Saturday, December 29, 2007

Adam Smith and children's books

No, he didn't write The Little Economy That Could.

Adam Smith's well known and little read masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations, is of a kind with Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species; dense, intensely thought through and rewarding of close reading even these centuries later. Though for turgidness and digression, I am afraid that Smith leads the race.

Fortunately, one of our best humorists, commentators and essayists, P.J. O'Rourke, has made the journey through the jungles of Smith's works (P.J. O'Rourke On The Wealth of Nations) and returned to report to us and serve as an ambassador of Smith's thinking in prose that is more comprehensible and definitely more entertaining.

Smith was writing at the time of, and as one of the principal lights of, the Scottish Enlightenment, that incredible flowering of thinkers and doers in Scotland in the latter part of the 18th century.

It is easily forgotten that Smith was a moral philosopher in the widest sense and that he just happened, in his reasoning on moral philosophy, to set the study of economics on a modern foundation. As widely admired (though little read) as The Wealth of Nations might be, even less read is it's predecessor volume, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

But between the two, O'Rourke points out, Smith established one of the most critical principles underpinning his thinking. The following is an excerpt from O'Rourke's On the Wealth of Nations. I have elided many of his humorous comments to try and keep the track headed towards the point at which I wish to arrive, I hope without misconstruing his meaning.
Adam Smith begins The Theory of Moral Sentiments with the riddle upon which all our well-being depends: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it." The root of these principles is, according to Smith, sympathy. We are sympathetic creatures. We possess one emotion that cannot be categorized by cynics as either greed or fear. And it isn't love. . . .

Our sympathy makes us able, and eager, to share the feelings of people we don't love at all. We like sharing their bad feelings as well as their good ones. . . .

This sympathy, Smith argued, is completely imaginative and not, like most emotions, a product of our physical senses. No matter how poignantly sympathetic the situation, we don't feel other people's pain. . . . "Our senses," Smith declared, "never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person." It is our imagination that generates sympathy and gives sympathy its power. . . .

People have the creative talent to put themselves in another person's place and to suppose what that other person is feeling. . . .

But sympathy by itself - be it for humans, animals, . . . - can't be the basis of a moral system. . . .

Imagination, already working to show us how other people feel, has to work harder to show us whether what they feel is right or wrong. Then there's the problem of whether we're right or wrong. We'll always have plenty of sympathy for ourselves. . . .

Our imaginations must undertake the additional task of creating a method to render decent judgments on our feelings and on the feelings of others and on the actions that proceed from those feelings. Adam Smith personified these conscious imaginative judgments and named our brain's moral magistrate the "Impartial Spectator." . . .

According to Adam Smith, the "wise and virtuous man" uses his imagination to create "the idea of exact propriety and perfection." This is "gradually formed from his observations upon the character and conduct both of himself and of other people. It is the slow, gradual, and progressive work of the great demigod within." If, Smith wrote, the Impartial Spectator did not endeavor to teach us "to protect the weak, to curb the violent, and to chastise the guilty," then "a man would enter an assembly of men as he enters a den of lions." . . .

The imagination that Smith describes is the strenuous imagination of an Einstein or a Newton, with all the discipline that this implies. "Self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre," Smith writes. And, "In the common degree of the moral, there is no virtue. Virtue is excellence."

This hard, creative work that imagination does links the moral sympathy central to The Theory of Moral Sentiments with the material cooperation central to The Wealth of Nations. The imagination also has to make a creative effort to divide labor and conduct trade. Sympathy and cooperation are the more-conscious and the less-conscious sides of what allows civilization to exist. They are the "principles in his nature," that man has, "which interest him in the fortune of others."

All of which, I am afraid tortuously, finally leads me to the real question that occurs to me from this reading.

Among the many benefits that people often credit to early and frequent reading are increased vocabulary, factual knowledge, social awareness, attention spans, self-discipline, imagination, etc. I am sympathetic to all these implied benefits and suspect there is something to most of them.

The one I have always wrestled with is, however, imagination. How do you measure it? How do you know if more reading makes you more imaginative?

Having read O'Rourke's interpretation of Smith though, I think there is something more substantive here than I had reflected on. I do think that the act of reading forces children to project themselves into the circumstances of others and to exercise that sympathy of which Smith speaks. So imagination becomes not just a source of creativity but also a source of social awareness and adjustedness. And that you can begin to measure.

I wonder if anyone has ever done any sort of longitudinal study trying to measure the social adjustedness and the social sensitivity of early and avid readers compared to a random slice of the population? Likewise, I wonder if a child who has had much practice, through reading, of exercising their sympathy, correspondingly demonstrates greater creativity and innovation in other fields of endeavor.

There is of course an issue of sample bias - are children that are prone to early and enthusiastic reading also gifted with sympathy and creativity? Or can reading on its own help build those characteristics. I suspect both might be true.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Shortest Day

One of my favorite authors is Susan Cooper of the Dark Is Rising sequence.

One of my favorite musical events are the performances by The Revels. I have never seen them live, I just have a lot of their CDs, but I look forward to one of these years getting the kids up to Boston to see them.

And what I did not know until recently was that Susan Cooper actually worked with and contributed material to the Revels. Below is her evocative poem which the Revels set to music.

The Shortest Day

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

An orange is not an apple

There is book review in the December 8th, 2007 edition of The Spectator, by Kevin Brownlow, of Paul Merton's Silent Comedy. Reading it, in conjunction with the running commentary in kid lit list servs regarding the recent release of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, caused me to reflect on quite what drives us into a frenzy of commentary.

In his article, Brownlow, comments on the varying quality of DVD releases of the old classic films by Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, etc. and mentions in passing,
Television is not the ideal way to watch silent comedy because it separates the audience. Chaplin expected his comedies to be seen on screens 25 feet wide, not 25 inches, the laughter to be shared with hundreds of people. Nothing can beat the cinema experience, since audiences are as important to comedy as the film itself. . . .

I sympathise. I can remember seeing the Syd Chaplin film The Better 'Ole on a viewing machine. I thought it the crudest film I'd ever seen. A few months later I saw it at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, with a sympathetic audience, and laughed so much I ended up on the floor."

The Enduring Mystery of Mrs. Bathurst

The British journalist, writer and novelist, Allan Massie is a regular contributor to The Spectator. He has an interesting little essay on Rudyard Kipling's Mrs. Bathurst in the December 8, 2007 edition of The Spectator.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Checklist for criticism

From The Horn Book, May 1946 in the essay Criticism of Children's Books.
"Art flourishes where there is sound critical judgment to examine and appraise. The critic must, first of all, have a real point of view about his subject. The essential point of view grows out of acquaintance with the best children's books past and present, and also with the world's best literature for everyone. This point of view - this measuring stick - must also bear some relation to children themselves and their reactions to books today. The critic should have experience of sharing books with children or of seeing them choosing and reading books for themselves. It is a truism - and yet it does not seem to be generally understood - that criticism is just as importantly concerned with pointing out excellence as weakness.

. . .

Comment on children's books is valuable in exact proportion to the judgment, honesty, fairness, and skill expressed by their critics."

Well, that's a pretty good starting point. And a pretty high bar. In summary, a critic should
Measure a book against some stated standards
Care about the book
Be knowledgeable with the body of children's books present and past
Be widely read in general literature and history
Have experience reading to children and how they respond to stories
Have seen how children pick and choose books for themselves
Offer balance with as much empahsis on the positive as on the negative
Judge the book and express that judgment felicitously

Spot on

From this quarter's edition of Slightly Foxed comes this description by Grant McIntyre in his article Strangely Like Real Life.
"Naturally, any addicted reader's greatest pleasure is to discover some new book or author - unexpected, sympathetic, in tune with one's mood. But there are also times when an old favourite will do, something one can rely on for enthralled contentment. To qualify as an absolutely prime old favourite a book needs partcular qualities. It must be capacious enough to immerse the reader completely. The characters must be like old acquaintances, familiar but never absolutely understood, and the events must become almost one's own memories. The best of such books are always fresh because, as one grows older, they provide new insights and amusements in the light of one's wider experience of self and others."

Perhaps this is one reason that books read as a child, when the boundary is still so amorphous between self and world, between reality and imagination, stay with us, influence us and are so dear to our hearts. They have become "one's own memories."

South Seas memories

Here is a wonderful example of the magic door. This brief description was written a century ago, by a Pole who did not become fluent in English (his third language) till he was twenty-one, about his memories as a seafarer in the South Seas. All those potential barriers, and yet, reading the words, we are wafted back in time and place and stand with him experiencing what he felt.
A strange name wakes up memories; the printed words scent the smoky atmosphere of today faintly, with the subtle and penetrating perfume as of land breezes breathing through the starlight of bygone nights; a signal fire gleams like a jewel on the high brow of a somber cliff; great trees, the advanced sentries of immense forests, stand watchful and still over sleeping stretches of open water; a line of white surf thunders on an empty beach, the shallow water foams on the reefs; and green islets scattered through the calm of noonday lie upon the level of a polished sea, like a handful of emeralds on a buckler of steel.

Joseph Conrad, Karain: A Memory

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

IQs Rising

Following on the heels of the Scientific American article recently posted about, there is another very interesting article that dove-tails closely with the Scientific American message - Effort Counts.

The New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell in the December 17th, 2007 edition is titled None of the Above.

The basic message is that we still don't have a good grasp on measuring IQ; there are some interesting phenomenon in that process that we can observe that reflect as much on how IQ tests are designed and administered as they do on what is actually being measured; and that effort, values and context cannot be ignored when attempting to predict outcome.

Monday, December 17, 2007

"You mean I don't have to be dumb?"

There is an interesting article in this month's Scientific American, The Secret to Raising Smart Kids.

I have always been deeply skeptical of the emphasis some people place on the importance of self-esteem for children. I have always felt that rather than focusing on making them feel good about themselves regardless of what they do, it is more important to equip them with the values that allow them to respect themselves based on their behavior and performance.

Self-esteem has metaphorically struck me as the powdered donut of life. Tasty and desirable but no substitute for a balanced meal and in the long run undermining one's good health.

This article relates the results of this particular scientist's researches. While somewhat tainted with academic jargon, it does, more than most, suggest productive things that a parent can do to help their child, and should be praised for that. We need all the help we can get.

And of course I zeroed in on the most pertinent part of the article:
How do we transmit a growth mind-set to our children? One way is by telling stories about achievements that result from hard work. For instance, talking about math geniuses who were more or less born that way puts students in a fixed mind-set, but descriptions of great mathematicians who fell in love with math and developed amazing skills engenders a growth mind-set, our studies have shown.

My emphasis added.

Let me know (through the comments button) the books you think capture the ethos of success through effort rather than success through innate talent alone.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The reader's life has pleasures that bookless folk never know

To para-phrase the Australian poet, Banjo Patterson in Clancy of the Overflow, - For the reader's life has pleasures that bookless folk never know.

Used book stores are wonderful places of discovery. With the decimation of the independent bookstore in communities across the country, used book stores (along with libraries) become increasingly important for the sustenance of our cultural heritage, but with a twist.

You can't necessarily go into one knowing that you will find what you seek but sometimes you find that which you did not know you were looking for. I love spending time in used book stores for this very reason: the chance for the unexpected and often improbable discovery.

This past week I was in one my favorite used book stores in Atlanta, The Book Nook, and came across a sea story of which I had never heard, Blackwater A True Epic of the Sea. No, not that Blackwater that's been in the news. Blackwater as in blackwater fever.

The book was written by H.L. Tredree and published in Britain in 1958 and recounts his early maritime career in a tramp steamer at the end of World War I. How this book came to be in the Book Nook in Atlanta, Georgia in 2007 would be a story in itself but that is a different tale.

The fact that it takes place in 1918 is pretty incidental. The upshot though, is that after loading and unloading cargo in the West Africa port of Dakaar, their ship, the S.S. Normandier set sail with a handful of the 49 person crew already coming down with the symptoms of blackwater fever.

In short order the entire crew has succumbed to the fever, all debilitated and many dying each day. With no one fit to stand shift or tend the engines, their engines die as well and they are left drifting and without power or heat in the North Atlantic. Without power, they are unable to end a wireless signal of distress.

With the first few deaths, they have proper burials at sea. As the fever takes its toll though, they end up barely being able to dispose of the bodies overboard and in a handful of instances have to leave the person where they expired, no one having the strength to move them.

The author, an eighteen year old wireless operator is among those stricken. The symptoms are prolonged bouts of fever, pustules, delirium, hallucinations, with some members of the crew appearing to recover into lucidity and then quickly relapsing and dying.

In some ways, this account could be criticized for how it is structured, the drifting in between third person and first person narrative and other minor infelicities. These deviations from artful telling in fact build the verisimilitude of the story.

In the end some eighteen members of the forty-nine member crew survived. At the time of their rescue, only two members, Tredree and the First Mate, were able to move in even the most limited fashion. Among the eighteen rescued were four who were thought to have already died but who in actual fact were in a deep coma from which they were revived. One is left, in a Poe-ish twist, to wonder about the actual status of the thirty-one who had already been committed to the deep.

If you enjoy maritime sea stories at all, add this one to your list to look for. I am delighted to have discovered it.

Sunday, December 9, 2007


It is interesitng to come across old words and find out about there origins and relevance. I came across an essay that mentioned sockdologize and had to go digging to find out what it meant.

The quirky site, Dear Aunt Nettie has a good post on the word, its origins and its significance.

Dear Recondite:

Oh, that's an easy one. It's the answer to the trivia question:

"What does the word "sockdologize," mean, and why is the word crucial to American history?"


"Sockdologize" and its many variations (sockdologer, sockdollarger, etc.) was a slang term which became very popular in the United States during the 1850s and '60s, and is still used in some parts of the country to this day. It means a forceful or decisive blow ­ a finisher; something that ends or settles a matter and leaves nothing else to follow, a knockdown blow, a decisive overwhelming finish, reply, argument, conclusive remark, or blow, which leaves no possible response.

Random House Unabridged: "His right jab is a real sockdolager." "The revelation of his actual source of income was a sockdolager from which this politician never recovered."

American frontierspersons were famous for their ability to invent new words, like skeedaddle, bushwhack, absquatulate, tarnation, gumption, bulldozer, etc., etc. In British and Continental stage plays of the time a standard comic character was the backwoods American with his outlandish talk and manners. The most famous melodramatist of the time, Dion Boucicault,² made his reputation on wily old American backwoods characters who sounded like ignorant cusses but were able to see through the plots and schemes of the aristocracy and big business.

So what role does this unlikely coinage play in American history?

The adjective form "sockdolagizing" was one of the last words that Abraham Lincoln ever heard.

The play, "Our American Cousin" by Tom Taylor, which was playing at Ford's Theater in Washington DC on the night of April 14, 1865, has a line in in which always brought down the house:

"Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal-- you sockdologizing old man-trap."¹ John Wilkes Booth, an actor himself and aware of the dialog, knew that the line brought the loudest burst of laughter from the audience, and as the audience laughed, Booth fired at that precise moment to muffle the loud noise of his fatal shot.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Two Peas in Different Pods

In researching this coming week's Featured Author, Leonard Weisgard, I came across this comment in his Caldecott acceptance speech:
Books at school were upsetting to me. Those frightening black and blue worlds, where everything was outlined in black and indiscriminately filled in with one color. There were blue cows and blue pigs and blue chickens and blue barns and blue people beneath a sky filled with blue sunshine and blue trees on blue grass. On the next page the world would suddenly have turned orange. An orange child in an orange world carrying an orange basket filled with orange juice, up an orange hill under an orange sky.
Susan Jeffers had a completely different take on exactly the same situation:
. . . The books were illustrated with beautiful, small ink drawings. These black-and-white illustrations sometimes had a spot of color - maybe blue or orange - that was it.

Looking back now, I realize I did not miss the bigger color pictures we now have in books. Those small, spare illustrations left my imagination free to create. This ability came into good use when, as a teen, I struggled to stay awake through the Reverend Stoneton's sermons. High in the choir loft, I would tell myself stories, creating in my imagination all the pictures that were not included in My Book House.
They both then went on to create beautiful illustrations for a new generation of children, who wouldn't have to put up so often with blue and orange pictures.

Susan Jeffers books in print.

Leonard Weisgard books in print.

Leonard Wiesgard Samples

alice_chess250_Leonard_Weisgard_1949.jpg train300_Leonard_Weisgard_1948.jpg barn_storm300_Leonard_Weisgard_1951.jpg

Susan Jeffers Samples

streamhorse_Susan_Jeffers.jpg bookbkg%2BSusan_Jeffers.jpg mypony_sm_Susan_Jeffers_2003.jpg