It’s graduation season, which means parents are traveling to campuses all over the country, aunts and uncles are writing checks, and students are protesting their commencement speakers for being insufficiently woke. Also, Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is selling like hotcakes.
As I write this, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is the top-selling book on Amazon, full stop. With five stars after thousands of reviews, it is hotter than phenoms like Marie Kondo and the Hamilton handbook, and it is by far the oldest book in the top 10 list. In 26 years, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! has sold more than 12.5 million copies in all formats, with sales increasing each of the past four years. It is Seuss’ best-selling book of all time. And yes, it’s mostly thanks to graduations.
According to its publisher, Penguin Random House, sales spike throughout graduation season to as much as four times the weekly average for the rest of the year. The jacket copy on my version pitches the book as “the perfect send-off for children starting out in the maze of life, be they nursery school grads or medical school achievers.” It appears regularly in gift guides for grads and has spawned its own graduation gift set and “deluxe edition.” In 2012, a father gave his high school senior daughter a copy of the book that he spent 13 years filling with inscriptions from her teaches and coaches.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go! was the last book Theodor Seuss Geisel published before he died in 1991. It belongs to an informal series we might call “We Get It Already, Dr. Seuss”: books that squander Geisel’s loopily inventive vocabulary and read-aloud rhythms on pedantic plotlines. There’s The Lorax, in which a lush paradise is transformed into a wasteland by a greedy capitalist. (Kids love economics parables!) In The Butter Battle Book, published at the height of the Cold War in 1984, the Zooks and the Yooks engage in a pointless and ever-escalating arms race over the proper way to eat bread. You’re Only Old Once! satirizes the American medical system and the indignities of aging. (“Dietician Von Eiffel controls the Wuff-Whiffer, our Diet-Devising Computerized Sniffer.”) Geisel worked in the 1940s as an editorial cartoonist, which may explain his occasional fondness for the thuddingly obvious.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is apolitical, but that doesn’t make it terribly fun. It stars “you,” a nameless little boy heading out to make his way in the world. For a while you fly high—literally, in a hot air balloon—and then later you crash. You enter a Slump and linger in the Waiting Place before escaping and making your way to happier climes. It’s all working toward this soaring insight near the end:
So be sure when you step.
Step with great care and great tact
and remember that Life’s
a Great Balancing Act.
Strip away the delicious Seussian linguistic fillips, and you have a little boy on a vague journey with vague obstacles and a vaguely happy ending. (“Kid, you’ll move mountains!”) As the tepid 1990 review of the book in the New York Times asked, “Seriously now, who’s got the punch line?” It’s harmless, of course, but one hates to think that “you” are beating Horton or Bartholomew Cubbins in the sales race. Frankly, you just don’t deserve it.
Of course, it’s that very blandness that make the book a natural graduation gift. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! even reads like a commencement address, that confounding genre that is so often just a forgettably mushy stew of peppy encouragement and obligatory realism. Penguin Random House’s promotional copy for its gold mine actually calls it “Dr. Seuss’s wonderfully wise graduation speech,” although the publisher told me Geisel never actually delivered it as a speech.
A commencement address Geisel did deliver is much weirder and funnier. In 1977, he was invited to receive an honorary degree from Lake Forest College in Illinois. There was some confusion about whether he would speak at all, but when he stepped to the lectern he did not disappoint:
My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant’s bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
“To eat these things,”
said my uncle,
“you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid
BUT you must spit out the air!”
And as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
that’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.
That’s some great advice—for both graduates and readers. If only Oh, the Places You’ll Go! were so clever, wise, and brief.