Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How to Use Your Classical Education: Four Examples

Book review time again.  Spring break involves lots of drive time.  Steve drives, I knit, the miles pass, and the only way to keep the natives from getting too restless is to entertain the brain with an audiobook.  In years past, I read many books aloud myself, but that was before I took up knitting.  And my throat would always wear out anyway.  So we get the audiocassettes from the library.  Our van has 120,000 miles on it and has never heard of a CD player.  All the newer books are being recorded only on CDs now, so we are delving into the classics when we get audiobooks out of the library.  The first four audiobooks we completed on vacation make a nice tour of what a well-trained mind can do in the literature department.  All are appropriate for children, if not designed specifically for them.

Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys, by Louisa May Alcott, is the lesser-known sequel to Little Women.  Most of us know the general plot outline of the first book, but Alcott may have been one of the first writers to recognize the importance of sequels in extending the marketablity of a literary franchise.  In this book, Jo is grown up and married to "Father Bhaer," and they run an unconventional school for boys out of their home.  (Anyone who has ever been involved in starting and running a real school will wonder how they manage to make ends meet with only a few paying students, but that's beside the point.  They apparently have wealthy friends and relations.)  This is one of those rambling, old-fashioned reads that kids turn to when they do not have electronic media in the forefront of their brains.  Sadly, that means it won't be read very much, and it will be scorned by many kids as being hopelessly outdated.  I do have fond memories of reading it from my own childhood.  Like any Victorian novel for kids, it is heavily moralistic.  The children get into "scrapes" regularly and the adults are endlessly concerned with the proper formation of their characters.  There is the obligatory death scene.  The younger the children are, the more likely they are to speak with a babyish lisp that was apparently intended to make them more precious.  This is not the enduring great work that Little Women is, but gives you a good glimpse at the Transcendentalism of Alcott and her peers.  I think of her as a kind of Hippie, crunchy-granola earth-mother of the 19th century, and it's fascinating to see how her once-radical ideas have become old-fashioned and conventional.  She made an effort to appeal to boy readers as well as girls in this book; whether successfully or not in her day, it is a harder sell now.  Not impossible, but, as with studying Latin, you have to get into the proper frame of mind to make a fair attempt.

How Right You Are, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse, is about as far from Plumfield as you can get.  Wodehouse, of course, glorifies the useless aristocrat and his astute butler in a way that no one has been able to replicate before or since.  Every sentence is a jewel; the prose sparkles with wit, the plot is thicker than the mud on the bottom of Aunt Dahlia's pond, and every character is the perfect archetype of himself.  If you have not read Wodehouse yet, it should go immediately to the top of your list, and then you will understand.  Which Wodehouse matters not: he wrote a lot and they're all good... but something with Jeeves is an excellent place to start.  We had the added delight of listening to the audiobook narrated by Ian Carmichael, famous for playing Lord Peter Wimsey back in the 1970's.

Journey to the Center of the Earth,  by Jules Verne, allows the astute listener/reader to trace the origins of the modern Science Fiction/ Fantasy genre while still having a rip-roaring good time on an action-packed adventure.  However dated the science may be, however improbable the plot, this is a classic that has stood the test of time.  There was even a movie version a few years ago that left much of the plot intact.  I myself enjoyed listening to the language; Verne wrote originally in French but the English translation made me think how Latinate older prose tends to be, and wonder whether that is obvious in French as well.  I would stop the tape and say, "That's an ablative absolute he used right there.  Isn't that cool?!"  Yes, I really am that nerdy.

The Sign of Four, by Arthur Conan Doyle is another great one to get your boys to read.  Cultural literacy really does require a knowledge of Sherlock Holmes and his unique mind.  However good the recent movie and the modernized TV series may be (and I liked them both) (and by the way, Dad, when I say the modernized TV series I mean this one and not the one from the 80's which is also good!), your kids should read the books, too. 

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