Sorry this is late, I just had a very busy weekend. More about that in another post, as you probably will have seen above.
The latest Friday Five topic, from Chris:
People once thought that it was important for boys to study the works of the great Roman orators so that they would develop both their language skills and their sense of honor, duty and propriety. (This was a particular theme in the biography “John Adams,” as the love of these boyhood texts stayed with the honor-bound Adams all his life.) I often think about the books that had a profound impact on me as a boy, because I came of age in a post-Watergate world. My tastes tended toward the sarcastic, ironic and humorous, and I sometimes wonder if I would be a different man today if I had read different literature as a boy. What if I was reading Cicero instead of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy? I seldom read biographies, but what if I was reading biographies of Lincoln and Washington and other “great men”? Would that have even made sense? Are the Roman ideals even relevant anymore, in our world of irony and instant gratification? Who are the proper heroes for boys? Should we strive to sustain the old ideals, or look toward a new formulation of them? Where should we find such ideals?
That’s the background; here’s the question. I want to expose my son to the very best literature as he grows up — “best” being defined as “engaging his interest, challenging his intellect, and building his character.” Based on your own life experiences, what five books would you recommend?
Wow, that’s a tough question. Well, I’m going to begin by saying that I’m dubious about the idea that books are the only way to develop intellect, grow emotionally, and so on. I think they’re often a damn sight better than movies and a hell of a lot better than comic books because they do develop one’s vocabulary, and given that language is kind of one of those things that separates us from animals, I think this is important. And I think that the kind of self-reflexivity, and awareness of the existence of others’ internal states, that we learn reading books is often more fine and more sophisticated than what we often get in other media. Still… I think that claiming one must read books, flat-out is probably, in the long view of human history, about as bigoted and skewed as claiming that people must, in order to develop, read Latin- and Greek-language classics. So I’m not going to say that books are across-the-board better than film or comic books. In fact, have read plenty of trash in my time, time that could have been far more constructively used on watching movies like Derek Jarman’s Blue or even Chinatown, or reading a comic book like Maüs. I’ve still never gotten to any of those works, and feel incompletely cultured as a result.
Likewise, I am a little bit nervous about giving kids books that will shape their politics in one or another direction too readily, in such a way that it will blind them later in life. I really don’t like that idea, and far prefer books that will help expand a child’s cognitive toolkit. I’d rather my child be reading things that makes him or her more likely to rationally evaluate economics instead of reading things which will implant a dedication to Marxism or the free market.
Despite my misgivings, though, I will list some books here that I think would do any kid well. I’m going to assume one thing: that this kid has access to decent etymological dictionaries and a passable encyclopedia online. Given that, I’d recommend the following printed books:
1. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
This book is a story about learning what monsters lurk within oneself, learning to master them, and being loved even though they’re still there at the end of the day. It makes me wish I had white wolf pyjamas for the days when I need to work hard at mastering this lesson.
2. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss.
This book is all about saying no, resisting pressure, and changing your mind. Really. I believe that. And so I think this is a very important book. It also used to be available on LP, narrated to an accompaniment of jazz music.
3. The Encyclopedia Brown mysteries
I devoured these books as a kid, and while I’m not a fan of mystery novels, I think these mysteries teach you a great deal about how to see through bullshit and figure out when people are lying. It also teaches you that a certain percentage of people are willing to lie for their own benefit, or for other bewildering reasons… but gives you some faint hope that reason, logic, and some sharp attention can penetrate those lies.
4. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself by Frederick Douglass, of course.
This book is a powerful and moving book. While an honest observation of some of the specifics of life in the old south as a slave does have its (far from negligible) merits, I think the importance of this book has more to do with the way that Douglass, an escaped slave, discussing the hypocrisy and cruelty of a society that justified slavery with Christian scripture, justified slavery on the grounds of the ostensible inhumanity of men and women (women who, like Douglass’s mother, were nonetheless human enough to be raped by their masters and bear children for their mastwers, children that were sometimes like their mothers, enslaved), and in general movingly describe freedom which people dangerously take for granted and in doing so risk losing forever. It’s a book about hearing suppressed voices and seeing the utter crap that suppresses them… and it’s about learning to look at your world from another point of view and seeing why someone else would think it’s founded on a total sham and lie.
5. The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis.
While I’m leery of steering my child toward a religion that I myself don’t practice, I think this novel is worth reading simply because it contains such a powerful examination of the mechanics of human evil and self-grandiosity. The observations of the pitfalls of seeking goodness are quite comparable to (and often similar to) those Lewis writes about in Mere Christianity, but Screwtape Letters is more entertaining and, for the power of its fiction, more striking. And anyway, I didn’t become a Dänikenite when, on asking my father whether he believed in God during an early struggle with my doubts, he gave me an old, taped-together copy of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods.
This list may of course be far different by the time I actually have the responsibility of giving a son or daughter books… assuming I ever manage to breed, that is. But for an hour’s typing and reflection this is what I have to suggest.