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Psalm 78
. . . we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done. .
so the next generation would know them . . . and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Twentieth Century Reading


The Edwards Academy will be studying the 20th century in the coming school year (Tapestry of Grace Year 4). The recent history of the last hundred years is a difficult tale to tell. It is complex and often depressing and its subject matter is often heavy and dark. The tale of the 20th century chronicles wars, rebellion, and moral depravity. Truth and beauty, taste and discernment are all tossed aside and scorned. Yet this is the century that shaped me. My grandparents were all born in the first twenty years of the 20th century, my parents before 1950. I came of age before the close of the century. The long study of chronological history that we are taking in the Edwards Academy is now coming into clear focus as it reaches recent times.

Teacher Enrichment Training. This summer I thought it would be fun to revisit the 20th century books that are on my shelves as I prepare mentally for the coming school year. My shelves are lined with books that tell, in a way, the story of my life. Over there are the books that I devoured as a teenager, down there are some of the history books I kept from college, here are some novels that I read when I was in high school, up there are the biographies I read when I was expecting the twins, etc., etc. Returning to a book on my shelf brings back more memories than simply the story between the covers.

When I thought of grabbing a 20th century book off the shelf, I immediately thought of The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk. I first knew of this story in the early ‘80s when my folks watched the miniseries on television. With Robert Mitchum in the title role of Pug Henry, the miniseries brought to life the story of Henry’s family just as the thirties come to a close. Hitler is war-mongering in Europe and everyone is asking, “Will there be war?” With a son in the Navy, a daughter in college, and another son in Italy, the novel opens with Pug Henry, a career Navy man, taking an assignment in Berlin and moving there with his wife, Rhoda.

I was about eleven when I saw portions of the miniseries and read the novel sometime thereafter. It was a tough read and I don’t think I really got through it until high school. I was fascinated by the whole subject of World War II and enthralled with the 1940s in general. I’m sure my ignorance of the very subject that intrigued me made much of the book a mystery to me, but at the same time it served as an education of the times.

It was such a favorite book of mine that when given a term paper assignment in my high school English class, I decided to compare The Winds of War with Dr. Zhivago. This was a grievous mistake. My whole thesis was wrong, but by the time I discovered it the confounded notecards were due! The two novels have nothing in common except that they are both “World War II stories.” My choice of thesis proved that although I had read both books I hadn’t really understood them.

The wonderful thing about returning to a book is that it shows how much you, the reader, have changed since you last read it. Sometimes the response is, “How could I have thought this was any good?” Other times more like, “I get this now!” Some books endure for re-reading, others expire after the first encounter. For me, The Winds of War strikes me as better upon re-reading. I’m a different person now, with a much stronger grasp of history and better able to understand the context of the story and the human relationships within the story. It is a richer experience.

Herman Wouk is a 20th century novelist, for sure. His book Youngblood Hawke (1962) was a formational book for my dad as a young man and Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar (1955) struck a chord with his older sister, who suggested I read it when I was a college student. I did, and couldn’t put it down. Wouk’s stories of World War II and young people coming of age in the post-war years, if read in the right time of life, can be the sort of book that deeply affects you. (These novels are not for children.)

I’ll be re-reading or skimming all the Herman Wouk books on my shelf this summer.
Other 20th Century books on my shelf I may re-visit this summer that are not on the TOG reading list:

Roosevelt, by Conrad Black (A thorough biography that makes sense of both the New Deal and WWII. The Canadian author and newspaper mogul wrote the book in 2003 and has since fallen from grace after running afoul of the law in his business dealings. Not the best Roosevelt biography, but I bought it after reading a book review in 2003 and enjoyed reading it as my preschoolers played with their toys.)

Lindbergh, by A. Scott Berg (A biography written in the 1990s that gives a cradle-to-grave portrait of the man famous for flying across the Atlantic and losing a son in a kidnapping, but somewhat forgotten as a anti-war advocate during the years before WWII and as a thoughtful writer.)

An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard (A memoir of the author and a favorite of mine. I mentioned it before in a post.)

I Will Bear Witness 1933-1941, A Diary of the Nazi Years, by Victor Klemperer (This book contains the journals of the author from the time period. An excellent primary source book with a companion, I Will Bear Witness 1942-1945, A Diary of the Nazi Years.)

War and Society in Europe, 1870-1970, by Brian Bond (A book from a college class.)
Stalin Breaker of Nations, by Robert Conquest (Another college class book.)

How does your reading for pleasure intersect with the subjects you cover in your homeschool?

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