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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. 

Click on any image to enlarge

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

Church Iceberg flotante, 1859

There are so many books I have overlooked. There is no way to tally up the consequence of reading most of them: Such cumulation is like measuring the rain that fills the sea bed.

But I want to pick out several of the idiosyncratic ones, outside the usual suspects (Camus, Dostoevsky, Lawrence, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway, et al.), which can be assumed. My taste has always gravitated to the forgotten, abused and out-of-fashion. There is something in my sensibility that just flat-out enjoys complex, baroque sentences and the kind of observational intensity that you find most developed in those authors hovering on the edge of custom or sanity.

Part of this preference comes from a desire for transcendence, and transcendence never comes in conventional form.

Longinus explains why my tastes may run to the extravagant.

“The startling and amazing is more powerful than the charming and persuasive,” he writes.

His On the Sublime is a sometimes numbing description of rhetorical tropes, but several times in their midst, he breaks free and discusses the big issues. In the climactic 35th chapter, he breaks out:

etna erupting“What was it they saw, those godlike writers who in their work aim at what is greatest and overlook precision in every detail? … (W)e are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, or the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean.  … nor do we consider out little hearthfire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and boulders or at times pour forth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth.

“We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”

It is that great writing that attracts me to Henry Thoreau and Herman Melville. Both have a foundation in a kind of biblical tone, a King James timbre, full of striking metaphor and cosmic awareness.

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”

Or: Herman Melville 1885

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

That ain’t Hemingway.

But it isn’t only Walden and Moby Dick; I have spent many hours in happy lucubration over the pages of Thoreau’s Journals, collected in two giant volumes by my favorite publishing house, Dover Books. And I can hardly pass up re-reading most of Melville’s short stories, I and My Chimney, The Apple-Tree Table and Piazza. I read them over the way one listens to a favorite tune, waiting for your favorite chorus to set your toe tapping.let us now praise cover

But for intense unreadability married to heartbreaking self-flagellation and obsessive observational skill, you cannot beat James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a volume of such personal journalism that it makes Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson look like disinterested sub-sub-librarians.

The book is an investigation of tenant farmers in Alabama during the Depression and Agee spends a portion of his life living with one of the families he reports on. And he spends an entire chapter describing the shanty room he is sitting in late in the night under a kerosene lamp as the family sleeps in the other room. He describes, it seems, every knot in the wood of the walls he stares at, every hook holding up every potholder or towel. It approaches the insane, but in the same way the fevered eyes of Vincent Van Gogh looked at the wheatfield and crows. Every bush is the burning bush.

The intensity, the engagement is the thing. 2006.13.1.8 002

“Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another,” he writes. “The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor … Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding…”

Perhaps Agee attempts more than is possible in sewn signatures and binding, and maybe he is a fool for even trying, but I am his target and he hits me in the quick.

Official acceptance means becoming part of an unexamined and cataloged orthodoxy: Things settled so you don’t have to parse them out all over again. The problem with that is:

“The way that can be named is not the constant way.”tao te ching

The Tao Te Ching can be read as an ambiguous and mystical series of woo-woo New-Age aphorisms, or it can be taken as precise and direct in meaning. Most of its readers, and many of its more recent translators opt for the former, turning it into a kind of text to daze its readers and perhaps sell them a regimen of dietary supplements.

I take the latter view, that it means what it says and means it directly.

If there is one thing at the core of my intellectual being, as a dense molten iron core of the planet, it is a recognition — I cannot call it a belief, because it is too obvious — a recognition of the primacy of diversity and fecundity in the cosmos. A sense that existence is too complex ever to be summed up in a political philosophy, theology or epistemology. Every esthetic and intellectual movement comes a cropper against the largeness and variety of the universe. As the Tao puts it, any time you name something, you have lied.

The way that can be named is not the constant way: Our cultural world view and our personal understanding of the structure and meaning of the world — our umwelt — changes over time, and changes in ways that are largely predictable, at least in wider outline, even if details surprise us.

These are the waves hitting the shores that we see over and over — a pendulum swinging back and forth — over the centuries, and embodied in cultures we name as pairs: Hellenic and Hellenistic, Romanesque and Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, Neoclassical and Romantic. It is the same pendulum slowly rocking.

Most people take sides, like T.S. Eliot’s angry brief against John Milton, but some of us step back and observe them as two sides of the same coin. Taking sides is self-limiting: “mind-forged manacles.”

“It is the way of heaven to show no favoritism.”

For me, the most interesting times are those on the cusp of one or the other named moments: the change itself, rather than the brief second when the pendulum stills on one end of the arc or the other.

maistre book 2And it leads me to such peculiar books as Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room, a travel book — or a parody of a travel book — about the room de Maistre is trapped in during a house arrest in 1790, at just the point that the classicism of the 18th century was melting into the weirdness of the coming age. But it also takes seriously — if that is the word — the possibility that one might invest a description of one’s daily surroundings with the same majesty one might use to describe, say, Goethe’s journey over the Alps. Every bush, again.

Oh, I wish I could go on. I have left out Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy; I have left out the Mahabharata and its Bhagavad Gita; I have snubbed Yeats’ A Vision. Villon’s Testament; the Daybooks of Edward Weston — I have inherited for the meat of my bones the DNA from my parents, for better or worse, but I have inherited my intellectual genes from all the books I have had the happiness to encounter.

NEXT: The books age with their reader