Monday, July 03, 2006


Mom's Wisdom Vindicated, or, In Praise of Crap

My Mom is a genius. I realize this more as I get older.

One of the manifestations of her genius was buying MAD magazine for me as a kid. Unlike all the ‘wholesome’ books and magazines for kids, MAD was written specifically to entertain kids. I LOVED it, and devoured every issue over and over again. (Any lingering influence on my prose, I’ll leave to the reader’s kind estimation.)

Was it puerile? Yup. But so was I. It was written for me, unlike so much of what kids around ages 7-9 are supposed to like to read.

I’ve proudly carried this tradition forward. Walter the Farting Dog and Dog Breath are among The Boy’s favorites. When he gets a little older, I’m looking forward to getting him the entire Captain Underpants series of graphic novels, as well as the more expected Harry Potter.

The genius of giving kids this stuff is that it gets them used to reading on their own, for fun. If you censor their stuff, such that only Wholesome and Approved Books may enter the home, they’ll just steer clear altogether. I’d much rather have him laugh himself stupid at Captain Underpants than watch SpongeBob (and I like SpongeBob). Reading well takes practice, and if the practice feels like drudgery, they just won’t do it.

I remember back in my days teaching English Comp, I asked a class, in frustration, if they ever read for fun. Two students out of twenty raised their hands. One read motorcycle magazines, and the other sometimes read the Sports page. The rest, nada. As a result, they rarely read anything at all, so they didn’t have the foggiest idea what ‘writing’ is supposed to look like. The idea of an ‘essay’ held no reality, outside of something that teachers asked for and then graded harshly. Out of sheer desperation, I once assigned a piece from The Onion (about a guy whose girlfriend explained dumping him using charts and graphs from Kinko’s), on the theory that humor might make reading a little less scary. It worked with a few of them, but if I had to do it again, I’d probably use Dave Barry. Dark humor is an acquired taste.

Mine is a tricky position to hold, since moralistic scolds can always find some ridiculous example to use against it. “You’d have them read Boogers Are My Beat?” Well, yeah. If the alternative is having them not read at all, then yes. And if you’ve ever seen a humorless CEO try to crack a joke, you realize that effective humor writing is harder than it looks.

Last year a book came out – Everything Bad is Good for You – that made a similar argument. It pointed out the relative simplicity of much early television and video games, compared to the extraordinary complexity of the current product, to make the claim that audiences are getting smarter. (IQ tests, apparently, have to be re-centered every ten years or so, since average scores keep going up!) It’s an easy argument to scoff at, until you cruise and actually look at some of the old stuff. The Brady Bunch Variety Hour wouldn’t survive now, and I say, good.

Blogging is an extraordinary medium, if you think about it. People can carve out a niche – a thirtysomething progressive academic administrator, say – and start/join a conversation with others from around the world who find something of value in it. My access to the public square is no longer conditional on some pinhead editor. I’m my own pinhead, and damn proud of it. The guardians of tradition are taking the predictable huffy positions, but they’re becoming less relevant as the sheer fact of success makes them look ever sillier. Now, academic bloggers are addressing the MLA. That would have been unthinkable even two years ago. A medium initially dismissed as unworthy of serious attention has generated an entirely new conversation.

Mom’s genius was in seeing the educational value of low culture thirty years ago. Well done, Mom. The most forward-thinking publishers are just beginning to catch up to what you had figured out by 1975.

I've been thinking about how much my writing has improved since I started blogging a year and a half ago. Just the facility of coming up with an idea and typing it has improved magnificently. I'm not saying I'm a great writer, but I do know how to write now. How neat!

I was just working up a Brit Lit survey syllabus, knowing it's the only class English majors take that they dread. They just want to do 20c American! So I've made sure just about every other seventeenth-century poem on the syllabus is blisteringly erotic. This may backfire, as it did in the case of an older student I had last year who claimed he was going to major in children's lit from now on because he needed to be able to concentrate in class. Better than boredom, I say!
I teach in a health care setting and getting students to write using the "composition" skills thye supposedly learned in English 101 is almost impossible. So this year I had them start keeping an electronic journal on how they are progressing in the program. I didn't think they were quite ready to establish their own blog. It has been the most rewarding assignment I have given in many years. Some of the quietest ones in class turn in weekly entries that are almost poetic. If I had required a "research" paper on new methods of neonatal resuscitation, I would have been run out of town. Now I have them writing their own thoughts in a medium that we both can apprecaite and enjoy.
Since you're praising crap add the book "Everybody Poops" to the Boy's reading list. A true classic. And you might want to buy him a Walter the Farting Dog plushy. When you squeeze the obese little canine, he makes realistic flatulence sounds.

My boy has all three of the Walter books, because like all boys he is fascinated by gas. Captain Underpants is another story, though; they just seem kind of dumb. And the illustrations are not great either.

My only worry about this is that the "Rude is great!" ethos that pervades little boy lit can get tedious, and there is something perverse when the majority of boy lit celebrates this ethos -- so that it can't exactly prick a hole in some overinflated high culture. In other words, books about farts and underpants seem to be the new norm, not a pretentiousness to be subversively skewered.
That's a good point, JJC. The Boy may turn away from the "rude stuff" once he's in first grade or so as a way of differentiating himself from the other boys. My boyfriend's kids, who are 6 and 8, used to be into farts and stuff, but now are really into good stories. The eight-year-old claims chicks dig a guy who really reads.

That said, Calvin and Hobbes will always be a perfectly addictive mixture of rude-little-boy nature and high philosophical prose. It wouldn't have been remotely as good if it missed either of those elements. Sure, you have to put up with the kids clamoring for a grenade launcher, but they might use the word "clamoring" as they do so, and later ponder the ethical implications of their desire.
One of the more experienced comp teachers at my CC assigns graphic novels etc... in his comp II classes. One of my debaters took his class and really enjoyed it, saying it was a good challenge and that the class did the reading (for once).
Great post. (I *loved* MAD magazine as a kid, btw.) I love your observations about how students who don't read don't know what good writing is, *can't* know what good writing is. I'm amazed at how many of my students --most of whom are upper-middle-class, with college-educated parents-- don't read for enjoyment.
Well said, DD. There definitely needs to be more Mad magazines out there, and less MadTV. (I'm not going to decry the ills of television--telly is brilliant. It's the taste of many viewers...Mad TV just doesn't approach what the magazine does.)

Many of my students say they lost interest in reading when in middle and high school they were assigned to read 'young adult fiction' that was 'too PC' and as such 'boring': clearly written more for publishers and parents than for the young. Things to read, and conversations about reading, became too serious, and, according to my students, teachers used this literature to make them feel guilty. Whether it was bad teaching or bad literature, I don't blame the kids for rejecting their given 'literature' in favour of MTV or whatever. At least it's for them.

Thank goodness for Harry Potter.

I concur with your general premise. However, the quality of Mad magazine has declined precipitously. My own children were never smitten by it the way I was, and evidently you were. If you enjoyed it in the 70s, I encourage you to look at the issues from the 50s and 60s, lots of leading edge, subversive stuff there.

My kids were reasonably smart, but only one was bitten by the reading bug, reading voraciously for pleasure. That surprised me, and i can't explain it. What's more, even he now confines his reading to academic necessity, finding his recreations elsewhere.

I worry that the literacy rate is headed for a decline.
You are so very, very right. I totally agree. I read more, and faster, than anyone I have ever met. And it all started with comic books.

When I was a kid, my cousins didn't like coming over to my house to play because all I wanted to do was "sit around reading comic books". I even read a few of the classic ones, although I can't remember if I chose them or my mom bought them for me. I also read MAD magazine, shared with my older brother.

I seem to remember, though, going through kind of a dry spell around middle school. It was like I didn't know how to find interesting stuff to read. Then, at the beginning of high school, someone turned me on to Kurt Vonnegut and I was off and running again.

Once both of my daughters had learned to read, our TGIF routine was to go to the bookstore and then out to an early dinner - where we would (gasp) read our new books until our food arrived. They were into Garfield, then Christopher Pike.

Both were very surprised, from middle school through college, how many people they knew who did not read for pleasure. They had a much easier time than many completing their assignments because, not only did they read faster, their comprehension was better.

I often told my siblings, as well as any parents I met, let them read whatever they want. They will benefit from it in the long run. I know this from experience.

Dean Dad,you have mail.
"everything you know..." isn't very well researched. I received it as a gift one year; I was very disapointed by the lack of credible research that was cited by the authors. Downplaying the risks and hazards of HIV/AIDS is troubling to say the least.

You know what's education AND fun to read on your own time? The New Yorker magazine! I've had a subscription since I was 14. What a terrific combination of stellar writing, humor, current events, the humaities, and science. At the very least your students might enjoy the cartoons interspersing more serious articles along with the witty movie reviews.

ah, your mom was finally vindicated for her genius, but she had to wait how many years to hear it? (deep sigh)

i was blog-surfing and stumbled across yours. i am a teacher in louisville, kentucky.
visit me!
Too bad most of you missed the Harvey Kurtzman era of Mad. What came later was a shaddow of the Kurtzman version.
My middle son had difficulty with reading but after I gave him "Bored of the Rings" there was no holding him back. Wonder who is going to write the Harry Potter version of Bored.
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