Guest post by Marica
Before I begin my review of Being a Boy, I’d like to thank Books of Brilliance for the opportunity to share this classic book with you here at Books of Brilliance. I am partial to older books because I think we can learn a lot from them. Certainly the language and culture have changed, and that’s to be expected, but that doesn’t make the underlying story any less charming or instructive.
A few years ago I blogged about the book, excerpting passages from each of the chapters with little extraneous commentary. I thought the passages spoke for themselves. I’ve collected clips and links to the posts on a single page on my blog if you’re inclined to skim through this wonderful old book.
Book Review: Being a Boy
Being a Boy (1878) is a collection of essays by (then) renown 19th century essayist and novelist, Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900). His style in these and other collections (most notably My Summer in a Garden) is a delicate synthesis of country charm and urbane wit directed at the most unremarkable subjects– in this case, what it was like to be John, a New England farm boy in the mid-1800s.
“One of the best things in the world to be is a boy.” And indeed, though 19 chapters, progressing loosely over a calendar year, Warner shows us that this is so. Told in the third person, but clearly a recollection of Warner’s own youth, we learn why there could not be farming at all without a boy, about the grindstone of life– that is, the stone the boy is tasked to turn by hand to grind scythes– and we are asked to consider “the feeling of a boy towards pumpkin pie.” Over these months of reflections on school and church life, old men and dogs, and a terrifying encounter with a woodchuck, John the boy is growing up.
I’ll start with a caveat. If you aren’t used to reading prose from the mid- to late-19th century, you may need to slow your reading down a bit to allow your eyes to acclimate to the sentence construction (lots of semi-colons), and your inner ear to become accustom to the style. You’ll be glad you did!
One of the benefits of reading the old books, in addition to tuning up your ear, is coming to learn the universality of… well, life. Being a Boy is 140+ years old, but a kid is still a kid. People still gossip and so do dogs (in their own way– a hilarious observation). Folks’ feelings are still hurt and they still shake their fists and recover. And they still are embarrassed, blush, and get on about the business of enjoying themselves.
If I have one serious criticism about this book, it is that the final chapter should not have been included in the essay collection. It is completely out of the book’s character and could have been omitted.
A favorite quote of mine from The Book of Knowledge (1954; a children’s encyclopedia) is this:
For books that take hold of our affections slowly have a way of becoming lifelong friends.
That’s the sentiment I attach to Being a Boy. Not everyone is going to enjoy it, but if you do, you’ll come back to it time and again just to drift back to the olden days, and maybe conjure up some memories of when you were a kid.
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