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What Oskar Hadn't heard of

Posted: 2006-07-20

Jonathan Safran's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close raises an interesting thought exercise and an important pedagogical question.

Oskar Schell, nine-year-old hero of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, is an amateur inventor, jewelry designer, astrophysicist, tambourine player and pacifist. After his father dies in the World Trade Center collapse, Oskar finds a key hidden in his father's things that doesn't fit any lock in their New York City apartment. Since its container is labeled "Black," Oskar sets out to speak to everyone in New York City with the last name of Black.

A. R. Black, a retired newsman, shows Oskar his biographical index. When he was starting out as a journalist he created a card for everyone he might need to reference one day:

There's a card for everyone I ever wrote about! And cars for people I talked to in the course of writing my pieces! And cards for people I read books about! And cards for people in the footnotes of those book! In the mornings, when I'd read the papers, I would make cards for everyone that seemed biographically significant!

Black writes a one-word biography on each person's card:

Henry Kissinger: war!

Ornette Coleman: music!

Che Guevara: war!

Jeff Bezos: money!

Philip Guston: art!

Mahatma Gandhi: war!

Arthur Ashe: tennis!

Tom Cruise: money!

Elie Wiesel: war!

Arnold Schwarzenegger: war!

Martha Stewart: money!

Mick Jagger: money!

Susan Sontag: thought!

Wolfgang Puck: money!

Pope John Paul II: war!

Mohammed Atta: war!

Thought Exercise: Go through any newspaper and find out which wins: war or money. See if you can find anyone whose one-word biography would be children! or justice!

While talking with Mr. Black, Oskar thinks about all the things he will have to Google when he gets home, things Black has mentioned that he's never heard of:

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, powdering her nose, Churchill, Mustang convertible, Walter Cronkite, necking, the Bay of Pigs, LP, Datsun, Kent State, lard, Ayatollah Khomeini, Polaroid, apartheid, drive-in, favela, Trotsky, the Berlin Wall, Tito, Gone With the Wind, Frank Lloyd Wright, hula hoop, Technicolor, the Spanish Civil War, Grace Kelly, East Timor, slide rule, a bunch of places in Africa whose names I tried to remember but had already forgotten. It was getting hard to keep all the things I didn't know inside me.

Pedagogical Question: There's a Standardisto challenge here, bringing us back to the classic question of what do kids need to know and how should they come to know it.

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