Giovanni Tiso begs a question through an evaluation of Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day: why is it that we no longer make these kinds of books? Why is it that we have shifted our focus to how things work or how people used to work as opposed to how people work now? Is our work too hard to draw? Is our work invisible?
I return to a favourite topic: books for children and what they tell them (and us) about society, and especially about work. I continue to operate on the basis of an anecdotal hunch, not yet supported by a systematic and quantitative survey of the literature: namely, that we don’t do this any more, that there is no longer a market for this kind of book: the comprehensive telling of how the economy operates, along with attempts to place the individual in it.
Scarry’s supremely fluent style is based on a panoptic principle: every window is open, every wall or outside surface is potentially see-through. Every building and every structure can be made to open up to the child’s meticulous scrutiny. The drawings are deliciously detailed but not in an overly technical way. The text is more informative than lyrical. And the scope of the work is genuinely impressive: What Do People Do All Day? is 64 pages long. It covers farming, domestic work, several clerical, retail and services professions, road building, the provision of healthcare, sea travel, railroad travel, policing, fire-fighting, the extraction of coal and its use in the production of electricity, the collection, purification and reticulation of water, saw milling and the paper and pulp industry. The occupations represented include mayors, newsagents, street cleaners, private detectives, policemen, watch repairers, shoemakers, hoteliers, newspaper reporters, newspaper editors, book printers, photographers, secretaries, artists, story writers, poets, janitors, photographers, models, violinists, booksellers and saleswomen – and that’s just in the first two pages.
I’ve been asking my thesis students, how do you explain your thesis topic today? And how would you explain it if it were 1911? How do you explain what you do to your parents? What do we do all day after all? Can we draw it?