The doctor's still in

The centennial of Dr. Seuss's birth is celebrated at the University of San Diego's Geisel Library
Peter Fish

Here is knowledge that at points in my education I struggled to retain and failed: The difference between Ionic and Doric columns. The color coding for electrical resistors. The quadratic formula.

Here is knowledge I encountered at age 7, made no effort to remember, but that decades later I can recall word-for-word: "Up at Lake Winna-Bango ... the far northern shore ... Lives a huge herd of moose, about sixty or more."

You may remember these lines too. They come from the tale of Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, and their author is Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss.

This year marks the centennial of Dr. Seuss's birth ― an event that in a strange way seems slightly beside the point. Like all great literary creations, Thidwick and The Cat in the Hat and their frenetic siblings seem to have existed forever, as if they composed their own element in the literary periodic table: Seussium. Still, Dr. Seuss's adopted hometown, La Jolla, California, is staging exhibits and other events to honor its most famous son.

Geisel started out a New England boy, born in Springfield, Massachusetts, which supplied the Mulberry Street that would inspire his first children's book. He went to Dartmouth, where his editor on the college humor magazine was a young Montanan named Norman Maclean, who would one day write A River Runs Through It. In the late 1920s, Geisel first visited Southern California, which he took to, well, like Horton to a Who. Eventually he sequestered himself in a tower on Mt. Soledad, overlooking La Jolla, and wrote book after book after book.

"An idea would come to him through doodling," recalls his widow, Audrey Geisel. "Some little animal critter, and he would weave a story around it. Or he would have something running through his head ― a word, a lilt ― and start that way."

The end results of those doodles, those lilts, hit the polite world of children's publishing like a cherry bomb at a garden fete. "It's really hard to remember how refreshing his style was at the time," says Judith Morgan. She and her husband, Neil, both were Geisel's biographers and longtime friends. "You never knew what was going to happen on the next page."

What was the Seuss secret? Start with those manic drawings, the characters ready to leap off the page at high velocity to land in your lap. Then there's the verse, the galumphing iambs and anapests that pull you forward with the force of the Cat in the Hat leading you off a cliff. And behind them both is the alluring anarchy that underlies great children's books from Alice in Wonderland onward. If spoilsport teachers or parents tut-tutted that the Cat in the Hat was too loud, too disruptive, too impolite, Geisel had an answer: "If I were invited to a dinner party with my characters, I wouldn't show up."

In fact, Judith Morgan recalls, Geisel was an off-and-on guest at big La Jolla cocktail parties. "You could never count on him showing up." When he did, he entertained himself by sketching on napkins and secretly making fun of anyone he found pretentious. "I don't think the people who should have been offended ever caught on," says Judith Morgan. "It went right by them."

Seuss's final book, Oh, the Places You'll Go, was an anomaly: It was written for grown-ups. "His elation when he finally hit the New York Times adult best-seller list was enormous," Neil Morgan recalls. "He'd say, 'You see, I didn't write just for kids.' He always felt he sat at the kiddy table."

And yet, as the Seuss centennial unfolds, you realize the kiddy table is not a bad place to be. It's true that, inevitably, Dr. Seuss readers grow up and put aside his inventive anarchy for what they take to be more useful, grown-up things: Ionic columns or quadratic equations, perhaps. But just as inevitably, the good doctor's time will come around again.

A month or so ago, my 7-year-old son read Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose all by himself for the first time. I listened as Thidwick strolled the shores of Lake Winna-Bango, as he was beset by an impossible menagerie of animals roosting in his magnificent antlers, and as, in the end, he triumphed over his importunate guests.

"Good book," my son said. He didn't close the cover. "Let's read it again."

INFO: Dr. Seuss Between the Covers (May 24-Sep 26, 2004; University of California, San Diego's Geisel Library, 9500 Gilman Dr., La Jolla, CA; 858/534-2533)