Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Book Review: "The Book of Man - Readings on the Path to Manhood"

A number of years ago I attended an auction where I successfully bid for a box of old books. When I got home I found among them a book called "The Sunday Reader at Home" from 1896. The book was a collection of short stories, poems and tales all designed to teach life lessons. As I began reading "The Book of Man" I immediately was drawn to the similarity.

William Bennett served as the Secretary of Education in the U.S. under Ronald Reagan and is a New York Times best-selling author. What I most like about Bennett is that he writes with a purpose. While I got this book from the publisher for free in return for a book review, I would have purchased it nonetheless. It is written in response to the crisis of manhood in our culture. As he quotes David Brooks as saying in his introduction: "One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work."

Probably more telling are his own words: "There was once a common understanding in our society among men that there are standards of action and behavior to which men should hold themselves. Men, the code dictates, among other things, keep their word, whether in writing or not, men do not take advantage of women, men support their children, and men watch their language, especially around women and children. The code of men is fading."

This book is written to provide a tool with which to instill these positive values into the lives of their own children. I wish I had found this when my children were younger - it would have made my life so much easier. Many will find parts of this book challenging due to its content (some stories are ancient tales), but it's good to be stretched. The short readings are broken down into six different areas of life, and are aimed at calling out the very best in the masculine soul.

Part 1 is called Man in War. This is not to promote war or violence as an answer, but to recognize that there are times when a man needs to take a stand and risk his own welfare for the sake of those he loves. This includes the famous St. Crispin's Day Speech by Shakespeare, a poem by Wordsworth, a piece by Winston Churchill and profiles from modern-day men of honour.

Part 2 is titled Man at Work. It is designed to teach once again the value of hard work, which in large part has been lost in our culture. As Bennett quotes Roosevelt as saying, "Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." This section opens with the story of a "proud sanitation worker" and ends with "Pensees" by Blaise Pascal. In between you'll find a tremendous variety of great readings.

Part 3 is called Man in Play, Sports, and Leisure. It is a call for men to recreate responsibly, moving away from the modern toys which tend to turn off both body and mind. It speaks of the pursuit of excellence in all that we do, beginning with the story of "Pistol" Pete Maravich, one of the NBA's all-time greats. There are sections from Tolstoy, Lincoln, and Francis Bacon as well as pieces by and about many more current personalities.

Part 4 is Man in the Polis. This refers to the need for men to take their part in the body politic, whether that means government service or simply being a responsible member of society. As Edmund Burke wrote, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." This chapter is aimed at preventing that eventuality. It includes interesting pieces like a speech given by David (Davey) Crockett before the U.S. House of Representatives. It also features pieces by luminaries like Kennedy, Chesterton, Reagan and Washington. Well worth the read.

Part 5 is about Man with Women and Children. The lessons in this section are sorely needed today as "men are missing from the lives of women and children today in increasing numbers." Men need to learn values of respect, devotion, loyalty and compassion, all of which are seen in these stories. The articles, whether by Yeats, Dickens or Thomas Jefferson, all seek to call out the best of man in support of their family. Add to this the modern profiles and we see how this can still be lived out today.

Part 6 concludes the book with Man in Prayer and Reflection. Bennett states that "the true root of a man's existence is his ability to think and reflect." Part of the problem in our modern culture is that many seem to have lost the capacity or the will to do this. The result is many men who are governed by appetite rather than reason. This section includes glimpses into the spiritual lives of many of the greatest men in world history, including many of the U.S. Presidents and church leaders like Billy Graham and Charles Spurgeon.

This book is not one that you just sit down and read. It is designed to be read, one story at a time, when there is time for reflection and conversation between father and son. As I said earlier, I wish this was available when my children were younger. I highly recommend this for all of you fathers out there.

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