Random Tangents: Sir Richard Owen
Easter, Smoke and Steam

Friday Five: 15 Pieces of Nonsensical Nonfiction

Friday FiveThis week, we turn to our bookshelves for inspiration. Not the brightly-lit sensible parts with all the lovely fiction, but the nooks and crannies: the reference books, the academia and other nonfictional oddities.

Joining us is award-winning writer Kaaron Warren.  She's the author of three short story collections, The Grinding House, The Glass Woman and Dead Sea Fruit, and several novels, including Slights, Walking the Tree and Mistification [Editor's note: that one's our favorite!]. We're delighted that Ms. Warren could take part both in this and in Stories of the Smoke. Her "The Pickwick Syndrome" is a dreamy tale of lost children and, er, pigeons.

We've each picked the five weirdest nonfiction books from our shelves. What are yours? 


PaprikaThe Rationale of the Dirty Joke (1968) by G. Legman. This book is 800 pages long and only volume 1; apparently volume 2 had an appearance of The Aristocrats. Here's a New Yorker article about the book.

Cleopatra’s Nose (1990) by Jerome Agel and Walter D. Glanze. I found the inspiration for my Smoke story “The Pickwick Syndrome” in this book. It lists verbal shortcuts ‘in popular parlance’ back to pre-6th Century BCE.

Baby-Guide for Mothers (1936) by ‘the Quins’ Doctor’. The Quins were a cause célèbre in the thirties, as became their doctor. The first chapter is “An Expectant Mother’s Best Friend is Her Doctor”. A later chapter includes instructions on how to make a soap stick that actually gave me nightmares.

Hungarian Paprika through the Ages (1963) by Zoltan Halasz. Illustrations include “Pig-killing”, “The Laws of Ha-Ha”, “Testing Pungency” and “Fish soup tastes best cooked in a cauldron”. There are a dozens of recipes for goulash. I do love a good cauldron-cooked goulash.

The Complete Guide to Police Writing (1984) by Karen Jakob. I love books and magazines specific to particular occupations. This one has a tip for a full description: WANTED. What. Appearance. Number. Type. Extraordinary. Dollars.


Books Condemned to be BurntHow to Lie with Statistics (1954) by Darell Huff. I actually use this vintage manual on interpeting (and obfuscating) facts for work. It is surprisingly useful, adorably illustrated and never fails to make people uncomfortable. 

Annual of Advertising Art in Japan: 1979. This book, on the other hand, has no practical value whatsoever. It is massive, massive tome, yet every ad is the same: gym-goers in lumiscent clothing, shilling long-dead soda products.

Umbrella Frames: 1848-1948 (1948) by Stanley Maxon. I know when I got this. And where. And how much I paid. But I still have no idea why. But when the umbrellapunk revolution comes, I'll be laughing.

Books Condemned to be Burnt (1904) by James Farrer. Part of a set of anedoctal bibliographies, including Books Fatal to Their Authors and Books in Chains. Really fond of this one because the book itself is fire-damaged. (More worrisome: Books Fatal to Their Authors has some mysterious stains.)

Understanding Mu (1970) by Hans Stefan Santesson. An endorsement of James Churchward's Mu 'studies', which are some of my favorite works of "non"-fiction. This particular book gets bonus points - it was author John Brunner's personal copy (with bookplate) and has an inscription to Brunner from Santesson saying "To John, who will not agree." 


I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Victorian pornographic novels. Now this might come as a surprise, but 19th century pornographic novels aren't as well-studied an area as you'd expect, and were even less so [some number of] years ago. I was very proud of that thesis and occasionally toy with the idea of revisiting it as a Serious Academic. With that in mind, I'll pick up whatever random 19th-century porn-related books cross my path, including my first book today, The Erotomaniac: The Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee, by Ian Gibson (1988). Now Ashbee, if you're not up on your 19th century porn luminaries, is famous for cataloguing his - no pun intended - astonishingly large collection of porn in three enormous volumes. Entries included summaries and commentaries. He also tried his hand at writing his own porn. All that and he had a wife and children and a reputation to uphold. Now, another thing you may or may not know about 19th century porn: another of its most famous, uh, projects: My Secret Life, an eleven volume autobiography chronicling a well-to-do Victorian gentleman's sexual encounters over several decades with women of every stripe, from the family maids to famous prostitutes to little girls he picked up off the street. In The Erotomaniac, Gibson makes a case that Ashbee and the anonymous author of Secret Life were one and the same. I'm not personally convinced, but I'm impressed by Gibson's accomplishment, which meant he had to read and reread all that porn to put together his argument. As I learned when I was 21, reading a lot of porn is kind of awful.

My current Serious Academic project revolves around 19th century natural history, and, in part, what we might term the origin of popular science. I found my next pick, The Elements of Natural History, chiefly intended for the Use of Schools, and Young Persons, by William Mavor (1799). I have the 1807 edition, which is gloriously calf-bound and crumbly. The book itself is wonderfully written, and bursting with the author's enthusiasm for his subject as well as his pathos: in the chapter devoted to the horse, he laments that noble animal's frequent mistreatment and miserable life of drudgery in a sincere and unaffected way. But, without a doubt, the highlight of the book is its dedication: Mavor wrote Elements while caring for his son during a life-threatening illness, and writes that he hopes the boy will eventually recover enough to make use of it.


It may be clear that I'm a bit of a soft touch when it comes to books. I'll buy anything that looks like someone loved it (whether it was an author's labor of love or the clear favorite of a possessor), which explains why we have so many books scattered around with titles like Some Birds I've Seen in my Tiny Garden in the Middle of Nowhere between March and August of the Year I was Confined to a Wheelchair and my Cat Died. One of my very favorites of these is Selections from the Diary of the Rev. Francis Kilvert, 1870-1879 (Ed. William Plomer, 1944). Kilvert's diaries recount the vicar's life in the English countryside with the usual humor and pathos, and are a fun read (though if you're in the mood for some real fun, go for Greville's diaries!) The reason we own this particular book, however, is that it was once the property of a serious Kilvert fan, and is brimming with clipping about Kilvert and the diaries, many carefully pasted into the fly-leaves, but many more just stuffed between pages. As a catalogue of some long-dead man's interest in an even longer-dead man, it really can't be beaten.

That said, I'll also pick up books if they contain old advertisements - like Good Things Made, Said, and Done for Every Home and Household. Dating from 1885, and with no author mentioned, Good Things is stuffed with invaluable information about how to boil thirty potatoes at a time (add salt to the water) and is, in fact, a single long advertisement for the company Goodall, Blackhouse and Co., which produced things like ketchup and quinine wine. (Everything they manufactured, coincidentally, is suggested as additions to the recipes in Good Things.) Good Things also contains puzzling proverbs like "if the foot be guarded, the head will seldom harm" around the edges of every page. But the real reason I bought Good Things? The ad on the flyleaf that commands mothers "do not let your children die!" and suggests feeding kids Fennings' Children's Powders for children cutting their teeth. I had no idea that teething was potentially deadly.

Another of my long-term, though less Serious, projects revolves around a kind of psychogeography of 1930s London. To that end, we are the proud possessors of innumerable guidebooks and collected essays about London in this period, each one of which is a treasure. Far and away my favorite is Ward, Lock & Co's London (1937). The Ward, Lock and Co. books of this period contain less raw information than the sainted Baedekker's, but are far chattier and, frankly, easier reads. You can settle down with a Ward, Lock and Co. in a way you really can't with a Baedekker's. So why my attachment to this edition? The astonishing maps, for one. And the ads, of course: "it is impossible not to be charmed by the delightful novels by Dornford Yates," apparently - but  only read it once you've finished the "authoritative volume that has long been wanted: Our Great Public Schools; their Traditions, Customs and Games." Seriously, this stuff is like catnip to me.

So, what are your goofiest non-fiction tomes?