Law and Conversation

June 24, 2011

My turn: Books everyone should read before 21

As I’ve mentioned, The Book Show on Britain’s Sky Arts media channel recently asked a number of distinguished author guests from its shows for their ideas on books that everyone should have read before the age of 21. The resulting list is worth perusing by anyone and tacking up on a bulletin board or refrigerator door.

But the list bothered me, chiefly for what I see as glaring omissions. Instead of including books that most of the broad range of people under 21 could read, the authors consulted focused on the far upper end of the range, including such admittedly great, but mature-themed, books as John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”

And the book prominently featured at the very top of the list? Erica Jong‘s “Fear Of Flying.”

“FEAR OF FLYING?” On a list of strongly recommended reading BEFORE turning 21????  What’s UP with that??????

Jong’s book is a fun read, I admit. But I’m not sure it’s a classic, and it probably isn’t for everyone. It’s certainly not a book for kids, which is what people 21 and under are, whether or not they’re adults in the eye of the law. As David Brooks writes in today’s New York Times, “The culture of childhood is being compressed. Those things which young people once knew at 18, they now know at 10 or 12.”

I know, and have known, many amazingly mature young people. Certainly, all of the books on the list, including the ones I’ve highlighted above, are capable of being read by mature teens and those in their early 20s. After all, Updike himself wasn’t even out of his 20s when he wrote the first “Rabbit” book. Speaking only for myself, though, and having read it only recently, well after my 21st birthday ;-), I’m absolutely confident I wouldn’t have appreciated it at that age.

So what’s the hurry? Why rush to read adult-themed books before turning 21?

The first two “Rabbit” books challenged me when I read them this year. “Ulysses” is on my list of difficult books to tackle. I’m all for pushing myself, and for others pushing themselves, to read challenging material. But given that everyone’s going to grow up–absent an unfortunate event–why skip over any joys of youth if you don’t have to?

In my adult view, one of those prime joys is reading children’s books and literature classified as young adult (YA). Though writers today generally target their books to specific age groups, I’ve seen a number of books from the 19th century (a literary period I love) that were written for general audiences but are now classified as middle grade (MG) or YA for library and bookstore purposes. (Some of Dickens’s works particularly come to mind.)

Today I’m providing an off-the-top-of-my-head list of wonderful, must-read books that should appeal to just about anyone in the under-21 reading range. The enormous bulk of material makes this a daunting task: it’s really, really hard to come up with a manageable list. For that reason, I’m expanding my usual self-imposed limit of 3 per blog post to 10. But I am limiting my recommendations here to series books, somewhat loosely defined, and excluding marvelous standalone works. If you’re over 21 and haven’t read some of these books–or if it’s been years, since you were a kid, since you’ve read them–do yourself a favor and go read or reread these great stories now.

1) At the top of my list is the entire oeuvre of Theodor Seuss Geisel, known to all as “Dr. Seuss.” My personal favorites are “I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew,” “The Lorax,” and “Scrambled Eggs Super.” The first two, along with “Sneetches,” “The Grinch That Stole Christmas,” and “Horton Hears A Who,” carry timeless, serious messages. I haven’t discerned any particular message in “Scrambled Eggs Super,” but, like all Seuss books, its verse and illustrations make up an amazing work. It’s just plain FUN, and, as all of us who love “The Cat In The Hat” should know, “It is fun to have fun!”

2) Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s “Little House” books. Written by Wilder and edited–some argue partly ghostwritten–by her brilliant, extraordinarily difficult daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, this fictionalized story of Wilder’s life realistically depicts pioneer life in the late 19th century U.S. Though the story of Wilder’s and Lane’s relationship and collaboration has already inspired a few biographies and scholarly analyses, there’s plenty of room for more. Legal topics raised by their lives and work include fascinating probate and copyright issues.

3) The Burgess Books For Children, by Thornton W. Burgess. These wonderful series stories of animals include the adventures of Reddy Fox, Sammy Jay, Billy Mink, Jerry Muskrat, Peter Rabbit, and many, many more.

4) Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s books, including “Anne of Green Gables” and its sequels, her lesser known “Emily” series, and the standalone, apparently rather little known “Blue Castle.”

5) L. Frank Baum‘s “Wizard of Oz” series.

6) Lois Lenski‘s books on American life, including “Strawberry Girl,” “Houseboat Girl,” “Cotton In My Sack,” and “Coal Camp Girl.” Like Wilder’s “Little House” books, these books realistically depict life in the mid-20th century, or the 19th century in the case of “A-Going To The Westward” (which is tragically out of print), or the 18th century in the case of “Bound Girl Of Cobble Hill,” for working people and their children in the U.S.

7) J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

8) C.S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles.

9) L.M. Boston’s “Green Knowe” series, beginning with “The Children of Green Knowe.”

10) Andrew Lang’s fairy tale compilations in every hue of the rainbow, including “The Red Fairy Book,” “The Blue Fairy Book,” and so on.

For many of these books, including not only Dr. Seuss’s but also Lois Lenski’s and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, the artwork is integral to the stories. That leads me to wish again that more publishers would contract with artists to illustrate more currently published books.

As with any list, I’m certain to have left many fine candidates out. I’m already thinking that Beverly Cleary‘s series depicting Beezus, Ramona, Henry Huggins, and Ellen Tebbits, not to mention Louisa May Alcott’s series, Susan Cooper‘s “The Dark Is Rising” series, and J.K. Rowling‘s “Harry Potter” books are rather glaring omissions. And I see I haven’t included any great, classic science fiction series, or any graphic novel series. Well, that’s fodder for future writing!

What books would you include on a list that everyone really ought to read by the age of 21?

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June 20, 2011

Read This: The Wind In The Willows

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?

May 27, 2011

Book illustrations, art, and story

Earlier this week I highlighted some beautiful sites and works of artists Lynda Barry, Kerry Dennehy, and Alyssa Sherwood and again mentioned Sue Symons‘s intricate and gorgeous Bath Abbey Diptychs. Over on the right hand side of this page, you’ll see some links to some art sites I really like. One of those sites is Old Book Illustrations, dedicated to illustrations scanned from old books.

Illustrations not only can capture and maintain a reader’s interest but also can help tell a story. I suppose that’s why they’re used so much in children’s books; kids who haven’t yet learned to read as well as they might can still get something out of the story by looking at the pictures, and those who read OK but who might not see reading as a really fun way to pass some time might stick with it longer if the book has some good pictures that they enjoy. Trial lawyers and other presenters understand this principle and employ it to good effect by using exhibits and PowerPoint presentations during trials and presentations.

But even apart from business or reading to our children, we grown-ups can still love pictures and illustrated books. I’d love to see publishers work with artists to provide more illustrated books for the adult market.  The Folio Society in London does; though its books are far more expensive than even the hardback editions of other publishers, they’re still an affordable choice (operative word being “choice”) if one of your priorities is to have beautiful copies of books you want to read and reread on your shelves. (Full disclosure: Alas, the Folio Society pays me nothing and gives me no discounts for my telling people how much I love their editions 😦 .)

Some writers have used pictures as the bases for stories. One of the best known recent examples is Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring,” inspired by a Vermeer painting. (Chevalier describes the moment of her inspiration on her website.) And Oscar Wilde‘s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” has at the heart of its story a fictional portrait that changes with the soul of the title character, who remains outwardly forever young and beautiful–in contrast to his deplorable behavior and inner life. (Though the picture of that story is fictional, a 20th century artist, Ivan Albright, painted a real one that hangs in The Art Institute of Chicago.) And, of course, the growing graphic novel genre, in which the art is at least as important as the text to the story, has really come into its own over the past 30 years or so.

Have you read any books that featured memorable illustrations?

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