Sunday's Times featured another installment in their ongoing series, "parenting strategies of the anxious and overeducated," but one in which I took a greater-than-average interest. "A Library of Classics, Edited for the Teething Set," describes the apparent publishing-world trend of converting classic works of literature--Moby-Dick, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, and Les Miserables are some of the titles mentioned--into those chunky, brightly-colored, eight-or-ten-page board books intended for preverbal children. The thinking seems to be that if you're the kind of parent eager to bestow every possible cognitive and cultural advantage on your child (by exposing her to classical music in the womb, teaching her a second language from birth), then surely you wouldn't want to omit Great Literature!
None of the regular ol' board books I've encountered in my friends' homes has much of a plot, but apparently neither do the "classic" works described in the article (which is just as well, since that the stories Tolstoy and Hugo tell aren't the most toddler-friendly). Instead, they seem to feature the simple images and terse, vocabulary-building sentences typical of the genre. The Moby-Dick book sounds like it's mostly a collection of pictures of whales and ships and some nautical terms.
Several of the people quoted in the article express skepticism about the project, but ultimately shrug their shoulders: the books do no harm, so if parents want to spend a bunch of extra money and flatter themselves that they're exposing their children to High Culture--well, whatever. They're still reading to their children and spending time with them.
I suppose that's the right take on the matter, but I roll my eyes a little harder than the author of the article. Because you know what? If you care so much about great literature, you could just read bits of Melville or Austen to your child. They're beautiful writers, well worth reading aloud. And if any special reading you do with your kid at eighteen months is capable of having an unusual impact on her eventual aesthetic sensibility or verbal facility, it's exposing her to complex syntax, unusual diction, and a variety of sentence rhythms.*
Moreover, if you expect your child someday to be a reader--or a lover of classical music, or speaker of foreign languages, or whatever else you're shooting for--your best bet is to do those things yourself. Really and truly, and not because you think it will give her an edge in Ivy League admissions. Do them because you already like them, or because you want to try them out to see if you like them. Now's the time for you to learn more about classical music: buy real albums, not Baby Mozart. Now's the time to start learning a foreign language, rather than just outsourcing the task to the au pair. And if you urgently want your kid to read the classics, well, you could start by reading some poetry aloud to her. Or some passages from Faulkner, or the King James Bible, or whatever you find appealing.
(It's ridiculous, by the way, that the only reading aloud most adults do is to their kids. If you're a reader, read aloud now and then, to yourself or your spouse or a friend.)
So, no: there's no harm in these board books; if I had a kid and someone gave me one, I'm sure I'd think it was adorable. It's not inconceivable that I might buy one for a friend. Just don't fool yourself that it's doing anything more for your child than any other board book--or that it's any kind of evidence of your literary taste or sophistication.
N.B. I'm not saying that parents should be reading the classics aloud to their 18-month-olds; I'm just saying it's a more plausible route to the kind of advantage the parents featured in the article seem to be looking for.