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Primates, Pom-Poms and Penn State

by on June 26, 2019 5:00 AM

Among the small joys of modern life are Little Free Libraries, the peak-roofed, pole-mounted, glass-doored cabinets for books whose owners are ready to pass them on to someone else.

There are 19 such repositories in State College and environs. Scanning the inventory of one of them during a recent evening stroll, I zoomed in on the title that to my Mad Magazine-marinated brain warranted closer inspection: “The Cheese Monkeys.” 

The front and back covers cinched the deal. On the front was the subtitle: “A Novel in Two Semesters,” which suggested a tale of academic life, which happens to be the life that I and many of you are living.

The back cover featured blurbs and, as it turned out, anti-blurbs. The first six were “From People Who Liked It.” The last two were “From People Who Didn’t.”

“Retro kitsch,” declared one hater. “Thoroughly sophomoric.”

“Kidd has a long way to go before his literary skills equal his artistic genius,” declared the other.

Kidd is the author, Chip Kidd. I didn’t know what the critic meant by “his artistic genius,” nor did I know where, specifically, this “novel in two semesters” took place. I just grabbed it, finished my walk, brought it home and dug in.  

The first few pages of the book, or “front matter” in the publishing biz, are full of little jokes, beginning with the inside front cover, which, a little box on the facing page tells us, “was intentionally left blank. It’s not a mistake. It’s actually a separate ‘piece,’ entitled ‘Budgetary Constraint No. 13.’”

The rest of the facing page features more blurbs that start too far to the right, run out of real estate and bleed onto the next page, as if there had been some terrible printing error. 

As for the acknowledgments: Unless you worked as a proofreader in the age of hot type (as my dad did), you’d have to hold the book up to a mirror to read them. And so on.

Our story begins in Fall Semester, 1957. Our Hero is registering for classes. He refers to the university as State. Several clues begin to suggest which State: Our Hero went to Upper Wissahicken (sic) High. His parents bring him to campus via Interstate 80. They pass a sign for the State Penitentiary. 

Our Hero’s dorm is Mifflin Hall. He’s one of three freshmen in a room designed for two. One of the roomies plans to study turf management. One of Our Hero’s classmates buys her art supplies at Uncle Erbie’s. 

Somewhere during those first 20 or so pages, it dawned on your slow-witted correspondent: Why this must be Penn State! 

There’s more: Lunch at The Diner (a Linebacker burger with a sticky bun chaser). Drinks at the Rathskeller – “the only place within twenty miles where someone isn’t waving pom-poms in your face,” says Himillsy Dodd, the book’s love-hate interest. Ice cream – what else? -- at the Creamery. “Dairy farming was practically a religion at State and Ice Cream the sacrament,” Our Hero tells us.

Penn State art students and faculty will doubtless catch additional references that sailed over my woolly head, notably the character of the vicious/brilliant graphic design professor, who apparently is based, in part, on Emeritus Professor Lanny Sommese, known locally as the guy who designs the posters for the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.

Needless to say, it’s jolly good fun to read a very thinly fictionalized sendup of the place where you live and work, especially if you’re on board with the writer’s jaundiced view of Dear Old State. There’s plenty of wit here as well, even if some of it is indeed “thoroughly sophomoric.” Story and style recall “The Catcher in the Rye” and, closer to home, Tom Rogers’ “Jerry Engels,” also set at Penn State.

How did I not know about “The Cheese Monkeys?” And how did I not know about Chip Kidd? Actually, it turned out I had encountered him and didn’t know it, for I had read several books for which he had designed the covers. 

Some of you probably know David Sedaris’ “Naked,” with the pair of white boxer shorts on the front. That’s Kidd’s. So is the racing type of James Gleick’s “Faster” and the iconic T-Rex on Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park,” and countless others. 

In the world of book jacket design, in other words, Kidd, PSU Class of 1986, is a superstar. He is even that rare prophet who is honored in his own land: He’s a Distinguished Alumnus, his archive is housed in Paterno Library and he has been invited back to campus to speak at the Penn State Forum. Apparently, no one holds that snarky pom-pom crack against him.

Among the things I should have already known about Chip Kidd but just learned is that there’s a sequel to the “The Cheese Monkeys,” called “The Learners” (subtitle: “The Book After ‘The Cheese Monkeys’”).

I won’t wait to read it until I stumble upon a copy in a Little Free Library. 

Penn State alumnus Chip Kidd with his sketch for the cover of "Jurassic Park." Penn State University Libraries acquired Kidd's archives in 2014. Photo by Wilson Hutton for The Eberly Family Special Collections Library at Penn State


A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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