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REVIEW: The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, by Karla Kuskin
The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, Karla Kuskin (illus. Marc Simont; HarperCollins, 1982).
The least negotiable thing in the Psmith household — after death and taxes, but only barely — is bedtime. I won’t say we’ve become a well-oiled machine, because we have been outnumbered for many years and that has a way of throwing toothpaste in the gears, but we are streamlined, which means that anything less important than eating dinner as a family and getting certain children-who-shall-remain-nameless to bed on time falls by the wayside. And that includes a bedtime book. Instead, we read in the afternoons: I settle into a comfy chair with a stack of books and read to the little ones, and gradually the older ones drift in and displace me from first my seat and then, often, my role as reader. Some of the books are ones we haven’t read in a while, some are their particular favorites (the youngest is greatly enamored of Baby Bear), but I always snag the ones I feel like reading, because despite their occasional attempts at insurrection,1 I am in charge.
So, this is a picture book. Let’s get that out of the way up front: this is a picture book that my mother read to me when I was small, and which I now read to my children, and which at least some of them like well enough that they may one day do the same with their own children. It’s sweet and simple, with gentle, fluid illustrations by Marc Simont,2 and while it’s ostensibly about an orchestra (obviously, though never named, the New York Philharmonic) you don’t need to know or even really care about classical music to appreciate it. There’s no drama or conflict or character development — no one is ever even named, although the same unique individuals (the thin man who wears long underwear, the man with the bushy beard) reappear from page to page. The book really just does what it says on the tin: the Philharmonic gets dressed.
And I cry every time I read it.
My children find this utterly mystifying: this is, after all, a book about people getting dressed and going to work, and Daddy does that every day. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a book about civilization.
The adult world is terribly confusing and complicated, and not just to children. There are so many moving parts, so many people doing so many different things and giving rise to such incredibly complexity, that no one person can wrap their head around all of it. We see the outcome, the emergent order, and we marvel — or at least we should, if we haven’t allowed ourselves to become completely jaded about buildings that stay up and cars that go and the great miracle of enough food — but as a whole it’s too much to take in. Thus the appeal of all those nonfiction books that start with one specific thing — cod, fonts, the shipping container — and trace all the ways their impact ripples through the world.3 Zooming in on a finite topic sets the stage for zooming back out, imaginatively multiplying the complexity of this tiny slice of the world by the sheer scale of everything else, to give you some sense of how much else there is. Some books for children do this too, but many take the opposite tack: WEIRD children are so thoroughly siloed away from the adult world that they really do need Richard Scarry to tell them What Do People Do All Day?4 But whether for adults or children, these books rarely tell us why.
Oh, yes, on one level it’s obvious: people build roads and grow food and mine coal so that we can all be warm and fed and housed and entertained. And it’s important for children (and adults!) to see how much dedication, ingenuity, and hard work go into creating our material world. The Philharmonic Gets Dressed has quite a lot of that, which is part of its charm: Kuskin’s one hundred and five men and women make very material preparations, and she explains each step in precise, practical language: “All the men put on black socks. There are short socks and long socks and fancy silk socks that have decorations called clocks. Some of the men wear leg garters to keep the long socks from falling down around their ankles.” Wherever she can, she uses numbers: there are ninety-two men and thirteen women; all of the men shave except for three; forty-five men stand up to get into their pants and forty-seven sit down; eight women wear skirts and four wear dresses, but one wears a black jumper over a black shirt. Unfamiliar garments are explained in detail, so that they become part of the real everyday world of boots and gloves and taxicabs. We see pages and pages of these men and women: their baths and their socks and their bow-ties, their “overcoats, jackets or capes, boots or rubbers, mittens or gloves, some scarves, many hats, a few earmuffs.” (Like all Kuskin’s sing-songy lists of objects, this one is repeated each time it’s referenced, as are the “cases in different shapes and shades of black and brown” that are picked up and then deposited again a few pages later.) We meet the man with wavy black and white hair and the special jacket like a beetle’s wings. And then he steps up onto the podium before the hundreds of people in the audience and the one hundred and four people on the stage, and he raises his baton, and a glorious transformation takes place.
All this work we’ve read in meticulous loving detail — and bathing and dressing and going out is familiar work to children, but this has been an excitingly grown-up version that involves fancy socks and complicated underwear and jackets with shiny satin lapels — has been in service of this moment. The black and white clothes Kuskin has described are echoed in the first page of the music, “a white page covered with black lines and musical notes,” and now all of it is being turned into something greater. And this, children, is why your mother is crying: because one hundred and five people from all over the city have all done small, careful, everyday things so that they can go out into the cold and the dark to fill it with light and beauty. They’re each different from one another (look, see, there’s the man who didn’t trim his beard; there’s the woman with the wool socks) but they’re much more the same. And there’s their leader, who is mostly like them but — with his big bow-tie and his baton and his thin leather briefcase — a little bit special. But together, all these people are transmuting their everyday world of baths and undershirts and suspenders, mittens or gloves, some scarves, many hats, into something glorious. Outside, night and the temperature are falling; inside, six chandeliers sparkle silently and something wholly immaterial is rising and floating above the bathed and powdered and dressed men and women who create it.
Some people will tell you that the act of reading to your children — or simply having books in your house — will make them smarter.5 This is obviously silly; people who grew up in houses full of books are smarter not because of those books, but because they’re the offspring of the sort of people who have a house full of books. But reading to your children is a wonderful way to spend time with them, to share the things you love, and to fill their minds and hearts with beauty, and all of that is enormously worthwhile. As I’ve written before, I have a fairly modest view of my powers as a mother: mate-selection aside, nothing I do is going to make my children smarter or higher-earning or more likely to get into Harvard. But what I can do, God willing, is to lay the groundwork of safety and love and order and beauty that will let them pursue the best and fullest flowering of their own particular talents — and part of that is teaching them what human beings are, because you can’t figure out how to be the best possible version of your own personal self without already having a deep and intuitive understanding of what a person generally ought to be like.
Unfortunately I do sometimes try to do this didactically (usually while we’re driving somewhere, and it lasts until I pause for breath and someone says “hey Mom, can something be poisonous and venomous?” or the toddler spots a fire truck) but that’s pointless. Instead I remind myself that, as the late John Senior wrote, “the seminal ideas of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, only properly grow in an imaginative ground saturated with fables, fairy tales, stories, rhymes, adventures, which have developed in the thousand books of Grimm, Andersen, Stevenson, Dickens, Scott, Dumas, and the rest.” I might change up that list a bit, personally — where’s Homer, Eliot, Nietzsche, not to mention St. John Chrysostom and Laura Ingalls Wilder? — but the point is sound. Words like duty, honor, and greatness don’t come quickly to anyone’s lips today. For a young person to really understand them — for these concepts to become reflexive and felt rather than intellectually considered in response to some musty old tome — he must have grown up loving them. And the best way to make your children love something is to show them that it’s lovely.
So, yes, I cry when I read this book, because it’s about what it means to be a grown-up. It’s about what it means to be human. Yes, you (really, you!) can go out into the cold and the dark. You can force entropy back just a little. You can make something great — and done in the service of greatness, even the small, careful, everyday things begin to glow with its reflected light. So what if the symphony turns back into black notes on a white page when you stop playing? God put you on this earth to create your own little pool of light and order, to take Nature’s form-giving fire for your own, to work not because it’s how you get paid but because it’s how you leave your mark. I’ve read a great many books lately about how we do that, but this picture book is one of the very few that gives the why. Beautifully.
“Mommy, Daddy, we voted that we should be a democracy.” The nice thing about being autocrats is that we don’t have to care.
You may recognize Simont’s work from the Nate the Great series or The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, but in a rather more obscure claim to fame he was also Robert McCloskey’s long-suffering roommate when a family of ducks lived in their New York City bathtub to model for Make Way for Ducklings. The bears, thank goodness, came later.
This reminds me, I would love to read something tracing a commercial property development project from start to finish. I have a young son so I know a lot about construction vehicles, but strangely the picture books rarely address things like funding, site selection, design, regulatory hearings, leasing, etc. Drop any recs in the comments.
If you do get Scarry-pilled, I highly advise you to stick to reading a few pages at a time to avoid total sensory overload. Your total sensory overload. Also, if you are also a Richard Scarry family, you may find this paper as hilarious as I do.
Or at least more likely to go to grad school, which these people seem to think is more important.