It can be insightful to see what you notice as an adult when you re-read books from your childhood. The Railway Children was a favourite book of mine. It’s a sometimes humorous and sometimes touching story that I’d love to share with my own children some day. But when, as an adult, I read it to my youngest brother, I noticed something that I had never batted an eyelid at before. From memory, the situation is this: Bobbie, a girl of about twelve or so, is concerned about the doctor’s bill for her ill mother, and decides to speak to him about it. She goes to meet him when he is out on his rounds. He invites her to join him in his buggy, and they trot on together while Bobbie explains the predicament. The doctor comes up with a generous solution, and Bobbie returns home relieved.
And safe and sound. Yes, that was the bit that I never thought about when I was younger. Re-reading it as an adult, I suddenly realised what a different culture we live in. A young girl out driving with a man in the countryside. It’s enough to give a modern parent a heart attack, thinking that the doctor could have taken her anywhere, done anything to her. Had he had a criminal background check? Where was the chaperone? What about the child protection policy?
My point here is emphatically not to discuss the rights and wrongs of the ways in which parents seek to protect their children these days. That is a sensitive subject for which wisdom is most certainly needed. My point is simply to illustrate that we can, in a sense, forget that there has ever been any other cultural atmosphere (for good or for bad) than our own, or any other way of doing things than the way they are done now, and that stories remind us that it ain’t necessarily so.
There are many things in our culture that are different from the past in good ways. Vaccinations. Sanitation. A high level of literacy. And much more. There are also many things that are different in bad ways. And it is for those things, in particular, that we need stories—stories to remind us that the way things are is not necessarily the way they’ve always been, or the way they should be, or the way they will be. Stories that present the good, the true, and the beautiful to us in a glowing display.
In a culture where policies and procedures reign, we need to read stories in which people were free to exercise common sense. In a culture of entitlement, we need stories of duty and self-sacrifice. In a culture where too many men don’t act like men, while too many women do, we need stories that show the beauty and glory of real manhood and womanhood. In a culture that lives for this world, we need stories that remind us of another one.
The toxic elements of our culture (like the good ones, of course) so often feel normal. Stay long enough in a room with a bad smell and you’ll hardly notice in any more. But there is a sweet-smelling world outside, and reading good books helps to open the windows and let the fresh air in.