A few years ago, chatting at an academic conference textbook exhibit with a Big Bad Book Corporation sales rep, I bemoaned how boring textbooks are. Would it hurt, I asked, if they could have a bit of humor occasionally?
He looked gravely and pityingly at me, as if I just suggested that Big Bad Book Corp. should publish the printed version of Springtime for Hitler, and slowly shook his head in wonderment at the naïve and unworldly chick academic.
"Humor in history," he pronounced heavily, "is a dangerous thing."
Perhaps, I would wonder later, having not really known what to say at the time. But for whom?
My college students? Doubt it. They've been laughing at my tacky jokes for years, except for the lame ones that I drop from the repertoire after they fall flat for three semesters running.
Kids? Not if the success of the Horrible History series in the UK is anything to go by. And I still have yet to see any evidence that tasteless and funny books corrupt the young: Quite the contrary, because kids who think for themselves are usually far more interesting, sensible, and likeable than kids who don't.
The Appropriateness Nazis? A small but vocal number of overly-sensitive adults who seldom seem to have even an inkling of what kids are really like, and to whom the best response may be a polite suggestion that they get over themselves. Being an Appropriateness Nazi, of course, is not an irredeemable state. Most of us go through that phase when we first have kids: Ooh, no toy guns, no TV unless it's heart-warming and improving, no unhealthy snacks. But then our kids turn on Barney the 12-Step dinosaur, and become monsters… Not really, if we're honest with ourselves (and most of us are). They just become more completely and recognizably human, bless their little flatulence-and-poop-joke hearts.
So who suffers, then, from humor in history? Could it be Big Bad Book Corp. and their fear of of millions of Appropriateness Nazis launching a boycott of their overpriced textbooks? Of irate parents demanding that all their books be banned?
But I'm still confused: When books are banned, they get more publicity than the publishers are ever likely to pay for, and lots of silent-majority librarians, parents, and kids rush to buy or read the books in question. Harry Potter leaping to mind, here.
What do y'all think?