Tuesday, April 05, 2011

   As a kid, I think my parents tried to do what they could to make sure that there were always educational books and toys around the house for the benefit of my siblings and I. There was a 25+ year subscription of National Geographic, which remaine largely untouched in our loft* for several decades until we moved. There was Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, which was somewhat sarcastically presented to me by my brothers when I was like 9 (two years after they gave me a preemptive, unsolicited birds vs. bees talk, and maybe 23.8 months after my dad figured out that somebody had taught me the term rimjob). There were trivia books (my favorite) and keyboards and globes and all sorts of stuff. Whether or not they had any effect on us I cannot attest to. I mean, I'm sure the results varied, but I don't think rolling the globe off the top of our roof a couple dozen times taught me much about geography...
   But there was a few books that I devoured, and would re-read every couple of weeks. These were largely American history texts I've long since forgotten the names of. I'd pore over these, remembering specifics about Civil War battles and where the Presidents were born. I'd stare at pictures of the A-bomb tests and woodcuts of the Crispus Attucks shooting. I probably learned more from those books than anything else before 7th grade. There was another book that I distinctly remember showing how Samoas are made. But in spite of these amazing things, my favorite of these books was actually a science book, which is odd because I've probably never liked science as much before or since.

But this one was special. for one thing, it had one of the coolest covers ever:

   Seriously, what's not to love about that? Crazy-ass rocket ship? check. Massive, impossible-in-outer-space flames? CHECK. I think I still love this cover, and I'm sure it's the reason I ever picked it up. In fact, I think it's pretty telling that I gravitated towards a science book largely because it had a very science fiction-y cover.

   Even though I learned a good bit of physics and astronomy from these books, the real reasons I loved this book were two features. One was that on the title page for every planet, there was a great illustration of the Roman god that the planet was named for, as well as some text explaining why the choice fits. I can still picture all of these quite clearly, although searching the internet has yielded few results.

As a kid steeped in Greek and Roman mythology, this was right up my alley. I wish I could find the Pluto and Saturn ones, both of which probably haunted my dreams well into my twenties.

But there was also something else. and that was a tiny section towards the back, where aliens were discussed, and several theoretical life forms were proposed, based on the environment of their respective planets:

This was the section, the 4-6 pages in the book that I would read over and over. I loved the idea of this, creating these aliens but with at least some basis for their appearance and behaviors. These seemed like things that could be. In retrospect, this was probably my first exposure to science fiction outside of Star Wars or The Black Hole, and it probably had a more positive impact on me than anything else at that age. Maybe it stimulated my imagination, or made me want to learn more about the other planets. Maybe it provided me with a desire to hallucinate. I don't know, and don't plan to. But it was something I lodged deep into my mind and never forgot.

   None of this is that interesting, I know. What is interesting is that I always thought I was one of few that read this book. It wasn't until much later, early into my relationship with Carrie that I made a passing mention to "stovebellies" that she bolted upright and screamed "You read that book, too?"

   It turns out she grew up with the same book. Since then, we've encountered at least a half-dozen people who also grew up with this book in their houses. and what's more, all of them thought they were the only ones that read it. Usually, with something that shared amongst a generation, there's some sort of reference made to it within popular culture or something that sort of cements it in our public identity. We realize that this is material that is sharing a collective brainspace, and from there we might discuss its impact on us.

   But I guess no Family Guy writers ever had this book as a kid. But looking aounf online, it's definitely more of a widespread phenomenon than either Carrie or I ever thought ten years ago.

   I guess what I'm wondering about is if there are still books like that in kids' hands. Or even those same books. There was no reason to have this book around (I thought it came with our subscription, but apparently not), and I was flipping through it long before I was old enough to understand most of it, but it still had that impact on me. I guess they bought it for my older siblings, but as far as I know they never picked it up. Their loss, but it was supremely fortunate for me.

   It concerns me when I see how age-specific some of the books out there are. In the library, there's pretty much an astronomy book geared for every age between 4 and 15. I understand the reasons behind it, but why not just get one that's way advanced. Hell, I probably couldn't even read when I first picked it up, but the pictures were enough to get me to want to understand it. Sometimes it can't hurt to aim impossible high.

   I still buy books like this whenever I see them. Hell, I still learn from books like this all the time (a few months ago, I bought a small set of Time-Life books about Jacques Cousteau, and I'm still loving them).  I look forward to having a little critter to show these to, and maybe I'll even know enough to help explain them to him or her by then.

So yeah, aim high. It's only going to help instill curiosity in a tiny person, and hopefully within you as well. Hell, you might even be able to use it to chat up an attractive member of the opposite sex.

*I grew up in a converted barn. Read this as "attic" and not "small apt. with high ceilings"


sarah said...

My parents also subscribed to National Geographic and have archives of it scattered through out their house.

I don't remember if I've seen Our Universe though!?

Excellent post, thank you for sharing!

David Goodman said...

I haven't seen that book in over 20 years! Chris Folts and I used to pour over it at his house - I'm pretty sure I even did a book report on it. Unreal that you posted this...

Anonymous said...

I also had this book when I was a kid and spent days with it. I knew every picture in it. 30 years later the book is gone (last I saw of it, it was falling apart...), but I am a professional planetary scientist.

Jim said...

I was telling my wife about how I loved this book as a kid, specifically the section on hypothetical aliens. Haven't seen the book in 20 years, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. Serious kudos for posting this.

Oucher Pouchers...awesome.

Jimi Maze said...

Thanks for posting these pictures! I didn't actually read this article... but I was jonsin' to see the Alien from Triton... or was it Titan? Anyways, the green one (for photosynthesis) with ice skates for feet. Can you scan that for me? Oh man, that'd be awesome. I read that book dozens of times. jimimaze@gmail.com

Jon-Laurence Esnard said...

i have been googling around today (4/14/2013) for images of this book in order to find its title. thank you so much. they used to have this book in my middle school's library and it forever changed my life. i am 27 now, with a BA in religion and philosophy. However, my goal is go back to school in order to pursue my real dream of becoming an astrobiologist (all thanks to this book!). thank you so much, you could not have described the emotions that its text and images (especially the E.T. section) evoke any better...you have truly made my day/week/year!