By Norman Knight
Becky and I have reserved an entire section of a bookcase with our grandkids in mind. We have filled four shelves to overflowing with everything from large picture books for toddlers to young adult novels. Before the first one was born — heck, long before we even knew each other — we both must have had an inkling that our book collections would someday be enjoyed by younger others. It is our gift to a future generation.
Some of the books were printed before I was born. Recently, while browsing the shelves, my eyes rested on a hardcover copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The copyright page reveals this edition was printed in 1948. I am not exactly sure how this book came into my possession, but it was likely saved by an adult with an idea that some future child would read it.
I remember reading “Tom Sawyer” in elementary school, and I think I started “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” a little later on, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t finish it. Even if I had, the only images of the story I carry probably come from cultural references — a raft floating down the Mississippi; a poor boy and a runaway slave — rather than the actual pages of the book. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is considered a book for younger readers, but like the best children’s books, it can be read on an adult level. I decided I would take the novel from the shelf and give it another go.
I am glad I did. It is a entertaining and engrossing tale of a boy who decides to run away from his abusive drunken father Pap as well as from the confining small town where he lives. He befriends a runaway slave named Jim and they start their journey through the pre-Civil War South on a raft down the Mississippi. It is full of just the sort of adventures I loved as a kid. I guess I should have stuck with it when I was younger. Then again, reading it now as an adult has its own rewards.
As I float down the river with Huck and Jim, I learn once again how much of a struggle life was for most people back then. I watch as Huck avoids Pap’s angry fists. I consider the rapscallions and frauds who prey on the poor, ignorant river folk. I am reminded that in those days, as for most of the history of the world, humanity’s primary need was to find enough to eat. I read and understand that these same struggles are with us still today.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has its critics. Much of the contemporary criticism has to do with Twain’s use of the N-word. It’s there, all right, and it is shocking to read it on the printed page. To me, the fact that I am shocked shows the change our society has achieved in making the word forbidden. I am speaking as a former English teacher who is white and middle-class, but the book is a product of a different time and should be accepted as such. I believe we should be wary of what some call the “Arrogance of the Now” when it comes to cultural matters.
As I took the book off the shelf, I half-remembered a quote by C.S. Lewis—who was no slouch when it came to writing children’s books adults could read. I looked it up: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one until you have read an old one in between.” He makes the point that an historical perspective is a value that contemporary literature can’t give. “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.”
Old books offer the voice of the past, perhaps a different take on things.
It took me about 50 years, but I finally finished “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” I am already thinking of the next old book I should have read when I was young.
Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to email@example.com.