Clara's Clearing

Clara's Clearing

The dusting of books...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A while ago I wrote about our decision to move out of San Francisco. Well, the move is upon us. We’re packing, loading, cleaning, painting, etc., hence my laxness in writing blogs.

Packing books is an interesting activity for a homeschooling mother who is a bookworm. Every book I picked up and dusted I evaluated from the point of view of using as a teaching tool. I say “tool” because I don’t expect to be “teaching” every book or having my son read all the books his father and I own. But I do think about using books to demonstrate points. For example, if Jack continues with his fascination with Greek mythology I will at some point casually walk him past our Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Herodotus, tragedies, shelf and let him see that there were more historical characters in ancient Greece. If he shows interest I’ll take it from there.

And some books I just want him to be around even if he doesn’t read them. Let him pick up from the corner of his eyes those volumes of Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Let him see all of Shakespeare and Jane Austen in one place, or the many accounts of the French Revolution. Or let him see those rows of Trollope – and if he ever asks I will tell him how Trollope wrote on horseback on his business trips for the post office and that the idea of mailboxes on the corners of streets is his brainchild. Again, a place to start.

(I know I lose a lot of readers by writing about the classics. I apologize, but I’m going to write more.)

A couple of days ago I leafed through the two fat volumes of Don Quixote and Divine Comedy. I know very well that Dante and Cervantes are not the kind of authors you can force anybody to read. Frankly, I never finished Don Quixote when I was younger – it was too long and too infuriating. And The Divine Comedy is certainly rather esoteric. I packed the volumes with an inner sigh. “Will Jack ever read these – or Manzoni or Gogol?” I lamented.

(I apologize again. I really love this stuff and I want to share them with my kid.)

So last night a very good friend invited us to dinner. We met when our kids were in preschool and of all my newer friends she is the closest to me in intellectual interests. I described our new house to her and all the coincidences that led us to it. “You never find a house. The house finds you,” she said. I agreed. But it turned out that something else was also about to find us.

In the corner of her dining room there was a stack of books. “You must have these,” she said. Her son is a splendidly smart boy who is happily engaged with his school and increasingly enamored of tennis. She was a little disappointed that he wasn’t interested in those books but we all know that her kid is as excellent and will be as accomplished as they come. Nevertheless I made a bet with her that some day he will come back to these books. I will hold them for him until that day.

The books…? A series under the title of “My Book House,” first copyright 1921, thirty-fifth printing 1953, edited by the famous children's author Olive Beaupre Miller. There are about a dozen volumes for elementary through high school “boys and girls.” The two volumes I have before me give you an idea. One is called “From the Tower Window” introducing children to epic literature from different cultures – Greek, Persian, Indian, Biblical, Nordic, Germanic, etc. – and legendary historical figures like Charlemagne and Joan of Arc. The other, “Halls of Fame,” introduces children to famous writers: Dante, Cervantes, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, etc. The books are beautifully illustrated and just looking at the pictures and reading the captions is an engaging pleasure. I gratefully borrowed the books to explore with Jack while holding them in safekeeping for my friend’s son.

Now, these books are not very fun to read. The prose is pseudo-archaic and the “retold” stories are wordy and so densely told that they are sometimes hard to follow. But no matter. These books are amazing teaching tools. I will assign chapters for Jack to read on his own and study others together, augmented by the actual texts from which stories are “retold.” But great teaching tools are many. What struck me about this particular series is that I was reminded of two things. First, the cultural and intellectual content of children’s education was much richer in the past. And second, the cultural and intellectual content of children’s entertainment was much richer in the past. In other words, kids used to be brought up with excellent materials used for true Aristotelian purpose: to instruct and to amuse.

(Again, I apologize. I know I am often seen as old-world and “elitist.” People on the political right eye me with suspicion as ultra liberal, and people on the left dismiss me as reactionary and old-fashioned.)

While I was dusting and packing my books I mused over why I feel so strongly that my kid should be surrounded by Shakespeare and Dante and Dostoyevsky. I am certainly not going to force him to read anything he doesn’t want to. I am going to do my best to make great literature interesting to him but I know very well that real interest can never be forced on anyone. But what I am certainly shooting for is to get this message across to him: Art, culture, and intellectual pursuit EXIST.

I feel that the greater part of the culture in which our children are growing up now denies -- and denigrates – the greatest accomplishments of human beings throughout the world and throughout the ages. The books that found me at my friend’s house reminded me that this denial and denigration is a relatively recent phenomenon. Perhaps Disney and Pixar will not succeed in muting Homer and deleting Joan of Arc. Perhaps a restoration, even a renaissance, is in order. Perhaps we should start with kids.



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