The Vanishing Popularizer

This is inspired, in part, by Leno’s “Jaywalking” segments. As noted on this Board, the college students that appeared in this week’s segment seemed particularly uninformed (The Civil War was in the 1920s. Nixon was president, or maybe Reagan). Leno’s run this segment a lot during his decade on the air, and I usually have the impression that it’s for real – not just people deliberately acting dumb so they can get air time on national TV. The most devastating segment ran a few years ago, and showed Jay interviewing college students at their graduation ceremony, asking questions about their majors. Even when he asked them about things that are nominally their specialties, the showing was abysmal.

“I knew when the Civil War was when I was in grade school!” commented Pepper Mill.

So did I. I noted that I picked up a lot of my early knowledge of history and science from things like Classics Illustrated. Besides adapting classics and fairy tales, CI also did a series of “Special Issues” and a series called “The World Around Us”. I learned more about The French Revolution from the CI TWAU issue on it than I ever learned about it in high school. I also learned about World War II and the Civil War that way. Subjects covered by the CI books that I had were about Pirates, Vikings, Rockets and Missiles, Spies, Festivals, and Prehistoric Life (two different issues!)

I got my first taste of classic literature through CI adaptations, and learned in many cases the real story, rather than the movie adaptation. They had a lot of Jules Verne – includibng ones I would otherwise never have heard of. I read The Adventures of Marco Polo and Great Expectations that way, which I surely wouldn’t have done at that age otherwise. My mother borrowed my copy of The Iliad to use as a kind of “Cliff’s Notes” when she was studying that for her evening college courses.

In addition, there were a lot of paperback books out popularizing science – Isaac Asimov’s excellent books on damned near everything, the science series by Mentor and Collier’s and Doubleday paperbacks. I remember walking into the bookracks at department stores – not by any means an elite or large selection of books – and seeing Machiavelli’s The Prince and The Gilgamesh Epic and a book of eyewitness accounts of major battles, starting with Agincourt.

My point is that I don’t see this anymore. Classics Illustrated stopped publication years ago. They tried reviving the series – but in an artsy way that was clearly meant to appeal to comics collectors, not kids. They briefly tried bringing back reprints of the originals, in miniature. But it was literally too little, too late. And I don’t see them anywhere. Marvel started its own line of classic comics, but that died out long ago.

The popularizers of science seem to have evaporated. Try to find a book like Asimov’s “The Bloodstream” on a random bookcase today. There are certainly books available, but you often have to go to a bookshop (often a very large one) to find them, and there don’t seem to be as many general science and general history and literature pop books as there used to be. I went into a bookstore about fifteen years ago and bought a book on Crystal Growing from one of those series I mentioned. The clerk was delighted that I’d bought it – it was his department, and there wasn’t much interest in it, either in the store management, or in the customer area.

How can we expect people to become interested and informed about history, science, technology, and literature if we don’t provide these gateway introductions? I don’t see them anywhere. I’m keepng my old Classics Illustrated in the attic. I’ll give them to my daughter Millical when she’s old enough. Because I don’t think I’ll be able to buy anything like them.

There are other gateways. Kenneth Branagh is a better introduction to Shakespeare, for instance, than any of the old Classic Illustrated comics – which generally sat around unread.

There are also general science shows on TV like “Bill Nye” and shows on PBS and various cable channels.

The change has been from books to TV & movies.

I don’t think kids will sit still for Kenneth Branaugh. I read my classics illustrated – even the Shakespeare ones.

We had TV, too. I grew up on the pioneering Mr. Wizard. But there’s a wprld of difference between the fun intro you get with Mr. Wizard (or Bill Nye, or Beekman and Jax) and the more thorough intro you get from, say, Asimov.

I’m not just talking about kids here – teens and adults can get a start from Asimov, Gamow, and other such writers, too. And I don’t really see the same thing on TV. The internet may possibly fill this gap, but I don’t think it’s done it yet.