- Books, Literature, and Writing
A.A. Milne and how Pooh taught people to understand what they read
There are few things which drive writers up the wall more efficiently than being recognized for only one type of work. A. A. Milne suffered from being only remembered for the Pooh series.
The fact is, however, that few people have done more for basic reading skills than Milne. If you look at the conversations between Christopher Robin, Pooh, Piglet Tigger and his friends as things to be understood, not just parroted, you’ll find a lot of quality comprehension training for the very young.
Kids learned when Pooh was being silly. They learned when Tigger was talking self-centred nonsense, and when Eeyore was just being “assertive”. The Bear With Very Little Brain was in fact a great character reference for reading nuances. If you follow the logic of what’s said, a lot of it is rubbish, and is intended to be understood as such, as well as being funny.
(I’m ashamed to admit that I wound up at about age 3 thinking Pooh was just an idiot. Sorry, mate, I didn’t know you were educating people at the time.)
These days, with literalism and “plain English”, which seems to be a synonym for “as boring and uninteresting as possible” as the main focus, Pooh is more relevant than ever. Literacy doesn’t mean the ability to read. It means the ability to understand what you read.
The great writers didn’t spell things out. They didn’t need to, and it was part of the fun of reading. You could follow the logic, without endless turgid scene-setting, and do your own visualization, which is a Reader’s Right, in my ethos. Pooh is a working model of “read this and figure it out”.
(Exactly what happened to the basic inalienable right to enjoy a book, I’d be interested to know. Between people expecting a medal for having read Kerouac, sages who’ve survived reading Herman Hesse and those who insist on endless “character development” reading has become a very risky occupation. (How much character does anyone need, anyway? In my books the reader gets thrown in to the story bodily, and has to read the book to find out what’s going on. Reality doesn’t give formal introductions with page margin sizes, either. )
This is where Pooh, folk tales of all cultures and literacy meet. Cultures which didn’t develop writing and relied on oral traditions actually achieved quite a lot with their stories, using parables and analogies, the basic forces of storytelling, to communicate meanings. That’s literacy of a different kind, mental literacy, and apparently it also provides a great basis for absorbing information and retaining it.
Pooh’s contribution is effective. Pooh includes vibes, inflections, emphases, in fact the virtual spectrum of meaning in any language. How something is said, and the context in which it’s said, is as important, or in some cases more important, than the content.
Now, when you do communications studies, you may be asked to check out the possible interpretations of passages of text, statements or other media. You learn to interpret these things accurately, and hopefully learn how to avoid the mistakes or at least recognize them. Exactly what Pooh was doing, all those years ago.
This is where Pooh is valuable for writers in particular. If you write anything, you can be 100% sure that someone, somewhere, will find a way of misinterpreting it. Usually this is a result of misreading, missing points, or simply getting a different perspective or emphasis from the one the writer intended. In some cases, however, it’s sheer incomprehension. Pooh trains people to see what’s wrong with a statement or a way of looking at things.
If you get a chance, re-read Pooh, or read him for the first time. Compare the bear to the rather ponderous and some might say pretentious version of comprehension. Pooh isn’t a grammatical lawyer, verbal vulture or a pedant of prose. He’s a little bear. Pooh belongs in the same class as Spooner, Roget, and Fowler as one of the great teachers of meaning and use of language. He’s more fun, too.