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Cary Brunswick

May 5, 2012

Some wisdom is best passed down through books

"Just what should a young man or woman know in order to be "in the know"? Is there, in other words, some inside information, some special taboo, some real lowdown on life and existence that most parents and teachers either don't know or won't tell?

"What, then, would be The Book which fathers might slip to their sons and mothers to their daughters, without ever admitting it openly?"

-- Alan W. Watts, "The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are"

I was visiting a friend out-of-town recently and the subject of providing a "reading list" to young people came up in conversation. He said years ago he had asked a respected acquaintance in Oneonta to compile such a list for his teenage daughter, to help her be better prepared for life, culture, education, politics and people.

When my daughters were teenagers, also years ago now, I had wanted to do something similar and recalled reading the Alan W. Watts book mentioned above when I was coming of age.

Of course, I didn't believe there was a conspiracy involved in keeping the "lowdown" away from young people, but I still thought parents and elders could do more to help prepare teens for the worldly lives they were quickly embarking upon.

In "The Book," published in the early 1960s, Watts had no trouble defining the problems that civilization was facing. "We may blow up the planet with nuclear bombs, strangle ourselves with overpopulation, destroy our natural resources through poor conservation, or ruin the soil and its products with improperly understood chemicals and pesticides," he wrote.

But rather than responding to this "extremely dangerous situation" through political struggle or revolution, he concluded that the problem was the attitudes people had toward the environment, other people and life in general. For a solution, he turned to eastern religions to help us change the way we feel and experience the world -- and ourselves.

OK, fine. So I decided early on that I would give copies of "The Book" to my daughters when they turned 16. Then, I figured, they could decide for themselves if there were a taboo about knowing who they really were and an ignorance in the way they experienced the world.

Well, needless to say, the 1990s were not the 1960s, so neither of them finished reading "The Book" and probably thought I was "out there" for even giving them copies.

That's why I believe a "reading list" is a much better idea. If I could do it again, I would offer my children a list of five or 10 books to assist their understanding of life rather than one book that they might find too far out.

Such a list would not necessarily include volumes you would want to be stranded with on a deserted island. It could be fiction, poetry, memoir, nonfiction and history that you believe would be important for young persons to read before going off to find themselves, to live their lives -- whether that be in college, at work, in travel or you name it.

If, indeed, I could do it again, I would want five books from different time periods that presented life also from different cultural perspectives. And, as a product of the '60s, no doubt some still would be viewed as too "out there."

Desiring to keep "The Book" on the list, I would supplement it with "Siddhartha" by Hermann Hesse, which is a short novel, published in Germany in 1919 and set in India, that would put a human face and real-life drama to the theme encountered in Watts.

As a lesson in history and struggle from Depression-era America, I would have to put "The Grapes of Wrath," by John Steinbeck, on the list. However, with today's video generation, I would be willing to permit them to watch the Henry Fonda film version.

We all know the official American history learned in schoolbooks. As an antidote, I would have to find a place on the list for Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States."

Finally, I would have to go with -- what? -- Plato, Shakespeare, or a move to the 19th century for The Communist Manifesto or The Brothers Karamazov. Or perhaps a perspective on 20th century history with investigative journalist George Seldes' "Witness to a Century."

Keeping the list at five is not so easy; 10 would be better. But that's for another day.

How do you decide what's most important for a young person's education? Maybe we'll find out in future columns, when I ask some local people to share their "reading lists."

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at

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