Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Back to school with Spark Notes

I have just been helping James launch his Quintessence of Dust blog – whose title borrows from a Hamlet speech that – ideally – an educated Englishman ought to have pretty much off by heart. I didn’t, so when James wasn’t looking I Googled "quintessence of dust" to make good the lack. The link that caught my eye was to Spark Notes. I clicked it.

In a plain font in black and white, there was the snippet of the speech:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in
Reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving
how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! and yet to me, what is
this quintessence of dust?

Here - I take it - there is a reason to pause and reflect upon the ways that we puff up a ridiculous conception of ourselves and our place in the scheme of things - a conception that prevents a more humble appreciation of the realities of our situation. What do I mean? I admit that more needs to be said, but to the right and left of the white box with the Hamlet speech there are large photos of smiling attractive teenagers jumping in the air. I mouse over those photos in a moment of distraction (because it is impossible not to be distracted), and see that those photos link to a page entitled Back To School. I allow myself to be distracted further and click a photo of a smiling, air-borne boy in a check shirt.

Despite the photos, because this is Spark Notes, because I associate (perhaps wrongly) Spark Notes with literature, and because I have just been reading a piece of sixteenth century English drama on the Spark Notes website, I am expecting this Back To School page to be full of things to help students get (back) into literature, or at least back into studying, back into learning, back into a deeper engagement with the wider world.

I was wrong. Here's the list of topics on the Back To School page:

1. The Pros and Cons of Being Brunette

2. First Day of School Pics!
(With a photo of Sabrina and the caption: "We love Sabrina's multicolored shoes—they give her uniform personality!")

3. Thrifty Back-to-School Outfits
"It's that time again—backpacks, schedules, SCHOOL! But first and foremost, it's time to go shopping for back-to-school outfits."

4. The Pros and Cons of Being Blonde

5. Shivani Explains Makeup: Concealer Edition
"Concealer is foundation’s fraternal twin sister; they are very similar, but possess key differences."

6. 10 Best Things about Feeling Healthy
(This is actually about losing weight.)

7. Shivani Gives Her Wardrobe a Makeover

8. Everything You Need to Know About Body Piercing

"Fraternal twin sister" jars a bit for me, but that is the least of the problems here.

This is all aimed at girls. Perhaps Sparky people have done some research and found that boys don't figure much in their target market. But which young lady - after starting to worry so much about her skin, her hair, her figure and her clothes - would be at all inclined to click back to the page with Shakespeare's profound words and muse a while longer about human vanity?

Quintessence of dust indeed.

We are absolutely and completely fucked.

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