Why Read Books from the Past?

Mitali Perkins's nonfiction book for adults Steeped in Stories: Timeless Children's Novels to Refresh Our Tired Souls (Broadleaf Books) will be published in August. In it Perkins examines seven classic children's novels — Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, Emily of Deep Valley, The Hobbit, Little Women, A Little Princess, and The Silver Chair — through a contemporary and Christian lens. These books are far from perfect, and Perkins assesses their problems, but she argues that reading or rereading these books as adults can help us build virtue, unmask our vices, and restore our hope. This brief excerpt is adapted from a chapter titled "Seven Books, Seven Virtues: Finding Goodness in Person," in which she continues making her case to read novels by those who wrote in another era.

Why should we keep reading children’s books from the past? I’ll give you two reasons. The first is to develop the critical thinking necessary to shepherd the next generation. This takes work, which we will do together as we consider the seven novels in this book. We will discuss their flaws even as we meditate on the virtues they illuminate: justice, temperance, courage, prudence, faith, hope, and love. And then I’ll review and summarize questions related to race, culture, and power to ask of all stories, whether written in the past or in the present. I want to become the kind of reader who can help young people discern and, if needed, resist subversive messages.

The second reason to revisit books from the past as adults is to move forward with humility in our own formation. Adults are less susceptible to fiction’s subversive power of building a subterranean morality than children are. Still, good children’s stories from the past can refresh and shape our tired souls, especially when we are hobbled by our divisive and despondent age. They can generate hope and inspire goodness.

But first, we must try to define the word good. Is virtue bound to a particular culture or era? Can we all agree on what is good — or is consensus on goodness simply impossible? Premodern (think: village) cultures, which include European cultures in the Middle Ages as well as contemporary groups in different parts of the world, each have their own beliefs about goodness and evil. A modern definition of good arose in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and was based on both Judeo-Christian doctrine and the humanistic values that emerged after the Renaissance during the Enlightenment. Some believe the era of modernity ended by 1930, others after World War II in 1945, but most agree that it was gone by the late twentieth century. That’s when the Western world moved into postmodernity, as more and more people found it difficult to accept a shared, absolute definition of morality.

As a brown person born in a once-colonized country, I have wondered if books by writers of European descent imposed modernity over my Bengali family’s premodernity. Were my favorite childhood books yet another weapon in the colonizing arsenal? Is that why I felt — and feel — so at home when I read them? But deeper reflection reveals that I was formed by three value systems: the premodernity of my parents’ Bengali village; the modernity of my Western education and the cultural milieu in which I lived during childhood and young adulthood; and the postmodernity of today’s context. These pushed against one another in my psyche as I sought to define goodness.

The author's parents' wedding photo.

Classic fiction definitely exposed me to modern values and even prepared me to claim some as my own. But as I’ve given my love for them a closer look, I can see that my premodern Bengali village heritage played a large part in why I made myself at home in these books. Our parents taught us to savor the beauty of the natural world through Bengali poetry and songs, for example. The North American pop songs playing on the radio during my childhood ignored that beauty, but I found a celebration of it in old-fashioned books. Those same songs glorified romance even as many of my classmates’ parents who had “fallen in love” were divorcing. Meanwhile, my own parents, who met each other for the first time on the day of their wedding, stayed together through ups and downs. I saw their marital duty and fidelity reflected in vintage children’s books. Ma and Baba also passed on a Bengali freedom of emotion — license to weep, rage, and laugh — and an honoring of elders. Both of these values seemed the exception rather than the rule in North American culture but turned up frequently in stories from the past. My two older sisters took care of me, and I looked up to them; this sibling bond was mirrored more by the classic fiction I was reading than by the squabbling and eye-rolling among the brothers and sisters in our suburban neighborhood.

Young Mitali (left) and her sisters.

As I grew older, my ancestors’ pre-modernity continued to push against and restrict the influence of modernity in my formation. Even with a top-notch college education that challenged me to be a critical thinker, I might still have internalized white-centeredness were it not for the robust pride my parents passed on in our heritage. ­Bengalis, in fact, can be too proud of that identity. Some of my relatives divided the world into two groups: Bengali (superior) and non-Bengali (including other Indians, whites, other Asians, other races — sadly ranked in that order, from less to more inferior). Why would anyone want to be anything but Bengali? was the implicit message, for better or worse. In turn, postmodern thinking helped me reject preferences for light skin over dark and for sons over daughters that were also a part of my culture of origin and in some modern literature. Premodernity resisted modernity, postmodernity pushed back against premodernity, and so on. As champion-of-temperance Louisa May Alcott might notice benevolently, the eras moderated one another in my formation.

Four generations: the author's mother, great-grandmother, sister, and grandmother.

The college students and writers I sometimes teach who were formed in postmodernity tend to appreciate and sometimes even revere my proximity to premodern Bengali village language and culture — that is, until they learn that my great-grandmother was married off at age nine to a husband more than double her age and that this practice was accepted and common. This chunk of ancestral history — even in their “all cultures have equal value” milieu — elicits expressions of disgust. Resistance to a child getting married comes from a deeply held value of defining an “age of consent.” But where does that value come from? Why should children be protected from slavery, trafficking, forced labor, pornography, body mutilation, or child marriage?

When I pose this question in the classroom, answers typically circle around the fact that children can’t protect themselves. The strong must protect the weak. This is just. Merciful. Even good. I press on: how do we define good? My ancestral culture once believed child marriage was good. The custom protected a girl, they believed, allowing her to be known and loved as a child in a household economy where she would eventually gain matriarchal power. The students shrug, mulling that over and trying to lean into a deeply held value of tolerance that could help them accept this practice. Still, they hate the thought of a girl getting married at age nine.

Cultural and historical contexts matter. The problem is that when you’re steeped in them, they shape you — for better and worse — and it’s hard to see how. So what is “goodness,” and who gets to determine its shape and scope? No single culture or era can fully hold the answer to that question; cultures and eras, like individuals, are marred and beautiful at the same time. To widen the narrow vision of our own perspectives, I encourage readers to cross borders of race and culture and learn from a diversity of contemporary storytellers. But to widen the narrow, limited vision of our own era, we may — dare I say, must — also cross borders into the past to seek goodness in stories there as well.

When we open ourselves to writing from the past, we resist the danger of “presentism,” as Alan Jacobs discusses in Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More ­Tranquil Mind. The title of Jacobs’s book is based on a quote from the poet W. H. Auden, who once said that “art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” Auden believed that “without communion with the dead a fully human life is impossible.”

A fully human life is the good life we desire. Inevitably, when I talk about cultural pluralism and our human quest to define goodness, one of my students will approach me one-on-one and ask a marvelous question: “How do you define good, Ms. Perkins?” (Apparently, they aren’t the only ones who want to know. If you type my name into any online browser search bar — as we authors tend to do — a common term that pops up in the suggestions is “Mitali Perkins beliefs.”) What is good? I would like to hear your answer if you have one; please tell me face-to-face if we ever have the pleasure of meeting in person. Here’s mine. When I asked that question on a spiritual search that began in childhood, it led me to another question: Who is good?

After some study of comparative religions and philosophies, I began to see that the goodness I sought was personified by one Jewish man. I discovered him in a sacred book I used to think was only for Westerners. This swarthy (as I imagined him) storyteller was a postmodern champion of the marginalized, a hater of injustice, a tolerant friend to diverse people. In his words and life, I recognized virtues I cherished in my beloved collection of “modern” children’s books as well as values of Middle Eastern origin that were prized in my family’s premodernity, like hospitality, humility, and honor. Best of all, this person didn’t just teach about and model goodness; according to writers of the Bible’s New Testament, he died and then defeated death to make a way for us to gain goodness because we are tainted by evil.

As the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes…right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an unuprooted small corner of evil.” Even so, human beings are the imago Dei — created in God’s image — and designed to practice and yearn for justice, temperance, courage, prudence, faith, hope, love, and other virtues.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, years before Jesus walked the earth, the prophet Micah wrote, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Despite their flaws and errors, the seven children’s novels we will explore in this book inspired me as a child to do ­justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, who still puts them to use in my formation as I reread them every year. I hope you too receive encouragement and refreshment as we read novels from the past written by authors who were as complicated as we are.

From the March/April 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Mitali Perkins

Mitali Perkins’s books for young readers include Home Is in Between, You Bring the Distant Near (both Farrar), and Rickshaw Girl (Charlesbridge). She lives in the Bay Area. Visit steepedinstories.com to sign up for a group read of the seven novels, moderated by Perkins, starting in September.

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Megan Whalen Turner

How wonderful. I have signed up at steepedinstories and I’m looking forward to August.

Posted : Mar 28, 2021 02:31


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