Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book
Life Lessons from Notable People from All Walks of Life
By Anita Silvey
Roaring Brook Press Copyright © 2009 Anita Silvey
All rights reserved.
Today the challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before. For our everyday life is becoming so saturated with the tremendous power of mass communications that any unpopular or unorthodox course arouses a storm of protests such as John Quincy Adams — under attack in 1807 — could never have envisioned. Our political life is becoming so expensive, so mechanized and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men that the idealist who dreams of independent statesmanship is rudely awakened by the necessities of election and accomplishment.
And thus, in the days ahead, only the very courageous will be able to take the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for our survival in the struggle with a powerful enemy — an enemy with leaders who need give little thought to the popularity of their course, who need pay little tribute to the public opinion they themselves manipulate, and who may force, without fear of retaliation at the polls, their citizens to sacrifice present laughter for future glory. And only the very courageous will be able to keep alive the spirit of individualism and dissent which gave birth to this nation, nourished it as an infant and carried it through its severest tests upon the attainment of its maturity.
We shall need compromises in the days ahead, to be sure. But these will be, or should be, compromises of issues, not of principles. Compromises need not mean cowardice. Indeed it is frequently the compromisers and conciliators who are faced with the severest tests of political courage as they oppose the extremist views of their constituents. It was because Daniel Webster conscientiously favored compromise in 1850 that he earned a condemnation unsurpassed in the annals of political history.
His is a story worth remembering today. So, I believe, are the stories of the other Senators of courage — men whose abiding loyalty to their nations triumphed over all personal and political considerations, men who showed the real meaning of courage and a real faith in democracy, men who made the Senate of the United States something more than a mere collection of robots dutifully recording the views of their constituents, or a gathering of time-servers skilled only in predicting and following the tides of public sentiment. Whatever their differences, the American politicians whose stories are here retold shared that one heroic quality — courage. In the pages that follow, I have attempted to set forth their lives — the ideals they lived for and the principles they fought for, their virtues and their sins, their dreams and their disillusionments, the praise they earned and the abuse they endured. All this may be set down on the printed page. It is ours to write about, it is ours to read about. But there was in the lives of each of these men something that it is difficult for the printed page to capture — and yet something that has reached the homes and enriched the heritage of every citizen in every part of the land.
The courage to stand up for my beliefs and the courage to write
PROFILES IN COURAGE, YOUNG READERS MEMORIAL EDITION
by John F. Kennedy
Over the years many popular works of adult nonfiction have been successfully adapted for a younger readership and issued in a young people's version. Recently both James Bradley's Flags of Our Fathers and Nathaniel Philbrick's in the Heart of the Sea (called Revenge of the Whale) were streamlined to create compelling narratives for a younger audience. John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage was released in a Young Readers Edition, which contained illustrations by Emil Weiss. Kennedy himself wrote an introduction to the volume, describing his book as one "about politicians who were failures." But, of course, the book also shows the principles and ideals of the historical figures Kennedy brings so vividly to life — John Quincy Adams, Thomas Hart Benton, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, Edmund G. Ross, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, George Norris, and Robert A. Taft.
Profiles in Courage, either in the original or the Young Readers Edition, shaped a generation in the 1960s who were becoming adults. Just as Kennedy attracted young voters to his side in his race for the presidency, he delivered a message in this book that fit into the moral vision and idealism of teenagers. Critic and children's book historian Leonard S. Marcus found this book in 1961 .
The first book I recall asking my parents for was the Young Readers Edition of John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. Harper & Brothers released the illustrated, abridged edition of the Pulitzer Prize winner in January of 1961, in time for the presidential inauguration, and I wanted a copy as soon as I heard about it. I was ten, and a history buff, and I had campaigned for Kennedy by distributing leaflets in my neighborhood. I had done so not at my parents' urging but because after studying the saucy caricatures of all the candidates on the cover of Mad, I had simply decided — as though it were the most obvious thing in the world to do — to get involved in the election and to throw my support behind JFK.
Profiles in Courage's idealistic message of sticking to principle regardless of the consequences appealed greatly to my ten-year-old sense of idealism and high purpose. Even more powerful for me than the theme of Kennedy's book, however, was the mere fact that the president of the United States had written it. The only other president I knew anything about from firsthand observation, Dwight Eisenhower, had been little more to me than a kindly, balding television grandfather figure. I now saw that a president could also be a vibrant young man, and (even better) that he could be a writer, too — just as I dreamed of being one day. When in his inaugural address President Kennedy declared that the "torch" had been "passed to a new generation," I was sure that he was talking about my generation as well as his own. As I grew older, the courage I continued to draw from his treasured book was equally the courage to stand up for my beliefs and the courage to write.
"The greater part of these dishes are unknown to you," he said to me. "However, you may partake of them without fear. They are wholesome and nourishing. For a long time I have renounced the food of the earth, and I am never ill now. My crew, who are healthy, are fed on the same food."
"So," said I, "all these eatables are the produce of the sea?"
"Yes, Professor, the sea supplies all my wants. Sometimes I cast my nets in tow, and I draw them in ready to break. Sometimes I hunt in the midst of this element, which appears to be inaccessible to man, and quarry the game which dwells in my submarine forests. My flocks, like those of Neptune's old shepherds, graze fearlessly in the immense prairies of the ocean. I have a vast property there, which I cultivate myself, and which is always sown by the hand of the Creator of all things."
"I can understand perfectly, sir, that your nets furnish excellent fish for your table; I can understand also that you hunt aquatic game in your submarine forests; but I cannot understand at all how a particle of meat, no matter how small, can figure in your bill of fare."
"This, which you believe to be meat, Professor, is nothing else than fillet of turtle. Here are also some dolphins' livers, which you take to be ragout of pork. My cook is a clever fellow, who excels in dressing these various products of the ocean. Taste all these dishees. Here is a preserve of sea-cucumber, which a Malay would declare to be unrivalled in the world; here is a cream, of which the milk has been furnished by the cetacea, and the sugar by the great fucus of the North Sea; and, lastly, permit me to offer you some preserve of anemones, which is equal to that of the most delicious fruits."
I tasted, more from curiosity than as a connoisseur, whilst Captain Nemo enchanted me with his extraordinary stories.
"You like the sea, Captain?"
"Yes; I love it! The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides. The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite,' as one of your poets has said. In fact, Professor, Nature manifests herself in it by her three kingdoms — mineral, vegetable, and animal. The sea is the vast reservoir of Nature. The globe began with sea, so to speak; and who knows if it will not end with it? In it is supreme tranquillity. The sea does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still exercise unjust laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and be carried away with terrestrial horrors. But at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears. Ah! sir, live — live in the bosom of the waters! There only is independence! There I recognize no masters! There I am free!"
Captain Nemo suddenly became silent in the midst of this enthusiasm, by which he was quite carried away. For a few moments he paced up and down, much agitated. Then he became more calm, regained his accustomed coldness of expression, and turning towards me: "Now, Professor," said he, "if you wish to go over the Nautilus, I am at your service."
All of us have dreams; all of us should try to live those dreams.
TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
by Jules Verne
Published in 1870, Jules Verne's science-fiction masterpiece Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea reads like one of the page-turning, plot-driven novels for children of the twenty-first century. If living, Verne might compare writing notes with J. K. Rowling.
Professor Aronnax of the Paris Museum of Natural History presents a first-person narrative of an amazing ten-month period in which he traveled twenty thousand leagues in the oceans of Earth. Setting out with an American crew to find a mythical narwhal that has been damaging ships, the professor discovers an entirely different universe. The monster is the Nautilus, the submarine of the enigmatic Captain Nemo. Taken on board with two other prisoners, the professor delights in living on this completely self-sustaining vessel. They observe sunken ships, retrieve treasures from the sea floor, walk on the bottom of the sea, battle giant squids, and even examine the lost continent of Atlantis. Part science, part thriller, the story revolves around the mounting tension as the prisoners seek to escape their captor.
Dr. Robert Ballard, who located the wreck of the Titanic, discovered Jules Verne, Captain Nemo, and his own obsession at the age of ten.
When I was about ten years old, my favorite book was Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. My hero was Captain Nemo. I wanted to be inside his ship, the Nautilus. He built his own submarine, using advanced technology. He was a technologist but also an adventurer. Through a giant window, he examined the sea.
I wanted to be an undersea explorer. Fortunately, when I told my parents, they didn't laugh at me. They actually encouraged me. They said, "Maybe you need to become an oceanographer, if you want to become a Captain Nemo." So I became an oceanographer. Then my parents said, "Maybe you need to become a naval officer," and I did.
What am I today? A high-tech, modern-day Captain Nemo. Absolutely no doubt about it. I'm doing now exactly what he was doing, what I wanted to do, after I read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. All kids have marvelous images of what they want to do. But then society often tells them they can't do it. I believe all of us have dreams; all of us should try to live those dreams.
The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us. His grey eyes shone and twinkled, and his unusually pale face was flushed and animated. The fire burned brightly, and the soft radiance of the incandescent lights in the lilies of silver caught the bubbles that flashed and passed in our glasses. Our chairs, being his patents, embraced and caressed us rather than submitted to be sat upon, and there was that luxurious after-dinner atmosphere when thought runs gracefully free of the trammels of precision. And he put it to us in this way — marking the points with a lean forefinger — as we sat and lazily admired his earnestness over this new paradox (as we thought it:) and his fecundity.
"You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted. The geometry, for instance, they taught you at school is founded on a misconception."
"Is not that rather a large thing to expect us to begin upon?" said Filby, an argumentative person with red hair.
"I do not mean to ask you to accept anything without reasonable ground for it. You will soon admit as much as I need from you. You know of course that a mathematical line, a line of thickness nil, has no real existence. They taught you that? Neither has a mathematical plane. These things are mere abstractions."
"That is all right," said the Psychologist.
"Nor, having only length, breadth, and thickness, can a cube have a real existence."
"There I object," said Filby. "Of course a solid body may exist. All real things — "
"So most people think. But wait a moment. Can an instantaneous cube exist?"
"Don't follow you," said Filby.
"Can a cube that does not last for any time at all, have a real existence?"
Filby became pensive. "Clearly," the Time Traveller proceeded, "any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and — Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives."
Inspiration that shaped my life
THE TIME MACHINE
by H. G. Wells
In 1895, with the publication of The Time Machine, a heretofore unknown journalist, Herbert George Wells, leapt into fame and fortune. After seven years of writing, he produced a short, novella-length manuscript, initially serialized in The New Review. For a public fascinated with the possibilities of science and mathematics, Wells's view of the future shocked their sensibilities. influenced by Darwin, Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and contemporary scientific inquiry, Wells crafted a story that initially makes the reader believe they are witnessing a utopian society — only to discover that it is actually a dystopian world.
In The Time Machine an unnamed scientist invents the means to travel in time. At the beginning, he alerts a group of gentlemen about his experiments; then placing himself in his time machine, he travels to the year 802,701. Here he finds a peaceful, pastoral community of the Eloi — lovely, childlike, and without aggression. But eventually, to his horror, he realizes they can live without working because toiling underground are the cannibal Morlocks that control the planet. Barely escaping the Morlocks, the time traveler catapults himself thirty million years into the future, only to witness the end of the Earth.
Adapted for movies, documentaries, even classic comics, The Time Machine, not intentionally written for children, has continued to intrigue adults and children alike. Currently several theoretical physicists believe time travel to be possible. The journey of one of these scientists, Dr. Ronald L. Mallett, Professor at the University of Connecticut, began when he read The Time Machine as a child. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book by Anita Silvey. Copyright © 2009 Anita Silvey. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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