Friday, July 23, 2021

Richard Scarry taught me the principles of literary criticism when I was five - "Mouse has just bought a book at the book store"

Rooting around my old things, I found this 1971 set of books written and illustrated by Richard Scarry, mostly.  I believe they originally came in a cardboard sleeve, long lost, also decorated like a building.

I remember them as landmarks, books that taught me to read. Surprisingly, I see that they also taught me the critical principles that have governed my reading ever since.

First, Best Stories Ever. 

On the one hand, of course we become readers because we love stories.  But note the emphasis on the best stories.  Even at this young age, I was encouraged to judge and rank, to stop wasting my time with the typical story.  We will see, in later volumes, that for the imaginative reader story-as-such is not necessary at all, but as long as I want a story, stick with the best.

I also learned that many of the best stories are in verse.  Lyric poems, even.  This book is full of poems.

Leafing through, I am not so sure that these stories, despite some fairy tales and bits of Aesop, are actually the best, but I learned the principle.  That’s the important thing.

Reading is also for Going Places.  I always loved the casual surrealism of children’s books.  A goat in a hot-air balloon, a cat flying a helicopter, a Danish mouse-witch (“All witches must put their brooms away when they have finished with them, “A Castle in Denmark,” p. 19), why not, why not.

Related, but here is where I diverge from most readers: Things To Know.  Many readers of the internetting variety write about what they experienced, while I am more interested in what I learned.  In this book, it was colors, numbers, etiquette (“Everyone likes the polite elephant,” “The Polite Elephant,” p. 49, what propaganda!), but also the names of flowers and birds, and most curiously Epicurean philosophy, as expressed in the 25 pages of “I Am a Bunny,”* where the “thing to know” is not the biological life cycle of rabbits but the jumper-clad bunny’s attitude towards the universe (pp. 98-9):

Yes, that is the bunny on the cover of Best Stories Ever, but his anti-story actually appears in Things To Know.  “Story” can mean a lot of things.  The most curious thing in Things To Know is that it ends with a cluster of Mother Goose rhymes, which are themselves things to know.  In the arts, the only way to learn about things is to encounter them.  Many readers, as far as I can tell, read their dreary novels expecting to “love” them, and are often disappointed, while I read literature in order to learn what it is, and am always happy, and find that love generally takes care of itself.

The best for last: what is literature, really, what is reading, if not Fun with Words?  Now Scarry is giving me the pure stuff.

The first fifty pages of Fun with Words are much like the cover, typical scenes – a supermarket, a firehouse, “A Drive in the Country” - with every possible item labelled ("owl"), perfect for quick vocabulary growth and also for training the taste of a reader who especially loved – still loves – watching Robinson Crusoe unload the shipwreck item by item or Huckleberry Finn looting Pa’s cabin before faking his death.  Sometimes I want the best story, but sometimes all I want is a list, an imaginatively inspiring list.  The most material literature can be strangely abstract.  Fun with words.

The next 125 pages of this book contain an illustrated children’s dictionary full of recurring characters and little stories that unfold over the course of the alphabet.  Innovative!  No wonder I so enjoy novels written like dictionaries or indices or what have you.  I first read one when I was five.

I wonder what equivalent book today’s five year-old is reading.  I am not much of an identifier, but I hope whatever it is includes a scene as identifiable and influential as this one was on me:


* “I Am a Bunny” is not by Richard Scarry but by the Danish-American children’s publishing innovator Ole Risom, who supervised the Little Golden Books line and was also a Monuments Man!

Thursday, July 1, 2021

The disillusioned ethos of The Gallery - And what was this war really about?

John Horne Burns was not a combat soldier during World War II, but worked in military intelligence and censorship.  For a while his work was investigating crimes committed by American troops.  This kind of work, at least for a sensibility like Burns had, gives a writer an unusual perspective on war.  Thus he writes a book that is satirical, often contemptuous, and sordid.

I’m with the narrator of the “Promenades,” the sections between the short stories in The Gallery that are the wartime memoir of an author-like fellow:

I remember that my heart finally broke in Naples.  Not over a girl or a thing, but over an idea.  When I was little, they’d told me I should be proud to be an American.  And I suppose I was, though I saw no reason I should applaud every time I saw the flag in a newsreel.  But I did believe that the American way of life was an idea holy in itself, an idea of freedom bestowed by intelligent citizens on one another…  And I found that outside of the propaganda writers (who were making a handsome living from the deal) Americans were very poor spiritually.  (259)

I’ll stop here to note that long before this point I had concluded that the narrator was not the author but a parody of the author – “holy,” huh? – created for purposes as propagandistic as those of the “propaganda writers” he condemns.  He means “outside the writing of the “ etc., yes?  Not that the propaganda writers were spiritually rich, although see below.

And what was this war really about?  I decided that it was because most of the people of the world didn’t have the cigarettes, the gasoline, and the food that we Americans had.  (259)

Still, it seems to really bother this narrator that American servicemen buy cigarettes at the PX and trade them with prostitutes for sex, or that married men take up Italian girlfriends, or that officers in the censorship department spend most of their time scheming for promotions (“The Leaf,” the story I mean, is an insightful of bureaucratic literature that, like the one about syphilis treatment I mentioned yesterday should be much better known).  If American ideals are violated, Burns concludes that they must be false; if the ideals are false, the war – World War II – has no meaning.

A few pages later, after complaints about GI’s drunkenness and sexual rudeness:

And I remember seeing American MP’s beating the driver of a horse and wagon because they were obstructing traffic on Via Roma.  I don’t think the Germans could have done any better in their concentration camps.  I thought that all humanity had gone from the world, and that this war had smothered decency forever.  (262)

“[D]one any better” in cruelty!  That is a strange, strange sentence to see in 1947.  I was ready to forgive quite a few stolen cigarettes, even some cruelty, if it helped the American armed forces get on with the liberation of France and the camps.  But I was under the influence of another work of propaganda that I was reading around the same time, Joseph Kessel’s Army of Shadows, his of the moment (1943!) about the difficult, doomed heroism of the fighters in the French Resistance.  Kessel himself was not getting too rich flying a bomber for the Free French air force.  I should write more about that book.

So, I take The Gallery, like much fiction, as the exploration of a sensibility, sometimes expressed in new and surprising ways, and at other times less original and more ethically dubious.  It is of high period interest, at least.