The Battle Continues Over "Childish Things"

The recent kerfuffle between Bill Maher and comic fans mourning Stan Lee's passing has illustrated an ugly truth that geeks everywhere continue to face: geekdom is still viewed by some as a sign that society has failed to "grow up."

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.​

It Started with Stan

The death of comics legend Stan Lee prompted an outpouring of grief and comedian Bill Maher took his passing as an opportunity to take a shot at fandom with an essay titled "Adulting":

"...the assumption everyone had back then, both the adults and the kids, was that comics were for kids, and when you grew up you moved on to big-boy books without the pictures. But then twenty years or so ago, something happened – adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff. And so they pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature."

The response was swift. Maher admitted the lost 40,000 Twitter followers after his post and that he's still followed by paparazzi asking him about "the Stan Lee thing." In response, Maher doubled down in a scathing attack on geekdom everywhere with a video titled, "New Rule: Grow Up":

"...the point of my blog is that I'm not glad Stan Lee is dead I'm sad you're alive...my shot wasn't at Stan Lee it was at, you know, grown men who still dress like kids...I'm sorry but if you are an adult playing with superhero dolls--I'm sorry, I mean collectible action figures!--why not go all the way and drive to work on a big wheel? Grown-ups these days, they cling so desperately to their childhood that when they do attempt to act their age they have a special word for it now, 'adulting'."

If those statements make your blood boil, you're not alone. The comic book industry's condemnation of Maher's comments were swift and wide-reaching. Stan Lee's estate responded directly to Maher:

Mr. Maher: Comic books, like all literature, are storytelling devices. When written well by great creators such as Stan Lee, they make us feel, make us think and teach us lessons that hopefully make us better human beings. One lesson Stan taught so many of us was tolerance and respect, and thanks to that message, we are grateful that we can say you have a right to your opinion that comics are childish and unsophisticated. Many said the same about Dickens, Steinbeck, Melville and even Shakespeare. But to say that Stan merely inspired people to “watch a movie” is in our opinion frankly disgusting. Countless people can attest to how Stan inspired them to read, taught them that the world is not made up of absolutes, that heroes can have flaws and even villains can show humanity within their souls.

The same criticism has been leveled at all things geeky, including role-playing games.

Are Role-Playing Games Childish?

Maher's attack on comics is essentially an attack on geekdom itself; the defense from Stan Lee's estate is an argument for the kind of imaginative storytelling that is at the heart of role-playing games.

In a lengthy response to a Quora question if D&D is "too immature and childish," Jake Harris explained:

D&D is a great game that brings people of all kinds together, for those willing to actually try and enjoy it. It's far from childish. Same with other forms of science fiction and fantasy. I strongly believe that these are lowkey pillars of society, which endure when pop culture constantly waxes and wanes with new trends and interpretations of “pop”. Dungeons & Dragons might have 6 Editions (I'm counting 3rd and 3.5 Editions) and Pathfinder, but its playerbase and rules remain largely the same: sit around a table, and travel to far-off lands, doing what no one else in the world is able to. Maybe you think that's childish. Maybe you could even argue that it is. Fine. I submit that maybe our world needs a little childishness. Maybe if we learn to fight less and play more we might actually get somewhere. If we choose to let the children inside of us inspire ourselves and those around us, we might not be stuck with all the problems we have.

Comedian and actor Patton Oswalt doesn't see a difference between pop culture and geek culture:

...I've got news for you—pop culture is nerd culture. The fans of Real Housewives of Hoboken watch, discuss, and absorb their show the same way a geek watched Dark Shadows or obsessed over his eighth-level half-elf ranger character in Dungeons & Dragons. It's the method of consumption, not what's on the plate.

That times have changed is perhaps best exemplified by the Collins online dictionary, which signified a shift away from Maher's perspective:

Once a slur reserved for eggheads and an insult aimed at lovers of computer programming, geek has been deemed the word of the year by the Collins online dictionary. Less brazen than selfie – which topped the Oxford Dictionaries poll last month – geek was chosen as a reminder of how an insult can be transformed into a badge of honour, according to Collins. In September the dictionary changed the main definition of geek from someone preoccupied with computing to "a person who is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject'', adding geekery, geek chic and geekdom to the fold.

Part of geekdom is maintaining the passion for things we enjoyed as children into adulthood, but it does not necessarily mean that we aren't effectively "adulting." Although geekdom seems to have taken over popular culture, comedians like Maher are there to remind us that not everyone is okay with the takeover.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
You said that you got it for her so she could read, and now she is also using for all the other things that people can use Ipads for?

Called it.
You might want to reread the relevant post again: I said reading was the #1 reason we initially got her an iPad, not the only reason. It’s a crucial distinction.

Before the iPad, she did all of those other things on her desktop computer except read. Her time reading- one of her major pass times- was declining due to the costs & mass of large print hardcovers. The iPad erased those issues.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
What decline?
Some of the reports I found were behind paywalls, but since 2000 or so, there are noticeable trends in declining leisure readership. According to some, the annual percentage of Americans who didn’t voluntarily read a book for leisure at all in the 12 months before being surveyed bounces between 19-27%. Then you get those who only read their “beach reads”, etc.- a couple books a year or so. IOW, once a sizable number of people get out of HS or college, they’re pretty much not reading anything most people would tag as “literature.”

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/why-we-dont-read-revisited
http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/23/who-doesnt-read-books-in-america/

Don’t get me wrong- page-turners are perfectly fine for what they are. I’ve definitely read a few myself. But even those are being ignored by more and more people.
 
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doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Some of the reports I found were behind paywalls, but since 2000 or so, there are noticeable trends in declining leisure readership. According to some, the annual percentage of Americans who didn’t voluntarily read a book for leisure at all in the 12 months before being surveyed bounces between 19-27%. Then you get those who only read their “beach reads”, etc.- a couple books a year or so. IOW, once a sizable number of people get out of HS or college, they’re pretty much not reading anything most people would tag as “literature.”

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/why-we-dont-read-revisited
http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/23/who-doesnt-read-books-in-america/

Don’t get me wrong- page-turners are perfectly fine for what they are. I’ve definitely read a few myself. But even those are being ignored by more and more people.
Were people reading “literature” more 30 years ago, though? It’s not like the prevalence of “page turners” is a new thing. H.L. Mencken wrote about it them disparagingly (as he did many things that didn’t deserve his disparagement) in the 20’s.

I’d also challenge the notion that people are even reading significantly less, because audio books are reading. Scientifically, we get the same stimulation out of an audiobook as a print book, and it’s the same information.

I also am not convinced that podcasts are meaningfully distinct from audiobooks. At least, narrative podcasts, investigative podcasts, etc. talk show style pods are obviously not the same sort of thing.

But putting podcasts aside, I think we should be sceptical of pronouncements that “Americans don’t read”, or similar.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Were people reading “literature” more 30 years ago, though?
That is an excellent question, and one I don’t have an answer to. Somone may, but not me.

And my own reading experience is exceedingly skewed. All 4 of my grandparents were educators and read for as long as they were able. We’ve mentioned my Mom, but my Dad is also a lifetime reader- besides the classics (4 of his 5 copies of The Peloponesian Wars are barely intact), he had a childhood love of westerns, got hooked on sci-fi, and has read chess books his whole life, even today. (I’m damn good, but have never beaten him.)

And I first read the Iliad as a 2nd grader in the early 1970s for fun...and one of the reading classbooks I had back then consisted of excerpts from The Hobbit, Dragonriders of Pern, and other sci-fi, fantasy and horror novels & short stories. Like I mentioned before, I didn’t realize that significant numbers of people didn’t read novels for fun until I was in law school.

It’s not like the prevalence of “page turners” is a new thing. H.L. Mencken wrote about it them disparagingly (as he did many things that didn’t deserve his disparagement) in the 20’s.
They’re older than that- go back further to the 1800s and you’ll see the penny dreadfuls.

But putting podcasts aside, I think we should be sceptical of pronouncements that “Americans don’t read”, or similar.
Actually, if you dig deeper, it isn’t an American only problem. For example:

But there are differences between Hispanics born inside and outside the U.S.: Roughly half (51%) of foreign-born Hispanics report not having read a book, compared with 22% of Hispanics born in the U.S.
And just look at this sample of how we stack up:
https://www.statista.com/chart/6125/which-countries-read-the-most/
 
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Sadras

Adventurer
...but my Dad is also a lifetime reader- besides the classics (4 of his 5 copies of The Peloponesian Wars are barely intact)...
That is pretty specific history, is he Greek or does he enjoy that historical period of rivalry between Athens and Sparta?
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
That is pretty specific history, is he Greek or does he enjoy that historical period of rivalry between Athens and Sparta?
He’s always been a history buff, and that translated into a college minor or major in it (I forget which). After a barn fire destroyed a chunk of his collection, most of his fiction was borrowed from friends, relatives or libraries. But he BUYS history books. His strongest topics seem to be Greco-Roman empires and American wars.
 

Zardnaar

Hero
Iirc a story told to me in college was that one of the earliest written essays that has been uncovered was a sumerian rant about how "kids these days" dont know how good they got it and are slackers...
Not sure about Sumerian but there are Roman texts complaining about the youth.
 

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