Contemporary literacy in literature

This 14-year-old girl has come to the office with her mother. She noticed a blister on the bottom of her foot shortly after running through the mall in sandals two days ago. Her mother is concerned because the blister has black dots in it. She thinks it might be infected.

I examine her foot under magnification. There, at the base of the right second toe, I see the lesion: a common plantar wart.

“It looks like a plantar wart,” I tell the mother. “Are you sure it’s only been there for a few days?”

“I didn’t notice it before,” the girl says. “I guess it could have been there longer.”

“What do we do to get rid of it?” the mother asks.

“There’s any number of ways to treat plantar warts,” I explain. “You might consider a patch kit. You apply a small patch to the wart every night before bed. The acid in the patch will leech down into the wart overnight. It takes a week or so, but eventually the acid kills the wart—problem solved.”

“Where do we get that?”

“You can buy it over the counter at the pharmacy.”

“Should we come back to see you after treatment?”

“Only if you’re not making headway. In that case, we’ll have to talk about tossing dead cats into the cemetery at midnight,” I smile.

The girl looks at me with wide eyes. “What kind of treatment is that?” she whispers.

“An old-fashioned one. It’s described in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. You can read up on it if you like.”

I’m greeted with a blank look on her face.

“You’ve heard of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, no? Do you know who wrote it?”

Again, that blank look. After a moment’s thought, she offers a guess: “Tom Sawyer?”

“No, it’s not an autobiography. Surely you’ve heard of—well, let me ask you. Have you heard of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?”

She nods her head. “Sure, everybody knows Huckleberry Finn.”

“Good. Do you know who wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?”

She pulls back, thinks a moment, then says, “Tom Sawyer?”

Her mother covers her face with her hands.

“No, Tom Sawyer didn’t write Huckleberry Finn. Did you ever hear of Mark Twain?”

“Kind of,” she says. “What did he do?”

“He was an American humorist—he wrote a number of funny stories and books.”

She perks up at this news. “Cool,” she says. “So, what did he write?”

The mother’s chin is now buried in her chest.

“Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

“Oh, now I get it. He was the guy who wrote the story about the dead cat in the cemetery!”

“One and the same,” I say. “If you get the chance, sometime you really ought to go to Hartford to see his house.”

“I didn’t know he lived in Hartford,” the mother says.

“Does he usually let people visit?” the girl says.

“Well,” I smile, “I don’t think he’d mind.”

The girl slips into her sandals and pulls her cellphone out of the pocket of her jeans. Soon she’s all thumbs, texting a message at lightning speed.

As I watch her walk down the hallway behind her mother, the thought occurs to me that she might be searching for Mark Twain’s FaceBook page.

Twain is credited with formulating the definition of the literary classic—a book that everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read. He might just roll over in his grave were he to learn that 100 years after his death, some members of the youngest generation don’t even recognize the title of a classic, let alone the author or the storyline itself.

Huckleberry Finn as illustrated by True Williams for the first edition of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”

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6 comments on “Contemporary literacy in literature

  1. Andrew says:

    Wait but I thought Mark Twain was a professional baseball player…Sorry that was bad. Love Twain, reading Letters from the Earth now.

  2. td says:

    “Dead cats … in Hartford” (an ‘ancient prescription’) … you gave me a grin there, along with the depressing state of pubic education today. We were fortunate to attend an outstanding public school in rural PA … apparently better than most, then and now.

    Times have changed, brother …

  3. Mitch says:

    Let’s not just blame the teachers. Where was mother? What did they read at home?

    • td says:

      Mom read “The Cat in the Hat” to us … She worked to support us after our father passed away (we were toddlers); having no time to teach us any more than how to survive on our own. We were “Latch Key Kids” many years before that phrase was ever written.

      It was our public school teachers who guided us to great works of literature, along with typing and shop class too. I blame the system (govt. mandates often tie teacher’s hands); modern distractions (we only had three channels and our imaginations); and students’ not doing the best they can in school … (the way it’s always been, then and now).

  4. MT has a page on FB, just saying’ 🙂 The man is tweetworthy and his work is a mother lode of awesome.

  5. td says:

    Mr. Clemens most likely wouldn’t have a Facebook page today … that’s the complete antithesis of how he lived (and viewed) his life on Earth.

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