In defense of false expectations

Last spring — I’m late blogging this — the Guardian reported on a study finding that literature for very young children frequently reinforces a materialist, consumerist bias… but that other literature deters that bias. Books, in other words, and the ideas in books, shape their readers, particularly young readers. Hardly a new idea, but one perhaps too easily ignored. The problem is what an author ought to do with that knowledge — or a parent. As Alan Jacobs observed at the time, every book potentially wants us to want something, which is not bad in itself, but we ought to consider what it wants us to want. Jacobs quotes C. S. Lewis’ lament that the fairy tale “is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in” when, on the contrary, it’s “school stories,” the allegedly realistic ones, that give false expectations. “All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible,” Lewis argued in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, “in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations.”

But I wonder whether those “school stories” are more important than Lewis realized.

We are what we don’t discard

Cleaned out the shed that doubles as storage and workshop, the workshop half mostly theoretical the past few years as the storage expanded and my time contracted, and was unable to explain the choices I made about what to keep and what to throw away. When I was in graduate school and had less stuff, less money, more time, and a need to compensate for my endemic uselessness, I saved everything — odds and ends of hardware, bits of rope, scraps of wood, the wheels off an old lawn mower. And I used most of it, the lawn mower wheels finding their way onto a moveable grazing pen for the ducks. But no shed is infinite. Four lawn ‘n’ leaf bags await next week’s garbage pickup.


  • a step stool that I built in 1998; I designed it badly so that it tips over whenever you step on it, and haven’t used it since the turn of the century
  • staining rags, work gloves, and knee pads chewed by mice
  • two broken lamps that I don’t like but have been meaning since 1994 to fix
  • the balls from my childhood croquet set (the mallets are long gone)
  • sixty or so egg cartons purchased when the ducks were still laying regularly (actually I composted these)


  • countless pieces of wood too small to be of any use
  • five dozen mason jars, in addition to the dozens actually in use in the house
  • four gallon bottles of antifreeze, each more than half full

I can admit my failure to build a decent stepstool and that the ducks are getting old and won’t be replaced, but I can’t shake the vision of endless shelves of pickles and applesauce and sauerkraut I know perfectly well I don’t have time to make. But I like the idea that I could, just as I like the idea that I could build a desk or some bookshelves in my newly accessible workshop.

I could write the shed as metaphor, that when you are young a shed is twelve by sixteen feet of possibility, that the junk in it is not junk but the physical manifestation of your experience stored as raw materials for the future, and that at some later age you reach a point where your accumulated past chokes the life out of the future. But that would be silly. It’s just a shed.