Chip Kidd’s “The Learners”.

Chip Kidd’s work (as a well-known and talented cover designer) was featured in a collection.  He’s also written two books: The Cheese Monkeys, and The LearnersI’ve written here about my appreciation of his covers, but to be honest hadn’t felt much interest in his writing.  You know – actress turns to singing, singer turns to acting, movie star with great skills turns back to writing poetry/painting/photography after starring in a really big popular series of movies, the usual. 

I became interested in the new one right around the time I was turning up the heat on studying for my counseling/psychotherapy exam:

Fresh out of college in the summer of 1961, Happy lands his first job
as a graphic designer (okay, art assistant) at a small Connecticut
advertising agency populated by a cast of endearing eccentrics. Life
for Happy seems to be — well, happy. But when he’s assigned to design a
newspaper ad recruiting participants for an experiment in the Yale
Psychology Department, Happy can’t resist responding to the ad himself.

What experiment?  This experiment:


The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience
are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most
people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at
Yale University to test how much pain
an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he
was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted
against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives
against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears
ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than
not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on
the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study
and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.



Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular
hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive
process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work
become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions
incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few
people have the resources needed to resist authority.[4]

So, did I like it?  Yes.  I liked the book.  But.  I liked the humor, but at times felt a little bit like I was stuck in a sitcom.  And I was confused by what appeared to be Kidd’s disinterest/inability in really digging into the ramifications of the experiment and the effect participation in the experiment had on Happy.  I know, he’s happy, he’s unhappy, he’s not feeling like himself, so he’s the un-happy.  Right, I get it.  But considering the moral crisis Kidd wants us to believe Happy is going through, remarkably few words are actually devoted to the crisis, except as asides, reminders that Happy isn’t happy.  But I didn’t want asides mixed in with chuckles; I wanted the experiment to take center stage, because look, Happy, you just fried a dude.  Or at least, you thought you did, and thought you had become the sort of person that could do that sort of thing.  I didn’t want hijinks involving a very large dog name Hamlet wearing shoes as a promotion and then going PG-13 berserk. 


But look, that’s a minor quibble, no doubt made larger because of my background in this field, my interest in the subject matter.  If you’re really interested in Milgram’s work, you’d be better served elsewhere.  I doubtless would have been happier if Happy (sigh) had, after the experiment, endeavored to recreate the experiment over and over and over with paid actors.  That’s probably just me, though.  The takeaway here is that it was an enjoyable enough read, made me laugh, didn’t feel like a waste of my time.  In all the ways this book could have been spectacularly bungled, my complaint’s probably pretty low on the list.

(As a final note, I read an interview with Kidd – I think it was with Birnbaum – in which he indicated yes, he would very much like to see this made into a movie.  Which would be good, except too late Shatner beat you to it!)


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