Great literature

I love reading lists. I pour over the titles of books read in book clubs, recommend by teachers, and selected by critics. I try to avoid paying to read websites, and often shun the paywalls of news outlets, but I believe that the introductory price of about $1 per week is a good investment because it allows access to the New York Times Book Review. I have asked high school and college English professors for their reading lists.

Although I am a prolific reader and have read a lot of books from the time I was able to obtain my first library card as a child, I have felt that somehow I haven’t covered the classics quite as well as I should have. A few years ago, I undertook a disciplined approach to reading more classical literature, using a reading list compiled by a college professor as a guide. It was a difficult discipline for me to maintain. I was still working full time and doing a lot of reading for my work and, frankly, some classical literature is boring. One of the things I learned at that time was that I needed to get glasses with as large lenses as possible and then have the optician make the reading portion of the lens as big as they could so that my eyes didn’t tire from straining to read through the wrong part of my lenses. The result has been at least a decade of being very happy with my glasses and an increased capacity for reading.

As a lover of books and a reader of lists of books, I have, of course, been intrigued by the lists of books banned from school libraries in some communities. I’ve long held that banning books is a repressive and authoritarian practice that in the end does not work. People will seek out reading that is meaningful to them and banning a book from a library can often spark book sales. Those who think that they can control literature by banning and destroying books probably should read more books about history. Book bans didn’t work for the Nazi regime in Germany. They didn’t work for the apartheid government of South Africa. And they won’t work for Republicans seeking to make culture wars their ticket to the votes of their base. One of the treasures of my library is a copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire that was a gift from a colleague from South Africa in the 1970’s who purchased the copy and read it while studying in the United States, but knew that it would be confiscated if found among his possessions when he returned to his native South Africa. The book bans were part of the collapse of the apartheid regime. The attempt to control the thinking of the citizens of the country simply did not work.

So, I am enjoying making a point of reading a bit more children’s literature these days. Among the lists I consult is the CBS list of the 50 most frequently banned books in school libraries. There are some good reads on the list. If you haven’t read “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole, I recommend it. The children’s book is based on the real-life story of two male chinstrap penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo. After zookeepers saw the pari trying to hatch a rock as if it were an egg, they gave the penguins their own egg. The two subsequently raised the chick, Tango, as their own.

Seeing Ted Cruz hold up a copy of “Stamped” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds at the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was enough to make me want to read the book. Its frank portrayals of racism are pretty direct. I doubt that Senator Cruz has actually read the book, although the children’s book might be closer to his intellectual capacity than the Kendi book we have in our church library, “How to Be an Antiracist.” If he has read either, I suspect that they could spark guilt in the senator. It wouldn’t be difficult for him to see himself as the opposite of an antiracist. Guilt, however, may not be one of the Senator’s most practiced emotions.

However, I’m more interested in reasons why people read books and lists of favorite books than reasons people are trying to keep others from reading books they don’t like. As a result, I’m delighted to pour over the BBC’s new list of the 100 greatest children’s books of all time, recently released. The news service conducted a poll of 177 experts - critics, authors, and publishing figures - from 56 counties. Each voter listed their choice of the 10 best children’s books. Over 1050 titles were recommended. Those were then scored and ranked to produce a top 100 list. The end result was a list that spanned a wide range of history. The oldest book that made the list, “Panchatantra,” is a collection of Indian children’s stories dating back to the 2nd Century BCE. The newest is “A Kind of Spark,” was published in 2020. 74 of the books on the list were first published in the English language, with the next most popular language being Swedish, with 9 entries. Books published between the 1950s and 1970s were most prevalent, which might say something about the ages of the experts who contributed to the list. It certainly resulted in a list with a lot of books that I have already read.

I resonate with the number one book on the list, “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak. The epic adventure combines fear, courage, love, and loneliness in about a third of the words I use for a daily journal entry. Each page’s pictures bring surprise and delight. It’s a good one.

The number two book is just over a century older, first published in 1865. It is Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” It is one of the books that introduced me to the concept of fantasy with its anthropomorphic creatures and surreal scenarios. It certainly has had an impact on popular culture with ballets, operas, films and other expressions abounding.

I’ll also concur with the #3 and #4 picks, “Pippi Longstocking” and “The Little Prince,” and I’m proud that I first read Le Petit Prince in French. Reading children’s books is a good way to learn a new language.

Of course, reviewing 100 books would take me far more words than a single Journal entry and this entry has already gone over my usual. You can check out the list on the BBC website.

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