Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Do People Do All Day?

This is Busytown. My, what a nice town!

The year is 1968. The place is a small town in the United States, somewhere indefinite: think Springfield, except running on coal instead of nuclear power. And as the name suggests, in Busytown

That is a powerful statement, if you think about it. Richard Scarry wasn’t afraid to paint contemporary American society in such bold strokes. Nor was he afraid to explain commerce and capitalism to children. Observe:

Farmer Alfalfa grows all kinds of food. He keeps some of it for his family. He sells the rest to Grocer Cat in exchange for money. Grocer Cat will send the food to other people in Busytown.

Today Alfalfa bought a new suit with some of the money he got from Grocer Cat. Stitches, the tailor, makes clothes. Alfalfa bought new his new suit from Stiches.

Then Alfalfa went to Blacksmith Fox’s shop. He had saved enough money to buy a new tractor. The new tractor will make his farm work easier. With it he will be able to grow more food than he could grow before.

He also bought some presents for Mum and his son, Alfred. Alfalfa put the rest of the money in the bank for safekeeping. Then he drove home to his family.

I return to a favourite topic: books for children and what they tell them (and us) about society, and especially about work. I continue to operate on the basis of an anecdotal hunch, not yet supported by a systematic and quantitative survey of the literature: namely, that we don’t do this any more, that there is no longer a market for this kind of book: the comprehensive telling of how the economy operates, along with attempts to place the individual in it. This is not to say, as usual, that the accounts are uncomplicated, nor that they are ideologically transparent or sympathetic. But rather that it may say something that we’ve stopped even trying – something about the less visible, tangible nature of work, but also about our diminished capacity to understand and represent it.

Scarry’s supremely fluent style is based on a panoptic principle: every window is open, every wall or outside surface is potentially see-through. Every building and every structure can be made to open up to the child’s meticulous scrutiny. The drawings are deliciously detailed but not in an overly technical way. The text is more informative than lyrical. And the scope of the work is genuinely impressive: What Do People Do All Day? is 64 pages long. It covers farming, domestic work, several clerical, retail and services professions, road building, the provision of healthcare, sea travel, railroad travel, policing, fire-fighting, the extraction of coal and its use in the production of electricity, the collection, purification and reticulation of water, saw milling and the paper and pulp industry. The occupations represented include mayors, newsagents, street cleaners, private detectives, policemen, watch repairers, shoemakers, hoteliers, newspaper reporters, newspaper editors, book printers, photographers, secretaries, artists, story writers, poets, janitors, photographers, models, violinists, booksellers and saleswomen – and that’s just in the first two pages.

The tone is generally cheerful, but watch out for the occasional weird touch: Scarry’s trademark gridlocks-cum-pileups, undermining the idea of the smooth flow of people and goods on the urban grid, and those wonderfully thing-shaped vehicles of his – the apple cart, the egg van, the baguette car – straining against the opacity of symbols and abstractions.

Nonetheless, Busytown is a place that works. Literally, in that it appears to enjoy full employment, and also in the sense that it has few obvious social problems. The police force, consisting of Sergeant Murphy, Policeman Louie and their chief, is charged with ‘keeping things safe and peaceful’ and ‘protecting the townspeople from harm’, which appears to largely consist of directing traffic, ticketing hoons and apprehending the town’s notorious thief, Gorilla Banana.

Now of course one could opine that it’s in fact diffuse surveillance and self-surveillance that keep such remarkable order. All those open windows and doors, all that neighbourly cheerfulness, have a slightly sinister edge to them, if you’re inclined to look for it, as do the lengths that some of the citizens will go to in order to promote proper behaviour amongst children.

Gender roles could also use some deconstructing, for while it is nice of the author to acknowledge that ‘Mother’s work is never done’, it would be even nicer to give the poor woman a scene in which she’s not wearing an apron. In this section we also find one of the most striking images in the book, that of the mother struggling to keep a brush salesman at bay.

You could recycle this one wholesale to describe Internet shopping. But otherwise these rigidly gendered vignettes do get Scarry in a bit of trouble with the publishers, who have developed something of a habit for doctoring his work to suit today’s more sensitive audiences.

Comparison between the 1963 and 1991 editions of Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever. A father appears in the kitchen in the later edition. From kokogiak’s excellent Flicker set, which includes several more examples.

Another distinctly of-its-time section – and it gets predictably omitted in the abridged editions – is the one in praise of coal digging to ‘make electricity work for us’. In contrast with other children’s authors of his time, like Tison and Taylor, Scarry here is refreshingly unencumbered by environmental concerns, to the point of allowing himself a little sight gag, whereby the fox’s electric barbecue produces a far larger and denser cloud than the smokestacks at the mine or at the power plant.

However I am just as impressed but the extent in which Scarry’s work has in fact not dated very much at all. While the book covers an almost bafflingly broad range of occupations and includes sections on the extraction and transformation of raw materials, there is one notable omission: large-scale manufacturing. And without industry, from a Western perspective the book seems in fact almost presciently current. Some of the jobs the author describes have evolved, very few of them have all but disappeared (you can’t easily bump into a blacksmith, much less one who sells tractors); the texture of our cities has changed and those little shops have given way to larger chain stores; but by and large we still do the things that occupy Scarry’s anthropomorphic menagerie: we fix the sewers and serve the meals and cut down the trees and drive the trucks and cultivate the land and so forth. It’s almost as if Scarry made a conscious effort to draw only the jobs that could not be outsourced overseas, and had thus future-proofed the book for his domestic audience.

Which rather begs my usual question: so why is it that we no longer make these kinds of books? Why is it that we have shifted our focus to how things work or how people used to work as opposed to how people work now? Is it that work is too elusive, that new economy jobs are harder to draw? Can we not deal with the fact that Alfalfa has become a derivatives trader? But work of course is far from invisible. It’s not just that we do so many of the occupations lovingly drawn by Scarry, and in more or less the same way. It’s also that people still work in manufacturing, only mostly elsewhere. We could teach our children about that, just like we teach them that everybody poops. They both seem worthy topics. And it will be fraught, of course, and the politics of it will seem hard to navigate – because they are – but that’s not a valid reason not to do it.

Above all 'what do people do all day?' strikes me as such an excellent and important question. If you’ve ever had to explain to a child what it is that you do, you’ll know it can be a rather sobering exercise, rather like in that series of radio sketches by David Mitchell and Robert Webb where in order to keep your job you’d have to explain it to a panel of old ladies first. How do we occupy our time, and how valuable or fun or enriching is it? To attempt a proper answer that goes back to the first principles means having to reflect on what we mean when we use words like economy and ecology, and to frame these reflections imaginatively, as children’s literature requires, adds further value to that. Simplified, purified, prettified, the economy as depicted by Scarry seems so much more humane, so much less monstruous, yet also perplexing and strange, in that everything is de-naturalised and has to be re-learned, which is to say reimagined.

It would be far too grandiose to call it the beginning of an education in utopian thinking, wouldn’t it?

Richard Scarry. What Do People Do All Day. New York: Random House, 1968.

This benefited from a conversation with and linky suggestions by Jolisa Gracewood, whose blog is, if I may be allowed to say so, practically eponymous.

Go to part one in this series, About Dustmen. Also in the series: The Happy Worker, Work-Slash-Life.