An Essential Summer Read-Aloud: The Thirteen Clocks

Affectionados of classical education have long embraced the good, the true and the beautiful as transcendent virtues. That is, we understand them as qualities of God, worthy to be sought after and emulated. It’s no accident that seeking after such things often involves the written word. After all, Christ is the Incarnate Word, and we are made in His image.

Good Lutherans know that “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).  John the Baptizer famously witnessed of Christ by leaping in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:39-40). So, too, wisdom comes through hearing. Our children have been listening since before they were born, and we hope to continue to edify both their faith and their wisdom as they grow, as well as our own.

Now comes the point–and, perhaps, answers to your muddled questions about the book pictured above. “What,” you might be thinking, “has a rather ridiculous book by James Thurber to do with the good, the true, and the beautiful?” It’s true that The Thirteen Clocks, first published in 1950, is ridiculous. It is also fantastic, strange, hilarious, and–to borrow a phrase from the book–“the only one there ever was.”

I had never read The Thirteen Clocks until several years ago, after reading of it in an interview an author gave about the best read-alouds for children (and, not coincidentally, adults. The best books are always good for everyone).  My children first heard it while sitting in a tent at a muggy, buggy campground in Minnesota. They were enraptured by this story, with the evil Duke who thought he had killed Time; with the breathtakingly beautiful Princess Saralinda; with the prince-turned-minstrel Xingu; with the wholly original Golux, who forgets things and makes things happen, especially on an impossible quest. It’s been a family favorite ever since.

One of the book’s joys is that it is written in prose, but reads like poetry. You won’t fully experience this unless you specifically hear the words. Try reading it out loud:

Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales. He was six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was.

This book is incredibly fun to read and to read out loud. We’re starting it again this week, and it’s already as popular as the first time around. The words are lovely, intricate and finely crafted together, and the story tells an age-old one of daring rescue and of justice–that is, good and evil receive their due. What better way to understand wisdom?

For commenters: what are some of your favorite books for reading aloud and why?


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