I began the new year with one of those thumping good books that readers love to read: a book about reading books. Susan Hill’s Howard’s End Is on the Landing delighted me in every way. Her name dropping of authors and books, which, according to the reviews, either causes joy or annoyance, was just so fun. I kept being reminded of books I wanted to read and even more importantly those I have wanted/needed, to re-read.
The scenario was familiar. Susan was looking for a particular book and her search led her on a yearlong quest to explore what was already on her bookshelves. Instead of talking to us about what she read during that year she opted to just take us on a walk through her life via her bookshelves.
It happens to me all the time. I start to look for one book – I KNOW exactly where it is – and before I know it I am engulfed in old friends and new ideas. Since I am not able to take a year off to read through a random day’s rambles amongst the bookshelves these excursions often frustrate me. I find myself living in a house of books as if it were a house of mirrors. I avoid making eye contact with those old friends lest they rebuke me for my neglect. Like Susan, I am not a book collector, I am a book reader.
A few years ago we made a stressful move which included dumping many, many books into the hands of friends and family. That was painful but it was also a wake-up call. I needed to stop buying books. Let’s just say I have failed. In one of the more truthful moments of my life I found myself at a used book fair looking across the tables at two old friends, neither of whom, I well knew, needed another book. I am not trying to judge them but I have seen their bookcases. There we were, three aging homeschooling moms, still answering the siren call of the book sale. We barely raised our eyes from the book tables to hail one another as we guiltily laughed and continued our quests occasionally insisting the other person buy a book we already owned. Even more telling perhaps is that we were the youngest people at the sale.
But what does this have to do with classical education? Of course, a good portion of my library is dedicated solely to books about education, and then there is that group we call The Great Books, but that is not what I am thinking about today. Today I am thinking about all the books that have affected my philosophy and my school quite by chance. I thought I would take a walk around the shelves and see what I could find just like Susan did.
What about the cookbook shelf? My very first introduction to liturgy and the church calendar came my way via a cookbook-Evelyn Birge Vitz’s A Continual Feast. It planted a seed which finally sprouted into understanding many, many years later. When we start our school day with the Gloria Patri, I can thank Mrs. Vitz for opening my mind to the idea that ordering the year could be good. Thanks be to God.
On another special shelf in the living room you will find a set of My Book House. This is the set that belonged to my grandmother and it may be one of the reasons I have an ear for poetics. As a child, I spent my summers browsing through that set and its most wonderful pictures, stories, and poems. A child with these books would not need school for quite a while.
Here we have a shelf of the old time favorite Sir Walter Scott. Did you know Charlotte Mason went to bed every night reading Scott? And Laura Ingalls Wilder spent her early pregnancy sickness reading all the Waverly novels. Yes, these books have affected my philosophy and probably yours. These are wordy tomes for the musical ear. You can’t read them in a weekend but if you take the time they will change you.
Speaking of Laura Ingalls Wilder, could anything be more transformative to philosophy than the Little House series? Pa and Ma are beautiful examples of teachers. They remind me of a few other parents we can learn from. What about Papa Ten Boom? Or Mrs. Moody? I am a better parent and a better teacher for having met them.
Here is a copy of the 1934 Singer Prose and Poetry of England. I keep it on hand because without it I am pretty sure I would have never had an idea enter my head. I say “keep” because I have to work hard to keep a copy. My adult children are known to steal them which is one reason I have to hang out at book sales. This book was my mother’s high school English text. It saved me from the Florida public schools of the 1970s and fed me manna in the wilderness far into my 20s. In turn it also saved my own children from me.
Right above the Singer is a shelf of Miss Read books. I have learned much about education from the spinster schoolmarms of Fair Acre and Thrush Green. These books transport you right smack into English village life with all the rhythms of the year in community. Sadly, this transport is more and more bizarre as our culture fights to lose its memories of the rhythms of community life but I like to think that fact makes these books not only light, pleasurable reading but culturally imperative.
As I was writing this I finished a book which I hope many of you have already read: Michael O’Brien’s Island of the World, a book which reminds us vividly that education is not about employment or even vocation but life.
Well, we did not get very far, but I think you can see what I mean. Even if we have not read the latest educational treatise by our favorite teacher our educational efforts can still be informed by reading the right sorts of books, as the author of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader would tell us. Don’t feel guilty about curling up with that novel; it may inform your norms and nobility as much as,say, Norms and Nobility.