When you were a kid, there was a book so elegant in its simplicity, so flowing in its narrative that its lessons are permanently etched into your mind. You may not know it – at least not consciously – but Richard Scarry’s “What Do People Do All Day?” was your first, and possibly best, economics lesson. And this is probably the best essay I’ve read this year, explaining not only why, but why these lessons are so important even today, 40 years after the book was first published.
Scarry’s supremely fluent style is based on a panoptic principle: every window is open, every wall or outside surface is potentially see-through. Every building and every structure can be made to open up to the child’s meticulous scrutiny. The drawings are deliciously detailed but not in an overly technical way. The text is more informative than lyrical. And the scope of the work is genuinely impressive: What Do People Do All Day? is 64 pages long. It covers farming, domestic work, several clerical, retail and services professions, road building, the provision of healthcare, sea travel, railroad travel, policing, fire-fighting, the extraction of coal and its use in the production of electricity, the collection, purification and reticulation of water, saw milling and the paper and pulp industry. The occupations represented include mayors, newsagents, street cleaners, private detectives, policemen, watch repairers, shoemakers, hoteliers, newspaper reporters, newspaper editors, book printers, photographers, secretaries, artists, story writers, poets, janitors, photographers, models, violinists, booksellers and saleswomen – and that’s just in the first two pages.