The Learners by Chip Kidd

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover, 260 pages, 2008

Rating: 10/10

Reason for Reading: I had my eye on Kidd’s debut novel since it first came out but it was a case of ‘too many books, too little time,’ so I was glad when this second novel fell into my hands.

Synopsis: When Happy finishes college in 1961, he decides he has to get a job at the same advertising agency where his favourite professor started his career in graphic design. He just didn’t realize he’d be working with such an odd (borderline crazy) crowd, or that he’d run into an outrageous old friend, or that he’d design a newspaper ad recruiting test subjects for an experiment at Yale – all of which will shake up his views on life, himself, and all of humanity..

Why you should read this book: There is a lot of zaniness going on with Kidd’s characters, but underneath the wild abandon is a deep and often touching sincerity. The main character, Happy, is just setting out on his life’s journey, but all around him are people who seem to have bottomed-out, or have missed their chances and simply let life get away from them, and yet Happy holds many of them in awe. At a sharp contrast to the main story, which seems almost like a graphic novel – without the illustrations – is the horrific Milgram experiment Happy recruits for and ultimately partakes in, which was a real-life experiment that studied the participants’ willingness to hurt others on the say-so of authority figures. Sprinkled in amongst the captivating story are tidbits on Kidd’s other forte, the art of graphic design, especially type fonts, which prove both interesting and a nice compliment to Happy’s study of the way people (including himself) think. The Learners is a great story for everyone who’s experienced the guilt of losing some na&#239veness in order to ‘grow up’ and face the (invariably more depressing) ‘real world.’ All the laughing I did while reading makes the parts where I was sniffling stand out even more. I miss these characters already.

Why you should avoid this book: Choosing not to read The Learners would mostly be a case of personal tastes about writing styles. Above I mentioned the ‘graphic novel without the graphics’ feel to the style – which isn’t to say the characters aren’t well-developed even if they are quite dramatic in their personalities and actions.

Opening paragraph:

I was in the shower when I realized I’d gone wrong. That’s a clich&#233, I know, but it wasn’t then. Back then it was wildly new and my idea, and I would have copyrighted it had I foreseen it would become so popular, but well – as with so many things, who knew? Anyway, there I was, the water drilling away, its wet warmth my amniotic tide, the shower curtain a plastic, plaid uterine wall. Then it occurs to me, like a gift from God: Shoes are our friends.

Fabulous quotes:

‘Yes sir.’ And I bolted to the steps, took them two at a time, careful not to slosh the coffee.
The art department. It all looked so different now – the two drawing tables scarred with countless X-Acto marks, the piles of scattered scrap artboard, wads of tape that were overshot to the trash can and dotted the wall behind it like measles. The magic of seeing it for the first time was gone, but replaced by something even more alluring – the promise of inclusion among its details. I saw a stage set that I was now invited to climb up into. I wasn’t in the audience anymore, I was a player. Maybe just a member of the chorus, but still.

A hand was extended. Or was it a baseball glove molded out of human skin?
‘Pleased ta meetcha, kid. I’m Dick.’
Just one of the many attributes of Dick Stankey,the client representative for Krinkle Kutt, was there was no need to waste time coming up with something funny to call him behind his back. Even Tip didn’t bother. ‘I just use his real name and try to keep a straight face. How do you improve on perfection? Dickens couldn’t have come up with better: “Let’s see, what do I call a three-hundred pound potato chip salesman who’s scarcely five feet two, sweats like a roasting ham hock, plays the theme to Your Show of Shows on the ukulele, and once got stuck in a diner booth during a fire alarm?”‘

Also recommended: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon; Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi; Maus by Art Spiegelman; Maus II by Art Spiegelman.

Also by this author: The Cheese Monkeys.

Author’s website:

Fun tidbit: Chip Kidd presents The Learners in possibly the weirdest way you’ve ever seen a book promoted on youtube.

Would I read more by this author? I’ve bumped The Cheese Monkeys much higher up my priority reading list, and I’ll also look forward to anything Kidd writes in the future.

&#169 Lisa Yanaky 2003-2008

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