When I said that illustrated books aren’t necessarily just for kids, this book isn’t really what I had in mind. And as for literary value, I’m not going to be the one to call Mansbach’s picture book a quality book, except perhaps in the way that it may always be a classically and universally applicable moment in humor. Warning: this book doesn’t really belong on this blog.
But the other weekend, I was visiting my folks in my hometown, the grand old wine town of Healdsburg, CA. Sitting in my sadly used-to-be-local-grungy-and-now-too-hip-but-still-pretty-cool coffee shop, The Flying Goat, I saw a poster for a Go the F**k to Sleep. The poster didn’t say reading or anything like that, just “Adam Mansbach at H2” (yes, that is in fact a clever title for the second installment of the at-one-time-controversial Hotel Healdsburg). I figured, what the hell, this kind of stuff doesn’t really happen in this town of wine tasting and jazz. And it was free. So I roped in my horror/ sci-fi writer pops, and off we went.
One of the most interesting aspects of the event was the audience. Like I said, Healdsburg isn’t exactly a literary hotspot. No discredit meant, it’s small and it used to have a lot of cows before the grapes moved in. So at 7pm, as I wandered into the swanky establishment, I wondered who the hell is going to come to a “reading” of a 400 word picture book that reads like a kids book, replete with big colorful illustrations, and tends to defy genre? (The author himself had a hard time putting this one in its proper place in the bookstore, but I guess it ended up under parenting.) The answer: everyone. To both Mansbach’s and Healdsburg’s credit, the audience was a mix of grungy teenagers, bejewelled white-haired wine goers, lightly bedecked locals, and me and my dad. The spot was as to be expected, and the bar served discount “sleepy-time” themed alcoholic drinks– you see why my feelings about my home town have become so complicated. At 7:30, the audience piled into a barren, modern conference room resembling a Tinker Toy log cabin.
After a short, awkward introduction, Mansbach came out, thanking his introducer for acknowledging that he had, in fact, “written shit” before this book. Literary fiction, he called it. Can’t really blame him for feeling a little sheepish about being known as the Go the Fuck to Sleep guy. He mentioned two titles, Angry Black White Boy and The End of the Jews (he won the California Book Award for that one). I haven’t read them, but the NewYork Times Book Review had good and bad things to say about both books that you can read here and here. Regardless of previous success, this most recent of his books undeniably spanked the world of marketable writing. Now in 37 languages, it started out as a prematurely leaked book, illegally available on the internet. Within days, it had became the #2 seller on Amazon, and this was before there was even a physical copy of it. That’s kind of unheard of. But I guess, you gotta think about it: it’s a gimmick. Anyone who has had contact with kids likes this thing. And that’s almost everyone. I gotta admit, it’s damn funny
And so the reading was all laughs. Mansbach– either because of his white, hip-hop Boston background or because of the theme of his book– managed to curse like a energetic sailor throughout, gesturing, jumping, taking on various voices to mimic people like Kathy Gifford and Samuel L. (Mansbach referred to him as Sam) Jackson, the voice behind the new audio recording. Kind of like the book, most of what Mansbach said was fun and entertaining, but light and mostly anecdotal. And throughout, he kept an ironic eye on the whole thing, subtly reminding his audience that this book really is just for kicks. At one point, though only for a second, Mansbach raised a question: what does the reception of this book say about people’s willingness to admit their own failings as parents? It’s a good question.
First disclaimer: I am NOT a parent. But I’ve noticed something among people who are. In our urban, hip, green world of perfecting the art of child-raising with biodegradable diapers and college-like pre-school application forms, raising kids has kind of shifted into a career. Not that it wasn’t career worthy before, but now it’s seen as a choice one makes, the choice to BE a parent. It’s an inevitable outcome of the half-finished and faltering feminist movement. Women (and all urbanites, really) feel that they need be defined by what they do. If that happens to be raising kids, then they better be succeeding at it just as though they were an employee of the Great Parenting League. Instead of comparing yourself to the other start-ups with which you are competing, you look around at all the other parents and see, shit, they’re doing it better than I am. They know something I don’t. And there are plenty of parents to look at in a city of a million people. Not to mention that there are more books and “alternative philosophies” and do and don’ts about child raising than any informed parent knows what to do with. It’s a ton of pressure. So for Mansbach’s book to shout out, “I’m a shitty parent,” as it does, or explode in frustration with, “Shut up, Stop lying,” that’s a pretty bold statement in the face of parenting as a career. He’s saying he’s failing, that he’s clueless. And the fact that so many people are responding to this sentiment shows the real value of this book: it’s a meeting place to communally diffuse the cultural pressure imposed on urban parents. Makes it easier when one can say, he said it first, not me.
So, yes, the book is silly. And it may not belong anywhere other than the “parenting” section of the book store (and how many “how-to” books go down in the annals of literary history?). Now I’ve promised that this blog is not a advice column for parents. But this book doesn’t belong on this blog. So if you’ve never read any parenting books, and you’re looking to do so, it seems like you could start with this one. It might make all the others seem less daunting.