A friend reported gleefully that his small daughter had asked him, "What's the difference between litter and literature anyway, Dad?" He knew I'd relish both her question and his answer: "Sometimes, alas, not all that much."
I'll bet Amy Krouse Rosenthal would enjoy the partial homonym, if not the distinction. The author of more than 30 children's picture books, she loves wordplay. Her latest book for grownups, Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, makes clear that she is on a mission to extend the playfulness of kid lit to adults.
Textbook follows Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, her unorthodox 2005 collection of whimsical, humorous, often twee recollections and reflections. Rosenthal throws a lot into this new compendium, too, including a graph of Mundane Highs and Lows in her days and a roundup of her conceptual art projects from as far back as 1999. (The wittily titled "Just Add Daughter" features snapshots of outfits laid out by her daughter each night before preschool.) More seriously, she opines about her chosen occupation: "The word literature enters the room with its nose in the air. But get it in a corner, ask the right questions, and it will reluctantly fess up to its humble origins. It hails from the Latin 'litterae,' you whisper in your date's ear. It puts on a big act, but it literally just means 'things made of letters.'"
Well, for some of us, the difference between literature and more prosaic "things made of letters" — such as road signs, grocery lists, tweets and texts — is enormous, no matter how hard you try to smudge the boundaries. The American Heritage Dictionary's definition of literature as "imaginative or creative writing" better covers what Rosenthal is up to.
That said, Textbook is a sort of activity book for adults, definitely more Mad Libs than Speak, Memory. Organized into units by academic subject — Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies — it offers a miscellany of quirky, playful, sometimes self-indulgent mini-disquisitions, one-liners, confessions, charts, and sketches that capture the textbook, or quintessential Rosenthal. But it's not just about her. What she's really after are actively engaged readers who will respond to her openness by opening up themselves. Prompts scattered throughout Textbook urge readers to listen to recordings or share their rainbow sightings, self-portraits, and tales of serendipity via text or email, though Rosenthal acknowledges that some people may want to skip all this. Curious readers with time on their hands and a high tolerance for whimsy can check out others' posts on the book's website, textbookamykr.com.
Along the way, we learn a lot about our preternaturally cheerful guide, much of it repeated from Encyclopedia. Aptly, her first word was more. And, she adds, "It may very well be my last." This is a woman who sees the profound in the trivial and the sublime in the ridiculous. She writes about coincidences with the ardor of a self-help guru: "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle ... I'm going with B, everything."
Although Rosenthal pulls a lot of fluffy rabbits out of her hat, Textbook is by no means stuffed: It features more white space than a Siberian landscape in winter. Whole pages are blank, making it a whiz for slow readers but a horror show for paper conservationists. I was reminded of those school assignments where you widened the margins and piled on the verys in order to reach the requisite page count.
Another way of looking at Textbook is as a grownup iteration of the interactive, animated versions of picture books toddlers "read" on electronic devices. Geared to a culture in which, increasingly, people want to be connected, entertained, and able to add their two cents at all times, it might make more sense as a digital publication.
Still, kudos to Rosenthal for doing her bit for books, trying to lure readers in new ways. But for those of us who treasure reading in large part for the way it lets us step away from the constant intrusion of the world and allows us to lose ourselves in language, ideas and other lives within the silence of our own heads, Textbook emits too much noisy feedback.