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Casting a Rueful Eye upon Literature

by Papa Redcloud

We are on the threshold of the age of electronic text. Currently most literary and scholarly works still reside only in the traditional printed form. But many books are now available on CD and via the internet, and the number of texts being typed in or scanned in grows all the time. In a not too distant age we will be able to survey the greater part of human literature with help of our computers.

Now, there may remain some superannuated, spoil-sport individuals who are quick to defend the venerable book. They have their many reasons: 1) books are safer in the bath tub, 2) the ink smells so nice, 3) they look good on the wall, 4) if you have enough of them visitors to your home think you are learned, and 5) if you inadvertently destroy them you have the pleasure of buying more. Compelling as these reasons may be, and I am particularly sensitive to the olfactory pleasures inherent in the many varieties of fresh ink, I believe that there are an even more cogent arguments for advancing into the post-Gutenburg era.

One of these has to do with the chore of rating books. Under the old dispensation, the age of print, one actually had to read books in order to find out whether they were bad or good. With electronic text this formerly painstaking task is rendered easy and pleasant. We no longer have to read these works until we have them pre-screened for us. Perhaps all we need do is write a computer program to analyze the e-book. Once it is thus rated we can then decide whether it is worth the read.

Of course book-rating programs are still but a gleam in the milkmanís eye, so to speak. In the meantime we can still grade our books using basic word searches. Hereís how it works. Literary science has identified certain key words whose presence in a book indicates quality deficiency. Authors of limited excellence, apparently, cannot resist perpetrating words like "rueful" or "ruefully." This one word is, all by itself, a surprisingly good touchstone with which to test literary merit.

We all know that the word "ruefully" is the backbone of the vocabulary to be found in books about Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. There must have been a cardinal rule in the old Grossett and Dunlop juvenile book style manual: use "rueful," especially in adverbial form, as much as possible. G & D loved adverbs-that was rule #2. So we start with the rough premise that the quantitative presence or absence of "rueful" will tell us how like or unlike Nancy Drew a book must be.

Now many people consider novels about sleuthing chums (or chummy sleuths) to be a low form of literature. Thus, assuming we are execrable snobs, we can take this as our baseline. If, on the other hand, we love to mentally revel in such milieux as Bayport and River Heights, we can take the Hardy/Drew oeuvre as our ne plus ultra. Just turn everything upside down. The test is as symmetrical as a perfect mathematical operator, and as elegant and effective as a law of nature.

Now to the testing of the works of those worthies we have heretofore supposed to be giants of literature. I start with Shakespeare. No "rueful" or "ruefully" there. There is another Nancyish word, "crestfallen," in the Merry Wives of Windsor. Are Bess Marvin and Mistress Ford sisters under the skin? Final Score: Shakespeare is definitely all we have accounted him to be-though you might want to consider shelving Merry Wives in the nursery.

Now let us move on to score some novels. (I will put the number of ruefuls in parentheses following the book title.) First off letís see if Dickens is any good. Here are the totals: Bleak House (0); A Christmas Carol (0); David Copperfield (1); Great Expectations (1); Hard Times (0); Little Dorrit (1); Martin Chuzzlewit (5); Nicholas Nickleby (7); The Old Curiosity Shop (6); Oliver Twist (8); The Pickwick Papers (2); and A Tale of Two Cities (0). Clearly Nicholas Nickleby, accounted a classic Victorian novel in the age of print, in the age of the electron must be reattributed to the canon of Franklin W. Dixon. And what about Oliver Twist! Those of you who have actually read it must know that it is but half the length of most other Dickens novels. So its pro-rated score would be 16! What was Dickens smoking when he wrote such unmitigated dreck? By the way, lovers of David Copperfield can take heart in the supposition that Dickens, when he used the word once in what was after all a very long novel, was just proving to the world that "rueful" was in his vocabulary. Therefore, when he omitted the word from Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities, it does not show that he was unacquainted with "rueful," only that he had taste enough to leave it out. Thus we can see that Dickens as a writer was highly uneven. Taken as a whole, his works must be accounted on the level of middle-class best-sellers, something just above Green Dolphin Street and slightly below Gone with the Wind.

Isnít this wonderful? Now we can trash the classics while reading only one trashy word. Some more scores to feed and confound your prejudices: George Eliotís Adam Bede (0). Mark Twainís Tom Sawyer (0) and Huckleberry Finn (0). Tobias Smollettís Roderick Random (0). Henry Jamesís The Ambassadors (10). All six novels by Jane Austen (0). Mary Shelleyís Frankenstein (0). Stephen Craneís Red Badge of Courage (1). Sir Walter Scottís Rob Roy (3) and Ivanhoe (0). Bram Stokerís Dracula (0). Anthony Trollopeís The Warden (0), Barchester Towers (0), and Doctor Thorne (0). Jules Verneís Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (0). Robert Louis Stevensonís Treasure Island (0) and Kidnapped (1).

These are some awfully interesting results. Score one for Austen and Twain and Trollope and sea stories and science fiction and books about monsters. Books about Scotland are moderately suspect. And Henry James, for shame!