In his truly wonderful book, The Restoration of Christian Culture, John Senior remarks that students need to read the thousand good books before they read the hundred great books. Otherwise in college such students may turn into well-read nihilists, excited by intellectual inquiry (without end or purpose), and contemptuous of moral good, very much aware of their own cleverness and insensitive to the presence of moral virtue in others and its absence in themselves.
Every student needs to experience the good before he gains an experience of the great. Of course students gain their most important experiences of the good in their homes, from their parents.
It would be best if parents held in their souls the measure of the good so clearly that they might judge the things proposed to their children. Probably John Senior thinks that they do -- that is why he refuses to include a list of good books in his fine book. Parents are not always confident about their intuitions, but they should be.
If recalling your own childhood you remember books that made a difference to you, then look for those books. I remember the Babar books, especially the one about the young Babar, who loses his mother to a hunter, who wanders away to Paris (like all young men in French literature, and French life), is introduced to civilization (of which French bread and pastries are no small part) by a little old Parisian lady, and who returns to the jungle to found an elephant community. The picture of him losing his mother was painful and terrible. So was the picture of Uncle Cornelius turned green and dying by a mushroom. I had my mother tape that page shut and did not eat mushrooms for years. Is that an objection? Hardly. Babar, the old Babar, is a story of adversity and loss overcome. Babar is a founder-king, the source and defender of a whole community. Long live king Babar. Long live Celeste. May they be blessed with children. And in a later story they are. Cannons boom.
My point is that whatever was good in your own childhood will be good for your children.
A second point springs from it. For a while now children's literature has been specialized, separated from family literature, and subjected to the pressures of commerce. Let's peel off the layers of the present and proceed back in time.
Today, children's literature is often vulgar, confused, and corrupt. Sometimes it is even sinister. The vices and disorders of the adult world, itself increasingly morally corrupt, are being advanced into childhood, insinuated in families, and pushed at children. And unfortunately, some of the literature written to combat this assault is weak, empty, sentimental, comfortable without being moral, as if good things can be had without being strong.
About thirty years ago none of this was true. Nevertheless, already there were changes. Books for children were becoming a business. That is, instead of being almost wholly books that had been around for a while, they began to be books that had appeared in the last twenty, or last ten years, or even this year. A lot of these books were good. I loved meek, yet persistent Stuart Little. Today I pick up Landmark books whenever I find them at library sales (not without feeling just a little like some one rescuing a Jew pursued by Nazis, since I know what many librarians are making room for). These books were good in part because the parents they were sold to had as a standard much older books, that had established themselves much more slowly, those by Louise May Alcott, James Fenimore Cooper, John Bunyan, and Shakespeare, and behind all these the Bible, of course.
About fifty years ago what children read was a mix; there was some worthless stuff, comic books with their bad art and moronic dialogue (but it was not sensational and depraved as it is now), but the majority of what kids read was good. There was a mix between the recent (Newberry awards, Landmarks), the durable (Alcott), the enduring (Bunyan), and the eternal (the Bible). The farther you go back in the history of the English-speaking world the more the balance shifts towards the enduring and the eternal.
You also travel away from illustrations to texts without illustration, which require you to use your imagination, much as radio did and TV never does. Illustration does have a place. I love the pictures by Lynd Ward for Robinson Crusoe. They have a richness for me that is, still today rivaled only by Rembrandt himself. When you are a child, the few things that are your windows on the world are decisive. They fill your mind. All later impressions have to crowd in, find a place among many impressions. What a tropical storm might be, I learned forever from the one behind Crusoe with his goat-skin umbrella. No later storm, however wet, will ever match it. What you become acquainted with first as a child is fate. Let it be a good one then.
I am not against illustration, but I do think that the superiority of the unillustrated deserves a place. As youngsters we need books without illustrations, to provoke us to imagine well. If the Gospel writers had done illustrations of their story, even if they had been as good as Rembrandt, they would have prevented the rich pictorial tradition we are blessed with from ever emerging. And if the Gospel writers had set Mary's response to the angel to music, we never would have had Bach's Magnificat.
What I want to recommend, is that you balance your children's reading more towards the eternal than the enduring, more toward the enduring than the durable, and more toward the durable than the recent, however good. I have three reasons.
The first is obvious; I have already given it; the eternal is better than the enduring, and so on. The second reason has to do with all that binds us each to each. Books that last bind not only the child to the family, the family to itself, and one family to another, but the generations of families together. It is important to read books that are good intermediaries between children (children in one family and children in different families), that will bind through goodness one living generation with another still living (the grandparents), and in addition that will also bind the living generations with all the dead ones.
The attention span of the modern child has been terribly narrowed by something such as Sesame Street and its imitators. The Israelis were right to reject it as not good for education, however "educational." But the attention span of modern adults is even more terribly narrowed. Nietzsche, a great spirit but not always a good one, said that modernity is the replacement of daily prayers with daily newspapers. What that means in modern Western life is thinking the last thirty seconds ("just time for one series of plays left") are more important than the last thirty hours, the last thirty hours ("continuous coverage brought to you by") more important than the last thirty weeks, and the last thirty months more important than the last thirty centuries, and withal that none of it is worth the attention of an eternally good Being.
The third reason is that the older ways included much more story telling by storytellers. Books are great. Homer and Twain (I prefer Life on the Mississippi to Huck Finn) are great storytellers, but little can compare with your own mother or father telling you a story, either something from their experience, from their childhood, or something from the great store house of stories, from the Greek myths (myth means story) to Grimms' collection. When my older children began to ask: "What do you do, Daddy?" and were not satisfied with my true but empty answer: "I teach Shakespeare," I found I had to retell Hamlet (the story that asks the question, "Should you always obey your father's commands?") and King Lear, which becomes the story (since these children are girls): "Is the eldest sister always the worst?" and, more seriously: "Should you ever ask: Do you love me? Or for proof?" From that I went on to Beowulf, Sir Gawain, and more. I never accomplished, however, what I heard one of my teachers, the celebrated classicist, Charles Paul Segal, do with his children: weave all Greco-Roman mythology into his nightly tales for his boys.
Still, even if the family reads the Bible together, if stories are told by storytellers, if the old books, such as Pilgrim's Progress, and the durable books, such as Little Men, are often read together or alone, it is right to read some recent things. At the end of the Gospel of John, John says, "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written." Allowing for differences, that is true of the history of mankind, including ourselves and all around us at the present time and in recent times. Ah, but which books should we parents choose? There are so many.
I do not think it is as hard to choose rightly as it at first seems. If you have been reading the Bible, Bunyan, Alcott and the like, you already have an experience to judge by. You already have in these, and in any good book you remember from your childhood, the measure of any new book for your family.
If so, you are likely to avoid the slippery slope so many parents get on, namely of letting the criterion for any new book (video, etc.) be, "Is there anything to object to?" instead of: "What is the reason for reading this book?" Obviously the second is a higher criterion. By asking, "What is good about this book that we should read it?" you set the standard where it should be. If, instead, you ask, "Well, is there anything objectionable in it? you are already on the way to concessions, whose gradual step-by-step character will soon render you vulnerable to "Please, please, please," subject to "Every one else is allowed to," and finally on to the grand parental abdication that says, "Well, kids have to know about the world sometime."
Let's pause for a minute to examine that last one. Does it mean that a doctor must have contracted the diseases he is trying to cure? Does it mean medical schools must introduce such experiences as a part of their graduation requirements?
The difference between knowledge and experience is even clearer in the case of a good judge. What he needs primarily to know and practice is justice, not injustice. He need not have been a criminal to judge one; if he knows justice and examines himself in its stern light, he will know himself unjust (a sinner); this is quite enough. No need of education courses, hands-on practicums in theft, and inservice refreshers in murder.
You do not have to expose your children to evil. There is quite enough evil in them and around them. Additional doses are unneeded. The depraved and wicked degrees of it in their sophisticated current forms they can get to know later, in the course of protecting others from them and rescuing those they can. "Later" means after they have grown up. Just as it was wickedly irresponsible for the Iranians to draft children, even willing and eager children, into their army, so it is wickedly irresponsible to ask our children to seek out and meet forms of evil outside the family. Likewise with books. If the author is not someone you would invite into the family to share a family meal, then you should not allow his book in either.
If there is no good reason for reading this new book, then do not settle for the lower measure, "There's nothing objectionable in it." Even if it is true, why provide your child with the mediocre? Plenty such experiences will come your children's way. No need to fuss about making sure they get enough.
What about a mixed or uncertain case, a book you see some good in but maybe some bad? My own inclination would be to turn elsewhere, to reread a book I know to be good.
If you are uncertain about a particular book, then read it yourself. If you do that you will know if it is good or not. That is easy to do with a short book; you can read Scuppers the Sailor Dog quickly and see that it combines the comforts of a well-ordered cabin with the adventure of sailing alone on a green sea.
However, what we often need is a quick way to judge, especially with a longer book. There are ways. One is to open randomly to a page and see what the art is like. Is it excellent? Would it be a good image to think about as you go to sleep? As good as the pictures in Good Night Moon? Unfortunately, today there are bad books with attractive images in them, so it is important to sample the writing as well. Even a paragraph or sentence can tell you something. Is it flawed, are there mistakes or infelicities -- then discard it. Is it so-so, mediocre, without at least one good sentence, one worth reading aloud, or saying over again in your mind, or remembering to repeat at supper-better discard it too. Another way is to find a passage on something you already know. Does the story square with what you know? If so, then it is not unreasonable to trust it on what you do not know.
Well, my space is filled, and I have not given you a list. In later columns I will talk about various good books, what's good about them, the questions they raise and answer, and how we can use them to raise up good kids who will become good adults. The word "adult" has suffered a terrible decline today. It is for us to raise our children so that when they become adult they will by their collective goodness have driven out all the depraved meanings of "adult" today.