The Most Exciting Box In the World

At PJ Media, Roger Kimball writes on “How to Reform Primary Education.” I have never been much interested in theories about education–reading books makes you smarter, watching television makes you dumber; that’s about all you need to know, in my opinion–so that isn’t a topic that would normally draw my attention. Except that what Roger writes about–the Washington Post’s book reviewer Michael Dirda, and Dirda’s fifth grade teacher, Mr. Jackson–is very different from conventional pedagogy:

Dirda recalls that it was while under Mr. Jackson’s tutelage that he read his first “grown up” book. It was was The Hound of the Baskervilles, a late Sherlock Holmes novel and (in my opinion) one of the best in the oeuvre. Here’s how it happened. Mr. Jackson’s fifth-grade class belonged to an elementary school book club. Each month Mr. Jackson would pass out a four-page newsletter describing several dozen paperbacks available for purchase. “Lying on my bed at home,” Dirda recalls, “I lingered for hours over these news print catalogues, carefully making my final selections.”

The care was dictated in part by the budget imposed by Dirda’s mother, who stipulated a monthly budget of no more than 4 of the 25-35-cent books. Each month, Mr. Jackson sent in the class order. “Then in the middle of some dull afternoon, … a teacher’s aide would open the clasroom door and silently drop off a big, heavily taped parcel. … Sometimes we would be made to wait an entire day, especially if the package had been delievered close to the three o’clock bell when school let out.”

Ah, yes. Readers of a certain age will remember the Scholastic Book Club. What the heck, maybe all readers remember it–the Scholastic Book Club still exists, though whether it retains the quality it had 50 years ago, I don’t know. But it seems like yesterday: our teacher would, as Roger says, pass out a newsletter or catalog that listed and described the books available for order. I pored over that catalog for hours, studying the descriptions and wondering about the books. I would carefully make my choices after discussing them with my friends–you may say that I was a little weird, but I wasn’t the only one, to paraphrase John Lennon–and some weeks later the box would arrive.

It was the highlight of the year. Better even than Christmas, because this box didn’t contain underwear or socks; it contained only books–not only that, but the books we had chosen ourselves. The minutes in which the box was opened and the books were distributed to the kids who had ordered them were the most exciting of my youth. Roger continues:

But sooner or later, the swag was distributed and then Dirda, like his classmates, would

methodically appraise each volume’s art work, read and reread its back cover, carefully investigate the delicate line of glue at the top edge of the perfect bound spines. … To this day I can more or less recall the newsletter’s capsule summary that compelled me to buy The Hound of the Baskervilles. … “What was it that emerged from the moor at night to spread terror and violent death?” What else, of course, but a monstrous hound from the bowels of hell?

One day soon thereafter, Dirda’s parents announced that they would be visiting some relatives that evening, taking his sisters in tow. Michael pedaled down to the local drugstore, stocked up on a few candy bars, a box of Cracker Jack, and a bottle of orange crush, and prepared to meet the Hound. “I dragged a blanket from my bed,” Dirda reported,

spread it on the reclining chair next to the living room’s brass floor lamp, carefully arranged my provisions near to hand, turned off all the other nights in the house, and crawled expectantly under the covers with my paperback of The Hound — just as the heavens began to boom with thunder and the rain to thumps against the curtained windows.

Most readers will remember the plot: Charles Baskerville has been found dead, apparently running away from the safety of his house. Near the body were footprints. A man’s or woman’s prints? “Mr Holmes,” came the chilling reply, “they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

I bought The Hound of the Baskervilles from the Scholastic Book Club, like Mr. Dirda; I remember the blue/gray cover very well. Before I graduated from high school I had read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I remember some of the other books that came in those boxes, decades ago: The Great Pyramid Mystery, which featured a young Egyptian who was working on the Great Pyramid; he kept eating lentils, which caused me to do a little research and find out what lentils are. The Golden Eagle Mystery, a really terrific book from which I learned a great deal. A book whose title I forget, but which had a submarine on the cover and was about Nazis; and lots more.

Roger Kimball appears to think that part of the problem is that some critics (and, implicitly, teachers) are contemptuous of the sorts of books that young people–come to think of it, all people–tend to like:

There is a species of critic for whom writers like Doyle, Ryder Haggard, James Hilton, Geoffrey Household, Rafael Sabatini, even R. L. Stevenson occupy a somewhat dubious neighborhood in the literary imperium. They are not quite serious, you see, they trade in ripping yarns that merely grip and thrill the (usually young) reader. Dirda is not a member of that dismissive critical fraternity, and neither, clearly, was Mr. Jackson. They would seem to belong to the school of the once-well-known critic and novelist Vincent Starrett, who said: “I like the kind of fiction in which things happen, and then keep on happening.”

Maybe that is the problem, but I’m not sure. To me, the idea that teachers and critics could prevent kids from enjoying the pleasures of fiction is very odd, like a suggestion that sex would die out if only the authorities would discourage it more effectively. But for the moment, I am not especially interested in that point. I really just want to celebrate one of the great cultural highlights of the 20th century–the Scholastic Book Club, as it impacted kids in places like the town where I grew up–Watertown, South Dakota–and opened up, for us kids, a thousand windows onto times and places where we otherwise could never have gone.