by Kyle Smith)
Congratulations, grads. You’ve spent four years pondering morality in the “Grand Inquisitor” episode of “The Brothers Karamazov.” You’ve attained an understanding of differential calculus, organic chemistry, cognitive science. You’ve written papers on Faulkner, Islam in medieval Europe, feminist politics in the Great War. Now it’s time for a special present in recognition of all you’ve achieved, a memento of your learning, a welcome to adult life.
It’s a copy of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
Dr. Seuss’ book re-enters the bestseller lists each spring because, in America at least, it’s The Book to give to graduates. It now comes adorned with a spiffy legend reading, “Graduate keepsake edition.” You know, just like your grandpa’s gold watch.
This is a book that contains such career advice as, “You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” Predictions like, “There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.”
Warnings like, “Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.”
You’re 18, or 22. You’ve finished grade 12. Or maybe grade 16. Why does everyone think you’re still reading at a first-grade level? When a biology professor wins tenure, does somebody give him a toy microscope? When a baseball player gets drafted, does someone give him a Wiffle bat?
My advice to graduates receiving a copy of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”: Smile politely, say thank you. Then get out the lighter fluid, give the book a good dousing and return it to whoever gave it to you, in flames.
What does it say about us as a culture that people completing the most rigorous intellectual challenge most of us will ever face are given a book with such insipid declarations as, “Fame! You’ll be as famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.”
Is there anything shallower or less worthy of encouragement than the idea that appearing on TV provides personal validation? “A Survivor you’ll be when you’re striving, you’ll see! Or at least join the Real World and crush MTV!”
I’m not sure which is more troubling — that we think so little of young adults that we give them the literary equivalent of Frosted Flakes at a turning point in their lives, or that millions of newly minted graduates might actually mistake this puerile mush for profundity.
The relentlessly positive American outlook is part of what defines us. It’s at the heart of our entrepreneurial energy and our willingness to upend established norms. We are a people forever restless with the belief that something better probably lies ahead.
I’m not saying we should turn into France, where I imagine new graduates are given a rare leatherbound copies of Céline’s “Death on the Installment Plan,” or Germany, where they probably get a matched set of paperbacks on industrial engineering.
It’s not so much that the message of Dr. Seuss — keep your chin up, you’ll get through the dry spells, success is 98 and three-quarters percent guaranteed — is wrong. If you can’t be foolishly overconfident on graduation day, when can you be?
No, the problem of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” is that it’s trite, shallow and (an occupational hazard that can accompany writing for children) childish. There is no shortage of books that have an uplifting message and are actually interesting and insightful enough to hold an adult’s attention for more than the three minutes it takes to flip through “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
Why not give graduates a book that actually meant something to you at a formative age? Ask a few questions. Maybe they haven’t read “The World According to Garp,” “Franny and Zooey,” “The Right Stuff” or “The Last Lion.” Wouldn’t it feel great to be the one who introduced them to the good-humored warmth of Nick Hornby, the humanity of Larry McMurtry or the elegance of Michael Chabon?
In college, we used to joke nervously about existence after we crept out from under our little pup tent of fantasy and into what we darkly referred to as “real life” or “the real world.” Our feelings were a complicated brew of wary nostalgia and brisk impatience, of angst, regret, reflection and exhilaration.
What the moment didn’t feel like was a candy-colored fizz of canned clichés.