Books for 4, 14, 40 and forever
Yesterday two writers at Canada's National Post recommended books for various ages and shared insights about home, middle age, childhood and eternity.
Barbara Kay recommended a book for childhood for reasons we hadn't thought about -
At its core, the book is about the primordial sweetness of "home," whether home is a community-oriented water rat's hole in the riverbank, a loner mole's sunless underground bunker or a toad's eccentric's mansion. Home becomes most precious, though, when we leave it, as these creatures do, yearn for it and suffer in finding our way back to it.
Home's hospitality must be extended to those in need - Badger exemplifies this principle when Rat and Mole need succour - and home cannot be neglected, or we may lose it.
Neglected Toad Hall is overrun by the evil Stoats and Weasels. Only courage, ingenuity and the loyalty of one's friends can drive them out. In the process, the arrogant Mr. Toad learns humility, and the others, having been initiated into the world's sometimes frightening realities, achieve self-confidence. By the end, they have gained a deeper appreciation for their humble homes, and for their friends. Valuable character lessons here.
You've guessed that Wind in the Willows is the book. We certainly do need "courage, ingenuity and the loyalty of friends" to live. A great political principle lurking in The Wind in the Willows is "your home is your castle" and not to be violated.
Kay's book choice for adolescence is more surprising -
The meaning behind George Orwell's allegorical novel Animal Farm is accessible to even the dimmest navel-gazing teen. The riveting narrative of a prosperous English farm's devolution into ruin illuminates the paving stones leading from the unrealistic dream of "equality" to the hell of totalitarianism.
Animal Farm will never grow stale. Although all the animal characters are well drawn, Boxer, the self-sacrificing draft horse, stands out as the epitome of a simple idealist's abused innocence: The feeble thud of those hooves against the walls of the knacker's van remains, for me, one of literary history's most haunting political wake-up calls.
Orwell's book is haunting and chilling. Right for teens? Orwell would be amused to learn that in school Animal Farm is called "the Shortest Serious Novel It's OK to Write a Book Report About".
Who can forget the pigs? Their voices can be heard today -
"We pigs are brainworkers. The whole management and organisation of the farm depend on us. Day and night, we are watching over your welfare. It is for your sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples."
It's too bad that Animal Farm is sometimes mistaken as solely an attack on communism.
In "My own private world of letters" fellow Post columnist George Jonas recalls books read in a Budapest air raid shelter, and recommends a book that "says pretty much all there's to say about human beings, and does so in words accessible to children at four, adolescents at 14, adults at 40 and everyone else forever". You'll guess the book he has in mind.