person, why is he important?" my Chinese neighbour asked.
Our Chinese neighbour speaks excellent and often quite colloquial English. He is an accredited interpreter. All the same he does not think twice about coming to ask us if he believes he needs to know something about the English language or, in this case, books.
My father was showing him the Claire Tomalin biography of Dickens I bought him for his birthday. He is enjoying it. I keep being told things about the book - always a good sign that he is involved.
We "did" Dickens at school of course. In the old "Intermediate" (sub "O" level) one of the set texts was David Copperfield. The book did not make a great impact on country kids who really did help to milk the cows before they came to school. They thought it was long winded and rather ridiculous. I think only two or three of us got much from it. I was required to read more Dickens later. I did not read it by choice. Later still, in Law School, we were told we should read Bleak House. I think most of the students did not bother.
Some may have started but fewer of them would not have finished it.
All the same we knew something about Dickens - and Shakespeare and any number of other writers who go to make up our literary heritage. Even the students from Asia knew about Dickens and Shakespeare although their knowledge of both writeers might be minimal.
And yes, my neighbour knows who Dickens is - but why is he important? It is a different question is it not?
My father and I did the best we could. We tried to explain the concept of cultural literacy, that common knowledge base by which we know about things even if we do not actually know the things themselves.
"Like knowing Handel and Mozart are composers even if you do not know and like their music," my father told him. Yes, that made a little sense.
And then I suddenly thought of something
"Have you read the Chinese classic "A dream of red mansions"?" I asked him.
He was shocked. Of course he knew about it. Everyone knew about it. It is an important book. He had to read it at school. His wife, who taught Chinese literature, knew a lot about it.
Then he stopped for a moment. Oh yes, he thought he understood now. Knowing about this Dickens person is like knowing about that.
As he went to leave though he looked at me and asked, "You know about "A dream of red mansions"? How? Have you read it?"
No, I do not know much about it. I have heard it mentioned. I have never read it. All the same knowing about it is part of the cultural literacy of the world. That alone makes it important. If I was well educated I would have read it as well as Dickens. I am not well educated.