Archive for October, 2013

Happy 107th Birthday, Crockett Johnson!

Crockett Johnson was born 107 years ago today, in New York City. If you are (or will be) in New York, here are three ways you can celebrate.

1. In the shameless self-promotion department, you can hear me tomorrow (October 21st) at 8 pm Ben Katchor’s New York Comics and Picture-story symposium, at the Parsons School (2 West 13th Street), in the Bark Room (off the lobby). Free and open to the public.
Crockett Johnson's Barnaby: The Greatest Comic Strip You've Never Read
I’m up at 8 pm, but the symposium starts at 7. So, if you’re heading over there, you might come for Aaron Beebe‘s talk (at 7). Why not? Two events, both free, same evening!

2. Visit “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter,” an absorbing exhibit curated by Leonard Marcus. It’s at the New York Public Library, through March 23, 2014.  It’s also free.  And, yes, Harold makes an appearance.

Harold and the Purple Crayon, at "The ABC of It"
Here’s the caption:

"The Work of Play" at "The ABC of It"

There’s a great deal more there, besides, including art by William Blake, John Tenniel, Marcia Brown, Ludwig Bemelmans, Edward Lear; first (or at least early) editions of The Cat in the HatHarriet the SpyThe Brownies Book; the ARC of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; children’s books from the early-twentieth century Russian avant-garde; and far more than I can possibly catalogue in this sentence.  Well worth a visit!

3) Take a walking tour of Crockett Johnson’s childhood homes, courtesy of last year’s blog post.  He was born at 444 East 58th Street, but — after a few years there — grew up in Queens, starting at a house adjacent to (what is now) the Corona Branch of the Queens Public Library.

And, to conclude, here’s a photo (also previously posted) of Crockett Johnson laughing.  Enjoy!

Crockett Johnson Laughs, 1967. Courtesy of Nina Stagakis.

Photo credit: Nina Stagakis.

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It’s a Wild World: Maurice Sendak, Wild Things, and Childhood

My fellow Niblings (Betsy Bird, Julie Walker DanielsonTravis Jonker) and I decided a few months ago that it’d be fun to coordinate some blog posts today in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Where the Wild Things Are. It’s 50 years old, having been originally released in Fall 1963. After some research, we figured out that its release was in October of that year. Here’s my contribution.


Maurice Sendak’s work makes adults uncomfortable, and these adults then consequently worry about how children will feel. Will a Sendak book make children uncomfortable, too? they wonder. Or What sort of child does the Sendak book expect as its reader?  Or, even, What is a child? The Sendak book that got us adults asking these questions is Where the Wild Things Are, published 50 years ago, in October 1963.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

In his infamous 1969 Ladies Home Journal piece, Bruno Bettelheim — who had not then read Where the Wild Things Are (1963) — worried about the book’s effect on “the child.” As he said, “The basic anxiety of the child is desertion. To be sent to bed alone is one desertion, and without food is the second desertion. The combination is the worst desertion that can threaten a child” (48). Yet, as Maria Tatar points out, Bettelheim shares Sendak’s view that reading stories about childhood anxieties can be potentially therapeutic, a way for children to (in Sendak’s words) tame wild things through fantasy. One of our foremost scholars of fairy tales (the darkest genre within children’s literature, and a genre originally not for children at all), Tatar herself wonders whether Dear Mili (1988) — Sendak’s version of a Wilhelm Grimm tale — is suitable for children. “There are good reasons why we do not start out stories with descriptions of widows who have lost all their children but one or end them with images of mother and daughter lying down and dying,” she writes, and then partially disavows this criticism in her next sentence: “This is not to say that children should be shielded from descriptions of material hardships and death, only that they are not necessarily better off when entertained with stories that reflect or take as their point of departure the social and cultural realities of an age other than their own” (220). Kenneth Kidd, Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children's Literature (2011)In an essay on allegory in Sendak, Geraldine DeLuca considers In the Night Kitchen (1970) “true to a child’s experience” but Outside Over There (1981) unsuitable for children because “we — particularly children — are left at the end of this work with too much pain” (14, 22).  Kenneth Kidd, whose chapter from Freud in Oz (2011) is one of the sharpest analyses of Sendak, also codifies his notion of childhood in contrast with his assessment of Sendak’s. As he writes, “While Sendak neither romanticizes the child nor minimizes the child’s experiences with trauma, his makeover of monstrosity amounts to a kind of gentling of the child rather than a celebration of childhood’s radical alterity” (131). In other words, for Kidd, childhood is a state of radical alterity, but Sendak minimizes that, offering instead (as Kidd says later) “the domestication of wildness” (135).

While a good deal of literary criticism reveals as much about the critic as it does about the work, Maurice Sendak’s work is especially adept at calling forth our emotional responses. Or, to put this another way, the effect of Sendak’s art is affect. His books are good at making us feel. So, while appeals to emotion or to vaguely defined ideas of “the child” can mar scholarship of children’s literature, Maurice Sendak’s work actually requires us to venture into these potentially risky areas.

As I argue in an essay forthcoming in the January 2014 issue of PMLA, Sendak’s affective aesthetic derives from several sources. (What you are reading now includes only what I had to cut from that essay, plus a few new ideas.)

Part I. A Book is to Feel: Ruth Krauss’s Influence

A major source is Ruth Krauss. Sendak illustrated eight of her books between 1952 and 1960, often spending his weekends at the home of Krauss and her husband Crockett Johnson — a period of time Sendak has referred to as his apprenticeship into the world of children’s books. One thing he learned from her is to embrace the wildness of children. As Sendak told me in a 2001 interview, “Max has his roots in Ruth Krauss. You know, her phrase that kids were allowed to be as cruel and maniacal as she knew they were.  Studying them at Bank Street, she knew what monstrosities children are.”

advertisement for Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, New York Times, 1 Dec 1963

Indeed, Ruth Krauss’s A Very Special House (1953) — the second of her books illustrated by Sendak — might be read as the first version of Where the Wild Things Are. As George Bodmer puts it, each book has “a solitary child who falls into fantastic adventures that spring up from his thoughts” (181). The unnamed child of A Very Special House climbs the chairs, jumps on the bed, and draws on the walls, allowing him (through his art) to bring home “a turtle / and a rabbit and a giant / and a little dead mouse / — I take it everywheres — / and some monkeys and some skunkeys / and a very old lion.” Though the boy wears overalls throughout, in one scene he dons a white smock and a “Valkyries” style horned helmet, a costume that echoes the horns on Max’s white wolf suit. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max is comparably transgressive. He hangs his teddy bear, hammers a nail into the wall, chases the dog with a fork, imagines his room into a forest, and sails off to the land of the wild things — who, like the giant and old lion in A Very Special House, are both much larger than he is and willing to be ruled by him.

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953)

Contemporary reviews also noted both books’ celebration of rule-breaking. The Atlantic Monthly’s reviewer praised A Very Special House’s “unorthodox” qualities and suggested that, while it is “no handbook for deportment,” “in the blowing-off-steam department, it deserves an award” (qtd in Nel 137). Wild Things’ reception was more mixed, but, writing of Max’s “fantasy of rage,” the New York Times noted that the book “projects, releases, and masters a universal experience for the child” (qtd. in Lanes 107). Though neither child faces punishment for his unruliness, there’s more conflict in Wild Things than in the earlier book: in A Very Special House, “NOBODY ever says stop stop stop”; in Wild Things, Max’s mother sends him to bed without supper, though ultimately relents — Max finds “his supper waiting for him” at the end.

Ruth Krauss: Harper advertisement, 1954

One reason that people respond to Max as if he and his adventures were real is that Sendak also learned from Krauss to “keep it real.” As he said, Krauss’s “The Carrot Seed, with not a word or a picture out of place, is dramatic, vivid, precise, concise in every detail. It springs fresh from the real world of children, the Bank Street world of listening to children and recording and re-creating their startling speech patterns and curious, pragmatic thinking processes” (“Ruth Krauss and Me” 286). He’s wrong about the book’s composition: The Carrot Seed (1945) derived from Krauss’s imagined conversation with a 5-year-old neighbor. But he’s right about Krauss’s compositional methods during the period she worked with him. Beginning with A Hole Is to Dig (the first book of hers that he illustrated), Krauss used children’s spontaneous utterances in her books.

As Kenneth Kidd has pointed out, Sendak’s own experience in psychoanalysis (which he entered at roughly the same time he began working on Krauss’s books) also played a role in his art’s realism, as it helped him both access his childhood emotions and use them in his work: “His books also resemble the child-adult playwork practiced by child analysts, which is hardly surprising since Sendak imitates some of their techniques. Sendak, in short, is the consummate picturebook psychologist” (105).

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Hole Is to Dig (1952): "Mud is to jump in and slide in..."

Krauss, who also saw a psychologist, also taught Sendak not to repress his emotions. As he told me in that same 2001 interview, she taught him how to curse. Most interviews with Sendak excise the cursing, but his use of profanity was fluent, even exuberant. His and Krauss’s child characters don’t say “fuck” (as Sendak did), but they do shout at us.  In A Hole Is to Dig, a two-page spread of sixteen muddy children inform us: “Mud is to jump in and slide in and yell doodleedoodleedoo!”  In the Krauss-Sendak collaboration I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954), an older child stands between two warring smaller children, and asks one “Is there something you want to say to Dickie?” With his fist raised and an angry eyebrow slanted downward, Dickie answers, “Yes! I want to put him in the garbage can.”  In his own work, Sendak also conveys the understanding that using a large, loud voice can be a small person’s main source of power. Where the Wild Things Are alleges that Max tames the wild things “with the magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once,” but that “trick” begins with Max’s voice.  He shouts, “BE STILL!”  And they obey.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): til Max Said "BE STILL!" and tamed them with the magic trick

The impulse to draw from real children also grants Sendak access to a wide range of childhood experiences. Though Max has come to symbolize the Sendakian child, there is no single Sendakian child, no unified field theory of “childhood” that emerges in his work. Nor is there any unified style — in part because Ursula Nordstrom (his editor) and Krauss insisted that he try different approaches. As he told me, “I had to keep changing styles, and this is something Ruth did too.  Beating me over the back not to become a stylist.” I replied, “Don’t fall into a rut.” He said, “Yeah. Don’t get a style where you’re always recognizable.” So, as Leonard Marcus notes, for Sendak, “the visual manner and medium of a book mattered far less than the emotional truth it had to tell” (19).

Part II. The Emotional Landscape of Childhood

Though drawing on his own early childhood, Sendak managed to create books that resonated (and continue to resonate) with readers’ sense of their own childhoods. He understood that, as Mo Willems observed just after Sendak’s death, “However life changes for children, and how childhood is defined over generations, there’s still an inner life. Everything that you do as a child is for the first time. So, when you fail — even by walking and tripping — that’s your first failure.  And it’s massive” (Andersen). Amplifying parts of his own particular experience, Sendak was able to convey something from this shared “inner life,” something that felt universal. This feeling is one reason why critics tend to read his work as saying something definitive about “the child” or childhood. We recognize experiences from our childhoods in the art inspired by Sendak’s.

Maurice Sendak, We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993)Granting us access to that “inner life,” the faces of Sendak’s characters telegraph their emotions. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max’s face conveys a full range of emotions — anger (at his mother), joy (as he sets sail on the boat), imperiousness (as he becomes king of the wild things), and melancholy (when he longs for home). When he gets home, his light smile and half-closed eye conveys contentment. But many of Sendak’s later books do not end quite so happily.  As the rat tries to carry him off stage right, the “poor little kid” in We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993) has a black eye, and his mouth open to cry out — likely the word “help,” the sole thing he utters in the book (five times in all). To the left of him, “THE MOON’S IN A FIT”: an angry-faced moon has lifted Jack and Guy up by their newspaper robes; their feet dangling over the ground and their mouths downturned, the boys’ eyes look out at the reader, uncertainly. Just left of them, the other homeless children flee off to the left of the page, defying the typical left-to-right movement across the page.  It’s an unsettling scene in a book that ends with children only temporarily safer, sleeping in a sidewalk shantytown. The ending of Outside Over There is ambivalent at best. Armed only with a “wonder horn,” Ida travels into “outside over there,” defeats the goblins with her music, rescues her younger sister and brings her home to mother. However, as playwright Tony Kushner observes, “The reunion of Ida and her sister with their mother at the end of Outside is reassuring, though … Sendak has taken pains to limit that comfort”: the baby is tearful, and Ida and her mother “look resigned rather than joyful at the news that their absent husband/father will return ‘one day,’ which is not, of course, especially reassuring news — when, exactly?” (The Art of Maurice Sendak Since 1980 22).

Of course, as Sendak observed, “Children know about death and sorrow and sadness” (Zarin).  And attempts to protect them from books that address dark subjects may underestimate them.  Sendak again: “We should let children choose their own books. What they don’t like they will toss aside. What disturbs them too much they will not look at. And if they look at the wrong book, it isn’t going to do them that much damage. We treat children in a peculiar way, I think. We don’t treat them like the strong creatures they really are” (Lanes 106).

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): That very night in Max's room a forest grewSendak was wise to defend the right to tell stories that may upset us and Bettelheim was unwise to criticize a book he had never read. (Sendak never forgave him for that, either. In conversation, he referred to him derisively as “Benno Brutal-heim.”) However, Bettelheim is also not wrong to suggest that Where the Wild Things Are may upset young readers. I was one of those children who found the book terrifying, though not for the reasons Bettelheim mentioned. The book frightened me because I knew it was true: The boundary between real and imagined worlds was perilously fragile. When the lights went out, my bedroom could very easily turn into a jungle, bringing me far too close to the land of the wild things, who “gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” As an adult, I realize that the wild things’ googly eyes make them look more goofy than threatening. As a child, I focused only on their size, their talon-like claws, and their sharp teeth. As a result, I read Where the Wild Things Are once. After that, I kept my distance. Mine may be a minority opinion. During his childhood, Mo Willems thought it “an empowering book” (Andersen). The vast majority of my students recall enjoying the book during their childhoods. But the book does have the power to frighten.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): the wild rumpus

However, that power is what makes Where the Wild Things Are such a great book. That power is what has made it endure, and is what helped to establish Sendak not just as one of the great artists but as one of the great interpreters of childhood. Sendak understood the sometimes scary complexities of being a child. He had the courage to convey those truths both in his work, and in his role as spokesperson for both children’s literature and children themselves. As Kidd points out, by the middle of the twentieth century, the picture book author-illustrator began to assume the role of “something like an expert on childhood, even a lay child analyst,” whose expertise “came from proximity to childhood” (123).  For example, those who do not study, read or write children’s literature were a little scandalized by Sendak’s appearance on the Colbert Report, during which the author suggested that the mouse of You Give a Mouse a Cookie “should be exterminated,” claimed that “Most books for children are very bad,” and conceded that it was “a miracle that I have lived this long without having destroyed a person.”  But those of us who do study, read, or write children’s literature laughed and applauded Sendak’s grumpy wisdom. We thought: That “Mouse” book is so relentlessly average — good riddance! And: Children’s literature is art! And: He speaks for us!

Whether we knew him personally or not, he was a giant. He had come to define the field of children’s literature.  So, when Sendak passed away in May last year, we all gathered on the web to mourn his passing and celebrate his work.  As Daniel Handler (best known by his pseudonym Lemony Snicket) said, “It’s almost impossible to overstate his importance. He’s a North Star in the firmament of anyone who makes children’s books, in particular for his dark and clear-eyed view of the world that was kindred to me when I was in kindergarten and kindred to me now. He gives neither the comfort nor the horror of sentimentality” (Italie). Novelist Gregory Maguire, graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, picture-book legend Tomi Ungerer, scholar Maria Tatar and dozens of others all wrote or drew tributes. Neil Gaiman wrote two. As Kenneth Kidd noted at the time, “my Facebook newsfeed is a virtual wake” (“Goodbye, Maurice”).

Sendak has sailed off on the journey from which none return, but his books continue to provide safe passage for us to explore the land of the wild things. The creatures of his imagination speak to the realities of our world — a world in which children shout at adults, get lonely, and dance the wild rumpus. A world in which they are misunderstood, frightened, and (we hope) loved by their caregivers.  It’s a wild world, and it’s getting wilder every day.


Works Cited

Andersen, Kurt. “Mo Willems remembers author Maurice Sendak” Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen 13 May 2012 <http://www.pri.org/stories/arts-entertainment/books/mo-willems-remembers-author-maurice-sendak-9853.html>.

Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Care and Feeding of Monsters.”  Ladies Home Journal Mar 1969: 48.

Bodmer, George. “Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s Early Illustration.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 11.4 (Winter 1986-87): 180-183

DeLuca, Geraldine. “Exploring the Levels of Childhood: The Allegorical Sensibility of Maurice Sendak.” Children’s Literature 12 (1984): 3-24.

“Grim Colberty Tales, Part 1.” The Colbert Report 24 Jan. 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/406796/january-24-2012/grim-colberty-tales-with-maurice-sendak-pt–1>.

“Grim Colberty Tales, Part 2.” The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. 25 Jan. 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/406902/january-25-2012/grim-colberty-tales-with-maurice-sendak-pt–2>.

Grimm, Wilhelm. Dear Mili.  Translated by Ralph Manheim with pictures by Maurice Sendak.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Michael di Capua Books), 1988.

Italie, Halel. “Writers Remember Maurice Sendak.” Chicago Sun-Times 10 May 2012: <http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/books/12430172-421/writers-remember-maurice-sendak.html>.

Kidd, Kenneth B. Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children’s Literature.  Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

—. “Goodbye, Maurice. And Thank You.” University of Minnesota Press Blog. 10 May 2012: <http://www.uminnpressblog.com/2012/05/kenneth-b-kidd-goodbye-maurice-and.html>.

Krauss, Ruth. A Hole Is to Dig. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. 1952. New York: HarperTrophy (HarperCollins), 1989.

—. A Very Special House. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. 1953. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.

—. I’ll Be You And You Be Me.  Pictures by Maurice Sendak.  1954.  HarperCollins, 1982.

—. The Carrot Seed.  Illustrated by Crockett Johnson. 1945.  New York: HarperFestival, 1993.

Kushner, Tony. The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

Lanes, Selma G. The Art of Maurice Sendak. 1980. New York: Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, 1993.

Marcus, Leonard S., editor. Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work. New York: Abrams, 2013.

Nel, Philip. Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, September 2012.

—. Telephone interview with Maurice Sendak. 22 June 2001.

Numeroff, Laura Joffe.  If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.  Illustrated by Felicia Bond.  New York: HarperCollins, 1985.

Sendak, Maurice.  In the Night Kitchen. 1970. HarperCollins, 1995.

—. Outside Over There. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.

—. “Ruth Krauss and Me: A Very Special Partnership.” The Horn Book Magazine 70.3 (May-June 1994): 286-90.

—. We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

—. Where the Wild Things Are. 1963. HarperCollins, 1988.

Tatar, Maria.  “Wilhelm Grimm/Maurice Sendak: Dear Mili and the Literary Culture of Childhood.” The Reception of Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Responses, Reactions, Revisions. Ed. Donald Haase. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993. 207-229.

“Uncensored — Maurice Sendak Tribute & ‘I Am a Pole (And So Can You!)’ Release.” The Colbert Report 8 May 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/413972/may-08-2012/uncensored—maurice-sendak-tribute—-i-am-a-pole–and-so-can-you—-release>.

Zarin, Cynthia. “Not Nice.” New Yorker 17 Apr. 2006. Literary Reference Center. Web. 2 July 2013.


A different variation on the argument presented above will appear as “Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood” in PMLA 129.1 (Jan. 2014).


The Niblings on Where the Wild Things Are at 50


More on Sendak (mostly on this blog)

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I Love the ’80s: Dystopia, Nostalgia, and Ready Player One

Ernest Cline's Ready Player OneKansas State University’s “K-State First” asked me to talk to undergraduates about Ernest Cline‘s Ready Player One (2011), this year’s “First Book,” at a “Beyond the Classroom” event.  So, this past Tuesday (Oct. 1st), I did.  In case it may be of interest to others, I’m posting my (admittedly somewhat hastily assembled) talk here, along with some of the images and videos.

I. Dystopia

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a dystopian novel.  Can a dystopian novel be nostalgic?

For those unfamiliar with the term, dystopia is the opposite of utopiaUtopia comes from Thomas More’s 1516 work of the same name, and it imagines an ideal society.  This Utopia is the ideal republic towards which we should all strive.  And, as such, it offers a commentary on what’s wrong with society — it points to what should be improved or changed. How can we make society better?

M.T. Anderson, FeedDystopia has that same improving impulse, that same wish to comment critically on contemporary society, but it goes about delivering that message by imagining the opposite of an ideal society.  A dystopia is a thought experiment that isolates and exaggerates certain social trends in order to highlight their most negative qualities. The most famous examples are probably George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaiden’s Tale, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, and Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games. In other words, a dystopia offers a critique of society by imaginatively extending the logic of already extant tendencies. Margaret Atwood goes after right-wing attacks on women’s rights in the 1980s, and imagines a modern America where women are valued primarily for their ability to give birth. M.T. Anderson imagines a world where you’re always on-line because you’ve had the feed implanted in your brain; this changes our ability to think, to have complex thoughts. His characters are constantly bombarded with information, commercials, entertainment… and enjoy that… but get precious little time to actually think.

utopia vs. dystopia

A dystopia is a dark place.  You don’t want to live there.  You want to change your society so you don’t have to live there.

Reagan: Government is the problem.Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One presents a dystopian future, in which the widening gap between the wealthy elite and everyone else — a trend which begins in the 1980s, and has continued since then — has grown so wide that the U.S. is now a Third-World country.  In this world, neglected infrastructure, underfunded schools, social services have continued their decline.  This trend also begins in the 1980s, as President Reagan and his “government is the problem” acolytes start going after spending on infrastructure, schools, and other social services. It’s going on right now, actually, as the allegedly “conservative” Republican Party has decided that it’s better to shut down the government than allow more people to access health care.  Relaxing laws that regulate corporations — another ’80s phenomenon that has continued under presidents from both parties — has given the companies in Cline’s world much more power, so much power that instead of just enslaving people in other countries, they can enslave them in this one.  You don’t want to live in Cline’s vision of the future.

II. Nostalgia

Or do you?  Cline’s novel also evinces a deep nostalgia for the same period in which these trends begin: the 1980s.

Zaxxon

The videogames.

Family Ties

The television shows.

Duran Duran

The music.

The Breakfast Club

The John Hughes movies.

Of James Halliday, whose will initiates the contest that our protagonist pursues, Cline’s narrator tells us: “He had an extreme fixation on the 1980s” and “Halliday seemed to expect everyone to share his obsessions” (55).  To win the contest that grants the lucky winner control of Halliday’s corporation — the one that created and manages the OASIS, an on-line virtual reality where everyone spends most of their time — contestants must become experts in 1980s trivia.

I turned 11 in 1980.  Ernest Cline turned 8 in 1980.  James Halliday turned 7 in 1980.  (I figured this out because Wade’s name appears on the high-score chart in 2045, “After five long years” of no one solving the contest, initiated at Halliday’s death, … and Halliday died at age 67.)  Anyway.  My point is that Cline, Halliday, and myself are contemporaries.  We’re all members of the 1980s generation.

And, as a member of that generation, I enjoyed the novel’s nostalgia.

Especially the music. 1983 was the zenith of my pop-music consciousness. Name a song released that year, and I’ll tell you who the artist was and I can probably describe the video.

I then showed the students excerpts from a few 1980s music videos. For the most part, they laughed.

Billy Idol‘s “Rebel Yell” was a hit in 1983.  (It’s referenced on p. 184.)

They laughed the loudest at this, especially at Mr. Idol’s fist-pumping.

Men Without Hats‘ “Safety Dance” was a no. 3 pop hit in 1982.  (See p. 180.)

To my surprise, some students recognized this one.

And, yes, before there was Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” there was “Rock Me Amadeus,” a number one hit in 1985. Sung in German, by the Austrian performer Falco. (On p. 200.)

To my surprise, “Rock Me Amadeus” was less familiar to them.  Or so it seemed from their reaction.

They Might Be Giants‘ “Don’t Let’s Start” (1986) was not a big hit, but the book quotes this line from the song: “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful” (199). Also, they’re my favorite band. So, indulge me for a moment, won’t you?

Thanks.  The band’s biggest hits were probably on their 1990 record Flood: “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” They would go on to sing “Boss of Me,” the theme to Malcolm in the Middle.

OK.  So.  That was fun.  For me, anyway.

III. Nostalgia vs. Dystopia, Part 1

So. What do we do with the novel’s nostalgia?  Here are two possible readings.

One is that a typical dystopian novel — or film, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is referenced in Ready Player One — isn’t nostalgic.

Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985)

One reading, then, is to argue that nostalgia is the opposite of dystopia.  It’s a looking backwards with very selective memory.  You’re remembering the past’s greatest hits — or the parts that you like the best.  You remember fondly weird trashy pop from the 1980s, primitive computing technology, The Breakfast Club, Family Ties, and think: ah, a simpler time.  A happier time.

Perhaps you, who are at least two decades younger than I am, look back fondly on the pop hits of 2003: Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” 50 Cent’s “In da Club,” Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful,” Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”  I don’t know.

So, if we pursue this reading of nostalgia, we might remember what Laine Nooney said in her talk here last Friday, which was that Ready Player One has a vision of the 1980s “in which the popular was never political.”

The problem is that the actual 1980s popular culture was political.

Family Ties, a television show mentioned in the novel (14), starred Michael J. Fox as conservative teen-ager Alex P. Keaton in a liberal family.  It presented him sympathetically, and Fox is a likable actor, but the tension between liberal parents and conservative son was the main source of that show’s humor.  In this sense, it was a political television show.

In the world of popular music there was Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star hit single from 1984, that raised money for famine relief in Ethopia.

(I didn’t actually show this video; I’m just putting it here for you. And yes, lines like “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas” or even the notion that the people of Africa should celebrate Christmas are, at best, problematic.)

USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” an album and single from 1985 also for famine relief in Africa.

(I didn’t show this one either.)

That same year also brought us Live Aid, an all-star concert in Philadelphia and London, broadcast live on MTV.  And then there were the Farm Aid concerts, the first of which was in 1985.  And the best all-star “benefit single” to come out of that period was Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City” (1985) — masterminded by Little Steven, a.k.a. Steven Van Zandt (the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s band, though you may also know him from The Sopranos).

(I did show some of this video… because it’s quite an effective piece of agitprop.  And the song is great.  RUN-DMC! Lou Reed!  Bruce Springsteen!  Kurtis Blow!  U2!  Miles Davis!  Bob Dylan!  Joey Ramone!  Bonnie Raitt!)

There was also Nena’s “Red Balloons” (1983), a pop hit about stray balloons that accidentally trigger a nuclear war. The song hit number one across Europe, and number two in the U.S.  Originally recorded in German.

(I showed some of this one, too.)

And those are just the ones that got the most publicity.  There’s also:

  • Peter Gabriel, “Biko” from his third album (1980) — the song that inspired Van Zandt to write “Sun City.”
  • The Clash, “Know Your Rights” from Combat Rock (1982).
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (1982)
  • Jungle Brothers’ “Black Is Black” (1988)
  • The Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela” (1984)

While we’re on the subject, who was the best-selling artist of the 1980s?  Indeed, whose album was the best-selling record of the 1980s?  And is the best-selling album, period?

At first, no one responded.  After some encouragement, one student said, “Well, I would say Michael Jackson. Thriller.” 

Michael Jackson's Thriller (1983)

Right!  Michael Jackson.  Thriller (1982) had an unprecedented 7 top-10 singles: “Beat It” (featuring Eddie Van Halen on guitar), “Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “PYT,” “Human Nature,” “The Girl is Mine” (featuring Paul McCartney), “Thriller” (with guest vocal by Vincent Price).  It won eight Grammy Awards in 1984.  It’s sold about 30 million copies in the US, and another 20 million abroad.  Today, it still sells 130,000 a year.

Michael Jackson is missing from the novel.  As are a lot of artists of color.  Where’s Prince?  Purple Rain was huge.  “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” were both top-10 singles.  And then there’s 1999, which included the title song and “Little Red Corvette.”  Where’s Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine?  Her Primitive Love had three top-10 hits in 1985, and her 1987 record Let It Loose had even more, including “The Rhythm’s Gonna Get You.”  For that matter, where’s the ground-breaking collaboration and hit single from RUN-DMC and Aerosmith, “Walk This Way”?

Where is hip-hop in general?  For that matter, where is Madonna?

So, one reading of the book’s nostalgia, then, is that’s regressive.  It’s nostalgia for a very particular, apolitical, very white culture.  It’s a 1980s without politics.

IV. Nostalgia vs. Dystopia, Part 2

But here’s another reading of nostalgia — reading that’s progressive instead of regressive.  It’s also possible to look back to another time in order to imagine a better future.  For example, you might write about the 1930s — in which unions in the U.S. won workers a 40-hour work week and a living wage — in order to remind people of the power of organizing.

So, in Ready Player One, we might argue, the book expresses a longing for a particular kind of gaming experience, a particular kind of technology, a technology that embraces slowness and collaboration.

Zork I

One of the keys to the puzzle in this book is the text-only adventure game Zork.  As a 13-year-old, I and my friends played Zork on an Apple IIe. We also drew elaborate maps for Zork.  And Zork II, and Zork III.  We solved them all, working together.

That was slow, but so was the technology itself.

Radio Shack's TRS-80, with cassette

Radio Shack’s TRS-80 (1977-1981)

The Commodore 64 (1982-1984)

The Commodore 64 (1982-1984).

Apple IIe

The Apple IIe.

Back in 1980, when my parents bought our family’s first computer (a TRS-80), we would buy a book of programs (in BASIC), type them in, save them to a cassette tape, and then load them in when we wanted to play them.  Loading a program could take up to half an hour!  The 8-inch floppy disk was a huge leap forward in data retrieval technology.

Slowness gives you time to think, time to reflect on what you’re doing. It is not about instant gratification, but about rewards built up over time. We played these games off and on for weeks, months — for a long time.

I’ve found Zork via Frotz, a free app for the iPad and iPhone.  Let’s play it.  I’ll post the screen up here, read it to you, and you tell me what you want to do.

We played Zork.  Students discussed what they wanted to do, and called out sentences for me to type in. Here are a couple of screenshots.

Zork: screenshot (via Frotz)

 

Zork: another screenshot (via Frotz)

They laughed, and really seemed to be enjoying themselves.  I couldn’t have predicted it, but playing Zork was definitely the highlight of my presentation.  After we’d played for about 10 minutes, I then asked:

Have any of you ever played a text-based computer game before?

No one had. So, I asked:

What was it like?  How does the experience differ from a contemporary videogame?

One student told me that it was indeed, much slower-paced, and very unlike the typical first-person shooter games — though that wasn’t the precise term he used.

I ask, in part, because I played video games between 1980 and 1984.  Apart from the occasional game of Angry Birds, I have not played video games since that period.  And so I’m wondering if my reading of a video game like Zork — that it invites slowness and collaboration — is correct.

Perhaps they were just being polite, but students told me that the experience was indeed much as I’d described it.

Zork is, in a sense, what would also be called “interactive fiction” — something else that emerged in the 1980s, with novels like Michael Joyce’s Afternoon (1987), which you bought on a disk, ran the program, and then decided which paths of the narrative you wanted to take.

To conclude, I posed the following questions for them to discuss.

V. Concluding Questions

Ready Player One: Questions

As I told them, that last question was cribbed from Laine Nooney’s talk. We had a lively discussion, and then as we packed up, I played Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video as our concluding music.

And that’s it!

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