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I have passed along the occasional problem in elementary book sorting for those of you who think you’d like to be librarians or book fair managers when you grow up. Most of the problems have run along the entry-level difficulty, not that they are ever fully resolved. There’s always a rookie to ask whether an Anglo-Saxon dictionary goes in Foreign Language or not, since it IS, after all, really English. (It has a 28-letter alphabet: put it in Foreign Language.) Or where does an edition of the poem Beowulf go if it has been translated into modern English as prose? (In Poetry: it’s still a poem at heart, and should sit with its brethren and sistern.)

These do not expose you to the full horrors of the book which could equally well go into one of three different categories. Or to the book where the first half is about one subject and the second half is about something entirely different. Or…well, here’s a little three-volume dandy which clearly belongs in the Graduate Level exam.

Once upon a time in Russia there lived a boy named Anton Semyonovich Makarenko. He grew up to become a schoolteacher roughly at the same time the Soviet Union was established. He made himself into one of the leading educational theorists in the Soviet Union; indeed, he is considered one of the pillars of pedagogy in the twentieth century. He and author Maxim Gorky were mutual admirers, and one of his major centers of learning was the Gorky Colony.

His methods were, and remain, controversial, just like those of any other great educational thinker. His system seems uniquely Soviet to me, organizing children over eleven into self-governing collectives which not only learned things but also did useful work for the State. I understand he had great success when put in charge of three-time losers from the juvenile prisons. He later annoyed Stalin and things did not end particularly well for him, though he did better than a lot of people who annoyed Stalin. Being neither a student of Soviet politics nor pedagogical theory, it’s all rather beyond me. (For another braintwister, try to figure out the rules to Makarenko Chess, which he made up in his spare time. Pieces can change their ranks at the whim of the player, so a knight can become a queen and…. Never mind; we’ll get back to the original braintwister.)

He wrote several books about his educational theories, but the one we have is not QUITE that. He wrote a novel in verse BASED ON his experiences in the Gorky Colony, called A Pedagogical Poem. This was a big hit, and became a bigger hit after he died. In 1955, a movie was made based on the novel, called The Road to Life. A three-volume version in prose was published in English and THAT, caviar casserole, is what we have been given.

So let’s see. It’s a movie tie-in. It’s an autobiography. It’s a novel. It’s an examination of educational theory. AND it’s a poem WHICH has been translated into English prose. If you want to make my life difficult (and I haven’t found many people who don’t), it’s also a book by a chess expert, as well as a piece of Russian history with tinges of political science. And it is, the Internet tells me, a wildly popular bestseller which has garnered great praise (and criticism), giving it some street cred as a work of literature. (If it goes into literature, it’s a set of three small paperback-sized hardcover books. Nothing about The Road to Life is easy, which is a statement I think you can take to the bank.)

My educational colony is not self-governing: it’s a prison camp where the manager marches around with a scowl and a knout. So the decision in this little exercise will wind up being mine. You may come hunting in July and see how I answered this test question. No giving grades, though, unless you buy the book first. I keep the knout in my apron pocket during the Fair, but it’s there.

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