This morning I read this bittersweet story in the New York Times about the auctioning of Vladimir Nabokov’s personal effects by his son Dmitri. As Dmitri has no heirs, it was agreed before the elder Nabokov’s death that it would be best to sell the collection before the death of the younger Nabokov. Reading the story, with its descriptions of invented butterfly drawings for Nabokov’s wife Vera — “They have variegated colors, delicate artistry and fanciful names. Only on these pages appear the blue ‘Colias verae’ or the dark ‘Maculinea aurora Nab.'” — reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Nabokov’s lyrical memoir, Speak, Memory, when I was in college. I read it for a class called Transatlantic Identities, taught by the dandyish Professor Tucker (who was most of all devoted to John Ruskin). We read a dozen or so memoirs penned over the last 150 years on either side of the Atlantic. Among these, Speak, Memory, was transcendent, inspiring an interest both in lepidoptery and Nabokov’s expressive prose. As I read the book, Nabokov, in my mind, was transformed from the scurrilous author of the scandalous Lolita to the quiet emigre with a fascination for butterflies, and whose expertise with these brightly- winged insects landed him the curatorship of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Now that these butterflies have been scattered throughout the world, one can only hope that the hands that now hold them will cherish the butterflies as much as the hands that created them.
The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation. When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.
I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid. It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant. Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), #169
Goodnight Moon (1947), #227
Where the Wild Things Are (1963), #314
The Giving Tree (1964), #342
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), #559
Pat the Bunny (1940), #743
Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day (1968), #817
For comparison’s sake, consider Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which was a bestseller only a few years ago and enjoys strong residual sales. It’s currently ranked #2,194, which leaves it well behind the leading titles in the Dr. Seuss canon (Green Eggs and Ham, #1,050; The Lorax, #1,063).
The reason children’s books endure seems clear enough: The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids. As a result, the market for children’s books is probably more resistant to cultural churn than just about any other slice of the consumer economy; it’s a closed circuit that reproduces itself one generation after another.
There are benefits to this system. For one, it helps to ensure that passing fads doesn’t wash quality books away. It’s doubtful, for example, that toddlers would opt for Goodnight Moon as often as their parents do, so maybe it’s just as well that they don’t have a say. For two, the persistence of children’s books yields a kind of experience we don’t get so often in a culture that has relatively few traditions: the chance to revisit childhood experiences through an older set of eyes.
Just the other weekend I took my two-year-old son to Barnes and Noble to buy a birthday present for a friend of his. I browsed the aisles while my son emptied a carousel of Berenstain Bears books onto the floor. After a few minutes I spotted Caps for Sale (#5057), a book that had once meant a great deal to me but which I had not thought about in decades. It was nice to see that it had managed to last all this time without my attention. We bought two copies, one for the friend and one for us.
That night I put my son in his pajamas, filled his cup with milk, sat him in my lap and began to read Caps for Sale. It only took a few lines before the entire story came back to me: an old world peddler walks around a village with a stack of caps on his head; one luckless afternoon he leans back against a tree to take a nap and when he wakes up he finds his caps have been confiscated by a troop of monkeys in the tree branches above him; he demands the monkeys give him his caps back by shaking his fists and stomping his feet but the monkeys mock his efforts and for a moment it seems like he’ll never get them back.
In addition to remembering the plot, I was somewhat stunned by how vividly the feelings the book had elicited in me as a kid came tumbling back. It’s noted several times in the book, for example, that the peddler always stacks his caps on his head in the same order—“first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.” As I read this to my son I found myself flush with the same covetousness for the red caps, so bright and distinct above the rest, that I’d felt as a child.
I had a similar experience at the end of the story. In order to get his caps back, the peddler remonstrates the monkeys every way he can: he shakes his fists, stomps his feet, jumps up and down. The monkeys repeat his actions back to him but the simple peddler doesn’t see what’s going on. He thinks the monkeys are mocking his suffering when really they’re just aping (monkeying?) him like the lower-order mammals that they are. In despair the peddler takes his own checked cap off his head—the one cap that’s not for sale, and the only cap the monkeys didn’t take—and throws it to the ground and starts to walk away.
As my son finished his milk and started to fall asleep, I found myself awash in the same anguish I’d felt at this point in the story as a child. I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but as a child I knew there was something deeply sad about the peddler throwing his own cap to the ground. Now as an adult, I can put words to that sadness; I can see that by throwing his own cap to the ground the peddler is effectively saying that without his caps, nothing in the world matters anymore.
I was surprised by the complexity of the reaction to Caps for Sale I’d had as a kid. As a four-year-old I had no firsthand experiences that would have taught me there is such a thing as despair in the face of an unforgiving world, but on an intuitive level I understood that what the peddler was experiencing went beyond mere frustration.
When the peddler throws down his cap the monkeys throw their caps down too, and tragedy is averted. The peddler collects his caps from the ground, stacks them back atop his head, and walks back to town calling “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.” It is not exactly a happy ending—the fact that the peddler became so desperate over the loss of a few caps reveals just how precarious his life really is—but there is a melancholic satisfaction in knowing that he gets to go on selling for one more day at least.
For me, the feeling I had after I’d closed Caps for Sale and laid my son down in his crib was melancholic and satisfying, too. It was an unexpected gift to have glimpsed myself as a child through the pages of the book, and a wonder to imagine that if trends hold, my son might one day have the same experience himself.
Bonus Link: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?
If you’ve ever seen Salman Rushdie and his wife Lakshmi in public, then you know, the pair of them turn heads. Salman looks like a caricature. He’s almost muppet-like, while Lakshmi is a model many years his junior and many inches taller. When they walk through a room, everybody sort of stops what they’re doing and stares. An article in the Times illuminates this seemingly mismatched relationship. (via AL daily)
My favorite book critic, Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, has put out his list of the year’s best books. He also takes the opportunity to make some comments about the National Book Awards controversy.My own view is that the literary judgment of the National Book Award panelists was clouded by their desire to Make a Statement (as, for that matter, was the judgment of their compatriots on the nonfiction panel), but it’s just my opinion and is worth no more than the paper it’s printed on, if that.He self-aware enough to note that books he has chosen are “by men, and mostly men of a certain age, which as it happens is an age pretty close to my own.” I’m not sure if the other litbloggers – who went to great lengths to defend the five NBA finalists – will jump on Yardley because he seems to say that the five women are not worthy, but my feeling is that he, at least, makes it clear that these choices are about opinions, and his opinion happens to differ from the opinions of the judges. Now, on to his book choices: An Unfinished Season by Ward Just, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (excerpt), Nothing Lost by John Gregory Dunne (excerpt), Roads of the Heart by Christopher Tilghman (excerpt), and Human Capital by Stephen Amidon (excerpt). Yardley also lists his non-fiction picks in the column.Also out: 100 Notable Books of the Year from the New York Times.
Recently perusing the course offerings for Temple University’s continuing education program here in Philadelphia, Season Evans uncovered what has to be one of the more unsavory market research strategies ever employed by the publishing companies. A course titled (and misspelled) “A Sneak Peak at Next Year’s Bestsellers,” is described as follows:Every fall publishers introduce and promote a new crop of novels, books they hope are future bestsellers. This unprecedented course is your chance to get a sneak preview of five forthcoming novels from major publishers. You will read special advance copies of the books and then, as a class, critique each book and predict what readers and critics will say when the books are actually published. Contributing publishers will include: W.W. Norton, Knopf, Random House and others to be determined.Though it’s not explicitly stated that the students’ output will be delivered to the publishers, it seems likely that the publishers would only participate if this were the case. As Season points out, this would mean that students will be paying the publishers to do market research for them under the guise of learning. The course is taught by Lynn Rosen, “a publishing consultant with twenty-plus years of experience in the book industry as an editor and literary agent,” though its not clear if the concept for this course came from her.Some questions I have: do other people out there agree that this sounds unsavory? I think it is, though I’m having trouble articulating exactly why (beyond the fact that students will be paying for this “privilege.”) Also, is anyone aware of this practice going on elsewhere? Is it commonplace, or is this Temple course an anomaly?