Wednesday, May 14, 2008


I've been thinking recently, in the wake of an interesting set of conference talks on reading, about the relationship between discontinuous reading (of the kind notionally fostered by the internet) and discontinuous writing (perhaps initially the natural response to writing on a word processor rather than by hand or on a typewriter, but now becoming a dominant mode of composition with its own routines and forms).

In a totally different context, Mary Beard has a very good piece in this week's TLS on what it means to read in lumps:
A century or so ago, the English word “gobbet” was given a new lease of life. This obscure term for a small lump of something unsavoury (mud, raw meat, snot) was reborn. It now referred to a short extract of text, one that was often set as an examination exercise for students to identify and analyse. Who wrote these lines? What is their context? What is their historical significance?

The OED finds its first use in the new sense in March 1912, in a poem in Punch satirizing those who promised quick routes to classical learning: “He’ll gorge you with gobbets of Homer” (meaning, you won’t have to read the whole thing). But the examination exercise went back well into the nineteenth century, and the word must have had currency in university jargon long before the Punch satirist picked it up. You certainly find it several years earlier in donnish letters and diaries. R. W. Livingstone, for example, the best-selling author of The Glory That Was Greece, was full of complaints in a letter to an Oxford colleague written around 1910 that, while the students could do their gobbets in the examinations well enough, they did not seem to have much clue about classical literature and culture as a whole: “The shocking thing is that real understanding of the classics counts for so very little side by side with the gobbets”.

Like most nineteenth-century innovations in pedagogy and testing, the gobbet originated in Classics, and took a particularly strong hold in the study of Greek and Roman history. But it soon spread to the study of history more generally and to theology, where the Bible proved a prime candidate for “gobbeting”. It has a remote descendant in the I. A. Richards school of practical criticism in English, which (whatever Richards’s original and loftier aims for the exercise) now boils down to throwing an unidentified piece of poetry at students, and expecting them to identify it and say something sensible about it.
The rest of it is very interesting too--this meta-conversation about close reading seems to be happening across a number of humanities disciplines, the name of I. A. Richards has been invoked many a time in my hearing this last year or two!

1 comment:

  1. LOL. Not as genteeel a descriptor as 'elegant extracts'.