I trust we can believe Montaigne when, in “Of the Education of Children,” he professes that the first book he loved was Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
“For at about seven or eight years of age I would steal away from any other pleasure to read them, inasmuch as this language was my mother tongue, and it was the easiest book I knew and the best suited by its content to my tender age.”
In theory, there’s no reason a bright child of eight or even younger can’t read and enjoy Ovid, Swift, the fables of LaFontaine or Tolstoy’s parables. Around that age I inhaled a child’s edition of the Odyssey and Defoe’s straight-up version of Robinson Crusoe because I was naïve enough to mistake them for adventure stories, not literature. I thought of these early reading experiences Friday afternoon as were worked in the library of our sons’ grade school. The librarian appeared to be identical to the one I had at Pearl Road Elementary some 50 years ago in Cleveland. She wore her hair in the same tight perm, had the same glasses with rhinestone-encrusted frames and loudly told students to be quiet.
Our job was to alphabetize the shelves, first in fiction and then in the 500’s. In grade school, the 500’s attract a lot of attention, especially from male readers – dinosaurs, carnivorous plant, snakes, spiders, insects. The school is brand-new but many of the books are worn and out-of-date in their science. Others came from the cute school of kiddie lit – Barnacles Eat with Their Feet, Trout are Made of Trees, Extinction is Forever, Wonderful Pussy Willows. I left the library suspecting we underestimate the capacity of children to embrace a challenge, learn from it and wish to seek another. When we over-simplify and sugarcoat, kids learn to expect even less of themselves, and so we perpetuate a quiet, passive dumbness – ripe for video games and television. Here are Montaigne’s subsequent sentences [in Donald Frame’s translation]:
“For as regards the Lancelots of the Lake, the Amadises, the Huons of Bordeaux, and such books of rubbish on which children waste their time, I did not know even their names, and I still do not know their substance, so strict was my discipline…At that point, I happened by remarkable good fortune to come in contact with a tutor who was an understanding man, who knew enough to connive clearly at this frivolity of mine and others like it. For by this means I went right through Virgil’s Aeneid, and then Terence, and then Plautus, and some Italian comedies, always lured on by the pleasantness of the subject. If he had been foolish enough to break this habit, I think I should have got nothing out of school but a hatred of books, as do nearly all our noblemen.”
Earlier I mentioned Robinson Crusoe, which reminded me of a time about six years ago in upstate New York when I was tutoring high-school students in reading and composition. All were dull and without imagination but one boy was obstinately, pridefully so. My job was to usher him through Defoe’s novel, which I have always thought of as a model of irresistible plotting and transparent prose. Who can resist such a story? We read the book together, syllable by syllable, side by side, seated at a table in his school. I didn’t expect an explication de texte and would have settled for rudimentary comprehension and human identification with poor Crusoe. What I got was sullen, angry contempt – for the book, language, the school, me and for himself. He was no nobleman but, as Montaigne says, he got “nothing out of school but a hatred of books.”