Philip K. Dick: History Fair Exhibit?

I know. It sounds weird doesn’t it? The fact that the man, whose works as a writer make him largely a cult figure in literary circles until recently, could be seen from a historical perspective by students in grades 6-12 is a bit strange. I have been having my students participate in the Illinois History Fair for close to 20 years now. This year finds me very excited as I have two students doing an exhibit on Philip K. Dick. For the past 8 years, I have put Phil’s name on the list of topics to do every year. To date, only two students have done papers on him. No one has done an exhibit on him until this year. When I asked the two girls why, they said, “I don’t know.” Last year, the girls advanced to the state history fair with an exhibit on Route 66. I am hoping they can do the same with Philip K. Dick (PKD).

On February 25, the two girls will share their exhibit to the world. As a huge fan of PKD, I am both excited and nervous with the exhibit they will produce. For me, as with any history fair project, it begins with a thesis – what is it the exhibit is going to argue. From a historical perspective, there are many things you could do with PKD as a history fair exhibit. These include:

1. The effect of the Cold War on his works

2. The effect his works had on the movies

3. The effect of McCarthyism on his own paranoia

4. The Role of Dick’s works as warnings about the future

5. The effect of the counterculture on his works

6. How did Dick develop and write his most famous works?

7. The use of technology in the works of PKD

8. Many more…

Regardless of the thesis, the exhibit does not matter if the students can not find sources. Over the years I have collected some digitized sources of letters of PKD. The most obvious place to start would be the bound volumes of PKD letters. Unfortunately, most students cannot go out and purchase them (cost prohibitive), nor are the students able to check the volumes out of a local library as most libraries do not contain the works. Have no fear, the Internet is here!!! With a simple search for PKD letters, one is not only able to find actual text of PKD letters, but more importantly for the history fair students, actual images of those letters. Some are available at the PKD official web site, others are from assorted sites in the cybersphere.

Aside from letters, the next best source of information would be actual interviews and magazine articles including Paul Williams’ 1974 Rolling Stone piece on PKD which is available in pdf format. A student could use YouTube Interviews, old newspaper critiques. Proquest has access to Chicago Tribune and New York Times databases. Some of these articles are enlightening to see how PKD was viewed in his time period.

As for books about PKD, there are a few biographies of Phil out on the market. I am not a big fan of biographies. Yes, I am a historian, but no, I prefer to weave  history together through documents, interviews, newspapers, and magazines. Secondary sources are only useful to a point. The main primary source of any PKD exhibit will be the works of PKD. 200+ short stories and 30+ novels tell more of the man than almost any biography could. Even the video, The Penultimate Truth, is a better source than most PKD biographies.

The reason I like videos, or educational films, are the interviews. This film interviews 3 of PKD’s wives and a step-daughter. It is a thorough work which I enjoy watching it again from time to time. It examines his whole career in 90 minutes and the picture painted of the man is as complex as any book, even more so as PKD’s friends recall the climactic points of his life. For that matter, they could even email and interview Johnathon Lethem, blogger David Gill, or even one PKD’s wives who both recently wrote memoirs on PKD.

As the two girls begin their quest to explore the mind of PKD, I have to remind myself not to get too involved. Even though I have been waiting for this someone to do this exhibit for years, I also want them to find things on their own as young historians. The last thing I want is for them to be turned off to not only history, but the work of PKD. My job will be to ask the questions. Their job is to find the answers. If they ask for help I will, but they have to do the research. They have to do the writing. They have to do the organizing, and most importantly, they have to do the analysis. I will be excited to see what they construct. When it is done, I will put up a picture of the exhibit here on this post or blog. And maybe, just maybe, it will do well. And maybe, they will become fans of PKD.

The Work Station of PKD

Backtracks on PKD

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