From toad hall to the book of psalms

As the summer reading season peaks, debates abound over what books serve the soul best. The answer, many argue, depends on the age of the reader

Barbara Kay, National Post  Published: Wednesday, August 12, 2009

In an ongoing series -- Four, Fourteen, Forty, Forever -- National Post contributors weigh in on the best books to read to young children, to nourish one's intellect during the formative teenage years, to sustain readers in middle age, and to provide succor in life's final stages.


As the Sesame Street song goes, "one of these things is not like the other." Only three of the four temporal benchmarks in this series -- early childhood, adolescence and old age -- present challenges common to Everyman.

Every child must venture from home to negotiate a timid path into the world. All adolescents are plunged into a common hormonal and social maelstrom en route to autonomy. The aged are preoccupied with "the distinguished thing," as novelist Henry James termed death. So I found it relatively easy to choose books with universal relevance in those categories.

The great middle swathe of life, though, is individuated: by disparate luck, resources, domestic commitments (or lack thereof), as well as by the fruits of consciously applied values (or vices). Mid-life's themes and challenges are unique to each man and woman. No one book could speak to everyone. So for mid-life I offer an author who speaks to me, and a genre that may speak to others.


Anthropomorphized animals, a literary staple since Aesop, teach children about themselves and their relationships with others. Wind in the Willows is a classic, and it's hard to imagine any child resisting the adventures of Mole, Rat, Badger and Mr. Toad.

At its core, the book is about the primordial sweetness of "home," whether home is a community-oriented water rat's hole in the riverbank, a loner mole's sunless underground bunker or a toad's eccentric's mansion. Home becomes most precious, though, when we leave it, as these creatures do, yearn for it and suffer in finding our way back to it.

Home's hospitality must be extended to those in need --Badger exemplifies this principle when Rat and Mole need succour --and home cannot be neglected, or we may lose it.

Neglected Toad Hall is overrun by the evil Stoats and Weasels. Only courage, ingenuity and the loyalty of one's friends can drive them out. In the process, the arrogant Mr. Toad learns humility, and the others, having been initiated into the world's sometimes frightening realities, achieve self-confidence. By the end, they have gained a deeper appreciation for their humble homes, and for their friends. Valuable character lessons here.


Western adolescence is now an extended period of solipsism, naivete and ignorance of the evils lurking outside our anomalously privileged historical bubble. Now is the right time to impress on young minds the vulnerability of individual freedoms and democracy when idealism cedes power to an unaccountable elite.

The meaning behind George Orwell's allegorical novel Animal Farm is accessible to even the dimmest navel-gazing teen. The riveting narrative of a prosperous English farm's devolution into ruin illuminates the paving stones leading from the unrealistic dream of "equality" to the hell of totalitarianism.

Animal Farm will never grow stale. Although all the animal characters are well drawn, Boxer, the self-sacrificing draft horse, stands out as the epitome of a simple idealist's abused innocence: The feeble thud of those hooves against the walls of the knacker's van remains, for me, one of literary history's most haunting political wake-up calls.


For most people in middle age, life is fragmented and intensely demanding. If you haven't already read War and Peace or

Ulysses, you're unlikely to during this crowded stage of life. Now is a good time to seek out a realistic cultural observer, and an advocate for "the best that has been thought and known in the world": that is, a writer who helps you separate the wheat of mature decision-making from the ubiquitous cultural chaff of immature fads.

A good example of such a suitable vade mecum is In a Cardboard Belt, the most recently published compendium of essays by American writer Joseph Epstein. Epstein is one of the few reigning masters in this increasingly niche genre, a worthy successor to Addison and Steele, William Hazlitt and George Orwell.

Although he has published in many other genres, Epstein is best known for the 92 "familiar essays" written during his 23-year stint as editor of The American Scholar, an elite cultural quarterly.

Epstein says, "the trick with these essays is to take what seems a small or mildly amusing subject and open it up, allow it to exfoliate, so that by the end something arises that might be larger and more intricate than anyone -- including the author --had expected."

There's no "might be" about it. Epstein's great subject is individual and cultural maturity, a quality he himself projects in a calmly assured, emotionally streamlined prose style that radiates acute social intelligence. Epstein is my go-to guy for classically straightforward literary enlightenment and cultural insight. In his humility (not to be confused with self-effacement) and unpretentiousness, he restores dignity to the now-tarnished word "intellectual." Critic Terry Teachout spoke for me when he said, "I envy Joseph Epstein, who writes exactly the pieces I wish I'd written in exactly the way I wish I'd written them."


Months before this series was a gleam in my editor's eye, and without any obvious motivation, I had impulsively ordered Robert Alter's new translation of the Book of Psalms.

I now wonder if the ancestral tug from the dawn of Western civilization this purchase represents is a harbinger of the detachment from worldly concerns old age will (hopefully) bestow on me. Perhaps I am already preparing for the arrival of the "distinguished thing" by reading the same supplications my forebears and many Christians have sought out for comfort and courage-building since the 10th century BCE.

Robert Alter ranks high as a literary critic of English literature in general, but in his role of English-language critic and translator of sacred Hebrew literature he is uniquely eminent. This rendition of the psalms reflects the meticulous philological fidelity Alter brings to all his translations from ancient Hebrew, a language over which he exercises absolute command. Probably only Robert Alter could note with offhand confidence, for example, that in Psalm 42 -- "As a deer yearns for streams of water, so I yearn for You, O God" -- arag, the Hebrew for "yearns," appears just twice in the whole Biblical corpus.

The abstract-strewn King James translation having been the default for so long, it is a jolt to return to the strict physicality of the Hebrew that Alter demands. For example, the word nefesh ( "soul" in the King James), Alter renders as "[physical] being." And hoshi'a, the root of yeshu'a, the word commonly translated as "salvation," reverts here to its original meaning of physical "rescue," as in "get out of a fix." Alter's aim is to preserve the urgency of the man-God relationship, but "not in the kind of theological theatre that has conventionally been assumed."

On the one hand Alter's minimalist translation suits my non-eschatological spiritual outlook. On the other hand, the King James impulse-- "the waters are come in unto my soul" -- however philologically impure, I must confess, speaks in a more seductive voice than the literal "for the waters have come up to my neck."

In whatever version, though, the psalms, too, will never grow stale. They speak to the yearning in every human heart that our lives should not have been lived in vain. To that aspiration, at any age, Amen.