that you thought were wonderful on first reading but can’t stand now. She has many relatives: the Sexism, Racism, Homophobia, Heavy-Handed Allegory, and Overused Trope Fairies. (Read the comments if you read the article, O Hattics: they are almost always high-quality at tor.com.)

  13. What Gavrilov writes about children’s books pretty much sums up why I never revisit my old favorites.

    But sometimes it works. I loved reading Marjorie Torrey’s Three Little Chipmunks to my grandsons as much as I had enjoyed hearing it as a child, and I hope they will read it to any offspring they may have. Some books are timeless.

  14. >This effect is well known in the fantasy and science fiction community as the Suck Fairy, who sneaks onto your bookshelves and adds the suckiness to books that you thought were wonderful on first reading but can’t stand now. She has many relatives: the Sexism, Racism, Homophobia, Heavy-Handed Allegory, and Overused Trope Fairies.

    Trigger warnings, please!

    I have 5 and 7 year old daughters, and any reference to bad writing and fairies can put me in a catatonic state.:
    https://rainbowmagic.fandom.com/wiki/List_of_Fairies

    I’m pretty sure they were “written” pursuant to the Mad-Libs principle, each new volume substituting certain nouns and adjectives while maintaining the rest of the verbiage.

    Oh, god! Oh god! Don’t make me revisit this in my free time.

  15. ktschwarz says:

    Carla Speed McNeil’s graphic novel Talisman is about exactly this. “I really want *this story*, but it doesn’t exist! If I want to read it, I have to write it, and I can’t! … I pour books into myself and there are never enough. They’re gone too fast, like paper on a bonfire. I need the book I lost. I need the book I always lose, the story that tells itself. The book that can never be filled up or finished.”

    My interpretation is that when you’re little, everything looks big, including books. And everything is mysterious and new.

  16. Harriet the Spy still holds up. My brother-in-law, who works for CIA, got it for my daughter when she was in elementary school, and we all enjoyed it. The sequels are an entirely different matter though.

    It actually seems to be pretty common for a great children’s book to have sequels that, while they seem wonderful to many young fans, turn out to be quite bad when read again as an adult. Another example I have encountered with my kids is the Bunnicula series by James Howe. The first one remains brilliant, but the later books I found to eventually be actively unpleasant to read.

  17. Harriet the Spy still holds up. My brother-in-law, who works for CIA, got it for my daughter when she was in elementary school, and we all enjoyed it. The sequels are an entirely different matter though.

    I’m glad to hear that, Brett, and glad your whole family enjoyed the book! I believe I only read one sequel, The Long Secret, and I don’t remember much other than that I didn’t love it nearly as much as Harriet the Spy.

  18. I used to love Dr Dolittle. Many years later I read it again and it seemed very ordinary. Perhaps I should try it again.

  19. Isn’t the same effect also there when we start reading in a new language? The written word itself is fascinating, and too fine a complexity doesn’t get through?

    The “problem” with our first books is that we get to them again with our own children, and occasionally – but not always – bump into a mismatch between the literary quality and the developmental stage of the child. I loved Suteev’s silly books just as much as a parent as I loved them as a child. Volkov’s sequels didn’t fly with me as a parent, either.

    The problem is actually worse with the 2nd generation immigrant children, where the books in the old-country language must be accessible yet not boring or contrite. Dr. Aybolit, Russian Doolittle, worked OK. Silly poetry, like Renata Mukha, did too. But in general it’s awfully hard to find accessible books which are also fun and not overflow with obsolescence.

  20. January First-of-May says:

    Silly poetry, like Renata Mukha, did too.

    Renata Mukha! Now that is a name I hadn’t seen since high school (my computer proficiency classes in 10th grade involved a few of her verses at various points – mostly as texts to be typed).
    Incidentally, I’m (mildly) surprised to find out that Mukha (literally “Fly”) appears to have been her actual last name; I was sure that it had to be a pseudonym.

    If I had to associate a name with “silly poetry”, it would definitely be Yunna Moritz. But of course there are other authors in that genre.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Carla Speed McNeil

    Speed?

    Better than “Danger is my middle name!”, though.

  22. John Cowan says:

    Mukha (literally “Fly”) [the noun]

    I looked at that and immediately saw Italian mucca. I thought “A borrowing? Hardly. Who borrows the word for ‘fly’? It must be a false friend.” But no, it’s a true one: Proto-Slavic *muxa and Latin musca truly are cognate, at any rate by a root equation if not precisely so, and likewise Proto-Baltic *musya, Greek muĩa, Old Armenian mun (which also has the sense ‘itch’). The PIE root is *mus- (not surprising that diminutive endings vary all over the lot) < mew- ‘move’. Which is what flies do, as everyone knows.

  23. PlasticPaddy says:

    @jc
    I think you mean Italian Mosca < lat. Musca
    Based on considerations of size, the Italian mucca is difficult to confuse with a fly, although she is often plagued by flies😊

  24. >The PIE root is *mus- (not surprising that diminutive endings vary all over the lot) < mew- ‘move’. Which is what flies do, as everyone knows.

    Yes, surely it's among their most identifying traits. Hard to think of anything else you could call them for.

    The Proto-Indo-Europeans must have been among the least observant people ever to inhabit the earth. Flies were distinctive because they move. Beavers were distinctive because they heap. It's hard to believe the PIE-eaters left descendants. Maybe they spent so much time fixing their chariots that they couldn't pay attention to much else.

    Or, etymologists are distinctive because they can't leave a word as its own root, or as 'root now obscure', and have to posit a connection to something farcically remote semantically. The end of so many PIE trails is not so different from bygone efforts to connect Welsh and Hebrew.

  25. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    Q. What do you call a fly with no wings?
    A. A walk.

    It’s not like the English name is particularly imaginative!

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Q. What do you call a fly with no wings?

    A horrifying bat parasite that cannot be unseen… but I digress… back to the topic:

    Wenn hinter Fliegen Fliegen fliegen, fliegen Fliegen Fliegen nach.
    if/when behind fly.N-DAT.PL fly.N-NOM.PL fly.V.PRES-3PL fly.V.PRES-3PL fly.N-DAT.PL fly.N-NOM.PL after
    “When flies fly behind flies, flies follow flies in flight.”

  27. I’m (mildly) surprised to find out that Mukha (literally “Fly”) appears to have been her actual last name; I was sure that it had to be a pseudonym.

    She was born in Odessa but the Jewish surname is originally unique to a small town of Zuromin (Журомин) in Poland. After the Napoleonic Wars it has become a part of Russian-administered Congress Poland, and by the 1820s, the area’s Jews have at last been assigned surnames (it was Mucha in Polish, perhaps a street name formalized into an official surname).

    Later on, some descendants migrated to Warsaw, a mere 100 km away, but few ventured further, and in the Soviet Union it remained an exceedingly rare surname indeed.

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Proto-Indo-Europeans must have been among the least observant people ever to inhabit the earth

    In the various Gur languages, the word for “snake” is etymologically typically “long creature” or “biting creature.” Might go back to a naming taboo, I guess, like sundry Indo-European “bears” seem to. (In Kusaal, the “biter” is merely a mosquito, however. I’ve never heard of a mosquito-naming taboo.)

    A number of animal names in Kusaal and its relatives look as if they are drawn from folkloric animal stories (at least, I can’t think of any better reason why “praying mantis” should be etymologically “hyena’s mother-in-law.”) I would imagine many cultures figure traditional animal stories prominently enough to affect ordinary animal names (even French foxes.)

    Eskimo languages are very prone to replacement of common vocabulary, because personal names were typically common nouns, and names got tabooed when somebody died until a baby was born to take up the name again. Central Alaskan Yup’ik calls a dog a “puller” (a natural enough word for a dog if you’re a Yup’ik.)

  29. David Eddyshaw says:

    As a hopeless zoologist myself, I feel an atavistic kinship with my Indo-European forebears who were reduced to saying: “you know, that animal that builds dams, whatchamacallit, builder-animal thing.”

    Actually, the mechanism is clear. It’s all because (as any 1950’s sociobiologist can tell you) the women were all gatherers and the men were all hunters. Thus distinctive plant names tended to be preserved, whereas distinctive animal names were of little interest to the true transmitters of language, who as we know were the women.

    “Ah, I see you’ve caught one of those big furry things, darling! How clever! It will go very nicely with this emmer wheat I’m preparing. Hold this a moment.”

  30. O burly creature, great big furry thing,
    Are you the man, the rodent or the dam?
    O body lurching, food source for today,
    How can we know the hunter from the prey?

  31. David Marjanović says:

    any better reason why “praying mantis” should be etymologically “hyena’s mother-in-law.”

    Rapacious predator that chews everything up + Western stereotypes about mothers-in-law… but probably such considerations are the reasons for the stories, not directly for the names.

    It’s not just the fox, BTW. Lots of species go by personal names in German fairytales, like this.

  32. Yes, but renard became the actual French word for ‘fox’ (replacing goupil).

  33. John Cowan says:

    I think you mean Italian Mosca < lat. Musca

    OMG, I can’t believe I’m channeling Douglas Hofstadter. Because he learned French before Italian and both mostly by immersion, a lot of his basic Italian vocabulary is etymologically nativized (“foreignized”?) French, so vache:vacca::mouche:*mucca. But it led me to the right conclusion anyway, so all’s good.

    so much time fixing their chariots

    Invaders are often blind to all but the most striking features of the new land. In California there was a name in the local language for just about every spot, now all gone.

    sundry Indo-European “bears”

    All of them, apparently: the Brown One, the Honey-Eater, The Beast/Wild One, and (based on a Hittite hapax legomenon) the Destroyer.

  34. Reynard is occasionally used as a common name for the fox in English. I had thought it occurred in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but it appears I was actually thinking of “Winter the Huntsman,” by Osbert Sitwell:

    Through his iron glades
    Rides Winter the Huntsman,
    All colour fades
    As his horn is heard sighing.

    Far through the forest
    His wild hooves crash and thunder,
    Till many a mighty branch
    Is torn asunder.

    And the red reynard creeps
    To his hole near the river,
    The copper leaves fall
    And the bare trees shiver.

    As night creeps from the ground,
    Hides each tree from its brother,
    And each dying sound
    Reveals yet another.

    Is it Winter the Huntsman
    Who gallops through his iron glades,
    Cracking his cruel whip
    To the gathering shades?

  35. January First-of-May says:

    the Honey-Eater

    Russians would tell you that he’s actually the Honey-Knower (which probably is a folk etymology after the original derivation was obscured by sound changes), at least when they don’t call him Michael (in what appears to have been yet another round of naming taboo).

  36. Trond Engen says:

    In Norwegian tradition Mikkel is the fox.

  37. talking of bears, Urfin Jus had a bear called Topotun (Stamper), a stuffed animal revived by the magic powder.
    I had exactly the same experience as Gavrilov. First time myself, and then when I tried reading Urfin Jus to my own children. It just didn’t work.
    What he doesn’t mention is the illustrations. It may not have worked its magic with children had it not been for the imagery created by Leonid Vladimirsky. You can see them here http://aria-art.ru/0/V/Volkov%20A.%20Urfin%20Dzhjus%20i%20ego%20derevjannye%20soldaty%20(L.%20Vladimirskij)/1.html

  38. Was Renata Mukha related to Alfons Mucha, the Art Nouveau illustrator?

  39. David Marjanović says:

    the imagery

    Interesting nose.

  40. Russians would tell you that he’s actually the Honey-Knower

    Not to be confused, of course, with the honeyguide – a bird which has two interesting features. First, it’s a brood parasite like the cuckoo; second, it’s about the only organism to have evolved a symbiotic relationship with humans without intentional human effort…

  41. Just went up to the attic to check, yes, I still have the whole series, but only Urfin Jus looks well-leafed.

  42. Talking of “foxes”, there’s Reynardine, an old English folk song/broadside, maybe 18thC, maybe earlier, recorded in more recent times by A.L. Lloyd, Sandy Denny/Fairport Convention, Martin Carthy, June Tabor and Shirley Collins and others.

    “A girl meets a man on the mountain and surrenders immediately to his persuasion. Who was Reynardine, with his irresistible charm, his glittering eye, his foxy smile? An ordinary man, or an outlaw maybe, or some supernatural lover? Is he that dreadful Mr Fox in the English folk-tale, the elegant gentleman whose bedroom was full of skeletons and buckets of blood? The song does not say. It puts a finger to its lips and preserves the mystery, letting the enigmatic text and dramatic tune hint at unspeakable things.”

  43. January First-of-May says:

    Not to be confused, of course, with the honeyguide

    In the (Russian) version that I am familiar with, the honeyguide (медоуказчик) is said to show the honey to a particular local animal – which is consequently known, ironically enough (in this context, that is), as the honey-eater (медоед).

    I’m not sure whether this version of the story has any basis in actual biology, and if it is, whether the “honey-eater” is actually called that in Russian (and what, if anything, it is called in English).

    [Just googled, and not only is it, in fact, called that in Russian, but the animal’s scientific and English names also have to do with honey.
    Specifically, its scientific name is Mellivora capensis (literally, the Cape honey-eater) – and in English, it is known as the honey badger. Yes, that honey badger.]

  44. Сашура says:

    – is Renata Mukha related to Alfons Mucha –
    probably not, but there is quite a number of famous Mukhas on the Russian-speaking side of Europe, including one Stepan Nesterovich Mukha, Chairman of the Ukrainian KGB in the 80s.
    You gotta be a Soviet child to see all the connotations: Stepan = Bandera, Nestor = Makhno, both leaders of anti-bolshevik Ukrainian movements!
    see this entry on Wikipedia – https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Муха

    thinking of the Spanish-Italian moscas, I suddenly remembered that we forgot the brave old Scaramouche. Scare-a-mouche! –
    – qui a son équivalent dans d’autres cultures européennes (σκώμμαρχος-scommarques grecs, scamatorii roumains, cкоморох-skomorokhs ukrainiens ou russes…) –
    according to French wikipedia

  45. and more on the delightful transformations of Moscas.
    This was also the name of I-16 Soviet fighter plane of the 1930s, that was called ‘Ishak’ – ‘the donkey’, after the I denomination, by the Russian pilots, the ‘Ratas’ – ‘Rats’ by Franco’s nationalists, and ‘Moscas’ – ‘Flies’ by the republicans, probably a reference to ‘Moscow’

  46. oh, on the subject of вещество чтения, I think the closest English equivalent would be ‘the essence of reading’. Эссенция in Russian is too medical, that’s why he chose вещество/matter/subject/medium to convey his meaning. What he says, is the core, the fabric, the flow of reading matter is what matters.

  47. Thanks!

  48. вещество чтения may also invoke “серое вещество”, gray matter, which has connotations of “general intelligence” in Russian

  49. Was Renata Mukha related to Alfons Mucha, the Art Nouveau illustrator?

    No, it’s just one of many examples of a relatively common Slavic surname occasionally born by the Slavs’ Jewish neighbors too (only the Jewish Eastern Europeans got their surnames much more recently, in the 1790s .. 1820s depending on a region). Alfons’s ancestors were Moravian Catholics known at least to 1720 under this surname (but not just Czech but also Polish, Ukrainian, and less often, Belorussian families have the same surname as well).

    Importantly, in Alfons Mucha’s ancestral region, just like elsewhere across the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Jews weren’t allowed to take up surnames already used by the Christians. In the Russian empire, there were no such restrictions (as evidenced even by my own surname!)

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