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Larry Hagman, What Should Children Read? Writing in Public.

The Monkey at Halloween.

1. So, Larry Hagman died. The star of Dallas. Also, I Dream of Jeannie. Dallas never meant anything to me. Tacky people in Texas. The latter, however, belongs to a strange and now extinct genre– weird crap you imbibe at an impressionable age because there is no other choice.  This applies to much of modern life. Especially food. Especially if you are traveling.

But in terms of television it is a new world.

Whatever one might say  is about ICarly or any of the other shows my five year old daughter likes to stream on Netflix – the laugh track like styrofoam peanuts crowding into  her gorgeous mind – it is at least something she has to some degree selected. And there are no commercials.

Larry Hagman, for me, recalls a bizare world my daughter and her generation will never know–the stale world of afternoon re-runs. The home from school window of time during which I would sometimes watch unauthorized  TV. The period of TV famine before the prime time feast. (And do not get me started on the purgatory of the 6:00 O’clock news, about which the best thing to be said is that it was better than the 5:00 O’clock news.)

I Dream of Jeannie, along with Lost In Space and Gilligan’s Island, were the re-runs I absorbed as a tyke. F-Troop is in there. Hogan’s Heroes. Around that age I really liked yodels, and devil dogs, whose maker, Hostess, has just gone out of business. What we expect from snacks – that they be made of food and not “an industrial step or two removed from becoming the heel of a shoe”  - has changed since that era. Has the nutrional value of the TV junk changed?

2.

Fan mail to television shows ares often addressed to the actors who star in them. And, as David Foster Wallace observed in his essay from 1988, “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” it is often adressed to the characters these actors play. Which is to say, their authors don’t or won’t understand that the characters are not real.

 

3.

I had my first parent teacher conference a few weeks ago. The kingergarten teacher was very nice. She went through a page with us in which my daughter’s work was assessed in various categories. It was clear right away that she was doing well. I noted the one area that was less than great. The teacher was philosophical. She said, in so many words, that it was nothing to worry about it would improve as the year went on, and that her greatest priority at this stage was to get the kids to enjoy school. Not at the expense of learning. But to make sure the learning they were doing was fun.

I thought of this as I imbibed a recent article, “What Should Children Read?” in which an education reformer named David Coleman, who has now risen to further prominence, was quoted as saying fiction should be deemphasized in the classroom in favor of “informational texts” because – brace yourself – it would be unlikely that someone at work would be told, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

I understand that the issue of education, like all social policy, needs to be considered on a societal, national scale, even if it plays out on an individual one. But still, this seems a very joyless approach to education, in which the process is seen purely in terms of preparing someone to work as opposed to preparing them to think.  In the coming standardized system education is a sort of incubating through which children are hustled. Then they move on to the information age version of a factory– as soon as their little fingers will allow.

4.

Sometimes I wonder about the influence of the medium–the internet–on the writing. I’m still thinking about a line I encountered a few months ago in a piece by Choire Sicha, ” You are almost always typing into a box on a series of screens on your computer.”

The piece is jokey, and largely about reddit. But the central observation is profound: the line between public writing and private writing is not exactly gone, but fine to the point of invisible.

I think about this sometimes writing this blog. Mostly I approach it as an essayist. Sometimes, less successfully, as a columnist. But a blogger is something else, really, almost closer to a diary. A journal for all to see.

What restrictions are imposed internally without us even knowing. Or, conversely, what need for exhibition is stoked, constantly, in such a way that our desire to violate our own privacy becomes not a byproduct of self expression but its goal.

Sicha offers 7 helpful hints to help determine if you are writing on the internet, i.e. in public.

The first two are the best:

“1. Do you see the words “Microsoft Word” anywhere on the screen you’re typing in? Then you are not on the Internet. (Microsoft Word is a program that old people use to type things that then don’t end up on the Internet.)

2. Is your computer turned off? Then you are not on the Internet.”

So what are the effects of the medium on the writing? A unconscious drift towards the topical. Towards lists of searchable names. The faint sense that one should both be exposing more and exposing less of oneself. I can feel a sort of virtuous drift to my thoughts here; soon i will be extolling the value of privacy, the need for privacy if we are to have a creative life. The particular kind of privacy that comes from daydreams, spacing out, and being transported by made up stories–our own or others. I believe this to be true

And yet. On the other side of this coin is the exhibitionist tendency that is stoked by writing online, where it immediately findable, as opposed to on a page, or some other place where it’s future as a readable thought is more abstract, more about potential. For example I have found myself, late at night, when in theory no one is looking, writing very short stories on Twitter. Little tales from life, in numbered form. I usually get to the end by the 15th tweet or so. If they work I rework it a bit into a piece.  But the other night I wrote one that was 53 tweets long. About worrying about my mother. That I wrote it and published it doesn’t seem strange. That I did the first draft on twitter does.

 

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