The Magazine

Boys Will Be...

...pleased by this garden of earthly delights.

Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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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:

We do not mean the physical differences, more the fact that [girls] remain unimpressed by your mastery of a game involving wizards, or your understanding of Morse Code. Some will be impressed, of course, but as a general rule, girls do not get quite as excited by the use of urine as a secret ink as boys do.

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:

I had looked forward to helping you to bring him up, but it is a satisfaction to know that he will be safe with you. . . . Make the boy interested in natural history if you can. It is better than games. They encourage it in some schools. I know you will keep him in the open air. Try to make him believe in a God, it is comforting. . . . and guard him against indolence. Make him a strenuous man. I had to force myself into being strenuous as you know--had always an inclination to be idle.