Worthwhile Reading: from Muppets to Moliere

Street Gang

Jim Henson had his first televised puppet show at 17, and his first puppet’s name was Kermit.  I learn this–and all kinds of other weird, wacky, winsome things–as I read Street Gang, Michael Davis’s ‘Complete History of Sesame Street.’  I’m getting the backstory on Buffalo Bob, who didn’t seem real crazy about the real kids on the set of his show.  I’m getting the skinny on Captain Kangaroo, Bob Keeshan, who wouldn’t handle any critter larger than a small dog on his show.  That left the handler duties up to Mr. Green Jeans, who wound up, one show, with a fat seal’s teeth firmly clamped into his ear.  I’m traveling down pathways I haven’t visited since the late fifties and early sixties, reading about Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Romper Room (I so was convinced that I was the ‘Pammie’ who was supposed to look behind the blue chair for a special surprise. But I looked and I looked and I looked; nothing was ever there.)

Street Gang has a lot to say about the early days of quality children’s television programming, and about the heroic attempts of a troupe of committed people to equalize educational opportunities for kids from poor families.  It’s readable and enjoyable–and, oh boy, Davis did his homework.  He brings his subjects to life; they are real people emerging from his deft pen, often likable, always quirky, sometimes very, very surprising.  Street Gang: I am so glad I picked it up.

But I wonder: is it WORTHWHILE reading?

*************

We just wrapped up, in my little Appalachian community, our first county-wide Big Read-type effort.  Our program was homegrown; we wrote local grants and got local sponsors and drew in many organizations–museums and libraries, educational programs, literacy efforts, book stores, and colleges–who helped to plan and execute a wonderful, two-month-long, series of events.  We gave away over 500 books, which were read by over 500 people, many of whom came together to talk about them, argue about them, celebrate them.

We read the books of an author who was born and raised here, dead almost a hundred years but still pretty much a household name.  Maybe the first author to make a million dollars in one year, his books were serialized and made into films, and he became as much a celebrity as the people who grew famous from starring in the movies.  He created a genre.  He created an audience.

He created, in his lifetime, a great deal of heartache for his wife and his kids.

Was he a great writer?  Great?  Hmmm. Hard to say.

His biographer came to talk, as we wrapped up the program.  This writer went to Harvard, got his PhD in lit from the University of California at Berkeley.  He talked about growing up and having school days in the city, spending summers at the family ranch. He was gray-haired, impeccably coiffed, and very confident.

Another writer came to speak, too. She had updated one of ‘our’ author’s books for a 21st century audience, trying faithfully to be true to his meaning and his style while excising archaisms and gleaning down rambling descriptions.  Students in the community college read her version of the dead author’s book, and they loved it and clamored for more.

That writer had a PhD, too, but it was an online degree, not an Ivy League one.  She had grown to love our native son as a girl.  She read his books with her mother, who was plucked out of school before second grade, the oldest of what would ultimately be 14 children, and the one who had to help at home. There, at that home, in that parlor, there was a complete set of our author’s books.  The writer’s mom, when the day’s chores were done and the other children cared for, taught herself to read by reading those books.

Inevitably, at dinner, the two visiting writers clashed.  They clashed over how one should find one’s way into print: academic press or popular press, edited by others or self-published.  They butted heads when it came to defining good reading.  SHE talked about the profound influence reading the books of our dead author had on her early years.

HE, biographer of the writer in question, he said, “Yes.  But was that really worthwhile reading?”

It might have been EF Hutton speaking.  Forks stopped midway to mouths.  Hands froze on tilted amber bottles.  There was a profound pause, and then, finally, someone grappled forth a new topic of conversation, and we smiled and moved forward, shellacking over the comment, sliding over the shellacked surface in our stocking feet, skidding around on light topics and frivolous things to say.  We finished our meals, dabbed our lips with linen napkins, called for checks. We dropped the writers at their hotels; we hugged lightly and wished them safe travels home.

And ever since I have been thinking:

What IS worthwhile reading?

***************

My parents were inveterate readers, albeit quirky ones. My father: he left his high school education–thank goodness: he was in a Catholic seminary, headed toward a priesthood,–when his patron died suddenly and the funding dried up. That was Depression time, and his working wages were needed–his father had remarried and sired a second set of seven children.  Mouths were open, bellies were hungry.  My father, whom I believe was quietly relieved to be out of the seminary, went to work.  He was a hard worker and a good one; the Latin and Greek he’d learned didn’t factor into his work life, but he never thought they hurt him much either.

He read like crazy, especially history and historically accurate novels, but for some reason, he point blank refused to read anything written in the first person.

My mother was the first in her family to graduate from high school, and a dour old aunt offered to put her through college, but wanted some control of the curriculum.  Mom wanted to be an actress, and the sweet old dear declined to send a child to college to learn to become a painted whore. So, my mother too went to work, dutifully giving half the money to her family. Her mother had died when she was little more than a toddler; her father later abandoned his seven kids.  She was raised by a brother and sister who gave up their own lives to raise their siblings.  She felt splitting her pay was little enough to give back.

She read anything, my mother: novels, biographies, how-to manuals, plays, cereal boxes.  Words were there to be devoured. She told me this, once, when I was sick of a book and wanted to chuck it:  If you start a book, finish it. Unless it is obscene or somehow harmful to you, finish that book.  There’s a reason that you chose it.  Finish it, and think about what it has to say.

Was she telling me that any book–as long as it didn’t spring from a rotten core–was worthwhile reading?

*****************

I went to the library to find some thoughts on the subject, and I found a book called WHY READ? (Mark Edmundson, Bloomsbury, 2005).  But it was an argument for reading great literature as an undergrad–an impassioned book, proposing that the humanities, the courses that force one to read, digest, analyze, and synthesize thoughts and responses,—were at least equally as important as practical courses of study.  Not everyone should be an economist, the author posited; people should be masters of literature, too.  They should be masters of thought.

But he didn’t address the kind of reading I am thinking about.  I’m thinking about the intent child–call her Jillian–in the library stacks, seriously browsing, selecting her six books for the next two weeks.  She chooses some Madeleine L’Engle–the two novels that follow A Wrinkle in Time.  She chooses a little biography of Jane Hull.  She picks up two squeaky clean young adult  romances.  She picks up a volume of The Hunger Games trilogy.

These are all pretty entertaining choices, written for a broad audience. Accessible. Our Jillian, in reading them, thinks about girls in the field of science and about the confluence of science and religion.  She encounters the field of social work and the concept of Hull House.  She reads about stereotypical relationship issues; she reads about a girl playing dumb to placate a boy, and she forms some pretty strong opinions about that.  Reading The Hunger Games, she is shocked and appalled by the cruel government and its lack of respect for life.  She is chilled by its treatment of innocents, by its open-handed deceit.

Are the books that Jillian read great literature?  Probably not.  Is she richer for having read them–did they move her forward, encourage her to reach out and grab some fruit she’s never before tasted?  Definitely yes.  She also increased her vocabulary, learning about tesseracts and settlement houses, platonic relationships and dystopias.

Was her reading worthwhile?  I would have to say a resounding yes.

****************

There are some wonderful works in the canon of acceptable literature, to be sure.  But not all of those works fit every person, everywhere.  I have often taught Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” using it as a vehicle for discussing plot and tone and pacing.  But when we moved to this Appalachian area and I gave it to my students to read, they read it and came back to class angry.

What kind of mother, they wanted to know, would offer up her daughter to save herself?  That, they said decisively, is not something a real mother would do.  And what kind of community would allow little kids to be stoned to death?

I tried to talk about foreshadowing, and irony, and the story’s denouement, and they said firmly, No, Pam. This is not a good story.  This is CRAP.

And it was crap to them, in this culture that celebrates family, elevates family to top status on the Top Ten List of Important Things.  They loved Jackson’s warmhearted memoirs–essays from Life Among The Savages, for example.  “The Lottery” was the wrong story for their freshman year of college.  I jettisoned it, pulled in Isaac Asimov and Wallace Berry, and we forged on.

I believe “The Lottery” is in the ‘good writing’ canon.  To my students, though, was it worthwhile reading?

*******************

“Oh, I’m just reading a little mystery,” my friend tells me.  “Mind-candy,” she calls it, more than a little embarrassed; we were English faculty together.  We’re supposed to read weighty tomes and discuss the symbolism of the red rose on the white snow and talk about alliteration.

But I think it’s fine to read books we enjoy, books that are accessible and fun but that also make us think, open new doors, introduce new concepts, suggest new patterns.  It doesn’t matter whether they were written by an author acclaimed by the New York Times, or selected by Oprah, or panned, by the critics, as a hack. If that writing speaks to us, broadens our world, calls up new things, we should keep reading it.  We should challenge ourselves, sure; we shouldn’t shirk from reading something compelling because we fear it’s too long, too dense, or too hard–sometimes our reading needs to be muscular and intense.

But our reading doesn’t have to be mandated, or even approved, by those who deem it worthy.  Street Gang opens me up; it connects me to my childhood.  It broadens my understanding of the advent of good preschool programming.  It makes me question educational inequities. It reminds me of a time when acceptance and diversity were not everyday facets. It gives me examples of strong, brave people–and weak, craven ones.

Sometimes, it makes me laugh.

I encounter Street Gang; I encounter it, and I am changed by it.  And when that happens through my reading, I have to answer, “Yes.”  It may not be on your reading list, my august Dr. Author, but the book that I am reading–the book I am enjoying–is, most definitely, worthwhile.

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