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.