I’ve been thinking about The Book Show’s list of books everyone should read by the age of 21 ever since I saw it a couple of weeks ago. It’s a fine list, mind you–but the authors who contributed to it emphasized the very high end of the age range at the expense of the younger reading years that one might think should have been included.
If I’d been asked to name one book for such a list, I’d choose Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind In The Willows.” It’s simply a marvelous book that everyone should have read by the age of 21 and everyone older than 21 should reread every few years.
This charming story of friendship among riverdwelling animals in England has inspired many talented illustrators, including Ernest H. Shepard–the edition I grew up with, which has a well-known cover illustration of Badger, Toad, Mole and Ratty–and Charles van Sandwyk, illustrator of the current Folio Society edition. Though Grahame’s story is perfectly beautiful all by itself, the illustrations make it even more of a joy to read; would that more publishers today would hire artists to illustrate stories for youth and adults alike.
Though Grahame’s book has universal appeal, lawyers, especially those who practice traffic law, should make a special place for it. Though the story takes place long before cell phones and texting, Toad is the archetypal distracted driver, so pleased with the motorcar he’s stolen and so self-absorbed that it doesn’t occur to him what a menace he is on the road. Even lawyers have to cheer when the gaoler’s daughter helps Toad to escape after being picked up for his crime and summarily sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, and cheer again when Badger, Mole, and Ratty liberate Toad Hall from the weasels’ attempt at adverse possession.
More important, the book is a wonderful story of friendship. Though Toad doesn’t make things easy for his friends, they love him and are unflinchingly loyal to him, even at great inconvenience and potential cost to themselves. Good friends that they are, they also kindly but firmly tell him the truth about his pompous behavior–and, to his credit, upon their doing so, Toad recognizes that he needs to change his ways. The bond between Mole and the Water Rat is also beautiful, particularly the scene in the snow at Christmastime, when Mole catches the scent of his old house and, in tears, begs Rat, who wants to forge ahead, to help him find it. They do, and Ratty even helps Mole, whose joy at finding his home almost immediately turns into overwhelming embarrassment and unhappiness at seeing what a mess it is, put it to rights and transform it back into the snug den that it used to be, and, in Mole’s mind’s eye, still was.
Every now and then The Folio Society, which publishes gorgeous (and somewhat expensive) books, runs member polls. A few years ago it asked members which books they’d want to have if they were marooned on a desert island. “The Wind In The Willows” was one of the top vote-getters, if I remember correctly. What a wise choice!
What books do you think everyone should have read by the age of 21? What books would you want to be sure to have if you were marooned on an island?