“An Armored Armadillo Avoiding An Angry Alligator:” so begins Graeme Base’s 1986 alphabet book Animalia, a menagerie of animals, vegetables, minerals, and more. It’s a book that lived fondly but dimly in my memories up until the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, if you’d asked me in February 2020 what childhood read had been most formative, I might’ve said The Velveteen Rabbit or The Story of Ferdinand or some other pathos-ridden fare. It’s an old chestnut that times of crisis show us who we really are, but I think they more tellingly reorient us to why we are who we are and where we’ve gotten our ideas about how we should be. Animalia brought into frame, when I revisited it that strange year, an ethos of attentiveness and care. I’d long subscribed to such an ethos, but—ironically—I’d never traced them to the practice of reading for the sake of noticing.
Base didn’t author Animalia to stir emotion or impart a moral but rather, it seems, to hold the gaze, to absorb young readers in the delights of seeking and finding. Nothing “happens” in Animalia. It’s a comfortable journey one hopes won’t end, time suspended in the pleasure of looking. That first phase of COVID-19 felt like a hateful inverse: stagnancy and uncertainty and obsessive-paranoid surveillance of one’s surroundings and the infinite places that pathogens might be lying in wait.
Characteristic of the genre, each page belongs to a letter, with an alliterative title that details only some of its myriad richly-illustrated elements. The “game” of Animalia is simply to find as many things as you can in the illustration that start with the designated letter, as well as the youthful rendering of Base that hides on every page. It’s a game I played most often with my dad, taking turns identifying a given page’s denizens.
Dutifully, he appeared engrossed and thoughtful as we searched, though in retrospect I’m unsure how much he was looking himself versus patiently waiting for me to make identifications. Still, I remember clearly the glow of pride I’d feel at his reply of “Well done” or “Very good” whenever I named an item he’d assumed beyond my first-grade horizons.
Early in the pandemic, I returned to Animalia out of some combination of distraction, nostalgia for childhood comforts, and preemptive mourning for my dad, whom the veil of Parkinson’s-related dementia had recently begun stealing away with unnerving pace.
Flying home for what turned out to be the last time before COVID-19, in 2019 I’d relieved my stepmom of care duties as a new cocktail of medications rendered my dad frightened, disoriented, and paranoid. Normal conversation became exhausting for us both, so we drove around town visiting spots he’d taken me and my siblings to as kids. The riverside, playgrounds, campus, a Dunkin’ Donuts from before the franchise was ubiquitous. No agenda, just passing time together in what harmony remained to be found.
Gazing into Animalia felt like tearing off a scab but was the only thing that absorbed me enough to tolerate the wound. When I wasn’t reading I was walking, walking, walking and often talking to my dad at the same time. Frequent calls from him both catalyzed and unsteadied my walks, increasing in proportion to his understandable agitation. Lockdown had resolved the looming question of his long-term transfer to a memory care facility; he’d gone in for a trial run and now couldn’t return if he left. Walking in the face of this reality felt as compulsive and inexorable as the alphabet’s progression.
Help was beyond my power to give, and I struggled even to answer my dad’s questions, many of which I shared. How long will lockdown last? Is it like this everywhere? Others landed like a boot on my throat. How can I tell when I’m hallucinating?
I found myself keenly observing my present surroundings as I roamed Morgantown, WV, and spoke and listened, reflecting on the beginnings and endings at hand much as I pondered Animalia’s vibrant pages, which contain no narrative and yet offer infinite stories to trace: how did the chimpanzee procure that Chevy coupe, and to what end? Was the caravan of camels headed for the chateau on the hill (if so, why?), or were they incidental to each other? I felt at a remove, watching myself through Animalia, like Base’s avatar dropped into Appalachian environs.
Jokingly, the pandemic-dazed made “What is time??” an unofficial refrain. I felt it keenly in the vanishing intervals between the next phone call and the inevitable end of the phone calls.
Knowing each call might be the last should’ve made them more precious, but I mostly just wanted to escape. Animalia helped me do that even as the nostalgia it triggered forced me to confront imminent loss.
Looking at the book this time around, I spotted things my dad and I had never noticed, or which I hadn’t known the words for, or which I could now impose semantically: surely the book’s binding counts, and the bear’s backside. And yet still some things escaped me. What was the crawdad-esque creature on page Y? Why was E’s elephant wearing a fez? Jacquelyn Ardam writes that alphabet books often “smuggle in…lessons that have nothing to do with the letters of the alphabet.” Often these lessons are ideological, but from Animalia, at least, an ethos emanates as well, an ethos of observation, immersion, and care even without narrative payoff.
Math had been my dad’s vocation, and he always delighted in pointing out shapes and patterns of geometric significance in Disney animations, for example, or in the polyhedral earrings he once bought me on a whim. It had never occurred to me until then to connect this predilection to the pleasure of noticing he also took in Animalia.
Now literature-PhD’d, my brain imposed its own translations on what I saw: visual metonymy and synecdoche, scopophilia, political commentary in the unicorns prancing upon a Union Jack. Freud in my dad’s increasingly unfiltered anxieties and preoccupations, from bowel movements to sex to his intellectual legacy. The discomfiture of becoming an authority over the person whose authority I took for granted.
One night my dad was admitted to a psych ward for better care while new drugs took effect. The next day’s call went precisely as you’d imagine a call to a psych ward might. Overgrown Russian sage obstructed the sidewalk down the residential block I’d wandered down while talking, its length the object of bitter arguments on the neighborhood Facebook page. I, for one, liked how the mess of purple-topped green tumbled across the pavement to brush against my shins. Touch of any kind was scarce then, and the fleeting contact with a plant made me feel less spectral. My dad’s pleas for help passed right through me, though, stealing breath and something else I couldn’t quite name.
“Proud Peacocks Preening Perfect Plumage.” I’d forgotten the splendor of P’s two-page spread, bejeweled lettering and ornately feathered tails. I’d also forgotten the twinge of misgiving at the omission of peahens and my dad’s observation that in nature, females of the species tend to be comparatively plain and unremarkable. Ideology takes root even in the absence of narrative.
Quitting a page in Animalia feels importantly different from conceding defeat. Whether or not I’ve exhausted a given letter’s menagerie, I know I can return anytime; it’s a conscious decision about when an activity is no longer generative or fun, about when it’s time to move on. People are a different story. How does one end a conversation aware that soon all they’ll have left are whatever accumulated details memory can preserve—good or bad?
Recent science stipulates 66 days to form a habit, a considerable increase from the 3 weeks maxim I’d always heard. Sixty-seven days crawled by from the start of lockdown to my dad’s last, and though I walked each one of them nothing about it ever felt familiar.
S is a page full of doublings: slithering snakes, Saturn in space, Stars and Stripes. The dad who’d sat me on his lap to read in the blue House of Denmark chair I’d later drive back from Kansas to West Virginia following my first trip home since his death, and the dad who needed waking at 2 a.m. every night for yet another round of pills. The one who approached the world thoughtfully and logically, and the one I couldn’t reason out of his bleak, levodopa-induced delusions.
Throughout one particularly difficult conversation, he remained stuck in what some call “Parkinson’s voice,” a monotone that speaks flat mistrust, suspicion, despair. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand, and when I returned the phone to my ear I realized that he, too, was crying.
Ugly moments proliferated like mouse droppings behind the fridge during those weeks, ignorable to a point but past that point an object of fixation. The details I didn’t want to notice; the details I couldn’t escape—though I’m grateful that they still remain three years later.
Vocabulary-building might be the categorical aim of alphabet books, but I’m struck by the wonder and humility Animalia educes. Even with nothing at stake, attentiveness enriches an experience and unfolds humbling possibilities. The more I’ve looked, the more I’ve seen—and though each page contains images that don’t start with the designated letter, I’m left to wonder whether maybe I simply don’t know the correct term for it.
What Animalia teaches, besides an arbitrary sequencing of letters and items that correspond to them, is the value of time spent in a particular state, rather than driving to a particular end—slowness and attunement as virtues, or if not virtues then at least salubrious pleasures. Though we’d never been competitive about it, we occasionally debated the “rules,” which was fun in itself. Could one list “drill” and “drill bit” separately even though they were attached on the page? I imagined the quibbles we might have now: should abstractions such as “intricacy” or “literature” or “ostentation” count?
X is for crossing over, one of the euphemisms my stepmom adopted from the nursing facility staff. X is also kind of a cop-out in Animalia, as Base has resorted to depicting ostensibly reversed images of words that end in X. I appreciate the way these maneuvers evade hard truths, but I also revile them for it.
Y’s page must have been agonizing to conceive, too: yaks, yachts, yeti, little more. “It’s a structure devoid of meaning,” writes Ardam of the alphabet book’s rigid arrangement, but that means it’s one where we make our own meaning, and where the process of making means more than the product. Sometimes we just need some structure for what to do or say, even if we’re only filling space in a conversation.
Zikhrono livrakha (ז״ל): may his memory be a blessing. One day on my walk I stop, blink—Hite Street, the sign reads crisply, but his words have detached themselves from meaning. My foot sends a pebble scrabbling as I recognize without relief that it’s not gibberish but Hebrew. Nonconversant, I wonder idly about the probably malign etymology of “gibberish.” I focus on the cadences that distinguish word from sentence and language from noise. In the end reflex takes over and he delivers the last three words in English, one final, merciful detail.
Lynne Stahl is the Humanities & Interdisciplinary Studies Librarian at Wesleyan University. Her public writing has appeared in venues including The Washington Post and Entropy, and her research spans feminist theory, popular culture, and critical information studies.