Friday, October 10, 2003

The Friday Five

My topic this week, so I can't wimp out:

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?

Of course, I ask the question because I'm a bit baffled myself, not because I have any great hold on what the answer is. But I have some thoughts:

1. The Princess Bride. It's a wonderful and spirited tale of adventure for any teenager. But what makes the book so unforgettable is the quality that was least prominent in the filmed version -- the author's present-day musings about how he had to come to terms with the fact that life isn't fair. That is the moral of the story, and the moral of life itself. And this is as good a way to learn that lesson as any.

2. The Phantom Tollbooth. Not so much a moral guidepost, but an intellectual stimulant. I found this book absolutely intoxicating as a kid, because it took a playful attitude toward language that has stuck with me to this day.

3. Le Morte d'Arthur. The Arthurian ideals will never die, not really, not as long as people still believe that the individual should follow his own code and his own view of God. Of course, all that foolishness about the King being the land and so on has got to go.

4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Shannon rolls her eyes every time I get off on my rant about how the film version of this book completely f*cked up Roald Dahl's point by introducing mush-mouthed 1970s relativistic thinking. Say it with me once again: CHARLIE NEVER DISOBEYED WILLY WONKA! That's the point! Self-control is not impossible, it's just a difficult but worthwhile skill to acquire. And then there's the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, which is wonderful for a different reason: it introduced my favorite villains of my childhood, the Vermicious Knids. Come to think of it, pretty much everything by Roald Dahl is going to be on the list.

5. Where The Wild Things Are. I have long believed that one of the most profound endings in literature -- better even than "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" -- is "and it was still hot." When Jonah was one day old, I held him in my arms in the hospital and read him this story. He didn't get much out of it, but his daddy sure did. It's a great story of wild childhood and parental love.

P.S. Of course, the landscape of my childhood was most clearly formed by Joseph Campbell's "The Hero With A Thousand Faces." Frankly, it profoundly affected every aspect of my play as a kid. Well, I say that. I was actually enamored of George Lucas's particular telling of the universal hero tale, featuring a farm boy with feathered hair and a dream of greatness.

So, thanks to everyone that has answered. I have been absolutely fascinated by people's suggestions.

Other F5 participants are: Melissa, Adam, Merideth, Will, Chris, Gina, Dave, Colleen, Craig, Gord, Adrienne, and Nanette, Marvin, and Rob.

 11:11 AM

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