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    Notes from Dr. James Taylor on Knowledge from Literature

    November 17, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    I was delighted that one of the donor giveaways from CiRCE was a talk from James Taylor, author of my beloved Poetic Knowledge, called Knowledge from Literature. I typed out a whole bunch of quotes, but I found that the “lecture” had the feel of a conversation. How can I pull out a snippet and expect anyone who hasn’t heard the context to understand it?

    For the most part, I can’t.

    But there were a few thoughts which stand alone, and I’ll relay them here.

    I have become, in the last twenty years, or maybe even longer, a champion of reading the Good Books before we read the Great Books. That would be to say…that our students in lower grades would be reading Tom SawyerRebecca of Sunnybrook FarmAnne of Green Gables–those kinds of books, Tom SawyerHuckleberry Finn, these standards–Good Books–as a way to prepare for reading HomerThe AeneidShakespeare.

    I had a professor one time who said,

    If you really want your students to read Shakespeare, hope that they were raised on Mother Goose.

    I am beginning to see this. I think of the ability to read and appreciate the greatest works of humanity {and I would include here also paintings and music and so on} in the way that I think of my backyard. The soil there is so…lacking. But I firmly believe that if I consistently lay down compost, winter ducks on the land, and plant clover in just the right places, that there will be a transformation. The land that once bore little fruit will bear much.

    Compare this with a child’s mind. If he is born and fed on Baby Einstein and then Hannah Montana and so on, he will be incapable of the greatest thoughts. But if we lay down layers of good things and water generously with the Scriptures which hold all good things together, he will, when it is time, burst forth with the blooms of a thousand great ideas.

    At least, this is the hope. For now we labor precept upon precept, working toward an end only God can see.

    I think “children’s literature” is almost an unfortunate term…I mean, for example, I don’t think we need a scholar to tell us…that the Grimm’s Fairy Tales were not written even for children. There’s very, very strong evidence that children got on to them, but they were really folk tales by the fire in those dark forests of Germany–nobody knows where they come from in the oral tradition–that were told in the family; they weren’t exclusive to children.

    He says that true “children’s literature” can be appreciated by adults. I am learning this. When I first had children, I had little idea how to tell a good book from a mediocre one. A book had to be pretty bad for me to toss it because I had bought into the idea that a child should be surrounded by books. But somewhere along the line I was influenced by Charlotte Mason’s definition of a living book. Like those enzyme-rich living foods which enhance the health of the body, living books nourish the soul and cause the life of the mind to flourish.

    And so I ripped through our library and sent at least a third of it to PaperBackSwap, never to be seen or heard from again.

    There are many wonderful descriptions on how to tell a living book from a dead one, and I still cannot convey the idea very well. But I do have a little trick that seems to work: a living book is a book that not only can, but should be read over and over. When your four-year-old says, “Mommy, read it again,” a mediocre book is the one you shudder at, while a living book is the one that you can embrace just as eagerly.

    Our favorite living books these days are Saint George and the DragonGingerbread Baby, and The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. These books require library binding so that they are still in good condition when the children read them again when they are old.

    Some stories are never outgrown. A living children’s book is one that the parent secretly knows the child will not fully understand until they are grown.

    Another idea Taylor broached near the end of his talk was that the Good Things about which we find ourselves apathetic point to a gap in our formation, not just in our teachers, but in ourselves. Taylor identifies mathematics in himself. His appreciation for math came late. He mentions grownups who do not appreciate Shakespeare {not that they have to be big fans, but able to appreciate him}. Humanity was born into a world worthy of awe and wonder, and when we produce adults who have no capacity for such things, we are producing damaged goods.

    Lastly, in regard to poetry he says,

    How do you test on Windy Nights? Well, you see, I wouldn’t. I’d have them memorize it.

    And then he suggests that the teacher memorize it first, and set the example, teaching it to the children by giving them two lines per lesson until they have mastered it. This is going on my to-do list. We do a lot of memory work, but I have knowingly been neglecting poetry, and I think Taylor has convinced me that memorizing poetry is the only way to move from mastering a poem to being mastered by a poem.

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  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts November 17, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    This is the first time I’ve ever heard his voice–I’ve only read his book over and over. So I was surprised…and delighted!

    I wanted to hug him.


  • Reply Dominion Family November 17, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    I loved this talk also, Brandy. I loved how his lovely, muddled professorial personality shone through, and how it was conversational. Just when you thought he didn’t know what he was talking about, he said something wonderful. Whenever I hear him speak I feel that I already know him.

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