Tuesday, January 10, 2012

{Dear Will} The Story of Mankind (1922)

Dear Will,

You are eleven months old, a very busy eleven-month old. Everyday I am more and more proud of you and your sweet smile. This evening I held you in the rocker after we read Goodnight, Moon. I sang to you the same song I've been singing since you were a few days old. You turned your head and leaned it against my chest, ear pressed to my heart. With one hand grasping tight to lovey and the other hand stroking my cheek, you cooed back to me while I sang. I saw your eyes closing and felt your body relax and watched as you drifted off to sleep with a grin on your face.

In less than a month you will be a year old, and to stop and think about how much you have grown is absolutely astounding. To stop and think about how much I have evolved as a parent is absolutely mind-blowing. Over the course of the last year I have found places in my heart, mind, and soul that I had never visited before. When you came into my life, I entered into my own life too. The evolution of a person into a parent is a mysterious and glorious process.

This is where my thoughts came back to our first book, The Story of Mankind. It is a story, a tale about the evolution of our species from early land-seeking fish, who first pushed legs through their scaly bodies and willed their lungs to breathe air, through the advent of cities and the great ancient civilizations, to the destructiveness of the modern world with its factories, machines, and warfare.

I honestly have mixed feelings about this book. At first, I was mesmerized by the opening scene of a boy climbing through dark, cramped passages to arrive at a bell tower where he could see across land and time to take in the story of man for himself. Reading the author's simple explanation of how humans evolved from single-celled organisms to the upright, intelligent mammal we are today provided me a piece of my own history. I shook my head at the warring Semite tribes, wondered about the inventiveness of the Greeks, jealous at their simplistic lifestyle, and scoffed at the arrogance of the Roman emperors. As I grew increasingly dissatisfied with the self-centered, prideful, racist, ethnocentric, greedy modern man, I also became dissatisfied with the book itself.

I have a confession to make before I go on: I did not read the book in its entirety. Someday, I will hound you to finish your reading assignments for school, but dear Will, please stop me if I ever try to force you to finish a book that you pick up for the pleasure of reading alone and then choose to abandon it. Not every book is a match for every reader. The Story of Mankind, did feel (some of the time) like a favorite uncle, walking with me through a great field, pointing out the intricacies of the plants and animals around us. But about half-way through there were just so many events, names, and stories that I did not find it pleasurable. So, I selectively read the rest of the book.

It is a proper- although odd- book to begin my journey as it is an example of how even man's own literature evolves with the needs and spheres of which man concerns himself. In the 1920's, when the author first published it, The Story of Mankind, must have appealed to its main audience: academic, anglo-saxon young adults and librarians of a privileged class. For me, however, a thirty-something, middle-class woman, it did not. And, for a book that won an award that honors books for children, it was sadly lacking in children (or women) itself...

It did however, provide me with some ideas regarding our species that I would like to share with you:

There is a great, looming question regarding history: does history truly repeat itself? Van Loon clearly answers this question with a resounding, "yes!" It is this assumption that compels him to write of the "mighty Tower of Experience, which Time has built amidst the endless fields of bygone ages."

On a personal level, I have to agree with him. To truly understand your own history: that is the power of experience and reflection that enables us to face our problems, big and small, and say with all of the confidence we can muster, "this is who I am." And, where our pasts do not always dictate our future, they do act as guideposts for what's to come.

Another question we tend to ponder over, quite a bit actually, is, "What is the true nature of man?" The Story of Mankind paints a paradoxical image of man. On one end, we have the ancient Greeks, who "before everything else, wanted to be "free," both in mind and in body. That they might maintain their liberty, and be truly free in spirit...." This is in comparison to the other races of ancient man (although they sound more modern than ancient to me), who worship "'Things,' chairs and tables and books and houses and carriages.... In the end they [things] invariably make him their slave and his hours are spent looking after their wants, keeping them polished and brushed and painted."

Oh, William. No matter how much I would like to call myself "Greek," you cannot begin to imagine how much time I spend polishing, brushing, and painting; therefore, I am apt to believe that most of us lie somewhere in the "in between," ever striving to be free. After all, this quest for freedom paradoxically destroys and builds nations.

My warning to you is to be ever wary of a "Roman," who built his happiness upon "millions upon millions of poor and tired human beings, toiling like ants who have built a nest underneath a heavy stone. They worked for the benefit of some one else. They shared their food with the animals of the fields. They lived in stables. They died without hope." Happiness is not happiness at the expense of another human being's freedom, dignity, or hope.

So things may not have changed that much over the millennia. Our author would have us think differently warning, "that you will not pay much attention to such talk. You see, it took our ancestors almost a million years to learn how to walk on their hind legs. Other centuries had to go by before their animal -like grunts developed into an understandable language. Writing--the art of preserving our ideas for the benefit of future generatiosn, without which no progress is possible was invented only four thousand years ago."

We begin at the end--a story about the stories of men, with, perhaps the greatest Divine gift, we as a species were allowed. Writing. Perhaps the ancients got it wrong; it was not fire that Prometheus gifted to us poor, helpless creatures. It was the power of language, of ideas, of writing, that not only lifts us up above the animals and sets us apart but can consequently lead to our downfall.

And finally, the author ends his work with these words:

``The more I think of the problems of our lives, the more I am ``persuaded that we ought to choose Irony and Pity for our ``assessors and judges as the ancient Egyptians called upon ``the Goddess Isis and the Goddess Nephtys on behalf of their ``dead.

``Irony and Pity are both of good counsel; the first with her ``smiles makes life agreeable; the other sanctifies it with her ``tears.
``The Irony which I invoke is no cruel Deity. She mocks ``neither love nor beauty. She is gentle and kindly disposed. ``Her mirth disarms and it is she who teaches us to laugh at ``rogues and fools, whom but for her we might be so weak as ``to despise and hate.''

And with these wise words of a very great Frenchman I bid you farewell.

And so, dear Will, I will end this letter with a reminder to walk with pity in your heart and deny cruelty to your fellow man.

All my love,



  1. I wanted to put this comment on your 'about me' page, but didn't see a comment button there. You said reading to Will was bringing you back to reading.

    I'm a book lover, and 9 years ago was the mom of a baby. I have so many recommendations: Baby Dance, by Marjorie van Heerden, is my absolute favorite. You probably already know Jamberry, by Bruce Degan. Hush Little Baby, by Sylvia Long. Niccolini’s Song, by Chuck Wilcoxen. Beastly Babies, by Jane Wattenberg. Peek-A-Who, by Nina Laden. And (in my own discipline, math) Quack & Count, by Keith Baker. Niccolini's Song is the only one I don't have in board book format. I think these will all appeal to a very young child.

  2. Wow, Sue! Thanks for the recommendations. Mr. Will has a big birthday coming up, and I'm thinking he is in need of some biblio-love!