Boys Will Be...
...pleased by this garden of earthly delights.
Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By ROGER KIMBALL
The Dangerous Book for Boys
I wouldn't be at all surprised if The Dangerous Book for Boys were banned by zealous school groups, social workers, and other moral busybodies. I first encountered this admirable work when it was published in London last year. I liked its retro look--the lettering and typography of the cover recalls an earlier, more swashbuckling era--and I thought at first it must be a reprint. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that a book containing instructions on how to make catapults, how to hunt and cook a rabbit, how to play poker, how to make a waterbomb, was published today, the high noon of nannydom.
The first chapter, "Essential Gear" ("Essential Kit" in the English edition), lists a Swiss Army knife, for God's sake, not to mention matches and a magnifying glass, "For general interest. Can also be used to start fires." Probably, the book would have to be checked with the rest of your luggage at the airport: If you can't bring a bottle of water on the airplane, how do you suppose a book advocating knives and incendiary devices is going to go over? Why, even the title is a provocation. The tort lawyers must be salivating over the word "dangerous," and I can only assume that the horrible grinding noise you hear is from Title IX fanatics congregating to protest the appearance of a book designed for the exclusive enjoyment of boys.
And speaking of "boys," have you noticed how unprogressive the word sounds in today's English? It is almost as retrograde as "girls," a word that I knew was on the way out when an academic couple I know proudly announced that they had just presented the world with a "baby woman."
No, I did not make that up, and even after due allowances are made for the fact that the couple were, after all, academics and therefore peculiarly susceptible to such p.c. deformations, it's clear that something fundamental is happening in our society. Some speak about the "feminization" of America and Europe. Scholars like Christina Hoff Sommers have reported on the "war against boys." A public school near where I live gets high marks for "academic excellence," but I note that they allow only 15 minutes of recess a day for kindergarteners and first graders. Result: By 2 P.M. the boys are ready to explode. That turns out to be a solvable problem, though, because a little Ritalin with the (whole grain) cornflakes does wonders to keep Johnny from acting up.
In a recent interview, Conn Iggulden, speaking about his collaboration with his brother in writing The Dangerous Book for Boys, dilated on this campaign against the boy-like side of boyhood. "They need to fall off things occasionally," Iggulden said, "or . . . they'll take worse risks on their own. If we do away with challenging playgrounds and cancel school trips for fear of being sued, we don't end up with safer boys--we end up with them walking on train tracks." Quite right. The Dangerous Book for Boys is alive with such salubrious challenges. Its epigraph, a 1903 letter from an army surgeon to the young Prince of Wales, advises, "The best motto for a long march is 'Don't grumble. Plug on.'" How antique that stiff-upper-lippery sounds to our ears!
The book includes instructions on making "The Greatest Paper Plane in the World." Did you know that many schools have outlawed paper airplanes? Might strike a child in the eye, don't you know. And of course, that's only the beginning of what many schools outlaw. The game of tag is verboten almost everywhere, a fact I learned this winter when our eight-year-old son fell and broke his elbow while playing the game. The final indignity came when, being down, he was tagged by the chap who was "it." Even that had its compensations, though, since James is looking forward to suspending his allegiance to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount and getting the fellow back when he fully recovers. Besides, although it hurts to break your arm, it is quite nifty to have your arm in a cast, especially if one of your heroes is Lord Nelson, to whom (or so one's parents assure one) you bear a strong resemblance when sporting a sling. Of course, I am sorry that James broke his arm, but I prefer his school's (unofficial) motto--"Better a broken bone than a broken spirit"--to the pusillanimous alternative.
Into the swamp-like miasma of contemporary life The Dangerous Book for Boys blows like a healing zephyr. Mark Twain once included a note about "the weather in this book," explaining that there wasn't any. There is a lot of weather in The Dangerous Book for Boys, and I do not just mean the sections devoted to cloud formations and such questions as Why is the Sky blue? What causes the wind? and Why is it hotter at the Equator? True, this book includes lots of indoor activities. You'll find out how to make a simple battery out of a bunch of quarters, aluminum foil, vinegar, and salt, for example, as well as how to make secret inks, fireproof cloth, and marbled paper. There's a section on timers and tripwires--"very simple to make--and deeply satisfying," the authors explain. Let's say you want a light bulb to turn on in 20 minutes "to win a bet perhaps, or frighten your little sister with the thought that a mad axe murderer is upstairs." Look no further: It's all here.
There's a section of useful quotations from Shakespeare, "Latin Phrases Every Boy Should Know," and "Books Every Boy Should Read" (this is one of them, though it's not on the list). There are several engaging sections on words and grammar. There are also two sections devoted to famous battles, from Thermopylae and Cannae up through Waterloo, Gettysburg, and the Somme. If you want a quick timeline of U.S. history, it's here. So is information about "the golden age of piracy," spies, codes, and ciphers, as well as coin tricks, dog tricks, and first aid. There's also--uh-oh: p.c. alert!--a chapter on the history of artillery.
Still, this is essentially an outdoor book. Not that it deals chiefly with outdoor subjects, though it has splendid advice about building treehouses, fishing, and growing sunflowers (and I suppose artillery is, usually, a subject best pursued outside). Rather, it understands that boys and the outdoors go together like a hammer and nails. It is sympathetic to dirt and looks kindly upon rocks, bugs, snakes, and woodpiles. It is a book, in other words, that approves of derring-do and the testosterone that fires it. This is clear in the informative chapter devoted to the mysterious subject of Girls who, many feminists will be surprised to discover, are "quite different" from boys. By this, the authors explain:
In fact, the chapter on girls is full of good advice. Here are two bits: 1. "Play a sport of some kind," they advise. "It doesn't matter what it is, as long as it replaces the corpse-like pallor of the computer programmer with a ruddy glow." 2. "If you see a girl in need of help--unable to lift something, for example--do not taunt her. Approach the object and greet her with a cheerful smile, whilst surreptitiously testing the weight of the object. If you find you can lift it, go ahead. If you can't, try sitting on it and engaging her in conversation." Ovid couldn't have put it any better. (His advice about girls is to be found in a book for older boys called Ars Amatoria.)
The Dangerous Book for Boys is a book that implicitly endorses Aristotle's observation that courage is the most important virtue because, without courage, it is impossible to practice the other virtues. "In this age of video games and mobile phones," the authors write, "there must still be a place for knots, treehouses and stories of incredible courage." Indeed, physical courage looms large in The Dangerous Book for Boys. One of its best features is a series of "extraordinary stories." Remember the bracing story of Robert Scott, the intrepid English explorer who suffered untold hardships in his race to be the first to reach the South Pole? In the event, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen beat him, just barely. Scott and his team arrived there on January 17, 1912, only to find Amundsen's empty tent and a note announcing their presence on December 14, 1911. Scott made it back to within 11 miles of his last camp before he and the rest of his team froze to death. In his last hours, he managed to write a few letters, including one to his wife which mentioned their only son:
The Igguldens also include the story of Douglas Bader, an RAF pilot who crashed in 1931 when showing off doing rolls too close to the ground. He lost his right leg above the knee, his left below the knee. His flying log for the day reads: "X-country Reading. Crashed slow rolling near ground. Bad show." Fitted with metal legs, Bader was told he would never walk without sticks. "On the contrary," he replied, "I will never bloody walk with them." When World War II broke out, Bader was allowed to reenlist and even to fly, metal legs and all. He had 22-and-a-half air-to-air victories (he and a fellow RAF pilot both shot up one German plane, so they agreed to split the victory). In 1941, Bader collided with a German Me 109 over France.
Well, relative safety. He was scooped up by the Germans and put in prison. He asked his captors if a message might be sent to England to retrieve his spare right leg. Mirabile dictu, the Germans agreed. The British dropped it off during a normal bombing run. Bader put on the leg and casually walked out of the hospital in an effort to escape. He was promptly rounded up again, but tried to escape early and often. Exasperated, the Germans took away his metal legs, but the outcry from other prisoners was so great they shamefacedly returned them.
These are stories, the Igguldens note, "that must be told and retold, or the memories slowly die." The fact that The Dangerous Book for Boys was a runaway bestseller in England gives one hope. And speaking of England, my chief recommendation is not just that you buy the book, but that you buy it twice. Connoisseurs will want the English as well as the American edition. There are numerous differences. There are little things like prices being expressed in dollars, not pounds, and a chapter on baseball instead of one on cricket. American history has been substituted for the story of the British Empire. I note that instead of a chapter called "Astronomy," the American edition offers us "Astronomy--the Study of the Heavens," which I suppose tells us something about how the publisher views its American readership.
All of that is minor--though I miss the list of kings and queens of England, especially the mnemonic to keep the fate of Henry VIII's wives straight: "Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived." But having mentioned Admiral Nelson already, I have to say I was sorry to see that the Wright brothers appear in his place in the American edition. I hasten to add that there are no flies on Wilbur and Orville--theirs is an exhilarating tale, eminently worthy of inclusion in this book--but the story of Horatio Nelson is essential, Master James Kimball requires me to state, absolutely essential.
I was also sorry to see that the chapter on catapults was dropped from the American edition. Ditto the chapter on conkers. Not that American boys play much with horse chestnuts attached to a bit of string, but the book's advice about how to make the hole in the chestnut is worth savoring. You can use a nail or spike, but "better to get your dad to use a drill on them." Don't try it yourself, by the way, because "the conkers spin round at high speed or crack when you put them in a vise. Much better to ask an adult to do it, but give them your worst conkers to start with until they have learned the knack."
Why not make do with the English edition, then? Well, for one thing, the American edition includes the Navajo Code Talkers' Dictionary. The U.S. Marines would have been lost without it in World War II. 'Nuff said.
Roger Kimball, editor of the New Criterion, is most recently the coeditor of Counterpoints: 25 Years of The New Criterion on Culture and the Arts.