Two little book notes this morning:
One of my kids was rummaging around for a megillah to take to shul and pulled out an Artscroll copy buried on a long forgotten shelf. I recall exactly how I obtained that copy: it was a prize for wining some contest in eighth grade, and if I am not mistaken, it was one of the first books published by Artscroll. At the time, there were only a handful of other Artscroll titles available; I recall winning the Artscroll Haggadah before Pesach that year as well. It dawned on me that I, unlike my kids, was born in the BA-era: Before Artscroll. This was the era where difficult words had to be looked up in Jastrow, where Soncino and Steinsaltz ruled the world of gemara translation, where Birnbaum siddurim and Hertz chumashim were still found on the shelves of Orthodox shules, where there was no “elucidation” of the text into plain English telling us exactly what the “traditional” meaning is. One of my kids recently took from her grandparent one of those old blue-covered chumashim with the Rashi translated line by line that I remember from grade school and which seem to have vanished completely from stores' bookshelves. I must be getting old : )
There is no question in my mind that for all of Artscroll’s flaws, the world is a better place for them. They have certainly inspired many to crack open a gemara with confidence that the text can be conquered, at least on a rudimentary level. On the other hand, I can't recall actually purchasing anything from Artscroll; I discourage my kids from using their gemaras or Tanach seforim. Yes, life is easier with Artscroll, but who says life has to be easy? I don't force my kids to look up information in a hard copy encyclopedia instead of google, but I don't think the situations are analogous. Whatever tools and methods the editors of Artscroll use to decipher difficult text can be / should be part of the tools and methods my kids can learn to master in their study of a text.
On a completely different note, I like the title of this article in the Jewish Review of Books: "Why There is No Jewish Narnia." Michael Weingrad does a nice job exploring the question; my only quibble is that I think the last reason he mentions I think is actually the most significant. The Jewish people are just theologically-averse to magical wardrobes, rings that grant power, bad guys who speak to snakes, and forces of evil that seem to have independent power on par with that of the good guys. Looking for Jewish fantasy literature is like looking for the Jewish art at the Met – even the Chagall paintings they have on display are centered around Xstian themes (brings to mind My Name is Asher Lev). For better or worse, certain artistic avenues just are not “Jewish” roads to follow. That being said, I have never met anyone who became a kofer from reading Narnia, and if you think you are on a ring quest or have plans to teach at Hogwarts after you graduate, I would suggest that you speak with a good shrink, not a Rabbi.
Update: more on this topic here.