We have read it on a boat.
We have read it with a goat.
We have read it here and there.
We have read it everywhere.
All over the country, hard-working students are walking across a stage, accepting a diploma and receiving a copy of “Oh, the Places You'll Go.” Possibly, two or three.
Since Theodor Seuss Geisel published it in 1990, “Oh, the Places You'll Go” has attained a unique position in our culture. No other book enjoys such iconic status as a go-to gift. It's “the winning-est winner of all” in the Seuss canon, with sales growing every year. In 2018, it moved 800,000 copies.
How the Seuss stole graduation is a tale that sheds light on our own aspirations. The extraordinary success of “Oh, the Places You'll Go” stems from the book's infinitely flexible appropriateness. Children leaving kindergarten respond to Dr. Seuss' colorful drawings and silly rhymes. For teens graduating from high school, the book is a sweet reminder of their waning adolescence. College graduates accept it as a cute token of nostalgia. And all allegedly resonate to the book's rousing invocation of adventures just over the horizon.
But when the book first appeared, it's success was not 98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed. As Brian Jay Jones points out in his new biography, “Becoming Dr. Seuss,” some of the first reviews were harsh. Alison Lurie, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and a scholar of children's literature, panned it as “the yuppie dream – or nightmare – of 1990 in cartoon form.”
“Oh, the Places You'll Go” appeared just a year before Geisel died. “I don't think he had any idea how huge that book was going to be,” Jones says. But Geisel's editors at Random House knew it was something special. “Former editor Michael Frith remembered reading through the pages and felt a catch in his throat. 'Do you know what this is? It's his valedictory. He's saying goodbye to us.' ”
The story is about a little white boy heading off with great promise in any direction he chooses. The narrator assures him, “Out there things can happen/and frequently do,” “Just go right along,” the narrator advises. “Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.”
No wonder hundreds of thousands of new graduates unwrap this book every year. As critics have noted, “Oh, the Places You'll Go” is a full-throated affirmation of individual supremacy in a competitive market.
This is the American myth of self-determination spun in lamb's wool – the perfect book for an Ayn Rand-themed baby shower. Its sweet promise of complete autonomy is a bouncing repudiation of the claim that it takes a village.
Indeed, for this little hero, as for Jean-Paul Sartre, hell is other people. Seuss illustrates that in the story's darkest – and only fully populated – moment: The Waiting Place. It's a purgatory of suspended animation.
Not our graduate! He doesn't wait – he moves out alone, “All Alone!” If anything, “Oh, the Places You'll Go” is an affirmation of solitude as an existential fact and an opportunity. What fantasy could be more appealing to debt-laden graduates moving back home with their parents? “Oh, the Places You'll Go” may not tell us much about the way the world works, but it tells us a lot about how a certain set of Americans wish it worked.
Seth Lerer, author of “Children's Literature: A Reader's History, From Aesop to Harry Potter,” notes that the rise of “Oh, the Places You'll Go” as a graduation gift coincides with the lengthening of adolescence for college-age people.
“They are much closer to their parents,” Lerer says. “Many of my students still have a very childish aspect about them.”
That change is reflected in graduation gifts, too. In the 1970s, Lerer recalls, new graduates commonly received a copy of Roget's Thesaurus and a fancy pen-and-pencil set. “The belief was that ... you needed to be ready to read and write, that the transition was a transition of literacy,” Lerer says. “What Dr. Seuss hit in 'Oh, the Places You'll Go' and the reason it's been adopted is because many people now think that the transition is not about reading and writing, it's about action. It's about doing. It's about going places. That speaks to a lot of what many people would like to believe about the world now: Armed with your iPhone and Dr. Seuss, you can conquer the world.”
Which, of course, is a fantasy, but that's often what beloved books give voice to in paradoxical ways. For the first generation in U.S. history to do worse than their parents, “Oh, the Places You'll Go” is just right: It celebrates young adults' dreams of escaping from home in the warm embrace of a children's book they associate with home.
Rachel Cass, the book buyer at Harvard Book Store, displays the book every year around Harvard's commencement and usually sells about 150 copies, the store's biggest graduation seller. One local hotel places a large order and gives them away.
Is there something odd about graduates from the nation's most prestigious university receiving a picture book that contains fewer than 1,000 words? Cass is reluctant to pass judgment, but admits, “I'm not even sure people who buy it necessarily remember exactly what's in it or have read it. Honestly, it feels a little cliché.”
Vanity Fair contributing editor Bruce Handy revisited the whole canon of children's literature to write his book, “Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult.” He came away decidedly unimpressed by “Oh, the Places You'll Go.” “It feels canned and not lazy, exactly, but easy,” he says, “both in its thinking and in some of its rhymes.” He prefers the “underlying strangeness and melancholy” of Emily Winfield Martin's “The Wonderful Things You Will Be,” which he acknowledges bears a debt to “Oh, the Places You'll Go!” And for older students, he would select something much tougher: “Lost Illusions,” by Honoré de Balzac.
I rarely read “Oh, the Places You'll Go” to my own children, although we were huge fans of Seuss' more whimsical books. The didacticism of “Oh, the Places You'll Go” was a turnoff. For all its nattering on about life's boundless possibilities, it's a book that tells you exactly where to go. And it wasn't a place that resonated with us.
My elder daughter was born with severe brain damage, which meant she needed 24-hour care. We maintained a very happy home, but we knew just how much we needed each other, our extended family and the vast network of teachers and aides. The idea of prancing off alone “in the wide open air” didn't feel like an aspiration; it felt like a betrayal.
Our situation may have been extreme, but its ethos certainly wasn't unique. For people who understand the benefits of community, the importance of learning to live together and the emptiness of being as “famous as famous can be,/with the whole world watching you win on TV,” “Oh, the Places You'll Go” is nonsense – and not the good kind.
It's hard to retire a cherished children's book. And maybe we don't really have to give it up. But surely we can stop buying duplicate copies. And better yet, rather than reaching for a picture book that's become the literary equivalent of a worn greeting card, why not spend a moment selecting a book that might actually get read and convey some fresh, relevant inspiration?
For anyone who can read something more complex than a chapter book, maybe it's time for “Oh, the Places You'll Go” to go. As Dr. Seuss himself said:
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.