April 23, 2022 by libroshombre
In “A History of Reading,” Alberto Manguel wrote, “At one magical instant in your early childhood, the page of a book—that string of confused, alien ciphers—shivered into meaning. Words spoke to you, gave up their secrets; at that moment, whole universes opened. You became, irrevocably, a reader.” Many of us lucky enough to get that head start still are. Some may find it offensive, but I go to bed with three guys every night. Oh, my wife’s there, too, but she slumbers hours before me, and I enjoy winding down with Rex Stout and his fictional detectives Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Stout, a true American genius by any measure, proving it in business, mathematics, and literature, was also a paragon of opposition to fascism, communism, and tyranny of all flavors, including that of J. Edgar Hoover, whom Nero Wolfe skewered and shamed for his abuse of power in 1965’s “The Doorbell Rang,” when Hoover’s FBI rule was peaking. Stout was a director in the 1920s of Vanguard Press, publisher of left-wing classics and books that other publishers deemed “unpublishable.”
Stout’s first Nero Wolfe novel came out in 1934 and “more than seventy other Nero Wolfe novels” followed, according to Nerowolfe.org, website of his devoted fans, and his books remain timeless and enduringly fun to read; that’s why P.G. Wodehouse, the 20th century’s greatest humor writer, wrote fan letters to Stout and considered him “imminently re-readable,” the hallmark of good writing. They all contain the engaging banter of narrator Archie, the housebound Wolfe’s legman, evocative settings, descriptions of fine dining (eating and orchids are Wolfe’s passions), and, most of all, the eye-popping vocabulary.
Print’s my preference, but for bedtime reading I use a Kobo e-reader. Unlike Kindle, from whom you buy the right to look at their copy of a book which Amazon can withdraw or alter at their whim, each Kobo purchase includes six unalterable downloads that you actually own in perpetuity. Kobo also has a decent built-in dictionary, but some Wolfisms require consulting the fat, unabridged American Heritage Dictionary. Among his many accomplishments, Stout, a prodigious reader with a retentive memory, read adult nonfiction from age 5, and it shows in Wolfe’s broad and precise vocabulary. Kobo allows highlighting verbal oddities and pulling them up as a group. Here’s a smattering of Wolfisms from a single novel, 1940’s “Over My Dead Body”: “persiflage” (Light good-natured talk; banter), “obloquy” (Abusively detractive language or utterance); “calumny” (disgrace suffered as a result of abuse or vilification), “metonymy” (A figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated, as in the use of ‘Washington’ for the ‘United States government’), “intrigante” (a female schemer), and “blatherskite” (A babbling, foolish person).
There’s also “asninity,” “consilience,” “hospodar,” “oncidium,” and many more, including “sittery” and “fundament,” which both mean “rear end” or “butt.” Oh dear! Hopefully no one’s offended, especially elementary children! After all, a CNN headline from last month reads, “A Mississippi Assistant Principal Was Terminated After Reading the Children’s Book ‘I Need a New Butt!’ To Second Graders.” “I am a firm believer that reluctant readers need the silly, funny books to hook them in,” the former vice principal, Toby Price, said. Kids adore irreverence, and as the book’s cover blurb attests, “A young boy suddenly notices a big problem—his butt has a huge crack! So, he sets off to find a new one … Children and parents will love this book—no ifs, ands, or butts about it!” Besides, current children’s book titles include, “The Butt Book,” “Butts Are Everywhere,” “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things,” and “What Breathes Through Its Butt?” In fact, Kirkus Reviews, the esteemed review source librarians rely on, calls it “the butt glut.”
My retired elementary teacher wife often has reason to point out that most men still enjoy humor on the 4th grade level, but so do kids. That’s why Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” 12 novels have sold 80 million copies to date) in school and public libraries around the world. Nonetheless, without any parental concern or complaint, Mr. Price was fired without any hearing or warning by the school superintendent for “violating the standards of conduct section of the Mississippi Educator Code of Ethics.” “Butt” is perfectly acceptable to children’s dictionary publishers, but not to hypervigilant organized conservative and liberal political groups who are scouring school and public libraries for things to be outraged about, like Dr, Seuss.
A year ago, Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to no longer publish several classics, including “And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street” and “If I Ran the Zoo,” because “these books portray people in ways that are harmful and wrong” since in “Mulberry Street” “an Asian person is portrayed wearing a conical hat, holding chopsticks, and eating from a bowl” and “Zoo” “includes a drawing of two bare-footed African men wearing what appear to be grass skirts with their hair tied above their heads.” Seuss drew everyone in the book humorously – an old Caucasian farmer with a Billy goat beard, chubby dignitaries, self-satisfied policemen, and all the animals are drawn so cartoonishly they only vaguely represent real creatures.
How much literary joy was abandoned by that self-immolation by the heirs of Theodore Geisel (who adopted the pseudonym “Dr. Seuss” when caught drinking gin in college and forbidden extracurricular activities, so he signed “Seuss” – a maternal name – to his cartoons for the school humor magazine and adopted the “Dr.” to honor his father, who “always wanted a doctor in the family”)? He wrote “Mulberry Street,” his first children’s book, in 1937, but it was rejected around 40 times before finally being accepted by Rex Stout’s Vanguard Press. For the record, in case you never see this particular book again, a real Mulberry Street ran near Geisels’s boyhood home in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the book’s beguiling “dah dah-dah, dah dah-dah dah-dah, dah dah-dah-dah-dah” cadence was inspired by the steamship engine permeating his cabin while traveling home from England. Geisel had dark secrets: his wife of 40 years committed suicide, perhaps due to his torrid affair with their neighbor, who subsequently became the second Mrs. Geisel. But his books fostered children’s imaginations and were game-changers for the children’s book publishing world.
The Babar the Elephant books are being banned because of their “colonial overtones,” as are Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books for their portrayal of Native Americans, and jumpy school administrators and even some librarians are jumping the gun by becoming self-appointed censors. Book banning’s a mighty slippery slope, which was proven right here in River City with an attempt to ban the public library’s copy of a graphic novel titled “Billy Budd, KGB.” Written by literary award-winner Jerome Charyn, it was well-received by national critics, but it contained a dozen sexually-oriented panels (out of hundreds of panels), and was shelved in “adult fiction” but was considered a threat to children by people who wanted it banned because of its “sexual and violent content.” It clearly met the Borough Library Commission’s criteria for acquiring books and ultimately remained at the library but only after nearly a year of deliberations. Meanwhile, another request to ban a library book, the King James Bible, was made by other local citizens because of its sexual and violent content. As a recent commentator noted online, “There is a book where the couple is nude until the authority forces them to wear clothing. They have premarital sex and have two sons. One son kills the other. There is no record if they ever married. The book is filled with violence, murder and torture and it’s a best seller.”