Many years ago I went to a reading at the New York Public Library by the winners of the National Book Awards: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. It was E. Annie Proulx, Gore Vidal, and A. R. Ammons (a motley crew). Proulx and Ammons read from their work, but Vidal just sort of…talked. And talked. And talked. He was smart and funny, a bit crazy, and very wide-ranging. It was not like reading Myra Breckenridge.
One of the things he said was that the way to avoid all the culture debates (it was at the tail end of a particularly bloody phase of the culture wars, with lots of angst about political correctness etc.) was to teach kids world history and let the culture come from that. You would start in Mesopotamia or whatever, then follow along with ancient Asian cultures, and move on through time, teaching history—and, I guess, whatever fiction/poetry/plays/writings along the way.
Like most extremely large ideas, it got a bit hazy if you looked at it closely. It was really more a gesture towards an idea than an actual fully articulated idea (with thanks to the brilliant Emily Fisher for that distinction). Whose record of history would you believe, for instance? And what would you do about history that moved across cultures, or about cultures without a written history or culture of their own?
But there was something really great about it, too. I was thinking of this when Diana started to get heavily into mythology. I mean, way past D'Aulaires, into Edith Hamilton, into this:
And books of Egyptian mythology, and a really kick-ass set of cartoon books about the sacred Hindu Gods. She's gotten so well-versed that I can ask her, "Is Christianity the only religion that has a God-who-dies story?" and she can come back with, "Well, there's an Egyptian God who dies and and is cut up into a million little pieces. Hmm, let me think," and I get to have one of those moments when you're having a truly fascinating conversation with your kid, rather than trying to follow the arcana of the Sinoh region without crying (be grateful if you don't get this reference). Besides, the stories are amazing and interesting, it's not exactly fiction for
those kids who hate novels, and it's really crazy and grisly and
shocking—who doesn't love that?
And I think it's important in other ways, too. It gives you a real sense that there are other places in this world, places where they have their own stories. And maybe (I know this won't really work because life isn't quite how it should be) if kids grow up having a sense of a larger world in which they are one small piece, they won't freak out in panic over other people's religion's and places of worship and…you know.
Maybe? But then that would mean Gore Vidal was right. Which is sort of too strange to contemplate.
Any wonderful mythology books you have to recommend? Put them in the comments.