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on aesthetic and cultural appreciation of literature and film; my favorite directors (小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家)

 

 

 

以下、このエッセイの日本語への翻訳の一部を参照してください。

(Japanese translation of my comments regarding the director Yasujirō Ozu is appended below.)

 

 

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on aesthetic and cultural appreciation of literature and film; my favorite directors (小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家)

by Roger W. Smith

 

 

I will begin this essay with some comments on what I feel the development of aesthetic sense and critical standards, as they apply both to literature and to the cinema, entails.

To put it as simply as possible: in order to have a deep appreciation of anything cultural, you have to become acquainted with the BEST works. Nothing less.

Let’s consider literature for a moment. Consider the case of someone whose acquaintance with books is limited to reading works such as The Thorn Birds, Jacqueline Susann, The Bridges of Madison County, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and similar works.

I have nothing against such writers and works or their readers per se. It’s enough that people love to read and take pleasure from it. I am not a snob.

But, if that’s all you have read, you will never have

a frame of reference;

a yardstick; or

models of excellence

for purposes of comparison when it comes to appreciating literature in full.

You won’t be able to distinguish between what is perhaps entertaining and/or diverting and what is truly great. You will never know the difference.

The same comments apply to cinema.

Let’s say that in the past you saw films like The Graduate, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home, or Kramer vs. Kramer and regarded them as classics. Perhaps you still do.

I have news for you (I’m sorry if I sound arrogant): THEY AREN’T. For why I feel this way, see my discussion of directors and films below.

Extending this comment broadly (i.e., to both literature and film), I would say that it’s like comparing War and Peace with Ben-Hur or Anna Karenina with Erich Segal’s Love Story. You have to have read or seen classics to know the difference.

 

 

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I only began to understand and appreciate film after moving to New York City in the late 1960’s, just after graduating from college.

I owe my appreciation and acumen about films, such as they are, to a friend I made during my early days in New York: William S. (Bill) Dalzell.

Bill Dalzell was a self-employed printer who did printing for left wing groups such as Women’s Strike for Peace. (An aside: he was apolitical, though he was sympathetic to such groups’ goals.) He was a very cultured person and a lover of film, as well as of New York.

He taught me, single handedly, to appreciate film.

Bill Dalzell had a personal list of his five all time great films:

D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

German director Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938)

Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944, with a Part Two released posthumously in 1958; in my opinion, Ivan the Terrible is an even better film than Eisenstein’s better known film The Battleship Potemkin)

Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word; 1955)

Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964)

(See YouTube links below.)

Thanks to his advice, I saw them all at least once.

Truly classic films such as the above five are in a league of their own. Few people have seen them or even know of them.

What are some of the ingredients of great filmmaking? Not being a film critic, I can’t say really – I am not qualified to. But my friend Bill made an observation to me once that I remember. He said that films work their magic by “sight and sound.”

Consider the great directors. Most use music very effectively, use it sparingly. They don’t overdo it. But music is a key part of the aesthetic experience. And, the great directors don’t use schlocky music. What you get is Prokofiev, Monteverdi, Schubert, and so on, plus awesome original music. How many treacly film scores have we been subjected to by second rate directors?

 

 

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To Bill Dalzell’s list of the greatest films, I would like to add and comment on a few favorite directors of my own.

 

Yasujirō Ozu, a Japanese film director and screenwriter

He is not nearly as well known as he should be, though his critical reputation is very high. He is my personal favorite among directors, perhaps outranking the five listed above.

Of course, it was Bill Dalzell who first alerted me to Ozu’s films. He made a comment that turned out to be true. In Ozu’s films, nothing happens.

They are films about ordinary Japanese people — businessmen, housewives, families — living ordinary lives. One watches them going about their daily lives – there is no melodrama — and, instead of being bored, by some magic which the director, Ozu, achieves – which one can only marvel at – the viewer is never bored. Instead, one is totally engrossed.

It seems like a certainty that you are watching real people go about their lives, a documentary of sorts, as if the director had entered a home or workplace in Tokyo and turned on his camera. It’s hard to believe – one totally forgets – that one is watching actors.

There is wonderful music, simple and enchanting, used sparingly.

It is wonderful to hear Japanese spoken.

There is a sense of place. The films are shot in Tokyo. One feels that one is there, in the houses with people sitting on mats, in bars where businessmen are drinking copiously, in the narrow streets with their colorful lights and signs and paper lanterns.

Ozu has a great visual sense, but like everything else in his films. his cinematographic technique is not obtrusive. He is not showing off. You are having a wonderful aesthetic experience without quite realizing it.

There is no distance between you and the film, because everything is done simply and with great clarity. There is no bombast, no showing off, no cinematographic techniques being used simply to impress. And, there is no overacting, as is, sadly, the case with most American films.

I do not have a single favorite Ozu film. My favorites include:

Late Spring (1949)

Early Summer (1951)

The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952)

Tokyo Story (1953)

Late Autumn (1960)

An Autumn Afternoon (1962; Ozu’s final work)

 

Robert Bresson

My other personal favorite is the French director Robert Bresson. My favorite Bresson film – his films are all of the highest quality — is Au hasard Balthazar (1966).

The Balthazar of the title is a donkey. It is a sort of “Black Beauty” story (the reference here being to the novel by Anna Sewell). The characters are plain people – some of them mean spirited and petty minded, if not downright cruel – in a French village.

The haunting soundtrack features the second movement (Andante) from Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major, D. 959. Bresson uses music sparingly, but extremely effectively.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   July 2016; updated September 2017

 

 

 

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Addendum:

 

from the Wikipedia entry on Yasujirō Ozu:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasujir%C5%8D_Ozu

Ozu is probably as well known for the technical style and innovation of his films as for the narrative content. The style of his films is most striking in his later films, a style he had not fully developed until his post-war talkies. He did not conform to Hollywood conventions. Rather than using the typical over-the-shoulder shots in his dialogue scenes, the camera gazes on the actors directly, which has the effect of placing the viewer in the middle of the scene.

Ozu did not use typical transitions between scenes, either. In between scenes he would show shots of certain static objects as transitions, or use direct cuts, rather than fades or dissolves. Most often the static objects would be buildings, where the next indoor scene would take place. It was during these transitions that he would use music, which might begin at the end of one scene, progress through the static transition, and fade into the new scene. He rarely used non-diegetic music in any scenes other than in the transitions. Ozu moved the camera less and less as his career progressed, and ceased using tracking shots altogether in his color films. …

He invented the “tatami shot,” in which the camera is placed at a low height, supposedly at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat … even lower than that, only one or two feet off the ground, which necessitated the use of special tripods and raised sets. He used this low height even when there were no sitting scenes, such as when his characters walked down hallways.

Ozu eschewed the traditional rules of filmic storytelling, most notably eyelines.

 

 

from the Wikipedia entry on Robert Bresson:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Bresson

 

[Bresson is] known for a spiritual and ascetic style. Bresson contributed notably to the art of cinema; his non-professional actors, ellipses, and sparse use of scoring have led his works to be regarded as preeminent examples of minimalist film. …

Three formative influences in his early life seem to have a mark on his films: Catholicism, art and his experiences as a prisoner of war. …

Bresson made only 13 feature-length films. This reflects his meticulous approach to the filmmaking process and his non-commercial preoccupations. ….

Bresson’s actors were required to repeat multiple takes of each scene until all semblances of “performance” were stripped away, leaving a stark effect that registers as both subtle and raw. This, as well as Bresson’s restraint in musical scoring, would have a significant influence on minimalist cinema. …

Bresson is often referred to as a patron saint of cinema, not only for the strong Catholic themes found throughout his oeuvre, but also for his notable contributions to the art of film. His style can be detected through his use of sound, associating selected sounds with images or characters; paring dramatic form to its essentials by the spare use of music; and through his infamous “actor-model” methods of directing his almost exclusively non-professional actors.

 

 

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A Comment:

 

What I most like about Ozu’s films is his appreciation of moments of silence or non-action. So much is allowed to happen in those moments! They are almost always missing from American films, which seem to require constant noise and movement. You didn’t list it, so I’ll add another favorite: “Good Morning,” which is a comedy.

Thanks for bringing Ozu’s film to the attention of your readers!

 

— Ella Rutledge

    November 9, 2016

 

 

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Addendum:

 

I would like to clarify one aspect of the above.

I think it is important to be able to tell what is a classic and what is not a classic, which is the point of this essay.

But you can’t be force fed classics – it’s the kiss of death when it comes to developing a love and enthusiasm for them.

Comments along these lines were made by me in the essay Roger W. Smith, “My Early Reading” posted here at

https://rogersgleanings.com/2015/11/05/roger-w-smith-essay-on-early-reading/

As follows:

I think that to love reading, you have to begin by doing it because of intrinsic interest in the topic and because you are anticipating pleasure, not because you regard it as a duty. You should read whatever you like to; it could be books about sports, entertainment figures, lowbrow fiction, whatever you really and truly want to read.

Whenever (and this comment pertains mainly to classics) you are restricted to encountering good books only as school assignments, when that’s the only place where you encounter them, the game is lost. If you think that classic books are those that you are required to analyze and write essay exam questions on, and nothing more, you will probably not enjoy them in later life. My counsel to all readers, especially young ones, is read whatever you want to read, as much as you can. Seek a level where you have a genuine interest and read at that level. An interest in the best books will often follow.

 

 

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Addendum:

 

Similar thoughts of mine upon reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011).

On pg. 61, Philbrick mentions “the wisdom of waiting to read the classics. Coming to a great book on your own after having accumulated essential life experience can make all the difference.”

YES – waiting, I would be inclined to say, until you are ready, motivated, and receptive.

Waiting until the most opportune time.

This is precisely that happened to me with Moby-Dick. And, practically every other classic and/or “great book” I have ever read.

Hardly any of them – almost none – were read by me as school assignments.

 

 

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Addendum:

 

The following films can be viewed on YouTube at the following links.

 

 

D. W. Griffith

Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eisenstein

Ivan the Terrible, Part One

 

 

 

 

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, Yasujirō Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, and Robert Bressson’s Au hasard Balthazar are available from the Criterion Collection.

 

 

 

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小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家

 

 “On Aesthetic and Cultural Appreciation of Literature and Film, and My Favorite Directors” (小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家)

 

彼は、その作品で評論家から非常に高い評価を得ていたが、彼のことはその評価に見合うほど知られていない。彼は私が個人的に好きな映画監督であり、おそらく上述した5人の監督を上回るだろう。

 

もちろん、小津の映画を最初に教えてくれたのはBill Dalzelld だった。彼はいずれ真実であることが明らかになるコメントをした。小津の映画では、何も起こらない。

 

それらは、ビジネスマン、主婦、家族など、日本の庶民の何気ない日常を描いた映画だ。見ている人は、彼らの日常生活をただ見るのだが、メロドラマのようなたぐいではない。退屈するどころか、小津監督が吹き込む驚嘆すべきマジックにより、観客は決して退屈することがない。むしろ、見ている人は夢中にさせられる。

 

実際の人々の日常生活のありさまを、あたかも監督が東京のある家庭、または職場に潜入し、独自のカメラを回して撮ったドキュメンタリーか何かを見ているような感覚を受ける。役者の演技を見ている、ということを全く忘れさせられるのは、実に信じがたい体験だ。

 

音楽も素晴らしく、シンプルで魅惑的な音楽が控えめにバランスよく使われている。

 

日本語の話し言葉が非常に耳に心地よい。

 

場所の感覚がしっかり存在する。この映画は東京で撮影された。これを観ている人たちは、自分が実際に映画の登場人物の家の座敷や、ビジネスマンがおびただしく酒を飲むバー、カラフルなネオンや看板、紙ちょうちんの並ぶ狭い街路地に居るかのように感じる。

 

小津監督は優れたビジュアルセンスを持つが、映画のその他すべての部分と同様、彼の映画技術には押し付けがましさがない。彼は見せびらかすことをしない。あなたは気づかないうちに、素晴らしい美を体験させられる。

 

すべてがシンプルで、かなり明瞭に作られているため、あなたと映画との間に距離を感じない。印象付けるために、大げさな表現、見せびらかし、映画技術は一切使わない。そして、残念ながら大半のアメリカ映画がそうであるように、大げさな演技はない。

 

私の好きな小津監督の映画を1つだけ選ぶことはできない。私のお気に入りの映画のリストを挙げることにする:

 

晩春 (1949年)

 

麦秋 (1951年)

 

お茶漬けの味 (1952年)

 

東京物語 (1953年)

 

秋日和 (1960年)

 

秋刀魚の味 (1962年、小津の最終作)

 

 

 

 

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ウィキピディアの小津安二郎のページより

 

小津は恐らく、物語の内容と同じくらい、彼の映画の技術的スタイルと革新によって知られている監督であろう。彼の映画のスタイルは、晩年の映画でより顕著になってきており、このスタイルは彼の戦後をテーマにした映画の中で完全に確立された。彼はハリウッド映画のしきたりに従わなかった。それよりは、会話のシーンで典型的な肩越しのショットを使ったり、カメラを役者に直接向け、観客がシーンの中にいるような効果を出した。

 

小津はシーンの間にも典型的なトランジションを使わなかった。シーンの間に彼は、特定の静的オブジェクトをトランジションとして使ったり、フェードやディゾルブなどよりは、ディレクトカットを用いた。静的オブジェクトは、次の屋内シーンが展開される建物を用いることがほとんどだった。音楽はこれらのトランジション中に挿入され、1つのシーンの終わりから始まり、静的オブジェクトによるトランジションを経て、新しいシーンでフェードしていく、といった具合に使用した。彼がトランジション以外で物語の世界に属さない音楽を使用することはほとんどなかった。小津は、キャリアを積むに連れカメラを移動することが少なくなり、カラーフィルムになってからは、トラッキング・ショットの使用を一切止めた。…

 

彼はカメラを低い位置に設置し、日本家屋での座ったときの目線、または、それよりも低い床から30~60cmほどの高さで撮影する「畳ショット」を発明したが、これには特別な三脚を使用し、セットを上げる必要があった。彼は、キャラクターが廊下を歩くときなど、座り芝居のないシーンでもこのロー・ポジションを使用した。

 

小津は、映画によるストーリーテリングの伝統的なルールを避け、これは視点の構図で最も顕著だった。

 

 

 

 

 

“My Early Reading”

 

 

My mother always loved to read and had great taste in literature.

She told me that she read avidly as a child. She was a voracious reader.

She loved Little Women, a classic and a real girl’s book. She was very affected by the scene where the girl character Beth dies.

Another book that my mother particularly liked when she was growing up was The Swiss Family Robinson. It’s a story about a shipwrecked family on an island that has to start life all over again. It was first published in German in 1812 and was inspired by Robinson Crusoe.

I believe that my mother also loved Heidi.

 

 

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My mother’s all time favorite novel, she told me, was All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. I have the book but have never gotten around to reading it myself. I did skim a copy which my mother had. There was a striking sex scene a couple of pages long that was not that explicit but which I found interesting at the time when I read it. In it, a woman goes upstairs in a house and initiates sex with a man. She says to him, ‘I came up.” He has trouble getting her dress off, unloosening the hooks.

There was good literature on my mother and father’s bookshelf in the living room, most of it my mother’s. There were also excellent art history books that my mother had.

One of my mother’s books was a paperback anthology entitled New World Writing, a sort of literary magazine in book form. It was a compilation of short pieces representing the best new literature from the previous calendar year. I used to think, what is that book about? It was of interest to my mother.

One book on my parents’ bookshelf was the Modern Library edition of War and Peace in the translation by Constance Garnett. My father told me that he had read it in its entirety during a summer which he and my mother spent at Lake George in the 1940’s.

There was another book I recall on the living room bookshelf, a collection of short stories by Erskine Caldwell, a Southern writer who wrote about plain, simple people. He had a very simple, down to earth style. I read one of the stories, “A Swell Looking Girl.” To put it succinctly, it shocked me (which does not mean that I thought it was necessarily a bad piece of fiction).

It’s a very simple story about a young man in a town somewhere in the South who has just gotten married. He is very proud of his young bride and wants to show her off to his male neighbors. So he has her come out on the porch and then (eventually) lifts up her dress. She is nude underneath and completely exposed. The men all say “that sure is some swell looking girl” and gradually leave. That’s the whole story.

The story seemed remarkable to me because of the thought of complete female nudity in the open. It was kind of understated the way it was written, but very daring.

Another book on my parents’ bookshelf was James Joyce’s Ulysses, in the Modern Library edition. I was intrigued by it without reading it (which would have been quite difficult for me then; it still is now). I asked my mother and father about it once at the dinner table. I doubt they had read much of it, but they did explain to me the use by Joyce of stream of consciousness. This interested, intrigued me very much.

Later, when I was in high school, my church youth group, Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), had a conference in which one of the workshops was on sexuality. In the flyer for the conference, in the place where there would be a description of the workshop, instead of a description of the workshop per se, they simply quoted the famous concluding words of Ulysses:

…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

This caused quite a stir. Some adults were alarmed. They already thought that these LRY conferences, with adolescents staying together away from home at a conference site with little or no supervision, were a de facto invitation to licentiousness.

My reaction to the Ulysses quote in the flyer was that this was powerful writing of a high order that impressed me. It did not arouse prurient feelings in me.

 

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There was a book on child development on their (Mom and Dad’s) bookshelf by an eminent child psychologist, I think it was Gesell.

I enjoyed skimming it. I liked to see what was expected of normal development in my age group. In the various chapters, there would be various lists, for example, common activities for a given age group.

When I was age 12, I looked at the appropriate chapter and noted an item: For boys that age, a common activity was playing baseball with oneself. I had been doing precisely that. At that age, I used to go into our front yard with a plastic bat and whiffle ball and hit the ball, tossing it out of my hand. I had made up a fantasy team with a fantasy lineup and I would announce — I can’t recall whether it was out loud or as a silent sort of interior monologue — the progress of the “game” as I took my swings. As noted, I had made up a fantasy team, but I think it included myself as one of the players. But I didn’t want to inflate my “role.” I pretended I was a shortstop with modest but decent power and a fair batting average.

 

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In my late high school years, I read Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller in a recently published Grove Press paperback with a bright red cover — the obscenity ban had just been lifted by the courts — which I found in my father’s room. I got interested in the book and eventually took it to my bedroom across the hall. I kept it for weeks. My father eventually noticed this and commented on it, but he did not insist on my returning the book.

The reason I kept the book in my room is that I liked Henry Miller. At first, I noticed the sexy parts. There were lots of them; they were quite explicit and erotic. They were well written, amusing, and fun. Soon I got caught up in the whole book and in Miller’s narrative style and I was no longer interested in the sexy parts alone. And, I enjoyed the sex scenes on two levels, for their explicit erotic content and for the good, zesty writing.

Tropic of Capricorn is part of a trilogy that also includes Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring. I have never read Black Spring, which features surrealistic writing. I have read goodly portions of Tropic of Cancer but never finished it.

Cancer is better known than Capricorn, but I prefer Tropic of Capricorn. It is a basically autobiographical novel taking you from a point where Miller is in New York working for a telegraph company modeled on Western Union (where Miller actually worked) to the end of the book, where Miller, who has become liberated, gives up the conventional life and leaves for Paris. The book has an irresistible narrative flow and momentum.

I kept reading Miller and spent a great deal of time reading him in my senior year in college, neglecting my studies, and then continued to read him avidly for another year or so. I read the first two books of the trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion, Sexus and  Plexus, and enjoyed them greatly.

Some critics thought these were disappointing books, poorly written and a big comedown from the Tropics. One of these critics was Miller’s (and  Anaïs Nin’s) friend Lawrence Durrell. But, as I have said, I liked them. There were plenty of rollicking sex scenes and lots of colorful characters drawn from Miller’s own life. I think Miller helped (note that I say helped) to liberate me sexually and give me a more healthy appreciation of sexuality. It was eroticism plus damned good writing.

I went on to read other works of Miller that did not have sexual content (including nonfiction) and got a real feeling for his range and scope (and an appreciation for his intellect, to an extent).

In the second semester of my senior year, I was shopping around to take some independent study English courses. (I needed some extra courses to graduate.) You had to get a professor to accept you and approve the course. I took Readings in D. H. Lawrence, a horrible course with a Professor Swiggart, and Readings in Henry Miller with Professor Sacvan Berkovitch.

Sacvan Berkovitch was a young, brilliant, up and coming, chain smoking American Studies professor who later migrated to Harvard. I had taken a survey course in American lit with him which I don’t recall much of. I do remember that we read Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. We were assigned The Wings of the Dove by Henry James. It was long and I couldn’t bring myself to read it.

Anyway, to get back to the Readings in Henry Miller course, two of my roommates at Brandeis decided that they wanted to take the course too. We had exactly one meeting with Professor Berkovitch, who was a nice guy, near the end of the semester, and that was the course. He could see from the discussion that we had some knowledge of Miller’s development and were seriously interested in him, and he said we could forgo writing a paper, which, per the norm, was required in independent study courses. He gave all three of us a grade of B.

I have a whole collection of books by and about Miller (some of them rare) and some by and about his literary circle, but find it hard now to get back into him. I recently tried to read Crazy Cock, one of his early trial novels, but gave up after a few pages.

Another erotic book that I eventually became acquainted with was Lady Chatterly’s Lover. I knew of the book but hadn’t read it until my senior year in high school. That year I attended a Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) conference in some nearby town in Massachusetts and was staying over the weekend in someone’s house. There was a paperback copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover in my room and, during downtime on a Sunday morning, I read some of it.

I grew to like and admire D. H. Lawrence, but I like several of his other novels a lot more than Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Nevertheless, when I first read it (parts of it, that is, the “good parts”), I was favorably impressed. It was my first exposure to Lawrence. And, some of the sexual language and sexual descriptions were new to me. It gave me a desire for sex and got me thinking about it in more explicit terms. Yet, I knew it was not just a “dirty book.”

 

 

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Some comments about children’s and young adult literature, from my experience.

My exposure to such literature was through my mother. She had such good taste and read to me a lot. She chose splendid books for us. It was such a pleasure to be read to (in bed) by her because she enjoyed it so much herself, and, of course, my Mom was so warm and nurturing anyway.

How did she find the time to read to me? (It was always to me alone.)

One of our first books was Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. When The House at Pooh Corner, a sequel, came out, my mom was delighted and read that to me too. How I loved the nonsense rhymes of Pooh, the idiosyncracies of characters like Piglet and Eyore, and funny touches like the character who had a sign on his door, “knock if an answer is required, ring if an answer is not required.” My mother and I used to laugh out loud. I had such a warm and fuzzy feeling when she was reading to me.

 

 

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We had several wonderful books compiled by the children’s book editor Olive Beaupré Miller. These included a multi volume set, My Book House, and the book Nursery Friends from France. I especially liked the latter book, which my mother took great pleasure in reading to us from. It had wonderful color illustrations. It was a compilation of songs, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales.

 

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We had The Arabian Nights in a nice edition (which I still have). I particularly liked the story of Aladdin and his magic lamp.

In the second or third grade, I decided I wanted to read a real book. My parents had one on their bookshelf: The Flying Carpet by Richard Haliburton. It was a popular book by an aviator who flew around the world in the 1930’s. I “read” the whole book through, every page, but I did not (was incapable) understand it. But I was very proud to say that I had “read” a book.

There was a novel about gypsies that I read at that time. All throughout, I didn’t know what the word “gypsies” meant and couldn’t pronounce it.

The Book of Knowledge was an excellent encyclopedia for children. My father and mother bought a complete set from an encyclopedia salesman in around 1953. They were excited when the books arrived and I recall them opening the boxes. The encyclopedia had the usual articles and also literature. There was a story in it, “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde, that I loved. It made such an impression on me. It was so touching.

When I was around eight years old, I asked my father to explain baseball to me. He said, well, we have this new encyclopedia, that’s what we bought it for, so let’s do it the proper way. He turned to the article on baseball in The Book of Knowledge and began to explain the game to me. I recall that were diagrams showing the layout of the field and the positions. He might have explained the principle behind a force play, to give an example.

It was in the Agassiz School in Cambridge that I really began to read for myself, a lot. I loved being able to do it.

We were encouraged to read. In the front of the room, there was some kind of display on the top of the wall in colored paper which involved Indian headdresses and feathers. Kids’ names were on each headdress and you got another feather each time you completed a book. I was the leader. Most of the books I read, as I recall, were in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. They were popular biographies written especially for children that focused on the formative childhood years of the subjects. I loved those books. I recall reading the ones about Davy Crockett, Meriwether Lewis, Johnny Wanamaker, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth, among others. I remember anecdotes about Lou Gehrig growing up in Yorkville in Manhattan and fighting a neighborhood bully and about Babe Ruth (called George as a youth) attending the Christian Brothers school where Brother Matthias encouraged him in baseball; I seem to recall that Ruth as a a schoolboy had the difficult task of playing catcher as a lefthander for a spell.

At a fairly early age, I read the classic Black Beauty (originally published in 1877) by Anna Sewell. This book made a very strong impression me. Not long ago, as an adult, I purchased it as an audiobook and “read” it again. It is very well written.

The story is told in the first person by the horse, Black Beauty, who is the narrator. The novel recounts the story of Black Beauty’s life as it is experienced under a succession of different owners, or “masters.” Some of the owners are cruel.

All I recall from reading the book as a child, the impression the book made on me then was that Black Beauty’s life was one of unremitting misery: an unending progression from one cruel master to another, with the course of the horse’s life leading to an inevitable decline. This characterization is true of a lot of the plot, but not all of it, as it turns out. When I first read the book, though I was greatly impressed by it, it seemed to me unbearably sad and gloomy. That it undeniably is, in places, in the sections where the horse is overworked and mistreated. But why did this impression predominate with me? I think because that view of Black Beauty’s life jibed with my view of own life as a sad one in which I was often mistreated. The scenes in the book of this nature were the ones that stuck in my mind.

Much to my surprise, I discovered, when I listened to the audiobook later, as an adult, that the novel actually ends happily, with Black Beauty in good circumstances, and that in other sections of the book, Black Beauty does have good masters (in contrast to many sections of the book in which the horse is cruelly mistreated).

I started visiting the Cambridge Public Library children’s room when I was very young. My mother and father were very liberal about giving us independence and let me walk there myself after a certain age. It was sort of a long walk. I loved being able to find and take out my own books.

At the library at around this time (fifth grade), I borrowed a science fiction book the title of which I do not remember. The story was about people who were involved in time travel. There were two main parts to the book. In the first, the main character or characters traveled back in time to the Stone Age. They encountered two hostile groups, the Cro-Magnons and the Neandertals. The time traveler(s) were befriended by the wise Cro-Magnons, who helped them to escape perils. In the second part of the book, the time traveler(s) went forward in time, in a rocket ship, overcoming things like aging with the aid of Einsteinian physics. I was totally engrossed in this young adult novel.

I also read a Tarzan book — I think it was in the sixth grade. It involved a tribe of African warrior women who took men (or threatened to) as prisoners in their fortress. There was something titillating about this to me. Imagine being in the hands and under the power of an exotic woman!

There was a popular, respected series of history books for young readers, the Landmark Books. In the sixth grade, I read the one on Benjamin Franklin and loved it. Around that time, the animated Disney film Ben and Me, which I liked, was popular.

In the sixth grade, I read my first classic work of fiction, Oliver Twist. I can date this because I recall we were still living in Cambridge at the time. I don’t believe I finished it.

There is a key section in the novel where Oliver Twist, who had been forced to join the arch villain Fagin and his gang of boy pickpockets, escapes. He is taken in in a house where he is comfortable and protected. But then he looks out the window one day and there is Fagin peering in at him. Fagin has found out where Oliver is and gets him back. This scene really scared me.

Toby Tyler; or, Ten Weeks with a Circus, is a wonderful novel by James Otis. I read it when I was around 11 or 12. Toby runs away to join the circus. At the end of the book, his pet monkey, Mr. Stubbs, dies. It was such an incredibly sad scene. How it moved me!

Around this time (sixth grade), I had thoughts about becoming a forest ranger. I was a fan of Smokey the Bear. I think, in retrospect, that I may have been attracted to the career of forest ranger because I was a bit of a loner and the idea of a career with a lot of solitude appealed to me. Anyway, my parents gave me as a gift a young adult book about forest ranger careers.

 

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Also at this time, when we were still living in Cambridge, my parents gave me as a gift The Fireside Book of Baseball, an anthology, and later they gave me The Second Fireside Book of Baseball. I still have these books and treasure them.

These two anthologies were full of great baseball writing, from journalism to fiction. There was work by outstanding sportswriters, like W. C. Heinz’s “The Strange Career of Pistol Pete,” about Dodger outfielder Pete Reiser whose brilliant career ended abruptly due to injuries. There was a spellbinding story by Zane Grey, “The Redheaded Outfield,” which is lyrical and poetic.

There were wonderful photographs. One, for example, showed second basemen Bobby Avila and Red Schoendienst completing  double plays. Scheondienst is leaping over the runner at second base and leaning on the runner’s shoulders, draped over him, as he makes the throw to first. The photo made such an impression on me that I tried to reenact the play with a friend.

 

 

Bobby Avila doubleplay

 

 

 

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There were great editorial cartoons. One, for example, by Willard Mullin of the New York World-Telegram, was about the “phantom double play.” There was a depiction of an infielder pirouetting around second base like a ballet dancer while making the throw to first and neglecting to put his foot on the bag. The caption read, “The double play is a thing of real beauty. …  Let’s not cheapen it with the phantom phonies.” See my post at
https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/10/18/the-phantom-double-play/

I spent hours with the Fireside books and derived great pleasure from them.

When I was about 11, I started reading young adult sports fiction, mostly about baseball, though I do remember reading one about sandlot football players. The books would frequently have a moral. For example, I read one which concludes with the protagonist, in a key game, admitting to the umpire, who had called him safe, that he was really out. The protagonist gains in moral stature.

Around this time, I read a series of baseball books for young adults by Duane Decker, the Blue Sox series, about a fictional professional baseball team.

 

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I also read the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley and enjoyed them very much.

When I was around 12, we had a dog, Missy, a shepherd collie who had puppies and who died suddenly and tragically, devastating me; I was so devoted to her.

 

 

Missy ca. 1958

 

There was an excellent series of factual, how to books for young adults published by Random House, the All-About Books. I read the one on dogs, avidly and studiously. The different sections (topics) would always have a subsection: if you have a dog in the city. I wondered what that would be like.

There was a lot of material, as would be expected, on how to care for your dog. There was also a lot of information about the different breeds. I became expert at identifying them.

 

 

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Some additional items from my childhood and young adult reading.

“Little Black Sambo.” This is story which we took delight in that my Mom would read to us:

The Story of Little Black Sambo is a children’s book written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman, and first published by Grant Richards [who, by the way, was an editor for Theodore Dreiser] in October 1899 as one in a series of small-format books called The Dumpy Books for Children. The story was a children’s favorite for more than half a century though criticism began as early as 1932. The word sambo was deemed a racial slur in some countries and the illustrations considered reminiscent of “darky iconography.” Both text and illustrations have undergone considerable revision since. (Wikipedia)

The Story of Little Black Sambo is a simple, illustrated children’s story about a young Indian boy who outsmarts four tigers that threaten to eat him. After Sambo saves himself by giving each tiger an article of his gaudy outfit, the tigers argue among themselves over which of them is the grandest. Eventually, the tigers chase each other around a tree so fast that they simply blur into butter, which Sambo takes home and uses on 169 pancakes that his mother, Black Mumbo, makes for him. (from a plot summary on another website)

I recall there was something about pancakes. My mother liked pancakes. She often made them for us.

Uncle Wiggily was a series of children’s books by Howard R. Garris. My mom introduced us to them. I loved them.

Uncle Wiggily is an elderly, avuncular rabbit who wears spectacles, and there are a lot of other animal characters. The books are lighthearted and fun. The color illustrations were superb.

Make Way for Ducklings is a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey. It was my  mother (you guessed it) who introduced us to the book. The story is about a duck family led by a mother duck that walks around Boston. They wind up at the Boston Common and ride on the swan boats. The plot is simple and charming; the black and white illustrations are superb (very realistic but simple and just right for children). The book won the 1942 Caldecott Medal for McCloskey’s illustrations.

The book was excellent in every respect, but what made it particularly enjoyable was that it was set in Boston and ends with the ducklings on the Boston Common. I used to love to go to the Boston Common and loved the swan boats.

Babar the Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff. My mother purchased Babar and read it to me numerous times. I was absolutely charmed by it. The color illustrations were wonderful. My Mom loved Babar too, naturally.

Dr. Seuss. These books were a kind of late discovery in my elementary school years. My mother introduced me to them, I believe. The ones I liked were The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and Scrambled Eggs Super! Many of his most famous classics hadn’t come out yet.

 

 

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Some of my other favorite boyhood reading.

The short story “Alibi Ike” by Ring Lardner. It was in the Fireside Book of Baseball, which I have discussed above.

“Alibi Ike” is a gem of a story. I believe it is one of the best short stories ever written. It is told in the first person by an illiterate baseball player, one of Alibi Ike’s teammates. (Ring Lardner was a sports columnist.) The tone of the story is pitch perfect, and it has an irresistible narrative flow. It ends with the memorable words (spoken by Alibi Ike) “they claim it helps a cold.” (One has to read the story to know why this is a perfect ending.)

When I was a sophomore in high school, I wrote a short story that I modeled closely on “Alibi Ike,” writing in the same run-on narrative style. It was about a one armed pitcher. Our teacher let me read part of it to the class. They liked it.

Also in the anthology The Fireside Book of Baseball there was an excerpt from Mark Harris’s novel The Southpaw. It’s a baseball novel, written, as is “Alibi Ike,” in the first person. The narrator, Henry Wiggen, is a star rookie pitcher for the New York Mammoths, a team modeled on the Yankees. The narrative style, the prose, the rhythm and pacing are, again, infectious. Harris invents a whole team, and in an appendix there is a roster. There is a lot of humor. The first baseman on the fictional team, the Mammoths, is Sid Goldman (modeled on Hank Greenberg?), who is Jewish. The main character, Henry Wiggen, gets invited to the Goldman family home in the Bronx for dinner. He eats strange (for him) Jewish food such as what he calls “filter fish.”

There are two or three sequels that Harris wrote to The Southpaw. Recently, I tried to read one or two, but didn’t find them nearly as good.

 

 

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A final comment about reading. It goes without saying how pleasurable and profitable it can be. How you can do it anytime, anywhere at little expense. (I think that books at current prices are still a great bargain.) How great it is to curl up with a book and how it is something you can always resort to when you are lonely or can’t sleep.

I think that to love reading, you have to begin by doing it because of intrinsic interest in the topic and because you are anticipating pleasure, not because you regard it as a duty. You should read whatever you like to; it could be books about sports, entertainment figures, lowbrow fiction, whatever you really and truly want to read.

Whenever (and this comment pertains mainly to classics) you are restricted to encountering good books only as school assignments, when that’s the only place where you encounter them, the game is lost. If you think that classic books are those that you are required to analyze and write essay exam questions on, and nothing more, you will probably not enjoy them in later life. My counsel to all readers, especially young ones, is read whatever you want to read, as much as you can. Seek a level where you have a genuine interest and read at that level. An interest in the best books will often follow.

I am very appreciative that my parents established a sound foundation for enjoyment of reading. They communicated it naturally, like one might convey to one’s offspring an enthusiasm for sports. Reading was seldom a chore for me, and only then, infrequently, from assignments in school. Good literature was something I came to appreciate naturally, while at the same time feeling I could read whatever I liked. I was able to develop my own interests this way, like reading baseball books, for example. I developed highbrow tastes gradually, without being aware that I was doing so.

 


— Roger W. Smith,

   August 2015