Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Content and Form: The Learners by Chip Kidd

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.


Andi said...

Awww, sad sigh from a Cheese Monkeys fan! Although, I can see how emotional resonance wouldn't be his strongest asset. I might give it a go if I can Bookmooch it.

And thanks for the T.C. Boyle recommendation. It sounds great!

mary_m said...

I know, I was disappointed, too. I'd been really excited about it.

But hope you like the Kinsey book -- it's a corker!

Nathan said...

ah well. At least he's really good at making other people's books look real pretty. Plus, people whoo can make art really well AND write really well are over-talented douchbags.

mary_m said...

While I don't like every book he designs, he's got incredible range and versatility. And the ones I *do* like are pretty much forever burned on my brain (the cover for Donna Tartt's The Little Friend comes to mind).

And I liked The Cheese Monkeys so much (on your recommendation, Nathan) that I'm kinda like, "Well, no hard feelings on this one."

jeremy said...

I liked the first half of the Cheese Monkeys, and then it started to lose its form and just kept getting worse.

With the learners, the loss of form started on the second page.

Also, Kidd doesn't have as good an understanding of the Milgram experiments as he thinks

mary_m said...

Yeah, the ending of The Cheese Monkeys doesn't quite live up to the classroom experiments. Yet it still makes me smile each time I think about Himillsy holding up a sign by the side of the road that reads, "I AM NOT ARMED."

I checked Obedience to Authority out from the library, and actually intend to read it.

54cermak said...

I read these books out of order and so much about the Cheese Monkeys makes me retroactively upset at The Learners!