Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child
by Anthony Esolen
(ISI Books, November 2010), 320 pp., $26.95.

“A good book is a dangerous thing. . . . It carries within it the possibility . . . of cracking open the shell of routine that prevents us from seeing the world.” Anthony Esolen not only wrote these words, he wrote just such a book.

As a college professor, I read books for a living and frequently write reviews of them. Rarely then, do I come across a book that I consider essential reading and yet know I lack the power to do it even a modicum of justice in a review. In Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, I fear I may be reduced not only to tinny platitudes in writing but ignominy in living.

While one would like to provide snippets of Esolen’s writing to demonstrate its power, the task is impossible because Esolen is a first-rate storyteller and thereby not reducible to sound bites.The best that can be done perhaps is to offer some of the wit present in his chapter titles, which identify a numbered method one can use to “off” a child’s imagination. For instance, Method 1: “Keep Your Children Indoors as Much as Possible or They Used to Call it ‘Air.’” Method 7: “Reduce All Talk of Love to Narcissism and Sex or Insert Tab A into Slot B.” Or, Method 10: “Deny the Transcendent or Fix Above the Heads of Men the Lowest Ceiling of All.”

The key to Esolen, though, is not wit, sarcasm, or the clever adoption of prose farcically endorsing what Esolen actually wants to undermine—à la C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. Instead, it is storytelling. Though I know Esolen originally hailed from Pennsylvania, as he spins out tales of wisdom, I cannot help but imagine them in a slow Southern drawl while Esolen whittles and rocks on a front porch overlooking piney woods.

For those too pretentious to appreciate the highest compliment I can offer, allow me to change tack. Esolen is a humanist scholar in the highest sense of the term, for from him, you will not learn about the classics but from them. Like all the best storytellers (and humanists), Esolen is close, personal friends with seemingly all the other great storytellers, so their tales become his, and he our guide. Homer, Herodotus, Virgil, Livy, Dante, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, and Tolkien—to name but a few of Esolen’s closest confidantes—have shared their wisdom with him, and he shares their stories with the love and authority that only a friend can. Esolen’s life has clearly been a life well read, and the value of that inevitably washes over the reader with both shaming and inspiring effect.

In a world where both “conservatives” and “liberals”—in a betrayal of all that is noble in each of those words—embrace turning over the raising of children to centralized bureaucracies, it is difficult to know what audience there will be for such a book. What does a country reduced to Democrats and Republicans, as opposed to democrats and republicans, do with a profoundly conservative man defending the essentialness of children’s imagination? Esolen does not fit into simple prepackaged categories and so he may well be rejected, like all square pegs in a bored world of round holes.

Except that Esolen’s is a book for all of us, for it is a book to humans, a love-song and lament to our shared, but too often lost, humanity. In fact, the older you are, the more you will grieve over what has been done to you and what you have done to the ones you love. The drab sameness we have imposed upon ourselves means that few will be able to read this book without experiencing the “goosing,” or even skewering, of one of their own sacred cows. But, as Wendell Berry, another of Esolen’s favorite authors, notes elsewhere, our sacred cows need an occasional goosing. It requires bravery to read Esolen but the stouthearted will be rewarded immensely.

The book is truly profound, not due to the skill of the author, but because he speaks the truth—and profound is what truth is. The book is heartrending, exhilarating, convicting, and beautiful for the same reason. Read this book if you dare, and let it trouble your soul. Then, gift it at every wedding, baby shower, and graduation so you can trouble someone else’s. Children you will never know will be eternally grateful, and the humanity you save might just be your own.  

Dr. Jason R. Edwards is an associate professor of education and history at Grove City College and a fellow with The Center for Vision & Values.