Friday, September 10, 2010

`I Can Lie a Dreaming with a Boke'

In a corner of the resource room I was administering math placement tests to fourth-graders when I noticed a poster on the wall, a watercolor of a boy lying on his stomach reading a book beneath autumn trees. The sentence below the picture is attributed to Francis Bacon:

“It is a great thing to start Life with a small number of Really Good books which are your Very Own.”

Online, the quote seems popular among library and reading advocacy groups but I’m unable to identify the source, though earlier this year I read Bacon’s Essays and found this in “On Studies”:

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

I don’t know how Bacon defines “Really Good books” (like Shakespeare’s plays, the phrase doesn’t sound Baconian). Might he mean beloved children’s books, regardless of literary worth? Or the Bible? Homer? Seneca? Growing up in a bookless house, I hoarded them – almanacs, dictionaries, field guides, biographies, James Thurber – and was soothed knowing they were my “Very Own.”

At school we chronically underestimate the reading gifts and tastes of students. The instructional texts are tricked out with graphics and sidebars but expect for the obligatory patina of multiculturalism the stories are mired in the same old Dick-and-Jane dullness I knew half a century ago. I’m heartened to see hopelessly devoted readers around school, kids wrapped in bookish cocoons, reading on the playground while two-hundred classmates scream. When I see them I see myself. Edward Dahlberg writes in “Allen Tate, The Forlorn Demon” (Alms for Oblivion, 1964):

“As for me, I can find little or no contentment save in the balsam of poetry or criticism or belles lettres; let it be Raleigh or Swift or Hazlitt or The Forlorn Demon, for I can lie a dreaming with a boke, and imagine myself stretched upon that oxhide in Iberia where Menelaus once slept.”


Dave Lull said...

See Arthur Conan Doyle's Through the Magic Door for that quotation:

Hannah Stephenson said...

A very refreshing post.

I hear so many teachers lamenting the ever-weakening reading and writing ability of students (regardless of age). Maybe certain skills are strengthened over others, but that is how it always goes.

I loved writing my name in books when I was young (and still).