Sunday, October 19, 2008

What to read (and things I wish I'd said, written, or done)

Whenever one despairs of intellectual stimulus, the right thing just somehow comes along:
For the past 30 years, the Bookseller magazine has awarded a prize to the oddest book title it can find. The first ever winner was Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice
Mind-boggling as that is, it is far from the strangest. Now the top prize has been won by the 1996 magnum opus Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers, . . .  More.
Damn. You couldn't make this stuff up (which is to say: I wish I could; the last time I tried was in college, with a brief [that word alone doomed it to failure] German philosophical treatise, entitled, Wissen und Pissen, which won plaudits from those who understand both topics, but remained a fragment).

Of course, for those who can (or try), there are works such as that by Tad Tuleja, late of neighboring Belchertown; a hamlet whose unappetizing name alone prevented me from seeking a domicile there (though it has since become quite the fashionable place, mainly because it had land for large building lots).  His The Catalog of Lost Books: An Annotated and Seriously Addled Collection of Great Books That Should Have Been Written, But Never Were (1989), with a preface appropriately entitled, "À la Recherche des Tomes Perdus," includes such treasures as "The Cretan Eraser: Inventories of Knossos," "Bulimius: The Art of Stuffing," "Heloise Hausenhintsen: The Helper's Helper" (that one may require a certain generational context), "William Shakespeare: Hamletta," "Pocahontas: The London Diary," "Alfred E. Neumann: What, Me Worry?" (another lost reference on the very young, now that other and better satirical entertainments abound), "Marilyn Monroe: A Prolegomena to Semiotics," and "Lumpy Gravy: The Mushroom Hunters."

He outfoxed himself, however, with James Bereford's Miseries of Human Life. As an astute reader pointed out (I guess one just has to know the 19th century and how those people thought; a few of us make it our business and pleasure to do so) it was in fact a real book from 1816 that fooled both author and reviewer. Tuleja was smart and gracious enough to acknowledge the error--but also sly and proud enough to inform the letter-writer that there was in addition a deliberate false attribution--that is, in this case, a real title--lurking in his catalogue. Are you clever enough to find it? (Hint: It's not "Guy-Martine Ratatouille: Cacophony of the Spheres.")

And for those of you who still want to make up some good titles, be aware that it is an uphill battle. Here are some past winners from the list of real titles:

1986: Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality (Brunner/Mazel)
1988: Versailles: The View From Sweden (University of Chicago Press)
1989: How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art (Ten Speed Press)
1990: Lesbian Sadomasochism Safety Manual (Lace Publications)

(Not for nothing was that one of my favorite decades, greed and Reaganism notwithstanding.  After the lean years of the nineties, which perhaps produced fewer striking titles, the new millennium is already generating a bumper crop.)

1994: Highlights in the History of Concrete (British Cement Association)
1995: Reusing Old Graves (Shaw & Son)

2002: Living With Crazy Buttocks (Kaz Cooke - Penguin)
2003: The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories (Kensington Publishing)
2004: Bombproof Your Horse (J A Allen)
2005: People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It (Gary Leon Hill - Red Wheel/Weiser Books)
2006: The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification (Harry N Abrams)

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