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Unpacking My Library

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A while ago, the technoculture writer David Pescovitz—whose mind was probably elsewhere at the time—rashly asked me for a reading list. He was curious to know what was on my nightstand. (He’ll rue the day he asked, before I’m done.) Typically, I have a half-dozen books I’m picking up and putting down, in my desultory way, reading a few pages here, skimming a chapter there. The presumption, at least subconsciously, is that this hodgepodge will form a sort of montage in my mind, inspiring intertextual conjunctions, juxtapositions, synchronicities. (At least, that’s the theory…) Literary ADD meets Freudian free association.

For example, I recently buzzed through Elizabeth and Stuart Ewen’s Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality, a panoramic study of racial stereotyping in Western culture. For the Ewens, Baroque cabinets of curiosity, social Darwinism, eugenics, wartime propaganda, and pop culture (Roget’s thesaurus, King Kong, minstrel shows) are vectors of transmission for racist fables of genetic predestination.

Every night, after doing some deep-breathing exercises with the Ewen book, I’d relax before sleep with some intellectual Fluffernutter. One night, while listening to an audiobook of Sherlock Holmes stories, I was fascinated to hear fictional echoes, in Holmes’s snap judgments of human character, of the Victorian racial science critiqued by the Ewens.

Holmes’s X-ray visions of the evils lurking in the minds of men are at once gothic in their morbid obsession with the ever-present past; Freudian in their sense of a libidinous self, at odds with the superego; and social Darwinian in their insistence on Victorian assumptions about gender, race, and ethnicity. The physiognomies and body language of Conan Doyle’s criminals are indelibly stamped with the stigmata of inborn criminality, reminding us time and again that heredity is destiny. Of Holmes’s would-be assassin, the murderous Colonel Moran, Dr. Watson observes,

I was able at last to have a good look at our prisoner. It was a tremendously virile and yet sinister face which was turned towards us. With the brow of a philosopher above and the jaw of a sensualist below, the man must have started with great capacities for good or for evil. But one could not look upon his cruel blue eyes, with their drooping, cynical lids, or upon the fierce, aggressive nose and the threatening, deep-lined brow, without reading Nature’s plainest danger-signals” (“The Empty House”).

Moran exemplifies Holmes’s theory that ontogeny recapitulates familial phylogeny: “The individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors…[becoming], as it were, the epitome of the history of his own family.” Likewise, Holmes’s arch-nemesis Moriarty is of “good birth and…endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty,” yet the man is inescapably blighted by “hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind,” instantly apparent in his creepy habit of “slowly oscillating [his face] from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion” (“The Final Problem”). From the Italian jewel thief Beppo, a “simian man with thick eyebrows, and a very peculiar projection of the lower part of the face like the muzzle of a baboon” (“The Six Napoleons”); to the vengeful Jonas Oldacre, “more like a malignant and cunning ape than a human being” (“The Norwood Builder”); to the mad scientist Professor Presbury, whose use of a rejuvenating elixir (think: Victorian Viagra) extracted from “the great black-faced monkey of the Himalayan slopes” turns him into a missing link (“The Creeping Man”), Conan Doyle’s stories are fraught with the anxieties of his age—the Xenophobic fear that the English gene pool was being contaminated by bestial immigrant strains; devolutionary nightmares inspired by Darwin’s revelation that simians and Homo sapiens are branches of the same evolutionary tree; Max Nordau-ish worries about the moral degeneration of the ingrown nobility. Conjunctions, juxtapositions, synchronicities.

It gets weirder: Another night, I downshifted from the Ewens by reading The Colour Out of Space: Tales of Cosmic Horror. The title story, by H.P. Lovecraft, is a gothic sci-fi story about a meteor whose otherworldly influence, somewhere between radiation sickness and nameless evil, turns the farm where it landed into a “blasted heath” and the hapless family that lives there into “grey, twisted, brittle [monstrosities].” The Mark of the Devil, in Lovecraft’s story, is color—ambiguous color, its promiscuous blending of pigments the outward manifestation of an unspeakable evil. Inside a fragment of the meteor, investigators find “a large coloured globule” whose color “was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all.” On the poisoned farm, where mutant flora worthy of Three Mile Island has sprung up, “no sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen…but everywhere those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone…”

My curiosity piqued, I dialed up the Wikipedia entry on Lovecraft, and found the Ewens whispering in my ear again. Conjunctions, juxtapositions, synchronicities: According to Wikipedia, Lovecraft’s fiction is shot through with racist sentiments. He expounded on racist themes in poems such as “On the Creation of Niggers” (1912); in his story “Herbert West—Reanimator,” the author experiences a shudder of almost self-parodic revulsion at the sight of a dead African-American: “He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms that I could not help calling forelegs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life—but the world holds many ugly things.” Too true, too true, and one of the ugliest stared back at H.P., out of his shaving mirror: According to his ex-wife, a stroll through the mongrel metropolis made Lovecraft apoplectic. “Whenever we found ourselves in the racially mixed crowds which characterize New York,” she wrote, “Howard would become livid with rage. He seemed almost to lose his mind.” Little wonder, then, that for the self-appointed Scourge of the Mud People, color—the multiethnic face of an ever more racially mixed America—should be synonymous with horror. In Typecasting, the Ewens sketch the background for Lovecraft’s fulminations, a historical moment in which racial segregation is the law of the land, eugenics is sober science, and expert testimony before congress helps push through the Immigration Act of 1924, a bulwark against the pollution of Aryan DNA by inferior breeding stock from eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.

Just two examples, Constant Reader, of the hypertextual connections—the intellectual crosspollination—encouraged by literary channel-surfing.

Which brings us, by twists and turns, back to The Reading List. Here, then, are some gleanings from recent readings.

Note: Some of the titles that follow are books that have always intrigued me, but which I have yet to read. Nothing odd about that: Some of the best books are the ones we haven’t read. Some of the most cherished volumes in my library are titles that have gone untouched since the day I bought them, no less loved for that. Anatole France, Umberto Eco, and Jacques Derrida are thoughtful on this subject. Asked if he’d read all the books in his library, France famously replied, “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?” In his essay, “How to Justify a Private Library,” Eco writes, “The best answer is the one always used by Roberto Leydi: ‘And more, dear sir, many more,’ which freezes the adversary and plunges him into a state of awed admiration.” Derrida’s zinger, in the documentary Derrida, is more gently witty: “No, I’ve only read three or four, but I’ve read them very, very well.” Of course, I have every intention of reading the books in question some day; I bought many of them out of the neurotic fear that the dissident and the deviant will be black-market commodities in the not-so-distant future, when a home-schooled creationist ascends to the presidency with the 10 Commandments in one hand and a Left Behind potboiler in the other, exhorting the faithful to start readying the lighter fluid and the faggots for the secular humanists and their godless, sodomite lit.

To the stacks, then.

1. A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svendsen. Never read it. Love the fact that there’s a painstakingly scholarly study devoted to boredom, with every op cit and ibid spit-shined to a blinding luster. Even better, the book is by all accounts gripping. An edge-of-your-seat deconstruction of the deeper meanings of boredom! What could be better? Unbelievabll, there’s another book on the subject: Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind by Patricia Meyer Spacks. Unfortunately, it’s “actually, well, boring,” in the words of one Amazon reviewer.

In any event, I love these obsessive-compulsive social histories of little-studied subjects, such as The Encyclopedia of Stupidity by Matthijs van Boxsel, and The Anatomy of Disgust by William Ian Miller (and its conjoined twin, On Disgust by Aurel Kolnai, Carolyn Korsmeye, and Barry Smith).

Speaking of the disgusting, the Miller and Kolnai/Korsmeye/Smith books are scholarly studies, whereas Dominique Laporte’s uneven History of Shit and Paul Spinrad’s incomparable, inexhaustible RE/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids engage more, er, viscerally with the subject at hand. By contrast, Wim Delvoye: Cloaca (which I also haven’t read) with contributions by Dan Cameron, Dieter Roelstraete, Gerardo Mosquera, Georges Bataille, and Milan Kundera (!), looks suitably bizarre, while Divine Filth: Lost Writings by Georges Bataille and Filth: Dirt, Disgust, And Modern Life, edited by William A. Cohen and Ryan Johnson, bring a scholarly approach to an abject subject.

2. Albertus Seba: Cabinet of Natural Curiosities—The Complete Plates in Colour, 1734-1765, edited by Dr. Irmgard Musch. Another breathtaking wonderbook from the German publisher Taschen. From the Amazon blurb: “In 1731, after decades of collecting, Seba commissioned illustrations of each and every specimen [in his wonder closet] and arranged the publication of a four-volume catalog detailing his entire collection—from strange and exotic plants to snakes, frogs, crocodiles, shellfish, corals, insects, butterflies and more, as well as fantastic beasts, such as a hydra and a dragon. [These] illustrations, often mixing plants and animals in a single plate, were unusual even for the time. Many of the stranger and more peculiar creatures from Seba’s collection, some of which are now extinct, were as curious to those in Seba’s day as they are to us now. This reproduction is taken from a rare, hand-colored original.” Once seen, never forgotten, these hand-painted dream photographs from the Baroque capture, with stunning vivdness, the aesthetic of wonder.

3. The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux. Theroux is a gossipy, waspish writer who never misses an opportunity to flaunt his (admittedly prodigious) erudition, sneer at the booboisie, name-drop, or score-settle (especially with his vastly more celebrated brother, for whom he nurses an undying grudge). Bitchy, affected, and too clever by half, his style aspires to Oscar Wilde but more often approximates Paul Lynde. For all that, The Strange Case is an addictively readable book, stuffed with scandalous morsels of gossip, witty table talk (Gorey and Theroux were friends), and sharply perceptive insights into the mind and art of the incalcuable, eccentric Gorey. A poisoned bon-bon of a book.

4. J.G. Ballard: Quotes by J.G. Ballard; edited by Mike Ryan, V. Vale. Slapdash in comparison with the indispensable RE/Search #8/9 (the Ballard issue)—“unknown” is a too-frequent citation, and the loving inclusion of every possible variation on a given quote, culled from decades of interviews, is calculated to appeal to the devout fan only—this is nonetheless a bottomless font of insights and inspiration from the incomparable Ballard, a visionary novelist whose black-comedic critique of the postmodern condition is more trenchant, and wittier by far, than anything French philosophy has to offer. Read Baudrillard and Virilio as science fiction, and Ballard as philosophy or, better yet, self-help guru for the irreparably disaffected. I begin every day with a quote, chosen at random, from this book of daily affirmations—or, more properly, daily negations—and go forth with a spring in my step, intellectually well-armed to do battle with my local megamall, multistory parking garage, and other Ballardian horrors come to life.

5. Losing Our Heads: Beheadings in Literature and Culture by Regina Janes. The fact that there’s an entire book devoted to this subject gives meaning to my life, and almost convinces me there’s a god.

6. Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body by Armand Marie Leroi. The Two-headed Boy, And Other Medical Marvels by Jan Bondeson. The Last Sideshow, a book of photographs by Hanspeter Schneider. Inside the Live Reptile Tent: The Twilight World of Carnival Midway, text by Bruce Caron, photographs by Jeff Brouws. Monsters: Human Freaks in America’s Gilded Age: The Photographs of Chas Eisenmann, edited by Michael Mitchell. As these titles remind us, we’ve lost the ability to stare without Puritan guilt or the intellectual agonies of Political Correctness. In these pages, we find ourselves face to face with the Utterly Other. Stare, and stare some more, and be forever changed.

7. My Last Sigh by Luis Bunuel. As sublimely dry and sophisticated as the martinis whose virtues he extols, the great Surrealist’s breezy, effortlessly charming memoir is a time capsule from a lost world, when conversation over cocktails was an art. A master raconteur and wicked wit, Bunuel regales us with tales of Dali, anti-clerical bon mots, and profound insights into the filmmaker’s art. Before you know it, you’ve reached the bottom of the martini shaker and the book is over. What’s not to love about a chatty, self-deprecating autobiography that includes an entire chapter on the vital importance of the martini in the creative process and a detailed recipe for the author’s own variation on that immortal theme, the Bunueloni? Favorite passage: Bunuel’s description of the ideal martini, in which a shaft of sunlight passes through a bottle of Noilly Prat and thence into a brimming glass of Bombay gin, as “the generative powers of the Holy Ghost pierced the virgin’s hymen.”

8. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Corinne May Botz. One of the strangest little books ever published. From the Amazon blurb: “Bizarre and utterly fascinating, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is a dark and disturbing photographic journey through criminal cases and the mind of Frances Glessner Lee–grandmother, dollhouse-maker, and master criminal investigator. Photographer Corinne May Botz stumbled across the “Nutshell Studies” while making a video about women who collect dollhouses. On the suggestion of a collector, she visited the Baltmore Medical Examiner’s Office, where Lee’s miniature reconstructions of crime scenes were on display. The macabre dioramas fascinated and repulsed her: “I was entranced by the details: the porcelain doll with a broken arm in the attic, the grains of sugar on the kitchen floor…I was also riveted by the miniature corpses. Shot in bed, collapsed in the bathtub, hung in the attic and stabbed in the closet; all were eternally frozen in miniature rooms that had become their tombs.” Can you believe it has a competitor? The Dollhouse Murders: A Forensic Expert Investigates 6 Little Crimes by Thomas Mauriello, Ann Darby; photographs by John Consoli.

9. The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators by Gordon Grice. A mordant masterpiece, in which the author invents a genre all his own: Nature Gothic. The chapter titles—“Tarantula,” “Recluse,” “Mantid,” “Black Widow,” “Rattlesnake”—tell it all. Fascinated by the alien ways of the nonhuman world, Grice combines the sardonic deadpan of noir fiction with the best naturalists’ unsentimental scrutiny of animal behavior and a rural midwesterner’s applied knowledge of the predator-prey relationship. A Jean-Henri Fabre for literati who drive pickups with rifle racks.

10. Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C.G. Jung, edited by Aniela Jaffe, translated by Clara Winston and Richard Winston. Recently, I had an inexplicable craving for this book, which I first read when it was assigned by a high-school Teacher Who Changed My Life. In the name of time famine, I opted for the abridged audiobook version, read by Michael York—a fateful decision, as it turned out, since the contrast between York’s plummy, uppercrust English accent and Jung’s retelling of his “personal myth” (not his life, but his inner life) is as uproarious as it is surreal. Shove one of these tapes into your car stereo and let the man who channeled the Collective Unconscious, psychology’s answer to Lemuria—a consoling fiction that laid the cornerstone of the New Age (and obliterated beyond repair the notion that psychology was even remotely scientific)—provide a wonderfully incongruous voiceover to the geography of nowhere (Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Wal-Mart, Target, Costco…) as it flashes past.

Thrill to Jung’s formative childhood dream of a giant, one-eyed phallus sitting erect on a king’s throne—a monstrous thing “made of skin and flesh, and on top there was something like a rounded head with no face and no hair. On the very top of the head was a single eye, gazing motionlessly upwards.” Gird up your loins for a week of fear-crazed bedwetting: “The thing did not move, yet I had the feeling that it might at any moment crawl off the throne like a worm and creep towards me.” The one-eyed trouser snake of locker-room lore, as reimagined by H.R. Giger! Pure terror! Listen, in rapt fascination, to the account of the female patient who believes she travels to and from the moon, where the moonpeople are threatened by a hypnotically beautiful vampire, who turns out to be a buried memory of sexual abuse, risen from her childhood nightmares. Laff until the tears run down your cheeks as Jung recounts the Battle of the Titans, in which he and Freud struggle for control of the historical narrative of psychoanalysis, each interpreting the other’s dreams as maliciously as possible—as evidence of sublimated sexual pathologies, death wishes toward the father figure, or worse! (Profoundly unsettled by Jung’s interest in the then-recently discovered mummies of pre-Christian “bog people,” Freud is convinced that the Swiss analyst’s obsession with “these corpses” masks a death wish toward him, and faints dead away at the dinner table.)

Jung’s account of his childhood crisis of faith is worth the price of admission, all by itself. In it, we accompany the author on his way to school. Rejoicing in the chirping birds and exquisitely blue sky, he offers a silent prayer of thanks to the Creator God: “The world is beautiful and the church is beautiful and God made all this and sits above it far away in the blue sky on a golden throne and…and…and…” Suddenly, our narrator is struck with A THOUGHT TOO MONSTROUS TO THINK! Tormented for days by this soul-shriveling blasphemy, he finally decides, after much agony of mind, that God must have intended him to think this scaldingly sacreligious thought. This revelation “liberated me instantly from my worst torment, since I knew that God himself had placed me in this situation.” Abandoning himself to divine will, Li’l Jung allows himself to think the unthinkable: “I gathered all my courage, as though I were about to leap forthwith into hellfire, and let the thought come.” (Pregnant pause by York.) “God sits on His golden throne, high above the world and under the throne an enormous turd falls upon the sparkling new roof, shatters it, and breaks the walls of the cathedral asunder.” (That, Virginia, is why they call it a throne.) “I felt an enormous and indescribable relief; instead of the expected damnation, grace had come upon me, and with it an unutterable bliss.” (Where are the Farrelly brothers when we need them? Do not go in there!)

Let that be a lesson to the morbidly religious among you—not to mention those bibliocentrists who turn up their noses at the obscure pleasures of the audiobook.