The Learners: The Book After "The Cheese Monkeys" by Chip Kidd
On the surface, The Learners has a lot going for it. Of course, it's no surprise that a book by a designer of Kidd's renown is absolutely gorgeous from cover to typeset. And like Kidd's previous effort, The Cheese Monkeys, it's cleverly written and often extremely funny. Also compelling is the book's setting, a New Haven advertising agency in the early 1960s. And best of all, Kidd situates our hero, the hapless Happy, smack dab in the middle of Stanley Milgram's obedience experiment, where subjects were directed to administer what they believed to be harmful or lethal charges of electricity to another person.
After graduation, Happy is hired by the New Haven advertising firm that employed his former mentor, Winter Sorbeck. And for his first solo gig, he's enlisted to design the newspaper ad soliciting volunteers for the Milgram experiment (a graphic of the ad, accompanied by ironically analytical annotations of the designer's concerns with its form is a highlight of the book).
After a cryptic meeting with his former classmate, the Holly Golightly-esque Himillsy Dodd, and a tragedy that leaves Happy with many unanswered questions, he decides to become a subject himself, and acquires some devastating insight along the way.
Despite its promise, however, the book is badly flawed. Unlike The Cheese Monkeys, which is driven by the charisma of Winter and Himillsy, the characters who populate Happy's ad agency are lifeless and grating. And while Kidd depicts Happy's participation in the experiment and his encounters with the researchers vividly, the scenes in the ad agency never quite gel.
Kidd is at his best when he's going for funny; however, the darker themes addressed in The Learners allow less room for comedy, and Kidd can't deliver the emotional resonance and introspection that Happy's personal tragedies need.
In the end, the book's form is a success, while its content is not. Those interested in graphic design and rabid fans of The Cheese Monkeys should check it out, but other readers probably won't find much to sustain their interest. If you're interested in fictional accounts of famous/notorious scientific and psychological studies, however, I'd suggest T.C. Boyle's The Inner Circle, an excellent and racy account of Alfred Kinsey's research.