Today, Nearly 14 years after he passed away, a new Dr. Seuss book hits store shelves and it’s not the first one to arrive following the author’s death. No, I already own five other books by Seuss (or partially by him) published after September of 1991. They aren’t all disappointing, but they are more often than not and “What Pet Should I Get?” definitely adds to that letdown feeling.
I have loved Dr. Seuss for decades, my grandparents had some of his books that my grandfather would read to us when we were over there, and since those early moments I was a fan. I remember buying “The Butter Battle Book” when it was first released and still kick myself for writing my name in the first edition copy.
There is a lilting rhyme and wonder to a well-composed Seuss and the note from the publisher in the back of “What Pet Should I Get?” offers a quote from him about that composing, “‘I know my stuff looks like it was rattled off in twenty-eight seconds… but every word is a struggle and every sentence is like the pangs of birth.'” What this book, and some of those other post-death books offer are words, sentences, and thoughts that haven’t gone through those pangs. They are incomplete, insufficient, imperfectly articulated. It is, in short, a rough draft.
But, that is not a revelation and this is not a book review.
No one would argue that this book was completed by Seuss before he died. The manuscript was found squirreled away in a box, seemingly set aside something on the order of a half-century ago. Rediscovered in 2013, we are now getting the book and I have several different feelings about it all.
On the one hand, like so many others, I’m happy to have another Seuss book to read, to admire, to contemplate. The idea that there might be something more, and something great, right around the corner is fantastic.
The realistic side of me, however, says that there isn’t something wonderful on the way. Anything that wasn’t finished by him has the distinct sense of, well, not being finished by him. We aren’t going to get that perfectly lyrical structure, that deep thought wrapped around a child-like idea, that sense of wonder.
The new books are trading on the memory of the old, they are selling back to me that nostalgic feeling I had buying “The Butter Battle Book,” or writing a “Lorax” spoof for 11th grade English. And, what’s worse, they have the same awkwardness that my spoof exhibited, awkwardness that Seuss would have been polished out in the final form, if there ever was a final form.
There is actually a suggestion in “What Pet Should I Get?” that the book may have morphed into “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish,” that it is an early draft of what that book became. Ladies and gentleman, I give to you the first version of Atticus Finch.
Is that really what we want? Is the lure of nostalgia so strong that we have to continually resurrect these things, pitch them as new and different, and just sit back as the money rolls in?
The best moment in “What Pet Should I Get?” is there in the publisher’s note as they put a drawing from “One Fish Two Fish” side-by-side with one from this book. It offers an example of how the image from one may have morphed into the other. Not did, just may have.
What I want, what I would gladly purchase, is a Seuss book that put up one of these unpublished drafts next to a finished form, so that we could see how A became B. That would be incredible. It would offer insight into his process, it would be intellectually stimulating, and it would still spark that bit of nostalgia without making me feel as though I was being exploited.
The truly horrible thought about it all, and the one I’m going to leave you with, is this – I don’t think for a minute that this is the last manuscript that is going to be found, polished, and sold. And worse, when the next one is announced I’m going to pre-order it just as quickly as I did “What Pet Should I Get?”
photo credit: Penguin Random House