The Classical Cat Corner

Wear the old coat and buy the new book. --Austin Phelps

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Wanting to share this....

This is a BRILLIANT piece and wanted to share it with those that come here....I've often thought that I was "spoiling" the story by reading children's versions to my kids before they could read the "real thing" for, I don't have to fear anymore.

It's Never Too Early - Or Too Late - For Great Books

From the beginning of our homeschooling journey, I have been reading the advice of experts. Many experts encourage parents to use simplified retellings of great books in their homeschool, explaining that an early familiarity with the stories will make the books less intimating to the student later on.

The advice made sense, but I sometimes wondered if I was doing the right thing. By reading Black Ships before Troy and Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories, wasn’t I, in a way, ruining it for them? Would it in fact be better for them to experience Shakespeare in the original language, and Homer, if not in the original, at least in the form of one of the classic translations?

I never, however, questioned the merit of telling my children Bible stories. I realized there were a few who only read to their children from the King James Bible, but I didn’t agree. I felt kids needed to understand the stories, to gain an intimate familiarity with them. The analysis would come much later.

It wasn’t until I started reading Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare that I began to see the contradictions in my thinking.

In this book, Asimov helps the plays of Shakespeare come alive for the modern reader by explaining the background and allusions in the plays. The audience in Shakespeare’s time was expected to have an understanding of Greek mythology and Roman history, and Shakespeare’s plays are liberally sprinkled with references to them. While someone without such background knowledge can still follow the plot of the plays and enjoy the beauty of the words, many of the deeper nuances will be missed.

I reveled in this book, delighted with the deeper meaning Asimov helped bestow. Even the plays I was familiar with became more alive as I began to understand the background and see allusions I had never before been aware of. But some allusions, I realized, I knew quite well:

There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.

As someone who was raised in church, with weekly Bible lessons told by teachers armed with felt boards, I have long been familiar with Matthew 10:29:

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.

Asimov, however, does not assume such familiarity, and explains the allusion.

I am far from a Bible expert, but I realized how much I take my biblical knowledge for granted. Phrases like “pitched his tent toward Sodom,” and “making bricks without straw,” do not need to be explained to me; I’ve heard the stories from my earliest childhood.

But this familiarity has not detracted from my adult delight in the scriptures. The story of the first Passover was once just an exciting tale; now it’s a beautiful foreshadowing of how the crucifixion saves us from death. As a child I loved hearing how Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal; as an adult I ponder how our mountaintop moments are often followed by periods of doubt, and how God comes to us in those times in a gentle whisper.

My nine-year-old catches allusions to Greek mythology everywhere – which he often has to explain to his mother. He sometimes can decipher the meanings of difficult words (and the spells in Harry Potter) from their Latin roots. He thinks of Shakespeare as a writer of exciting stories filled with intrigue and exciting battles, not dry, incomprehensible plays to be slogged through in a high school classroom.

As a Christian, I don’t consider the Great Books as important as the Bible, but I value their contribution to Western culture. As Hamlet says:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

By exposing my children early to the Great Books, I am building a strong foundation. The deeper meanings will become clear to them later, when they have the maturity to understand. And when that time comes, they will have a ready store of knowledge to draw from; the back-story will be firmly in place.

Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.

Staci Eastin blogs at


At 7:54 PM, Blogger Henry Cate said...

My wife and I were surprised when our daughters, who were around four and six at the time, listened to the whole story of Homer's Odessy on tape.

At 8:38 PM, Blogger Olive Oyl/Pensguys said...

I can't believe how much my children enjoy these too!


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