Came across a beat-up, dirty copy of an old elementary school reader from 1897: School Reading by Grades: Fifth Year, by James Baldwin, American Book Company, NY. I usually set these down as fast as I pick them up, once I see the title. Most of these old things have no resale value. But I am drawn to the antiquarian-looking book, and will give it at least a cursory look. For this title, I think I was curious to see what the curriculum for a 10- or 11-year-old boy or girl was like more than a hundred years ago. I was surprised, but really shouldn’t have been.
The titles and authors listed on the Contents page read like a Who’s Who of literary lions—authors and their works I studied much later in high school and college. Names like Longfellow, Hawthorne, Homer, Tennyson, and Dickens. And the illustrations gave clues to the subject matter of some of the selected writings, such as one of Gutenberg in thoughtful repose over his invention of the printing press. Another historical figure and invention I didn’t learn about until later.
I have little recollection of what I read at that age in the mid-1960s, other than sports and adventure biographies and nature/animal stories. Homer and Tennyson took a back seat to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Lewis & Clark and Daniel Boone—just about anything from Bobbs & Merrill’s Childhood of Famous Americans series. Also high on my list were Emil E. Liers’ tales of otters, beavers, and black bears. That was my extracurricular reading. I have no recollection whatsoever about the contents of our literature textbooks back then. Maybe Steinbeck’s Red Pony made the cut, but something of that ilk would be about as literary as we got, I’d bet. Or maybe I’m just too damn old to remember that kind of detail 40 years later.
So what are fifth grade students reading in 2006, as the fall semester commences?