Of the making of books
There are classics, there are best-sellers, there are reference books. There are, in fact, books of all sorts and they keep coming out. The best-sellers are on the charts for a few weeks or months and three years later, libraries begin deaccessioning them; they turn up on the lower shelves of thrift stores or in dollar-bins at used book stores. Classics keep getting published in ever newer editions and more up-to-date translations. (Reference books are being replaced by Wikipedia).
But there is a class of books that often gets forgotten, and of which I am a particular aficionado: peculiar books. I realized this the other day when I picked up off my shelves — after many years of neglect — a volume of Voyage autour de ma chambre, or Voyage Around My Room by 18th Century author Xavier de Maistre. It is a travel book detailing the geography, geology, climate, economics and the art and culture of the author’s bedroom. It is written in the form and style of a standard travel book, and while its intentions may have been satiric or at least comic, de Maistre plays it straight all the way through.
Its author was a military man who was placed under house arrest after illegally engaging in an “affair of honor,” or, in other words, a duel. He was cooped up in his room for 42 days and took the time to write his book, which he never really intended to be published. His older brother, Joseph de Maistre, however, got hold of it and had it printed in 1794 without Xavier’s knowledge. It became something of a minor literary sensation and was republished several times.
“The walls of my room are hung with prints and paintings that greatly embellish it. I most sincerely wish I could let the reader examine them one by one, to amuse and distract him along the road that remains to be traveled before we reach my writing desk; but it is impossible to explain a painting clearly as it is to paint a faithful portrait on the basis of a description.”
De Maistre goes off on many tangents. I love tangents; I always have. I remember once, when… well, maybe another time.
My own library has its fair share of arcane and esoteric books. Contemporaneous with de Maistre is Denis Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist, another sort of travel book, although where Jacques and his master are traveling is never quite made clear. Through the book, the servant Jacques passes the time by telling many stories, most of them interrupted before they conclude.
Then, there is The Travels of Ibn Battutah, an Arabic book from the 14th century in which its author travels through all the lands of the Dar al-Islam. He put on more than 70,000 miles in his wanderings, more than three times the distance traveled by Marco Polo. The full title of his book is A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling, but most just call it the “Travels.”
Then there is The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. Published in 1702, it is as much haiku as prose, as the author travels by foot across northern Honshu, visiting shrines and literary sites. “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”
More facetious is George Chappell’s Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera, published in 1930, with illustrations by Otto Soglow.
One of the most overwritten books I know, purple as any prose ever penned, is John C. Van Dyke’s The Desert, from 1903, a paean to his visit to the great American Southwest. For those who like this sort of thing, this is an utter and complete delight. It is difficult to quote him briefly; his charms are in his expatiation. He begins by talking about a group of mountains in the Colorado desert: “For days I have been watching them change color at sunset — watching the canyons shift into great slashes of blue and purple shadow, and the ridges flame with the edgings of glittering fire. They are lonesome looking mountains lying off there by themselves on the plain, so still, so barren, so blazing hot under the sun. Forsaken of their kind, one might not inappropriately call them the ‘Lost Mountains’ — the surviving remnant no doubt of some noble range that long centuries ago was beaten by wind and rain into desert sand.”
To find language more garish, you would need to go to A Book of Clouds by William A. Quayle, from 1925, a series of black-and-white photographs layered with encomia and reminiscence. Writing about clouds and trees, he goes on: “In cloudy summer days the whole sense of the summer personality of a tree becomes manifest. The observer is not blinded by the light and not misled by the empyrean distance and height and azure. The tree stands as a picture hung and framed upon a gallery wall. It intrudes on you there. It seems to feel its own dignity and stands to have itself observed, the very picture of modest yet unashamed loveliness.”
They are not all travel and nature, these oddities of publication. I have a copy of 1933’s Hoofbeats by the great cowboy actor William S. Hart. When retired from making movies, he wrote in his introduction, “You can’t see me on the screen any more and I do so yearn to be remembered,” and so he wrote a series of Western novels. Hoofbeats begins: “How the wind did lash the rain into our faces! The flashes of lightning were so brief that where you were quite sure you had seen solid ground, your feet would slide into a deep puddle. Then, too, my captors had bound my arms with a stout rope, and it was not easy to make headway against the storm.”
I bought this tome many years ago while visiting Hart’s home, Horseshoe Ranch, in Newhall, Calif. The property was bequeathed to the state and is now William S. Hart Park and Museum.
There are Indians as well. My late wife was besotted from childhood with American Indian stories and lore. She had a collection of arrowheads and stone axes. We had, at one point, a library of books on Native America that would have been the pride of a minor research facility. Most of them, we sold as a unit when we moved from Arizona to North Carolina. Among those we kept is James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees, first published in 1900. She used several of the spells and curses against her ex-husband.
There are piles more oddities on the shelves. I don’t want to list them all. I should probably mention Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, an early exploration of depression and mental illness, wrapped up in Latin quotations and wild digressions, from 1621. Or the odd architectural book, framing memes and ideas in design and planning, called A Pattern Language. On a more risque side, there is Patrick Dennis’ Little Me, a fictional autobiography of a fictional dim-witted sex-bomb actress named Belle Poitrine. And Peter Fryer’s compendium of blue stockings, Mrs. Grundy: Studies in English Prudery.
But it isn’t just arcane subject matter than interests me. Sometimes it is the titles alone that catch your interest. One of my favorite oddball books is George Leonard Herter’s Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, one of the looniest books ever to see ink. ((I’ve written about it elsewhere). He includes the Virgin Mary’s favorite recipe for spinach and the fact that she loved bagpipe music. Also, how to survive a nuclear bomb and the dangers of peppering your eggs. Herter wrote several other books, including How to Live with a Bitch.
Titles can get quite involved. I learned music theory from Allen Irvine McHose’s The Contrapuntal Harmonic Technique of the 18th Century. I’ve collected books simply for their titles. Such as Phylogenetic and Morphological Problems of Taxonomy in Relation to Hominid Evolution and the immortal Design of Active-Site-Directed Irreversible Enzyme Inhibitors, by Bernard Baker. Everyone should have a copy, prominently placed in the living room bookshelf, just for the consternation of nosy houseguests digging through it.
This interest in peculiar titles led me to search for others. I found dozens worthy of note. There is even an annual prize for the oddest book title, the “Bookseller/Diagram Prize,” which was first given out in 1978 and awarded to Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice. The following year, it went to The Madam as Entrepreneur: Career Management in House Prostitution.
The organizers of the award soon realized a problem. Too many publishers were giving catchy and peculiar names to otherwise sane books to boost sales and, perhaps to get the coveted prize. One winning title was discovered to have been generated solely by algorithms: The 2009–2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais. The question was, should that be allowed in competition?
The odd titles fall into three broad categories. First are the self-help books that need the extra boost from a catchy title.
And so we have Bombproof Your Horse, which is really just a manual for training your horse not to get skittish at surprises. Then, there’s Outwitting Squirrels and The Beginner’s Guide to Animal Autopsy, which is a pretty-picture book about animal anatomy aimed at young audiences. Living with Scarves is self explanatory. All About Pockets is subtitled: “Storytime Activities for Early Childhood.” The catchy title is amusing, but there are more serious books, such as:
Deodorizing the Skunk by Surgery or Anyone Can Build a Tub-Style Mechanical Chicken Plucker, subtitled “Plucks Turkeys Geese and Ducks Too!” Farming with Dynamite was published by the DuPont company as “A Few Hints to Farmers.” Good-bye, Testicles, by Anne Welsh Guy, is a book to explain animal neutering to your child.
Then there is the category of histories and explanatory manuals. They cover a great deal. One of the more alarming is May Chushman Rice’s Electricity in Gynecology. Charles Dobson offers the electrifying History of the Concrete Roofing Tile. I did not even know there was a Social History of the Machine Gun. How about the History of Thimbles.
There’s also Anne Wilson’s The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History, and Its Role in the World Today. And C.C. Stanley’s Highlights in the History of Concrete. Or Gregory Forth’s A Dog Pissing at the Edge of a Path: Animal Metaphors in Eastern Indonesian Society.
A third category is titles from a bygone age, when the world was, well, different. Sometimes it is a change in language, which makes the old title mean something different now. Like Drummer Dick’s Discharge, a 1902 book by Beatrix M. De Burgh about a young soldier leaving the military. Which brings us to the 1713 book, The Symptoms, Nature, Cause and Cure of a Gonorrhoea, not funny in itself, except its author was William Cockburn.
Among the older volumes is the Popular History of British Sea-Weeds. I would love to own a copy. Among outmoded ideas is J.W. Conway’s The Prevention and Correction of Left-Handedness in Children. Geoffrey Prout wrote a book called Scouts in Bondage. I have no idea.
I want to throw out there a few other titles. In 1991, the U.K. published The Population of Great Britain Broken Down by Age and Sex. Ambiguity in action. In 1891, Captain John G. Bourke published Scatalogic Rites of All Nations. The title page warns “Not for general perusal.”
In 1900, an episode in the Second Boer War was chronicled in Thrilling Experiences of the First British Woman Relieved by Lord Roberts. From 1856 comes Three Weeks in Wet Sheets: A Moist Visitor to Malvern.
Lesbians get their own subsection, with Lesbian Sadomasochism Safety Manual by Pat Califia and The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories by Alisa Surkis and Monica Nolan.
And finally, a few last Bookseller/Diagram Prize winners. Unsolved Problems of Modern Theory of Lengthwise Rolling, by A.I Tselikov, S. Nikitin and E.S. Rokotyan — about rolling as a metalworking technique.
Greek Rural Postmen and their Cancellation Numbers, by Derek Willan. Not a large audience for that one. Weeds in a Changing World by Charles H. Stirton. Designing High Performance Stiffened Structures. The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Strangers Have the Best Candy.
Alan Stafford’s Too Naked for the Nazis is about the once-famous vaudeville act of Wilson, Keppel and Betty, which was denounced as “indecent” by Joseph Goebbels in 1936.
There’s also Dentistry for the Deceased Annual 1974, Teach Your Wife to be a Widow, Help Lord — The Devil Wants Me Fat! and The Pop-Up Book of Phobias. Boo.
The Bible says “Of making books there is no end.” The same for goofy books. If you have a favorite weird book or book title, please add them in the comment section.
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