Pinkwater – Little Pitchers Have Big Ears

by John Holbo on June 22, 2011

Pursuant of my previous post, the Wikipedia entry for The Big Orange Splot notes that the book uses big words, as books for 4-8 year-olds go. Yes. Words like ‘baobab’ and ‘frangipani’. This is standard Pinkwater operating procedure. Compare a passage from Irving and Muktuk, Two Bad Bears, likewise officially aimed at the 4-8 set. “FWOP! FWOP! FWOP! Oh no! It is the helicopter! FWOP! FWOP! FWOP! Adieu, Irving and Muktuk. Once again, you have failed to obtain muffins by stealth and subterfuge.” My limited acquaintance with the world of children’s book leads me to believe authors are typically editorially compelled to write much less trisyllabically. Pinkwater, being a big fish in this publishing pond, can get away with it. But surely he’s doing it right. Kids are engineered to pick up language from adults, who frequently talk to other adults, so if you write a bit over kids’ heads, they’ll just learn what ‘subterfuge’ means 5-10 years earlier than they might otherwise. Surely there is no harm in that. Kids find it interesting. What do you think? What are your favorite books for very young children that really pour on the vocabulary, apparently on the theory that little pitchers have big ears?

Missed Opportunities For Culture War

by John Holbo on June 22, 2011

Quick thoughts in response to Yglesias’ ‘against character’ post. Zoning laws are a perfect example of an area in which it is hard to come up with good, principled, liberal answers – classically liberal, that is – that don’t reduce to absurdity. Richard Epstein philosophizes with a hammer about this, with the air of one delicately operating with a scalpel. Pretty much everything the government does should count as a ‘taking’. For a more winning defense of zoning libertarianism, see Daniel Pinkwater, The Big Orange Splot [amazon] – video here. It’s interesting that conservatives have never sought to open a permanent culture war front against zoning regulations. It seems like a perfect opportunity for a toxic mix of dog-whistles, pandering to bad actors, and all-around irritable gestures seeking to resemble ideas, while managing to be wedge issues. All this irritation, around a grain of truth, can produce scholarly pearls, such as Epstein’s classic book, which in a certain sense expresses an all-American conservative dream. Because, after all, Yglesias is quite right that it doesn’t make much sense, either in philosophic principle or economic practice, for zoning regulations to be so conservative a lot of the time (in the etymological sense of ‘conservative’, not the American political sense.) Possibly only the fact that Pinkwater’s Plumbean is obviously a Big Hippy has preserved us from an Epsteinian slippery slope, in polemical, culture war practice. Conservatives could do with astroturf Joe the Plumbeans, if only they could find them. Someone who can dump a big orange splot of pollution, while declaiming, like Walt Whitman, “My backyard is me and I am it! My backyard is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams!” Take that, ‘neat street’ zombie liberal clones! That would substantially confuse the issue, in ways that are really philosophically unresolvable. (Bonus style points if you can somehow connect Plumbean with Pruneyard without looking like you are trying way too hard, as I clearly am.)

Defenders of Epstein will note, correctly, that his view is very nuanced and he wouldn’t by any means say everyone gets to dump whatever toxic splot they want, so long as it’s their land. Quite right! Epstein’s philosophy would give a much more sensible resolution to the ‘nuisance’ posed by the Plumbean case than probably any existing zoning laws in the land. Granted. My point is different. Epstein combines exquisite theoretical sophistication with crude anti-New Deal contrarianism (in my opinion). Given the bottomless appetite for the latter, among American conservatives, it’s interesting that there isn’t a dumbed-down, popular talk radio talking point version of Epstein’s philosophy, minus the intellectually worthwhile bits, in constant circulation. It seems like a missed opportunity for debasing the discourse. Again, maybe it’s just that Plumbean is a Big Hippy. What do you think?

UPDATE: I suppose I should have linked to the Wikipedia summary of the plot. For the busy, executive reader of CT who needs the bullet point version of Pinkwater’s classic children’s picture book.