From Charlotte’s Web:
(Wilbur asks:) “Why did you do all this for me? I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”
“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
Isn’t that beautiful? I’m often puzzled by what makes a classic a classic. Who decides what is a great book? And though they’ve not asked me, I’ve read a number of the great works that left me longing—for a nap, that is.
At any rate, as I read this passage to our youngest, it hit me why some books are irreplaceable. I recently read or heard somewhere that so many of today’s books for older children are consumed with helping kids deal with divorce, abuse, neglect, premarital sex, drugs, and a long list of social ills. Though they are very real issues and I don’t deny anyone’s right to speak to them through literature, I find myself drawn back to a time when books were less politically correct, even if it means educating the kids on terms and events that I wish weren’t a part of their history. I feel the same way about a number of newer authors who publish books that are “for our (meaning African-American) children.” As I preview them, I often find that the illustrations are rich and effective at depicting our beauty, but the storylines and the interplay of characters are a constant reminder of why Charlotte Mason felt the need to discuss the perils of feasting on “twaddle.”
Why do we read classics? Because even in an age where literacy and moral standards are declining, there is still a body of knowledge that shapes our language and our culture. One of my educational goals is for the children to be aware of what shapes our thinking, past the memorization of dates and names. As we’ve moved through these books, I make sure I complete enough homework to have a conversation about what the book means in the larger scheme of life. That’s the academic, more “heady” side of why we read classics. The more important piece to me is what these books do for the heart and mind aside from giving the kids a fighting chance at appearing intelligent (smile). The characters in these books challenge us to be more, to do more. You cannot read The Iliad—no matter how long– without examining your own courage, your sense of romance and relationship, and your general sense of self. Secondly, these books increase our sense of compassion for our fellow man. Isn’t that what God commands of us—to love Him with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves? Incidentally, there is a great article that I “tweeted” a while back regarding evaluating classics according to God’s will for our lives. I can’t find the original article now, but it asks a thought provoking question that helps me in determining what is suitable for our studies: ‘does this literary work teach my child a Biblical perspective of the theme elevating Jesus Christ, imparting the correct principles, and teaching my child to know and love God?’
As a final thought on why classics, the oldest and I are continuing to share Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book together. This is our second year working through it, and we’ll probably take a third. Reading it at a rate of about 3-5 pages a week, with written narrations, allows us to digest it more thoroughly than if we tried to rush and read it in one school year. This excerpt was from a recent notebook entry of mine:
‘When you read the “great books,” there are reasons why they seem overwhelming. First, we have not been taught to read books well (analytically, that is). The other problem is that we fail to recognize the relationship between the books. They should be read in a certain order such that you can understand previous authors’ effect on the current author. ‘Related books provide an even larger context that helps you interpret the book you are reading.’ (Adler, pg. 173) The great authors were great readers, and we must view their books in relation to one another.
So with this thought in mind, I am reading these books and making the connections between the authors—who were their teachers, what the thinking of the times was, and why they wrote what they wrote. We don’t skip to the table and birds aren’t singing as we read, but the oldest is actually having fun in a way that I never anticipated, and I am enjoying the fruits of this year’s labors enough to stay with what’s working.
The reading for next year is pretty well-defined by our curriculum. We stick to these as a foundation, but I also take out and add in others. I am convinced that many of the great classics, and perhaps even the definition of them as THE classics, stems from a Eurocentric perspective. One of the challenges in our home has been trying to fit a number of these great works in with stories that tell the histories of others in the world. So I’ve made a conscious decision that we might veer away from those listed as “classics” for the sake of also learning more about Asia and Africa, specifically.
In her Well Trained Mind, Susan Wise Bauer suggests that high schoolers read 8 books per year. We may or may not get there—both my daughter and I tend to read slowly (as in taking in each word rather than being skilled at skimming—I’m trying to train her differently, but it’s dreadfully hard to lead where you’ve not gone). Also, many of these work s need bigger print and more pictures! The “free” reading, i.e., those books that will not be a part of any other assignment except to ensure that they are completed, is still being mulled over. And over. And over. I’ll be there by next summer. Here are my thoughts–today:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Samurai by Shusaku Endo
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Several works of Shakespeare
The list isn’t totally inclusive—yet—but it’s a solid start from which I can build.