Ugly to look at, and curious to behold, our family's literary time line stretches 15 feet or so around the kitchen wall behind our breakfast table.
Starting with 800 B.C. (the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey"), almost every century is marked by a one-foot hump in the line. And dotted over the length of this homemade mural are at least 60 colored scribbles, one for every literay "classic" we read aloud with the children this past year.
At this writing, our mural ends with "Charlotte's Web," 1952, not out of any distaste for writers of the '60s, but out of lack of perspective for what we'd call "classic."
The object of the time line is not to post a pretentious list of great books on the wall. And, unlike the storybook parents who charmingly plow through a chapter of "Swiss Family Robinson" night after night for months, we do not read these works cover to cover, unless pressed.
Our main purpose is to read aloud with Laura, 12, and David, 9, large chunks of classics in the original. We want only to whet the children's appetites, and ours, for returning to enjoy the complete works at some later time. Another unspoken goal: to keep the TV turned off. (Over the weeks, this read-aloud project came to represent our own counter-video tactic, a step beyond pushing the "off" button.)
After taping our blank mural to the wall last spring, the children's next step was to rummage through their own shelves and pick out books their teachers had called "classics." Starting with "Alice in Wonderland," Tom Sawyer," etc., we reread some favorite sections, then turned -- with some misgivings -- to adult drama.
But David roared over the cobbler's puns in Scene I, Act I of "Julius Caesar." And he was just as eager to read straight through to the battlefield curtain. We each played several characters; this approach helped cut down on David's wiggles. He was Brutus.
Laura proposed different accents for different books and plays: deep Southern for "Uncle Tom's Cabin," mock English for "Canterbury Tales." Reading time was not reverent, but rather much-interrupted with silliness, laughter, and absurd modern analogies. Best to keep a dictionary at hand, to deal wth stumpers like "hippocampus," as in, "Waiter, there's a hippocampus in my soup!"
It didn't take much time to become acutely aware of the quality of translations. One version of Virgil's "Aeneid" put us to sleep. But Aeschylus' "Prometheus Bound," translated by David Grene, was gripping to the end.
The older works weren't so difficult to find as it might seem, but it has been something of a mini-history lesson to settle on the best dates, especially for the many Arthurian legends, and for anonymous works, like "Everyman."
When personal bookshelves and the local library failed, we combed Alexandria's used-book stores for those classics we hadn't peeked at since college, or, in fact, hadn't read at all. Rabelais, for example. His hilarious "Gargantua" turned out to be the 9-year-old's favorite of the summer, with mother-reader skipping some of the scandalous passages. David urged "Gargantua" on several friends, calling it "better than Steve Martin." u
Admittedly, some of the books chosen can require a supreme effort, particularly early English poetry like "Paradise Lost" and "The Divine Comedy." But, on the other hand, there were wonderful surprises: The kids were delighted with the "Bhagavad-Gita," with Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and with Voltaire's "Candide," whice we finished, omitting rapes.
The first few and final chapters of Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" had a profound impact. Reading Sir Thomas More's version got us hooked on "Utopias," and led to pages and pages of George Orwell's "1984," Butler's "Erewhon," and Bellamy's "Looking Backward."
Another family might naturally tailor their oral reading to their own experience. We were fortunate to go to France and Spain this summer, so Lord Byron's "Prisoner of Chillon" (we'd visited the castle), "Don Quixote," and Dumas' "Man in the Iron Mask" and "The Count of Monte Cristo" (both set at the Chateau d'If outside Marseille) came alive for us. c
Virginia weekend travelers might want to dramatize a Saturday trip to Manassas with excerpts from Crane's "Red Badge of Courage."
High-school textbook publishers would protest, but it has been difficult to find an anthlogy of American literature arranged chronologically. There are plenty of thorough ones covering English letters.
The largest gap on our chart is the 15th century, a puzzling emptiness following on the heels of the 1436 invention of the printing press. We could only conclude that the War Between the Roses and the recurrence of the plague depressed Western literary output for those years until Machiavelli wroter "The Prince," 1513. "Additional suggestions welcome.)
During the winter, reading hours compete with homework, Scouts, and music practice. But we still manage to squeeze in a chapter or two at the dinner table. One week we finished Gogol's "Overcoat" and Kafka's "Metamorphosis"; the first made us weep, and Kafka's hero-turned-cockroach prompted groans, cries of "yucky," and pleas not to stop.
For this article, I asked the children to provide some "instant reviews" of their favorite and least-liked readings so far. Laura gave her biggest sneer to "Marco Polo's Travels," calling it "too repetitious. MP told the very same story about every country: 'They use paper money, burn their dead, and are subject to idolatry.' This book was just a big publicity gimmick to flatter the Great Kublai Khan."
David called Goethe's "Faust" the "most boring. The only thing interesting was the broken pentagram, and the poodle swelling up into the Devil." (No accounting for taste.)
"Experimental Medicine" by Bernard (1865): "Makes you wonder about the right to experiment on prisoners. That experiment weighing the cats was ridiculous." -- David
Voltaire's "Candide": "Dr. Pangloss was pretty amusing in his habit of seeing every disaster as 'the best of all possible worlds.'" -- Laura
"This story was really exciting because I was always wondering whether Candide was going to get killed or not." -- David
"A Wonder Book," by Nathaniel Hawthorne: "We liked his storytelling style, and the way he brought the myths to life with lots of extra details, like what went through Pandora's mind, and all that food Midas couldn't touch with his tongue." -- Laura
Moliere's "School for Wives": "Reminded me of 'Sweeney Todd' (Stephen Sondheim's recent musical tragedy) because both have old men who want to lock away young girls and then marry them." -- David
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight": "Fantastic, unique, and interesting plot. The Green Knight reminded me of the Hulk on TV." -- David
"Just where do you watch the Hulk?" -- Mom