Saturday, November 10, 2007

Notes from a Book Talk

(Adapted from a talk I wrote for a support group meeting. Are you sitting comfortably?)

Books Fall Open

by David McCord

Books fall open, you fall in
Delighted where you’ve never been
Hear voices not once heard before
Reach world on world through door on door
Find unexpected keys to things
Locked up beyond imaginings
What might you be, perhaps become
Because one book is somewhere?
Some wise delver into wisdom, wit and wherewithal has written it
True books will venture, dare you out
Whisper secrets, maybe shout
Across the gloom to you in need
Who hanker for a book to read.

When Mr. Fixit and I were at the beginning of our journey together, one of us once gave the other one a gift bag with a Winnie-the-Pooh illustration on it and the words, "As soon as I saw you, I knew an adventure was going to happen." That's almost identical to a chapter title in Gladys Hunt's Honey for a Child’s Heart (at least the 1978 edition, which is what I have): "The Pleasure of a Shared Adventure."

Reading is an adventure, and even better, it can be a shared adventure.

What do you need for an adventure? You need some place to go—often some place unknown. Adventures require at least a bit of the unexpected, the unknown, a bit of uncertainty; “things locked up beyond imaginings.” Most adventures don’t happen right in your own backyard. To have a real adventure you need to step outside, push beyond your comfort zone.

Real adventures can include buried treasure, answering riddles, fighting dragons, outwitting giants. They include big problems and big decisions.

Adventures go better with food. Apples, popcorn, hot chocolate…

Here’s a quote, see if you know what book it’s from. "Her own small bedroom now became her reading-room and there she would sit and read most afternoons, often with a mug of hot chocolate beside her….It was pleasant to take a hot drink up to her room and have it beside her as she sat in her silent room reading in the empty house in the afternoons. The books transported her into new world and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She traveled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village."

And it’s nice to have a place to come home to afterwards. Our adventures are enjoyed more when they’re framed in the familiarity and security of home.

What should you expect from an adventure?

Expect it to take time. You can’t have a real adventure in five minutes, and some of the best book adventures are very long. We are often too impatient and we settle for abridged versions or just skip things altogether because they’re so long. But if you take, say, the long unabridged version of David Copperfield, there’s just a huge amount of wonderful stuff in there that hasn’t made it into shortened versions or movie versions. In other words, you don’t really know David Copperfield until you’ve explored the whole thing, and when you’re done you’re tired but you know it was worthwhile.

Expect some degree of danger, risk, opposition and difficulty. Being a reader these days can be a subversive activity, both inside and outside of the Christian community; it can make people angry; it can make a lot more people yawn with boredom. It’s not the books that get banned by school libraries that you will have to struggle to read or even to find; it’s the books that nobody’s actually supposed to be able or be interested in reading any more; that includes some of the treasures of our Christian literary heritage. How many people do you know--Christians or not-- who have actually read and enjoyed Paradise Lost or Pilgrim’s Progress, just for a start? How many homeschoolers will include those books in their children’s education? For some people, concentrating our children’s reading on the dead white guys (particularly dead Christian white guys) is seen as some kind of an act against contemporary culture. And those who don't get outright angry may try to discourage you in other ways. Just like in Pilgrim’s Progress, you are going to meet people with names like That’s-So-Dull and Much-Abridged who are going to try to get you to turn back; but press on, the rewards are there in the end.

And expect to be rewarded when you climb to the top. Who goes on a quest without hoping to bring back treasure? Without even specially looking for them, we can expect to make discoveries that lead to wisdom, teach discernment and critical thinking, inspire us with courage, and build character; what Terry Glaspey calls the Moral Imagination. Charlotte Mason said that “stories make the child’s life intelligible to himself; Gladys Hunt wrote in Honey for a Child’s Heart that “books help children know what to look for in life.” It helps to know what you’re looking for when you’re hunting for treasure. And besides that there are a lot of little side benefits of reading, like improved vocabulary and listening skills, creativity, and having bits of useful information stored up in the mind.

Again from "that book": “All the reading she had done had given her a view of life that they had never seen. If only they would read a little Dickens or Kipling they would soon discover there was more to life than cheating people and watching television.”

Northrop Frye said that literature is true, more true in some ways than our everyday existence; because when our everyday life is disappointing and superficial or truly horrible, it is in literature that we find examples of true love, true honour, true courage. Reading is more than just escapism. It’s not escapism to find strength by remembering Christian’s defeat of Giant Despair; by thinking of wise words that Corrie Ten Boom’s father and sister told her; by making yourself smile at a lovely line of poetry or laugh at the Pooh stories.

But reading is an escape as well, in a good sense. We rebel against ignorance and smallness and look for something more; we try to remember what we are or should be as human beings. We can escape from the pride of thinking we know it all, and from limitations like not really being able to sail or fly or ride horses, or find a secret garden or a buried treasure. We may not have people in our everyday lives who are as loyal as Charlotte, as resourceful as Laura’s Ma, as wise as Clara’s grandmother in Heidi, as encouraging as Ratty, or as valiant as Reepicheep; but in books, we can do all these things and know all these people.

Expect to have fun. The roads through books aren’t all serious; there is a great deal of humor, delight and pleasure, even nonsense. About a hundred years ago, a parent in England wrote this:
“I cannot count the times I have read aloud the stories in the "Just So" book. During a dreary month of grey skies and perpetual snow, spent in the hotel of a grim Yorkshire village, those stories were our daily bread, especially those that took us to the sunshine of South Africa. And the greatest favourite of all was The Beginning of the Armadilloes. Only Rudyard Kipling or Lewis Carroll would dare to write anything so absurd. Day after day, for thirty days or thereabouts, those two rascals, Stickly-Prickly, and Slow-and-Solid, played their pranks, and day after day we laughed at the same places, and when Slow-and-Solid said to the Painted Jaguar--"Because if she said what you said she said, it's just the same as if I said what she said she said"--day after day we bounded out of our chairs with joy….Let us arm our children for the slings and arrows of later life by cultivating the spirit of innocent laughter.”

Terry Glaspey says that “being in the presence of greatness cannot but change us.” So expect to be changed, strengthened, stretched, widened, given a different perspective as you go on a particular adventure. As characters in books grow throughout a story, we share their experiences and also find ourselves growing and changing. One of my favourite short books is Rumer Godden’s The Mousewife, about a rather unhappy mother mouse who develops a friendship with a dove living in a cage. The dove tells her stories about the world outside and gives her a lot of new ideas about things she has never seen. Eventually the mousewife finds a way to help the dove escape, but suddenly realizes that she no longer has her friend there to talk to her and teach her things. Then she looks out the window. “She looked out again and saw the stars….When she saw them shining she thought at first they must be new brass buttons. Then she saw that they were very far off, farther than the garden or the wood, beyond the farthest trees….’I have seen them for myself,’ said the mousewife, ‘without the dove. I can see for myself,’ said the mousewife, and slowly, proudly, she walked back to bed.”

How can we get to be more adventurous, and get more out of our reading adventures?

Use the services of an experienced guide—in this case, booklists and books about books, including homeschool book catalogues and online reviews—but use them cautiously. In your book adventures, as in real life, some guides are more to be trusted than others; and some may simply suit your purposes or personality more than others do. What one hiking guide calls a nice little stroll may leave you exhausted; and what one booklist calls suitable for a ten-year-old may be your idea of something better saved for high school, or the other way around.

To have the greatest adventures, seek out the greatest treasures. Our culture tends to cheapen and trivialize reading (formula series, TV-tie-ins, other kinds of books that barely qualify as books); the media tells us we should read mostly because it’s fun. But even fun gets boring after awhile.

To have the greatest adventures, don’t stick only to the roads marked “fiction.” Read some of the history of medicine, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy. Find out what was beautiful, revolutionary and even dangerous about scientific discoveries. Read history, and go beyond “how the peasants lived.” Read biographies, poetry, nature descriptions. Read the Bible together.

There is also the idea these days that there are no specific important books—wrong. Some book adventures are just more rewarding than others, especially the places you know you’ll want to go back to again and take your friends along to enjoy. There are certain real-life places that everyone should try to see once; and there are book adventures that are too good to miss. You may not be ready for them all at the beginning, but you can work up to the challenge.

Which is another good point: to have the greatest adventures, take along some good companions; make it a shared adventure, and everyone who goes along will be in on the shared vocabulary, experiences and “book friends” that you meet along the way. How do you work around different ages? Not everyone who comes along will get the most from a particular book journey, but sometimes what they do bring back will surprise you. There are times in life when you just can’t read with everyone, but even if it’s just you and one other person, you’re sharing that adventure together, and maybe somebody else will decide to come along if the two of you look like you’re having fun.

How do you deal with general reluctance, the attitude that books are hard or boring? I once went to a health-food demonstration where the presenter was asked, "How can I encourage my children to eat some of these foods instead of hot dogs?" She answered, very unhelpfully, that really they should have just been better trained from the start. In the same way, it would be easy for me to say that if your kids are brought up reading with you from babyhood, you probably won’t have a problem with this, and that if you do you should just force it down them; but that sort of answer just makes you want to give up, doesn't it? So a better suggestion might be that you’re going to have to woo them—maybe with the hot chocolate and popcorn, maybe with a particularly wonderful or funny book that you know gets right into the story very quickly. These suggestions might also apply if you really want to involve a spouse or another adult family member; nobody wants to be made to read, especially if they think they’re going to be bored by kids books; so make sure that it’s something that everybody’s going to enjoy. One recommendation is Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It’s nothing at all like the movie and it’s a lot of fun and has lots of things blowing up in it.

How do you cope with busy schedules, and the competing attractions of other media? You can use audio books, maybe during mealtimes or travel; you can use more homeschool time just to read; you can leave books lying around; you can give books as gifts. Even the cost of new books shouldn’t be a deterrent to reading, not with libraries and used books and online books readily available; Emily Dickinson was right when she said that reading is a pretty frugal chariot compared with a lot of the other ways we can find to spend money.

HE ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book.
What liberty
A loosened spirit brings! --Emily Dickinson

To have the greatest adventures, let the adventures find you. "Books fall open, you fall in." We can’t always regulate reading by squeezing it into a READING period; by labeling books according to grade or age; or excluding every word or idea that we don’t think our kids will understand. Again, you have to risk a little. Lines like “bequest of wings,” “loosened spirit” and “take us worlds away” speak to us of flight and freedom; the idea of moving outside our own place and time, being able to see beyond our own lives; that’s what the word education means, a drawing out. As our “spirits grow robust,” we are able not only to handle more difficult book adventures but to use our experiences in the everyday world as well, to survive the “dingy days” and also to change them into something better. “Robust spirits” implies strength and health; this kind of reading is not a weak, wussy thing or just an escape from reality. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Cousin Eustace was the cowardly, mean character; C.S. Lewis says it was because he hadn’t read the right books.

What are the right books to adventure with? A great storyteller named Ruth Sawyer gave this list (quoted in Honey for a Child's Heart): “Stories that make for wonder. Stories that make for laughter. Stories that stir one within with an understanding of the true nature of courage, of love, of beauty. Stories that make one tingle with high adventure, with daring, with grim determination, with the capacity of seeing danger through to the end. Stories that bring our minds to kneel in reverence. Stories that show the tenderness of true mercy, the strength of loyalty, the unmawkish respect for what is good.”

THERE is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul! --Emily Dickinson

Let’s have the courage to adventure with books…and…Let’s go there together.


lindafay said...

What a beautiful post!

Donna-Jean Breckenridge said...

What a wonderful, wonderful article! Thank you so much for posting it.

Anonymous said...

“being in the presence of greatness cannot but change us.” ... I like that!
I so much like 'Honey for a Child's Heart'.
It's wonderful to read of the importance of books. What a great post that you took the time to share.

JacciM said...

I'm so glad I read the whole thing :) It made me wish I was in your homeschool support group! Thanks for such an edifying carnival post :)


Rachel Harris said...

Wow this was beautiful and inspired. I am just now reading the CM Carnival from November, and am so glad I found this post! I am going to link to it on my blog!

Thank you for sharing!