Saturday, January 21, 2012

Made of Paper: The Childhood Books

The seventeenth century painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo made a wonderful series of portraits, representing human heads and faces as composites of objects such as fruit and leaves.  Arcimboldo’s “The Librarian” is a man constructed from a pile of books, an image especially striking for those of us of literary formation. The books in Arcimboldo’s picture can’t be readily identified, though. Which books make the man?


As I think about the early books in my life, I have to confess that one of the most important texts for me was Watty Piper’s The Little Engine that Could.  Although it may not sound very sophisticated, to this day when I have to face some challenge I still involuntarily hear “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” in my mind.  Sure, the lesson is simplistic and moralistic. But it’s a good lesson, and what’s wrong with a simplicity and morality?

When my maternal grandmother was a little girl, she used to buy every book by L. Frank Baum as soon as it came out. As a result, the bookshelves in my home held first edition copies of nearly all the Oz books.  I have a distinct of memory of lying in bed with some childhood illness, being taken to another world by the Oz books. The Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion (the mind, the heart, and the spirit) today seem to me like one of the great fictional trinities of the soul, like the three Karamazov brothers.

I can recall, a bit later in life (maybe about second grade), liking the “we were there” series.  These were historical novels that featured children as eyewitnesses to important events in history.  The one I remember best is We Were There with Cortes and Montezuma that told the story of the conquest of Mexico from the perspective of a young boy and girl.

My favorite childhood writer was Edgar Rice Burroughs. I think I read all of the Tarzan books, the Apache books, and most of his Mars and Venus series. I still think that Tarzan of the Apes was a skillfully wrought tale, as well as an evocation of an archetypal idea. Although, of course, I did not make all of the associations when I first read the book, it echoes many of the thoughts from western intellectual history, including the image of the noble savage, concerns about civilization and decadence, and questions of nature versus nurture. Even at the time, it did strike me as strange and fascinating that Tarzan first learned to read in English (from books left in the cabin of his dead parents) and then first learned to speak in French (from a Belgian he rescued).

At the ages of maybe 11 and 12, I enjoyed other adventure writers, such as Zane Gray and H. Rider Haggard. But the writer who made the biggest impact on me at that period was Jack London.  I did like The Call of the Wild, but the most important book for me was The Sea Wolf, which I first read in the summer between sixth and seventh grade. The conversations between the soft, wealthy, humanitarian Humphrey van Weyden (“Hump”) and the hard, individualistic, self-serving Wolf Larsen set me thinking about the complexities of social and political philosophy. Although London apparently meant to oppose the standpoint represented by Larsen, he and his fictional protagonist, van Weyden, were both drawn to the charismatic sea captain.

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