(Crisis Magazine) The Common Corers get things exactly backwards. You do not read The Wind in the Willows so that you can gain some utilitarian skill for handling “text.” If anything, we want our children to gain a little bit of linguistic maturity so that they can read The Wind in the Willows. That is the aim. I want my college students to read Milton so that they can enter the world that Milton holds forth for us. I show them some of his techniques as an artist, since they’re mature enough to appreciate them, but not so that they can reduce the poem to an exercise in rhetoric. I show them those techniques so that they may understand and cherish the poem all the more. I want them to become “friends” with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I want them to climb with Dante and Virgil the glorious mountain of Purgatory. I want them to stand heart to heart with the Geats as they watch the flames devour the body of their deceased king Beowulf.
Those are the important things, the permanent things. If you are not reading The Wind in the Willows as Theodore and Edith Roosevelt and their children were reading it, then you should not read it at all. If you are turning Tom Sawyer into a linguistic exercise with a veneer of intellectual sophistication, then you should not read Tom Sawyer—in fact, you cannot have understood a blessed thing about Tom Sawyer. If you are reading The Jungle Book for any other reason than to enter the jungle with Mowgli, Bagheera, and Baloo, then you had best stay out of the world of art, keep to your little cubbyhole, cram yourself with pointless exercises preparatory for the SAT, a job at Microsoft, creature comforts, old age, and death.