Seth Lerer is one of the nation’s foremost scholars of medieval literature and culture and a distinguished professor of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. His books include Chaucer and His Readers, Boethius and Dialogue, Error and the Academic Self: The Scholarly Imagination, Medieval to Modern, Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language, and, most recently, Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History as well as a new edition of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. In 2009, he will become the Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, San Diego.
The most memorable book I read this past year was Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Originally published in 1908, it is more than just a children’s book. It is a document of Edwardian English fantasy, a rich reflection on nature and culture, and a meditation on the aesthetics of domestic life. At times, the prose is a lush reminder of the age of Oscar Wilde. At other times, it is a witty, theatrical evocation of the idiom of Gilbert and Sullivan. In the figure of Mr. Toad, Grahame has created one of the great literary heroes of modern prose: a blend of tragedy and farce, narcissism and nicety. It is as if Charles Dickens had written an entire novel with Mr. Micawber as the true hero, or as if Shakespeare had written a whole play about Falstaff (which, in some sense, he did, and there are bits and pieces of The Merry Wives of Windsor larded into Mr. Toad’s adventures). And, more than animal adventure, the book also reflects on the political and social upheavals of the early twentieth century – the closing rescue of Toad Hall from the invading stoats and weasels resonates with the the literature of invasion and rebellion so popular in the first decade of the century, while at the same time looking forward decades later to Orwell’s Animal Farm.
The thrill of reading this book — now as an adult — has provoked my preparing a new, annotated edition of it for Harvard University Press, to appear in May of 2009.