Providing some data points here. I’m not sure what reading level test was used in the study Ravitch refers to, but the first chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses scores a sixth-grade reading level on the Flesch-Kincaid test, which is the most widely used test of this type. Hamlet comes in at an eighth-grade level. Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise rates a ninth-grade level. An article on Chris Christies election prospects from today’s NY Times scores at the eleventh grade level.
I hope this points out the absurdity of using such tests for things like this.
The Flesch-Kincaid test uses word and sentence length as inputs, nothing else. It’s not a bad quick and dirty test for quickly checking readability, but it’s not suitable for detailed comparisons between texts. For example, speeches will tend to use shorter sentences than written prose. Technical writing will tend to use longer words.
I’m not in disagreement, however, it seems that you’re indirectly implying that Joyce’s vocabulary should have been rated much higher; I agree. By the way, I am inclined to redesignate my denotation of “disintegration” to “simplification” of language.
Reading Joyce is an arduous task for everyone, regardless of one’s education, but we’re dealing with creative narrative writing, not expositional. I’ve read some of Joyce’s letters; they were written in a more expository fashion and they are easily readable.
My argument, which was initiated on an earlier thread, is that vocabulary has unequivocally simplified,(declined). That seems to be Ravitch’s position. Every grammar book advises readers to avoid fancy words. “Don’t be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.” From yours truly, Strunk jr and E.B.White.
I’m ardently opposed to this thinking. When do we utilize these twenty-dollar words and for whom? For this reason classics by Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, are no longer assigned to 9-12 graders for reading and in those novels are where the challenging words lie. According to a recent story, over the past century the books being assigned to 9-12 graders have decreased in difficulty. From 9th and 10th grade reading levels closer to 6th grade.
I would think that this forum, which encourages an interest in our English lexicon, would also try to preserve and revitalize words that have a more etymological significance with a more meaningful representation, rather than categorizing them as being “archaic”.