Friday, August 19, 2011

The actual problem with A Study in Scarlet

The latest cause celebre among book folk: a school has removed Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet from the curriculum (and can we stop calling it "banning"? Two different issues) because of that weird Mormon section. And . . . well, my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, sure, I generally think kids should have access to as many books as possible, and parents should make decisions about what their own kids read, but not anyone else's. But, again, this incident isn't a question (so far as I can tell) of removing the book from the school library or telling kids they aren't allowed to read it. It's about whether it's actively taught in class.

And I think our kneejerk "Every instance of objections to a book must be EVIL EVIL EVIL" response is a little too eager. Really, if it was selected to introduce the students to an important genre (mystery) and character (Sherlock Holmes), but then the students were distracted by or focusing on the derogatory portrayal of a religion - well, if the teacher then said "You know, I don't feel capable/informed enough to teach about nineteenth century British opinions of Mormonism in my English class, so I think I'll meet these objectives with a different text," I don't think I have a problem with that.

But my real issue here is with two assumptions that most of the articles about this controversy seem to be making: First, that A Study in Scarlet is an awesome book that should be taught, and that not teaching this book means not teaching Sherlock Holmes at all. To the first point: Frankly, this book is kind of weird, partially because of the Mormon thing and also just in general. It's not the easiest thing to get through. I know many people who gave up on Sherlock Holmes altogether because they found A Study in Scarlet unreadable. It also isn't particularly representative - it's a novel, and most of the Holmes canon is short stories.

So why does this have to be the students' introduction to the genre or the character? My suggested solution: teach a few of the short stories instead. Sure, A Study in Scarlet was first, but this isn't a series that needs to be read in order. Fans have spent decades trying to make the continuity between the texts work, in fact, and it just doesn't. So don't worry about that aspect. Pick a few stories that are a) a more accessible introduction to a perhaps-unfamiliar style, b) more fun, and c) more representative of the canon. The shorter format would also provide a great opportunity to teach the classic detective story structure in its pure, distilled form before moving on to longer texts with, say, subplots and character development. (And kids who get into Holmes will then read A Study in Scarlet whether you want them to or not.) That might work out better for everyone.

And then, you know, get ready for the "OMG Sherlock Holmes is a cocaine addict!" outrage.

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