Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Textbook diversity

I recently stumbled across a website that provides stock images for textbook publishers and other media outlets. Unlike Reuters and similar services, however, this organization has a slightly narrower focus. Take a look at it, and make sure you move your cursor up to the scrolling bar of images at the top of the screen.

At first, I thought this service was hilarious just because it was such a tiny, bizarre niche. But part of the humor lies in the fact that the website is blatant about something which is usually handled quietly.

A related story that got me thinking about this question of creating images of a cheerful diversity that doesn't actually exist: Houghton Mifflin got in trouble recently for using healthy children from a modeling agency and having them sit in wheelchairs when shooting their textbook images. Apparently they did this so often that they had to start keeping careful track to make sure that someone who was handicapped in Chapter 2 was not jumping around in Chapter 5. (Incidentally, insisting on a vision of the world where children in wheelchairs are stuck there forever, in addition to being rather hopeless, is clearly discriminatory, since it disregards the claims of the large community of American faithhealers.) Naturally, there is something a little seedy about this sort of thing, and the author of the article where I read about these various practices, says that truth is being sacrificed to political correctness.

He makes some legitimate points. It is offensive for the CEO of PhotoEdit (and Hollywood, for that matter) to indicate that some races can be passed off as others, and clearly we can't pretend that the high points of American history and literature are more diverse than they actually are. And if a school can’t actually find a legitimate picture of black and white kids together, then perhaps something is going wrong at their university.

Some of his other points, however, indicate that he has a very particular version of the truth that he wants presented. He rails against the publisher for not wanting to use a picture of a barefoot African villager, indicating this ignores the grinding poverty that is the norm in Africa. Who exactly decides what is representative? And even if determining this were possible, why exactly are we required to depict the median? Shouldn't the pictures in certain types of books be of the world as we wish it to be, instead of the world as it is?

I'm sure that somewhere out there in an African village is a kid with shoes. In a French textbook introducing a student to francophone Africa, I don’t see why the picture can’t be of a healthy smiling kid, instead of someone dying of cholera. A complete education will inform a student what the actual proportion is, but indicating that the former image is somehow a lie is ridiculous.

I foresee an objection that the world as we want it to be would, perhaps, not contain anyone handicapped. But this would be a world in which no one ever had an accident, and medicine had reached a stage that it appears unlikely ever to reach. A world where kids in African villages have shoes, however, and different sorts of people enjoy hanging out with each other might require a little more generosity than we appear to currently possess, but it can at least be imagined.

Obviously, an image in a textbook doesn’t go very far towards creating this reality. But even if someone laughs at how unrepresentative a collection of images is, acknowledging the gap between reality and fantasy is at least the beginning of progress. I read a good essay recently by John Crowley that said that perhaps creating an awareness of this gap is one of the functions of art.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino

I read this book largely on train rides and one long flight, and it was a wonderful companion. It's been a while since since I've read something that made me this happy. The story starts in the 1760s, with a twelve year old Italian Baron climbing up into a tree to defy an order from his father. The family assumes that after he is through sulking, he'll come down, but the Baron decides that he is never going to return to land; and like Robinson Crusoe, there is some pleasure to be had just from seeing how he manages to stays up there. The book is, in some ways, an elegy for feudal Italian society, since the Enlightenment happens while the Baron is up in trees (incredibly, he finds a way to take part); and after his death, the thick groves of trees that allowed him to travel over such an immense distance are gradually cut down.

The book is narrated as a memoir written by the Baron's younger brother, and a great deal of the book's beauty comes from Calvino's creation of this sad, wise voice. Calvino clearly understands the danger of a fanciful premise, and makes sure that there is nothing fanciful about the prose or narrative style. It reads something like an exceptionally well-written journalistic account, with attempts at corroboration and alternate versions of the same story.

A little over halfway through, thoroughly delighted, I thought about how lovely it would be to read this story to a child. And then the book began dealing with the adult Baron's love affairs and, to my mind, started to unravel a little -- or at least become less purely delightful. At first I thought it was just because the fairytale world of the first part of the book had been spoiled with adult concerns, but now I think it's something else. The memoir is clearly being written for the public by a nobleman in the early 19th century, and there's something jarring about this man mentioning a woman opening her blouse to bare her rosy nipples. There is something far too modern and unreticent about his treatment of the Baron's affairs, and it breaks apart the reality of the book.

Calvino could still have dealt with them, but it would have to be done in a different way. (At the end of the book, the brother indicates he is just writing in a notebook for his own private pleasure, but I suspect that this is Calvino realizing that something has gone wrong, because this is certainly not how the first part of the book reads.) After the Baron's affair with his one great love, the book never feels quite as pure as did in the beginning; it's hard to forget, now, that you're reading a whimsical story. Characters from other books start to show up (well, at least one, from War and Peace); events strain credulity; and one catches the author trying to be funny, instead of letting the story produce its own humor. But, for a long stretch, this is a brilliant, delightful book. And strangely sad, somehow. I've read if on a winter's night and Invisible Cities, and it's astonishing how wide-ranging Calvino's talents are, how many voices he can assume with integrity and ease. I may have to go back and read those books again, but right now this is the only one I really love.