The Wikipedia entry on French poet Jean de La Fontaine mentions that most French schoolchildren learn his fables by heart at school. It fails to mention, however, the circumstances. A francophone friend of mine tells me that La Fontaine was the punishment for childhood infractions at school and at home. One would have to memorize a fable with an appropriate moral if they were caught lying or stealing or what have you. Can’t say the rhyme – don’t do the crime, I guess. He, of course, hated this and marvels at the cruelty of his parents and former educators. Myself, as a young father, marvel at the genius of this idea. Go figure.
In light of this, I was quite excited when I came across The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories, edited and introduced by William J. Bennett, at the used bookstore the other day. The Book of Virtues is a collection of fables, poems and stories, especially for children, but really for the whole family, selected to illustrate ten universal virtues: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith. Actually, that’s how the book is organized. With only those sections in the table of contents and not the individual stories and poems. I suppose it encourages non-linear reading and subsequently a feeling of owning the book but it’s terrifically annoying when you’re looking for a favorite story.
I think The Book of Virtues is a great companion piece to Bloom’s Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages. Oddly, the two even overlap – both include
How Many Books How Much Land Does a Man Need? by Tolstoy. But Bennett and Bloom have very different purposes in selecting their stories. Bloom wants to make good readers, and ultimately, happy, or at least sufficiently satisfied people. While Bennett wants to ultimately make a good country by storying virtue into it’s citizens.
Make that a good American country with virtuous American citizens. At times The Book of Virtues comes across as Chicken Soup for the Conservative American Soul. What with stories of the American founding fathers, excerpts from the declaration of independence and instructions on how to treat the flag. And, of course, like most American children’s literature it promotes a fierce individualism that I find vaguely upsetting.
I’m not exactly sure where Mr. Bennett is at right now and I wonder if his public troubles from a few years ago are what put this fine collection in the literary dumping ground. No matter, it’s mine now. Bad people fall apart – good books stay.
Now, what looks worth memorizing in here…