Oh the Thinks That I Think

My copy of Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches and Other Stories

Sometimes I don’t know what to think. People around me have strong opinions and the inertia and history behind those opinions make them difficult, if not impossible to change. There are things that I have strong opinions about, too, but more often than not, I find myself uncertain as to what I think about a given subject. In those cases I need more information to help make up my mind, and even then, my opinion sometimes changes. A perusal through the early posts on this blog, written more than 15 years ago, and current posts illustrate that phenomenon. 9 years ago I stated more or less unequivocally that audiobooks are not for me. A little more than a year after that post was written, I tried Audible and in that time, I’ve completed over 500 audiobooks.

I have been asked, for instance, to give my opinion on the current situation with Dr. Seuss Enterprises ceasing publication of 6 of his books because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” People know I am a fan of Dr. Seuss. I’ve written or mentioned his books influence on me dozens of times here on the blog. So what are my thoughts about the sudden banning of Dr. Seuss books? As a fan, I must be livid, right?

Well, I haven’t written about it for two reasons. The first is that lots of people smarter than I am have written about it and I’m not sure I have much to add to what they have already said. The second is that I am still trying to figure out what I think of the whole situation. Here are some initial thoughts I had when the news first broke.

  • I grew up listening to Dr. Seuss stories. My dad read them to me every night (so it seems in my memory) and I had some of the books memorized at a very young age. I still have those stories memorized today.
  • I loved the way Dr. Seuss played with words and rhymes. I think I loved that more than his illustrations, but some of his illustrations took my breath away and they still do when I read the books to my 4-year-old.
  • I was completely oblivious to the harmful way that people were portrayed in the books when I was first introduced to them as a youngster.
  • I recognized these portrayals decades later as I came back to the books to read them to my own kids. No one had to tell me which of the 6 Dr. Seuss books had been discontinued when the news broke. I knew exactly which ones they were.

It has been my experience that people have a tendency to dig deeper into their position when they feel attacked–or presented with facts that they don’t like. In addition to being a fan of Dr. Seuss, I am also a fan of Isaac Asimov. He was a big influence on my writing, but also on my entire way of thinking. As I have often said, almost everything I’ve learned about science, I learned from Isaac Asimov. So it was painful to learn of how Asimov treated women, especially at science fiction conventions. It did not diminish my feelings about his written work, but it certainly did change my opinion of the man himself. I felt disappointed, hurt, and let down. But I accept it as true.

The evidence is much clearer in the case of Dr. Seuss. The passages are there for anyone to read. When reading the passages in question today, when seeing the illustrations in question, I shudder. But I don’t think about how it makes me feel. I try to imagine what it must be like for a kid reading Dr. Seuss who finds they see themselves portrayed in ways that are hurtful and wrong. After all, this is the world famous Dr. Seuss that everyone talks about. And yet, I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be an object of ridicule to someone you might otherwise look up to or admire.

One area where I don’t feel torn in the with Dr. Seuss Enterprise’s decision to cease publishing the six offending books. Indeed, I applaud this. Despite Dr. Seuss’s popularity and the money that his books and properties earn today, they acknowledged the problems with these books, and decided to stop publishing them.

Lots of people are saying Dr. Seuss’s books are being banned. That is not how I see things. The company that owns the rights to the books have voluntarily decided to stop publishing them. No one is forcing them to do this. I keep thinking of Stephen King’s book Rage, originally published under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. The book is about a troubled kid and involves a school shooting. At some point, as school shooting grew more frequent, Stephen King, of his own accord, pulled the book, telling his publishers he no longer wanted it sold. I don’t remember there being a huge outcry over that.

So what is the struggle? Why do I not know what I think about this situation with Dr. Seuss? First, all but one of the 5 books were published before the mid-1950s. After that, the books begin to take on a different feel. There are books like The Lorax, and stories like The Sneetches. To me this illustrates that a person can change over time, they learned from past mistakes, they can get better. This doesn’t excuse the mistakes, but if people can’t learn from mistakes, if people can’t change and improve, then what’s that point of anything?

On the other hand, in addition to owning many of Dr. Seuss’s children’s books, I also own 2-volumes of his early works–mostly political cartoons from the 1930s and early 1940s. If those volumes taught me anything, it was that Dr. Seuss knew what he was doing when he wrote the offending passages and illustration in the books in question. He was a skilled political cartoonist and so it is not as easy to write off those 6 books as “mistakes.” Still, the optimist in my wants to believe he tried to change and improve and that is reflected in his later books.

People get defensive when things they love are attacked. They dig in, whether someone is attacking their candidate or their favorite children’s author. People should be open to new ideas, but that’s just not the way we teach people to be. Interestingly, Dr. Seuss warned about this hard-headedness in a short story he wrote called “The Zax.” In the story, a north-facing Zax and a south-facing Zax bump into each other and have a heated encounter. During the encounter, the south-facing Zax says that he can stand here blocking the north-facing Zax’s way…

“…For fifty-nine years! For I live by a rule
That I learned as a boy back in South-Going School.
Never budge! That’s my rule. Never budge in the least!
Not an inch to the west! Not an inch to the east!

Too many people, it seems, attended that same South-Going School. Some people are reluctant to change their opinion because they think it a sign of weakness. This is something that we seem to encourage. Politicians who change their minds are “wafflers” or “flip-floppers.” Debate classes teach to pick a position and stick to it. I find it difficult to do that. I think of those two Zax and how the world simply moved on past them, leaving them behind. Sometimes I don’t know what to think. In this case, despite how much I enjoy Dr. Seuss books, and how much he meant to me as a youngster–and how much my kids enjoy him today, I think of the kids who would be hurt by the passages and illustrations in those six books. And I think Dr. Seuss Enterprise’s made the right decision.

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