Someone brought us, among other things, a nice little stack of Boy Scout Merit Badge pamphlets. One of these interested me enough to check online. Yes, in 2017, as in 1940, a Boy Scout can get a Merit Badge in Reading.
(It might be interesting to sit down and compare the list of Merit badges from the pre-Pearl Harbor era and today, but someone has probably already done it. So I will just note that I find it a little frightening that today’s Scouts can get a badge for Dentistry–which couldn’t be done yet in 1940–but I wonder if one can still get a badge for Pigeon Raising.)
The booklet is divided into several sections, each with its own interesting points. It starts with the meat of the topic: what a Scout needed to do to get that merit badge. This involved things like having books of his own, having a library card, reading a newspaper, subscribing to magazines, etc., subject to possibility. Kids without access to a library couldn’t get a card, after all, and regularly reading magazines somewhere–magazines to be approved by the Scoutmaster–would have to do for those who couldn’t afford a subscription. Reasons were given for all these things: if a Scout submitted a list of the books he owned, it not only showed the Scoutmaster he was doing what he was supposed to do, but got him thinking about the scope and subjects of his collection. The booklet notes “When you have a home of your own you’ll want a library. Start it now!”
A brief section suggests future practical applications of this work, that is, jobs available to Readers. A Reader might well go on to be an Author, a Publisher, an Editor, or Critic. He might even become that man among men, a Book-Seller.
The second half of the booklet is the work of Franklin K. Mathiews and Evelyn O’Connor. Mathiews, the father of Children’s Book Week and long-time Chief Scout Librarian, edited a number of collections of literature, and criticized a number of others. A lot of the series novels like Berwyn Boy Scouts Fish the Amazon River were not on his reading list: he liked Boy Scout fiction to be a little more plausible. In any case, he and Ms. O’Connor, the assistant editor of Boys’ Life magazine, here present their list of reading recommendations for that Reader who wanted a Merit Badge.
It’s quite a list. I was kind of expecting The Oregon Trail, The Virginian, Treasure Island, The Call of the Wild, and the Boy Scout Book of Dog Stories. Charles Lindbergh, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt–all certainly stalwarts of the Boy Scout Ideal–are represented in the nonfiction section. Just what I was expecting: safe, predictable boy stuff.
But Jane Eyre? H.G. Wells’s Outline of History? Here’s P.G. Wodehouse, of all authors I wasn’t expecting to meet: they suggest Leave It to Psmith, but go on to say that any title by this author makes the grade. Gilbert and Sullivan didn’t surprise me altogether, but here’s Eugene O’Neill, just a little ways from Henrk Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw. How many Scouts actually submitted a reading list including The Canterbury Tales? (The list, which includes prices for editions in print of all the books mentioned, does suggest several editions translated—and sanitized–from Middle English.) Pride and Prejudice, Pilgrim’s Progress…by gum, here’s Red Badge of Courage, which just a generation earlier A.C. McClurg wanted to have blotted from libraries as a blemish to American Literature.
I think I may have to find myself a copy of the 2017 edition of this booklet, to see if that recommended list is as challenging as this one (which notes that there is a longer list available in a booklet by itself). If Scouts are still looking for the Outline of History, I haven’t been charging…I mean, I haven’t been displaying it prominently enough.
But finding the books at a Book Fair might be one of the requirements for a 21st century Merit Badge. It would make a thrilling adventure novel: Berwyn Boy Scouts and the DaVinci Code.