Title: Thank You, Jeeves
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Humor, Read-Aloud, Short Stories (Wodehouse wrote about 99 books and plays; I recommend this one to start with, followed by Right Ho, Jeeves, which contains the truly epic Market Snodsbury address by Gussie Finknottle*, and then there’s no stopping you, but Blandings Castle could be next — of course there is a multitude of full-length novels as well).
Age Range: A chapter-book reader who has delved a bit into King Arthur, A Christmas Carol, and maybe some Shakespeare (say, age 11**) right on up to your great-grandmother
Recently I read an article about how standardized tests have attempted to become “experience neutral” (can’t remember if they used any term, but that was the effect), removing references to any activity or thought that could be related to class, privilege, and especially religion. Testing follows teaching (and vice versa, of course), so the article could be read as a gloss on educational philosophy, or at least, practice, in general, in our time.
The example given was a question the answer to which turned on the word “regatta” — now deemed too particular to a certain way of life than a lot of other words. And I suppose it’s true that if you happened to have been brought up by the seaside, participating in competitive sailing sports, you would have imbibed this word with your mother’s milk and that one question would have been easy for you.
What I found ironic (and here I am not really commenting on testing per se, which is an energy sink dodged, for the most part, by homeschooling) is that *I* know this word and knew it as a child. My background: an immigrant (Arab, non-sailing) father, a mother brought up in a poor upstate New York (landlocked) small town, and in general not what you would call a privileged upbringing (especially as my parents were divorced when I was quite young). I played no sports whatsoever unless they were offered at gym, and trust me, sailing wasn’t one of them.
The way I knew this word, and so many others far outside my ken, was of course by reading. And a further irony is that the more energy one spends worrying about testing and whether or not it rewards privilege, the less energy is left for reading and looking up words and thereby righting any inequalities of privilege.
You might even say that good books bestow the gift of putting privilege in its place, as the intelligent reader will not only receive all the benefits of life vicariously lived, but will come to the added understanding that mere money and social position often do not bring with them the happy life. Those who participate in regattas are not necessarily ahead of the game (other than the game of answering the odd question in bygone standardized tests — and the truth is, they were always going to go to the best colleges with or without those tests, because that’s just how it is).
I was also pondering the importance of keeping the goal of reading good old books front and center in our educational journey when we were singing Christmas carols.
Will our children know the meaning of the word “own” in this phrase of We Three Kings: “Incense owns a deity nigh.” Not to mention “deity” and “nigh”? If you weren’t brought up reading old books that toss off “He owned she was right,” or “The Prince owned that his counselors were nigh,” will the sense of the line elude them?
All these thoughts do not directly relate to the works of P. G. Wodehouse, because I am still staggering around with that sinus infection (despite meds). I just want to say that words — the knowing of them, the loving of them — are of central importance to education, and any child learns words by reading, looking up the tricky ones after lots of guessing, and using them in his own speech.
The thing about Wodehouse and why I need to be sure you know about him is that he demonstrates all that delightfully. Wodehouse is we ourselves, if we were clever and droll, having a rollicking good time with all the things rattling around in our brains after a long day swotting and generally hitting the books.
If you read your Wodehouse along with your Shakespeare and your Dickens, you will have a lot of fun. And don’t think that having seen the TV show fits the bill. The first season gave satisfaction, but subsequent ones made the strange decision to depart from actual Wodehouse story lines, becoming tedious, in my opinion.
No matter. The books themselves will always be there to provide the world we all enjoy so well — gently and accurately mocking privilege, inevitably rewarding the enterprising bloke or vivacious gal, serving up our quota of incognito guests and flower-pot throwing secretaries.
For sheer hilarity, seemingly effortless good English prose (including some of the greatest similes and metaphors in the language), and great twists and turns of plots, Wodehouse is your man.
* The epic quality of this book was immortalized for the Chief and me one evening when we had left Grandma and Grandpa to babysit, returning after baby Nicholas was in bed. On opening the door, we immediately came upon a scene in the living room: A purple-faced Grandpa, on his feet, had tears streaming down his face as he waved a paperback wildly, shouting something utterly incomprehensible, and Grandma was doubled up on the sofa. Instantly we knew the exact passage he was in the midst of attempting to read to her, and we brought them soothing glasses of water and tried to ward off conniptions.
** If introduced too young, Wodehouse can prove to be vexatious. Our Joseph, serious and well read, was found at the tender age of 10 hurling a copy of The Code of the Woosters at the opposite wall. “They treat Bertie Wooster so badly!” he cried. The poor fellow needed a little distance to understand what it was all about…