Stalking the wily narwhal: Reading the classics aloud with children

Tonight I started reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
to Moomin. We skipped a bit of the first chapter’s exposition. Moomin commented a lot on the long sentences that go on till you forget what they’re about. I think it helps to have them read aloud! I explain the long words but try to keep the story moving along. Around Chapter 4 he began to be super excited, as M. Aronnax gets more and more pompous about his theories of the gigantic narwhal and as the characters board the steamer Abraham Lincoln to hunt the monster. The ship has the most modern weapons for 1866 and can go an astonishing 18.6 knots an hour! I pointed out that’s how fast we went the other day in our neighbor’s tiny motorboat!

Captain Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus

He liked the part where the professor explains atmospheric pressure and the pressures of the deep ocean! And he admired the Canadian harpooner, Ned Land, a lot.

We stopped and discussed what this meant for a while:

But, Ned, you, a whaler by profession, familiarized with all the great marine mammalia; you, whose imagination might easily accept the hypothesis of enormous cetaceans, you ought to be the last to doubt under such circumstances!”

“That is just what deceives you, Professor,” replied Ned. “That the vulgar should believe in extraordinary comets traversing space, and in the existence of antediluvian monsters in the heart of the globe, may well be; but neither astronomer nor geologist believes in such chimeras. As a whaler I have followed many a cetacean harpooned a great number, and killed several; but, however strong or well-armed they may have been, neither their tails nor their weapons would have been able even to scratch the iron plates of a steamer.”

Because of course there are comets and astronomers do believe in them! So, he wanted to know why the professor thought Ned should believe in the sea unicorn, and why Ned gave these examples and what he meant by it.

After we closed the book he was laughing and describing his imaginary movie that would be a parody of it. That’s exactly how I felt about this stuff! I especially liked writing parodies of Poe! His imaginary movie had every character talking like M. Aronnax, even the submarine, and the ocean itself, and the atmosphere, and an imaginary narwhal who tells them all that it doesn’t exist. I totally busted out my powers of pomposity and talked like the book. Here is a sample!

My beloved, yet recalcitrant offspring, commence, if you please, to locomote to the lavatory where you shall apply this instrument of cleansing to your dental apparatus, and moving it vigorously to and fro along those organs, henceforth do battle with the uncountable millions of microbial organisms which teem, like the infinite stars of the Milky Way, in your mouth. With toothpaste.

Moomin actually fell over laughing at this and then got up to add stuff about the hydrogen and oxygen in the glass of mineral substance, along with the action of the Colgate with fluoride paste, and how this seemingly simple glass of water actually, though you may not believe it, contains an ENORMOUS NARWHAL. As I kept on saying ridiculous things he laughed so hard he had a giant laughter-induced asthma attack. We calmed down, he felt better, and I sang our usual unicorn song.

I’m glad Moomin has the patience to sit through the book, because the style is even more long-winded than Swiss Family Robinson‘s but if he rejected that style, he’d be missing out. When I was his age I had read a ton of Verne, Burroughs, Wells, the complete works of Poe, giant volumes of Mark Twain, and all that kind of thing. I wonder now if that kind of reading is even more unusual that it must have been in 1980? I haven’t met any kids yet who are like that, but they’re probably around. I like the idea that Moomin will develop a taste for books with long sentences and slow development even as he devours comics and doesn’t disdain a Magic Treehouse book. Tonight I said that the slightly boring expository bits are actually good because they build up atmosphere and by the time you get to the actual harpooning, it’s extra exciting. He looked a little skeptical but didn’t disagree.

sea turtle shirt

It’s funny to think of repositioning this pulp fiction of its time as “classic literature” today, but that’s how I think of it. Next up, The Odyssey and a Shakespeare play.

It was also a nice end to a long hard day – another 100-degree day, and I hadn’t gotten much sleep, and when he came over he just read My Side of the Mountain while I read my book and so I was glad to muster up the energy to be fun for a while. Even on a bad day I can usually do a good job reading something cool. Then I feel like a better parent. I wonder what will come from his imagination and what interests he’ll develop? Script writing? Marine science? Writing strange comics about talking robotic narwhals that burst out of a glass of water while he works as a dentist or a barista?

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