Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Contribution to the Ubiquitous Unsolicited Advice to Those Expecting a Blessed Event

Not being a parent, or not even being a decent human being, doesn't seem to stop people from feeling they are qualified to give parental advice.  And I am no exception.

Earlier today I read a blog entry (a word of preparation for the sake of the variety of reality tunnels that read this blog, I do feel compelled to warn the more sensitive readers that the entry perhaps might undermine the parenting advice for you by indulging in at least one vulgarism) by a man with a toddler who, like most modern toddlers, has the tendency to watch favorite films with an astronomical capacity for repetition.  Unfortunately, much like a parent can train a child's eating habits and palette in the early years, so one can prepare a child for a lifetime of filling their brains with bubblegum and offal by allowing low quality entertainment to enter those impressionable eyes and ears.  To wit, he brings up the barrel-bottom scrapings of Alvin and the Chipmunk motion pictures, the sanctimonious television cartoon Arthur, and any number of horrid entertainments hoisted on the petard of children before they attain even the barest minimum of discernment in quality (I remember when my eldest niece reached that age and grew more and more frustrated at the tommyrot her younger sisters were willing to subject themselves to.)  He then points out there are many great films that contain nothing inappropriate to most small children and would be far preferable to parent and child alike.  He brought up the fine example of O Brother, Where Art Thou? which, given the choice, I would much rather have that on our television daily instead of something called Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.  The child not only gained the experience of loving a fine film, they also had the opportunity to enjoy something with their parent!

All of which is my characteristically long-winded way to get to talk about two items available in the world of books which it is my intention to argue are must-owns for any home where child rearing is happening.  I had someone ask me recently if I had any recommendations for books for children and I compiled a long list.  But I have been wanting to do this entry ever since as I've been thinking about two items in particular which for some reason I forgot and didn't put on the list.  And both of which I think would probably be right at the top of the list in my mind.

This is a collection compiled by Harold Bloom titled Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages.  It is a wonderful volume of wonderful literature which I agree is of value to people of any age although specifically for children to lay a foundation for great literature in their lives.  As usual, I am of mixed feelings about Harold Bloom.  His thesis is stated in his introduction:
"`Children's Literature'-is a mask for the dumbing-down that is destroying our literary culture. Most of what is now commercially offered as children's literature would be inadequate fare for any reader of any age at any time."
A sentiment I both agree with and, at the same time, bristle a little bit at the canonizing authority that Bloom bestows upon himself.  And in moments of bristling at Bloom's pomposity, I do well to remember that I do exactly the same thing all the time.  In fact, I'm doing it right now!

But don't let all of that fool you into thinking this is top shelf, esoteric, heavy, scholarly, nerd fodder.  I probably should have sold the material before giving critiques of the premise.  The material itself is marvelous and anything but daunting (I don't think one need be extremely intelligent to read the material, merely aspiring to be.)  Mainly, like all anthologies, it offers convenience and portability (in stark contrast to my second recommendation below.)  Most of the works included in this volume are well known, time tested classics that one could probably easily compile for one's child at any local thrift store: Shakespeare, Aesop, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and so forth.  Mixed with some that one might not have thought of for children (see the film argument above) or possibly hadn't even heard of before: Christina Rossetti, Keats, Lafcadio Hearn, Blake, even one entry from Turgenev.  The pieces are arranged in a theme of seasons.  Far from academic, the anthology has the soul and passion of a poet.  I would say that this is a must own for any parent.

Also a must own for any parent, The Harvard Classics library is also known as the Five Foot Library because it is precisely five feet worth of books (which, in my experience, rather annoyingly takes up about two and a half shelves of space, leaving one to figure out what 12 other books should also go in that bookcase which would otherwise look very striking in uniformity. Ah, but again I seem to be undermining my own sales pitch by starting with the weak points.)  Dr. Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard around the turn of the 20th century, would often say that a great education could be gained by reading for 15 minutes a day from books that would only comprise five feet of space (or words to that effect.)  Collier Publishing House saw opportunity and challenged Dr. Eliot to produce said five feet.  It is said that if one reads the whole five feet, one will have as good an education as if one had graduated from Harvard.

Of course, there are many who try it and generally the reported results are glowing.  A friend of mine in High School did it and profited tremendously from it.  And although it did not save her, her parents, and the State from the price of her college tuition, I think she would agree that having that material alive within her when she entered college greatly aided her experience and prevented her from squandering her time in college (like some of us did.)

This is an excellent set to have in any house for raising an autodidact.

If you're a modern soul, you can get the whole set for free to, if I understand correctly, put on your little electric book reading device (not to put too fine a point on it, but I do want to emphasize, a Harvard level education is there for the taking for anyone in the world for free.)  But if I had a child, this entire set would be a must own in my home.  You might be surprised to know that neither of these are things that I actually do own, but both the Bloom book and the complete Harvard Classics Library are in our local library and, much to my chagrin, almost never checked out by anyone but me.

As a side note, I am considering using the Harvard Classics Library as the next group of classics once our reading group exhausts the Penguin 10 Essential Classics List.  Or, rather, I should say it's an idea I'm kicking around in my head enough to at least mention it in passing here.

The first book you can buy used online for very little money.  Even if purchased new, it won't break the bank.  The Harvard Classics, for a complete set, you're probably looking at a few hundred dollars (up to many hundreds of dollars if you want a nice one.  You might be able to assemble a set by thrift store hopping for much less, but I would imagine that would be a tough row to hoe.  Also the aesthetically pleasing uniformity of size and color from a publication year might be something you would have to sacrifice) but if I were a parent, I this would be at the top of the registry and an essential in my home.


  1. Definitely looking up the poetry book and at least bookmarking the classics. Thanks - I love good, real literature!

  2. I wish I had been more regular in following your blog. Earlier this year I came across the Bloom book and just had to buy it. Though the title is laughable, the book is excellent, and I will gladly defend his canonizing tendencies.

    The Bartleby books are to be read online and not on an ereader. For ebooks you'll need to either buy them, or see what can be found on Gutenberg, Feedbooks, and MobileRead.

  3. http://wiki.mobileread.com/wiki/Harvard_Classics_Available_at_MobileRead

    Almost the entire 52 volume Harvard Classics -- only volume 50 is missing, which is labeled as, "INTRODUCTION, READER'S GUIDE, INDEXES."

    I can't speak to quality, yet, but I'll be downloading these and using Calibre to convert them to EPUB for reading on my Nook.

  4. Hooray! There you go. I didn't know about Bartleby. That seems extremely inconvenient. I'm glad to know there is an actual resource for it in eBook for online.

    Yes, the Bloom book is excellent!

  5. I'm a little disappointed with the ebooks I linked. Having downloaded them and taken a look, I notice that the ones I sampled don't have an active table of contents. The footnotes are also provided inline, which... given the way that footnotes work on readers isn't a horrible thing. But all in all, there's some significant work needed on them to make them convenient to use.