A couple of weeks ago I was looking through the shelves of my local used book store when three teenagers snuck up behind me. It’s a big enough store where the children’s picture book section is located in its own private alcove, the better to segregate preschooler types from the baggy-pants-wearing hooligans they are likely to turn into.
“Sweet Jesus,” I whimpered, stuffing the bills a little deeper in my pockets, and wondering what in the world such rippling specimens were doing in my little old bookshop at all – fixing to graffiti the joint? De-alphabetize it? Researching an art project?
“Check it out,” said one, yanking The Grinch from a shelf and cracking it open on his knee as his buddy zoomed in with an iPhone. “No, listen,” continued the first, and read from the page where the Grinch is caught making off up the “chimbley” with everyone’s gifts.
“Dude, that’s like - iambic twelve-ometer!”
It’s hard to imagine how the world of children’s literature might look had Theodor Geisel surrendered to the first of many rejections for And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Really, it’s like trying to picture the evolution of a species if an asteroid hadn’t collided with the Yucatan peninsula sixty-five million years ago. Of course we remain thankful to Virginia Lee Burton, to William Steig, to Ezra Jack Keats and many other literary adventurers for delivering us from the desolations of Dick and Jane, in fact it’s easier to draw a line forward from those aforementioned authors to the masters of the twenty-first century than to attribute any influence to Dr. Seuss himself. Every so often you come across second rate Seusses and they are dreadful, the stuff of one book wonders, the beginnings and ends of careers.
But you don’t see quite as many imitators as you’d think. Sometimes I wonder if the virtuosity of Dr. Seuss’s rhyming didn’t simply ruin it for everyone else. It’s like when you’re back in fourth or whatever grade, and you’re taking your first poetry unit, and they tell you: remember, it’s not always necessary to rhyme. But you go ahead and do it anyway. And you never write another poem again.
Then consider that rhyming was only one of Seuss’s gifts, and possibly the least of why we revisit him. Consider his storytelling, the limitless imagination of animals and machines, the rubbery drawings, like nothing before them or since, so otherworldly yet deeply expressive: its hard to believe we are talking about anything that can be referred to by a pronoun. Him? His? Is this even a person anymore, or an adjective? A life force? The end - and beginning - of eras?
I’d say that last is a pretty good fit, or anyway better than imagining the individual. (“Seusal. I don’t know. Ted Seusal or something,” said one of those teenagers to another. “Yo, shut up, I’m reading.”) Our history is full of what must have appeared as tiny cultural fissures at the time, and the people who cannonballed into them. In many bookstores today, Dr. Seuss occupies an entire shelf by himself, and of course people with only the vaguest recollections of his books are still drawn to them, for nostalgia, but also because the name Seuss has continued to resonate as more than the sum of his iambic twelve-ometers.
That’s a pretty big crater, probably unique. Still, I like to imagine a future where my children and grandchildren will swagger through somebody else’s daydream – in puffy shirts? Berets? - to a shelf full of Vladimir Radunsky, say, or J. Otto Seibold, or whatever other geniuses are out there already reconsidering the world.