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"What Do People Do All Day?" Revisited

Posted by Josh Rothman  April 11, 2011 04:35 PM

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Richard Scarry's classic 1968 children's book What Do People Do All Day? introduced millions of kids to the world of work and the idea of an economy. This week, culture blogger Giovanni Tiso looks back at Scarry's book and its setting, Busytown, and finds a weirdly current account of the modern urban economy. "We still do the things that occupy Scarry’s anthropomorphic menagerie," he writes: "we fix the sewers and serve the meals and cut down the trees and drive the trucks and cultivate the land and so forth." Scarry's omissions (he left out manufacturing jobs, for example) dovetail nicely with the disappearance of those jobs from American cities.

At the same time, the book's common-sense economy puts into relief the way that work has become weirder and, as Tiso puts it, harder to draw: it's difficult to communicate in a cartoon the fact that "Alfalfa has become a derivatives trader."

Busytown has, in fact, had an interesting history: Tiso explains how its drawings have been revised over the years. A father rabbit has joined his wife in the kitchen; the sections about coal mining have been left out of the abridged version. Tiso links to this extraordinary Flickr set, which shows the original Scarry drawings alongside their more contemporary revisions. The main differences have to do with gender: here, ribbons have been added to some of the animals to create gender balance. Some changes are harder to show. How do you represent off-shore manufacturing, or business that happens over the internet? A sixties vision of the city can only stay current for so long.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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