If you ever find yourself in Parkersburg, West Virginia, be sure to have a gander at Trans-Allegheny Books, which is without a doubt the strangest and most out-of-place purveyor of musty tomes I’ve ever come across. Can you name another bookstore with—to take just a few examples—a whole section devoted to the Mothman, a complete set (until recently, anyway) of the NYU Institute of Fine Arts’s Samothrace excavation reports, and a basement full of WWII-era Life back issues? No chance.
One of the most fascinating things about the store is its collection of children’s books, including a good number of antique textbooks and primers. Looking through these things, you can scarcely believe how far we’ve come—or should I say how far we’ve gone in the wrong direction? There was a time when those responsible for the instruction of the young respected their intelligence, curiosity, and self-reliance. A sample sentence in a basic grammar text might refer to Caesar or Cicero without any concern for grade level or even relevance, that great fetish of modern education. Passages about Esquimaux (sorry: Inuits) or Indians or Swedes are written to appeal to interest in the unfamiliar, not to satisfy muticultural quotas. You won’t hear so much as a note of pandering or condescension.
I suspect that The Dangerous Book for Boys, which is finally available in the United States, has lots in common with those old-school textbooks, though it doesn’t have much to do with topics generally taught in school. Gerry Garibaldi, in his review for City Journal, delights in retailing the contents of this brilliant assault on wimpiness:
The Dangerous Book for Boys instructs the nascent man on how to build a tree house and make a bow and arrow, go-carts, tripwires and timers, as well as grow crystals. He can learn to marble paper, construct a common battery from a handful of quarters, skip stones with skill, tan animal skins, and make secret ink (using urine in a pinch, if milk, lemon juice, or egg whites aren’t handy). The book is also a trusty reference guide to those subjects that kindle the boyish imagination—the Golden Age of Pirates, famous battles, cloud formations, Navajo code talking, spy codes, ciphers, insects, constellations, and more.
Several sections deal simply and entertainingly with the sticky gristle of elementary school basics—the trick of understanding grammar, the origin of words, Latin phrases every boy should know, and the Ten Commandments. The authors toss an appreciation for poetry and Shakespeare into the mix for good measure.
The Igguldens, two British brothers, are unequivocal about right and wrong, and they set old-fashioned male virtues on two stout heels. The preface quotes Sir Frederick Treves, Bart, KCVO, CB, Sergeant in Ordinary to HM the King, in 1903, who counsels: Don’t grumble. Plug on. . . . Don’t swagger. The boy who swaggers—like the man who swaggers—has little else that he can do. . . . Be honest. Be loyal. Be kind. . . . Remember that the hardest thing to acquire is the faculty of being unselfish, which is . . . one of the finest attributes of manliness.
There can be little doubt that this will be a bestseller. As of this writing, the only negative reviews on Amazon.com—written by children posing as adults, we may safely assume—complain that the book isn’t dangerous enough. Sounds like a sequel is in order.