Call Mr. Jackson. Who? Mr. Jackson. He was the critic Michael Dirda’s fifth-grade teacher. Judging from Dirda’s sketch of his activities in his new book On Conan Doyle (modest subtitle: Or, the Whole Art of Storytelling), Mr. Jackson understood a couple of critical things about the interplay of enthusiasm and the mastery of reading.
Dirda, who for many years has graced the book review pages of The Washington Post, is, along with his colleague Jonathan Yardley at the Post, one of our most engaging book critics. The secret of their success? They like books. They appreciate good stories, well told. They admire a deftly turned sentence, an elegantly expressed argument, an ingenious plot. This habit of appreciation is everywhere in Dirda’s short, intelligent book on Doyle.
There is a species of critic for whom writers like Doyle, Ryder Haggard, James Hilton, Geoffrey Household, Rafael Sabatini, even R. L. Stevenson occupy a somewhat dubious neighborhood in the literary imperium. They are not quite serious, you see, they trade in ripping yarns that merely grip and thrill the (usually young) reader. Dirda is not a member of that dismissive critical fraternity, and neither, clearly, was Mr. Jackson. They would seem to belong to the school of the once-well-known critic and novelist Vincent Starrett, who said: “I like the kind of fiction in which things happen, and then keep on happening.”
Dirda recalls that it was while under Mr. Jackson’s tutelage that he read his first “grown up” book. It was was The Hound of the Baskervilles, a late Sherlock Holmes novel and (in my opinion) one of the best in the oeuvre. Here’s how it happened. Mr. Jackson’s fifth-grade class belonged to an elementary school book club. Each month Mr. Jackson would pass out a four-page newsletter describing several dozen paperbacks available for purchase. “Lying on my bed at home,” Drida recalls, “I lingered for hours over these news print catalogues, carefully making my final selections.”
The care was dictated in part by the budget imposed by Dirda’s mother, who stipulated a monthly budget of no more than 4 of the 25-35-cent books. Each month, Mr. Jackson sent in the class order. “Then in the middle of some dull afternoon, … a teacher’s aide would open the clasroom door and silently drop off a big, heavily taped parcel. … Sometimes we would be made to wait an entire day, especially if the package had been delievered close to the three o’clock bell when school let out.”
But sooner or later, the swag was distributed and then Dirda, like his classmates, would
methodically appraise each volume’s art work, read and reread its back cover, carefully investigate the delicate line of glue at the top edge of the perfect bound spines. … To this day I can more or less recall the newsletter’s capsule summary that compelled me to buy The Hound of the Baskervilles. … “What was it that emerged from the moor at night to spread terror and violent death?” What else, of course, but a monstrous hound from the bowels of hell?
One day soon thereafter, Dirda’s parents announced that they would be visiting some relatives that evening, taking his sisters in tow. Michael pedaled down to the local drugstore, stocked up on a few candy bars, a box of Cracker Jack, and a bottle of orange crush, and prepared to meet the Hound. “I dragged a blanket from my bed,” Dirda reported,
spread it on the reclining chair next to the living room’s brass floor lamp, carefully arranged my provisions near to hand, turned off all the other nights in the house, and crawled expectantly under the covers with my paperback of The Hound — just as the heavens began to boom with thunder and the rain to thumps against the curtained windows.
Most readers will remember the plot: Charles Baskerville has been found dead, apparently running away from the safety of his house. Near the body were footprints. A man’s or woman’s prints? “Mr Holmes,” came the chilling reply, “they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”
“I shivered with pleasure,” Dirda reports, “scrunched further down under my thick blanket, and took another bite of my Baby Ruth candy bar, as happy as I will ever be.”
Anyone interested in Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, or adventure fiction will enjoy Dirda’s book. He reminds us that Doyle, one of the two of three most popular writers in the English-speaking world, was an extraordinary period piece. “Unaffectedness,” Doyle reported, was his own favorite virtue. “Manliness” was the virtue he most admired in other men. His favorite occupation was “work.” His ideal of happiness was “time well filled.” I don’t believe these are the sorts of answers you would get from Martin Amis, David Foster Wallace, or whoever this month’s celebrity novelist is.
And how about this story, about an older Doyle traveling by train with his family through South Africa. One of his grown up sons commented on the ugliness of a woman who walked by them. “He barely had time to finish the sentence,” Dirda writes, “when he received a slap and saw, very close to his, the flush face of his old father, who said very mildly: ‘Just remember that no woman is ugly.'”
Nevertheless, excellent though Dirda is on Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, what impressed me most about the book was his opening pages devoted to Mr. Jackson and his first encounter with the The Hound of the Baskervilles. What Mr. Jackson recognized is that a successful pedagogue should appeal to a young person’s sense of adventure, not his coddled feeling of self-esteem. It’s the world outside, the world of daring and derring-do, that fructifies. This was something that another popular novelist (and also a genius) John Buchan understood. Buchan is probably best remembered today for a half dozen adventure novels featuring the exploits of Richard Hannay and other redoubtable characters. The Thirty-Nine Steps was the first and most famous, but other excellent “shockers” (as Buchan himself put it) followed swiftly. The was Mr. Standfast and Greenmantle, for example, sterling examples of the genre. The point, which Mr. Jackson intuitively understood and Dirda dramatized, is that, as Buchan wrote in his memoir Pilgrim’s Way, “The world must remain an oyster for youth to open. If not, youth will cease to be young, and that will be the end of everything.”
Mr. Jackson didn’t need the Department of Education National Educational Association to understand that, and neither, come to think of it, do we.