I'm sure I was educated in highly positive ways by Silas Marner and Ethan Frome and all the other literary works I was assigned to read in high school.
But, try as I might, I can't recall much of anything about them today, except that they had characters named Silas and Ethan.
On the other hand, I seem to have little trouble recalling the wild, screaming stories and jokes in Mad magazine of that same era – the 1950s.
Anybody remember Archie Andrews, that wholesome teenager who starred with his equally wholesome pals and girlfriends in a stable of wholesome comics?
Mad saw the basic unrealism of the Archie stories and exploited it to the delight of kids who, like me, had the sneaking suspicion that the adult world wasn't leveling with us. Varsity-sweatered Archie became the sneering Starchie. Flipping switchblades and with cigarettes dangling from their lips, he and his buddy Bottleneck (remember Jughead?) strode through the halls of their high school, scoffing at the principal, who was letting the place go to hell because he was too busy leering at teenage girls.
To this day I go into near-hysterics and think What, me worry? whenever I spot the goofy, grinning Alfred E. Neuman, symbol of Mad.
The magazine had an odd beginning. A project of the famous EC publishers, it started more than 60 years ago as a comic book satirizing movies, TV and other comics. Mad wasn't afraid to put into print what kids really thought when they looked around at the world adults had created.
But then along about the mid-1950s, all the power figures including the U.S. Congress decided that comic books (except maybe for those with titles like Heartfelt Romance or Donald Duck) were destroying our impressionable minds.
So under threat of being crushed, the comic book industry hastily agreed to a set of standards that sucked the vibrant life out of it. Swept away were all the imaginative sci-fi and horror tales, the only stuff some of us thought was worth reading.
Fortunately, EC publishers had the foresight to convert Mad into a standard magazine-size format and claim that it was no longer a comic book, hence exempt from the forces of rampant righteousness. Under the aegis of the beaming, gap-toothed Mr. Neuman, the mag could go merrily on, lampooning smug stuffiness wherever it arose.
A little more than a decade later, America experienced its turbulent 1960s, with young people furiously questioning everything from war to short haircuts to processed food. Connection? You be the judge.
Years passed, and I thought I'd found more important things to do than read satire. So I forgot Mad.
OK, why do I go on like this about magazine publishing more than half a century ago?
Recently while taking advantage of the Tuesday discount a local store chain gives its aging customers, I spotted Mad on the rack among Southern Living and 15 magazine covers featuring Justin Bieber.
Like someone who'd suddenly heard the chants of the old religion in the distance, I bought it.
And then I bought another one the next month.
Of course nothing is ever going to have the impact of the best you read when you were young. But if you remember hard enough, you'll enjoy a smile or two, even if it's at your own expense.
Hey, if you think I'm a grey-haired idiot trying to get back to the past, I have just one thing to say.
What, me worry?
Tom Mooney is a Times Leader columnist. Reach him at [email protected].