Paradigms & Fairytales: What’s Your Favorite Eccentric Nonfiction Book? (Er, and Beer)


(So, like, what’s with the beer in the photo? Over on Omnivoracious, I’m soliciting suggestions for books to feature with Stone Brewing’s latest act of genius–said act included sending us two bottles of amazing beer. So, here, your fav nonfic crazy books. There, your fav books to pair with beer. Go to it, my peoples!)

I love eccentric nonfiction, in part because I get some of my funniest fictional ideas from such books. In the past, I’ve enjoyed the heck out of any number of slightly “off” texts, including a book on penguins where the author went off on long rants about misclassifications and the backstabbing that goes on in the penguin studies community. There’s something about eccentric nonfiction that points out the inherent absurdity of our situation as living beings. Which is to say, we establish these parameters for reality and we abide by them, the data reinforced by the evidence of our five senses and our brain’s ability to process and analyze information. We tell ourselves that certain things are more real than others—for example, chemistry is more real, based on more facts, as a branch of science than, say, a soft science like sociology. And yet, when it comes down to it, everything is still processed through our slightly illogical, definitely subjective, maybe-having-a-bad-day brains.

So, you wind up with a lovely subset of nonfiction that often reads like Kinbote from Pale Fire is your narrator. Sometimes this is because the writer is truly a bit cracked. Sometimes it’s because even a decade can turn a serious nonfiction book into…fiction.

Then, there are books that you can’t not take seriously and yet also seem full of crazy in the best possible way. For example, I’ve recently been reading the two-volume set Paradigms & Fairy Tales: An Introduction to the Science of Meanings by Julienne Ford (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975)


(An odd thing about these books—I cannot get them to photograph well, as if in objective reality, they’re blurry.)

Chapter titles, for example, include “I Beg Your Pardon,” “Advice from a Caterpillar,” “Rabbit on the Shopping List,” and “A Box of My Own Invention.” The text on the back cover describes these books as:

…an introduction to the epistemology and practice of social science which will be welcomed by everyone who is curious about or disenchanted with the current conventions of academic social science. The work may be read in a number of different ways, and serves various purposes according to the requirements of the reader. For the non-sociologist it provides an exposition and critique of the ideology and practice of social science, and an examination of the professional social scientist as a manipulator of ideas and appearances; his claims to expertise are exposed, and some rules for judging dialogues about social science “evidence” are suggested…more traditional procedures are treated alongside some bizarre new tactics…On yet another level, this work may be read as an allegorical fairy tale. It is the story of the rise and fall of a curious lapine civilization and of the fortunes of the devotees of a strange cult of mountaineering heroes who, even now, are regrouping for a new assault on the summit.

The introduction posits that science has actually driven us “further away from the homely comfort of knowing-that-we-know-what we know.” Exploration of inner and outer space with “rockets, spaceships, psychiatric techniques, and psychotropic drugs” has served “only to emphasize how blurred is the line between ‘phantasy’ and ‘reality’.” Thus, a subtitle in the intro of “What is Really Real?” followed by an extended excerpt from Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” a series of short conversations between an A and a B about reality, a photograph of a nebula, another subtitle of “Thought Is a Result of Thinking,” and a fairy tale about a tortoise. Chapter 1 includes a discussion of kept knowledge—“In our own common-sense terms these are bits of information about what things happen, how they happen, why they happen, and, of course, how to do all kinds of things from unarmed combat to Fair Isle knitting, and from having-a-baby to behaving-nicely-at-a-funeral”—and then ends with “Phew! What a lot of thoughts! I am sorry to say that we are about to find out that those are the sorts of things they keep in libraries.” The tone veers from the academic to the informal to the eccentric throughout. (I could go on, but the large version links to the pages below will give you additional opportunities to sample the text.)

Then, of course, there are the interesting illustrations, which almost give the text the feel of a book by Alasdair Gray. Take, for example, the curious endpapers:


(larger, more readable version here)

And how can I resist a mushroom made up of Rules of Reasonableness and Kept Knowledge?


(larger, more readable version here)

Or resist such decadent use of space as exemplified by this “diagram”:


(larger, more readable version here)

…And I always, always take advice from caterpillars.


(larger, more readable version here)

Rabbits, too, have been giving me advice for years, and I am still susceptible to their sibilant numbling speech.


(larger, more readable version here.)

Perhaps my favorite bit of text on the rabbit page pictured above is: “We are very tempted to have a go, particularly when we spy the luscious conundrum who squats by the entrance to the tunnel; she is wearing a great big button badge which says ‘WORK ME OUT’!”

Now, I’m the first to admit that even though the book claims it’s accessible to the layperson, too, the author does reference and use as her foundations a lot of theory and a lot of context that is probably specialized knowledge, so that some of the seeming eccentricities come from gaps in my education—and it’s true that some of her approaches are used in books like Hofstadter’s Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul. But the changes in tone, the touches of the personal, the stubborn intent to include fairy tales and other nontrad means of getting to meaning through extended metaphor and allegory…these things definitely give the books a strange and exotic feel. I’m not condemning the books for this—it’s why I am loving them so much, even when the text seems to go down a rabbit hole. Sometimes, they read like teachings from an odd alternate universe. They also display a deeply perverse sense of humor and nonlinear imagination. I’m already finding my brain processing bits and pieces into mulch for parts of a long story I’m working on called “Komodo.”

So now that I’ve rambled on, let’s get back to my question: What are your favorite eccentric nonfiction books?

P.S. If you want to explode your mind, read Paradigms at the same time as Derek Raymond’s The Hidden Files

Comments

  1. says

    One of my favourites is so “off” that many people would find it far too offensive, a volume entitled ‘The Jewel in the Lotus’ (1961), subtitled “A Historical Survey of the Sexual Culture of the East”, by Allen Edwardes. I first read this as a paperback years ago then recently found a cheap first edition hardback through Abe.com.

    Ostensibly, it’s a quite serious study of sex in “The East” (meaning everywhere east of the Aegean Sea) but the language, tone and attitudes are bizarrely old-fashioned, so the book is a hilarious and outrageous melange of antique terminology and slander towards entire nations and peoples whilst discussing their sexual proclivities which, though they might be “disgraceful perversions”, the author describes in substantial, prurient detail. The book was written in the 1950s but “the East” is discussed as though it hasn’t changed since the days of Marco Polo or the Arabian Nights, while many of the terms used are those you find in Victorian writing; Hindoos for Hindus, and so on.

    Section VII, “Sexual Perversion: A Matter of Taste”, has a chapter entitled “Sodomy” where we read:

    ” ‘Thrust thy finger into the fundament of a Toork (Egyptian),’ said the Arabs, ‘and he will pollute his raiments. Brush past him from the fore, and his carnal implement stab thee ere ye can run away.’ Another very old saying discloses that ‘the Toork would much rather defecate than have intercourse with a woman, for the inestimable pleasure derived thereby.’ ”

    Later on, all Turkish men (the real ones) are blithely described, and with no evidence offered, as being bisexual, while we also learn:

    “In Turkey, a band of fanatics known as Lewwautee were professional sodmists; and their favourite motto ran thus:

    The penis, smooth and round, was made with anus best to match it;
    Had it been made for vulva’s sake, it had been formed like a hatchet!”

    Edwardes’ book is very well-researched, with a bibliography spanning several pages, which makes the racist and stereotyped tenor of the thing seem so surprising today, even taking into account changing attitudes. There’s no way it could ever be republished without causing gross offence to a huge amount of people, so all the fascinating and informative stuff, especially a wealth of rhymes like the one above, remain buried. It reads like a distilled version of what you’d imagine Strongbow’s 33-volume ‘Levantine Sex’, to be in ‘The Sinai Tapestry’, so much so that I’ve wondered whether Whittemore read it himself.

  2. says

    Great minds, what? My submission is Paolo Mantegazza’s The Sexual Relations of Mankind, though the reader can’t really go wrong with his Physiology of Love and Elements of Hygiene. All were published in the late 19th century by the aforementioned crackpot, who may have been somewhat responsible for cocaine making its way to Europe. He loved the stuff, almost as much as he loved sex, which makes the three books mentioned here perfect pick-up-with-a-pint-and-open-to-a-random-chapter, if one is of a similar sense of humor to myself, and Master Coulthart, it would seem. I haven’t come across this Edwardes before, but I would be genuinely surprised if Mantegazza isn’t listed in his bibliography.

    But Mantegazza…In some ways he was very open-minded and liberal, indeed, a true pioneer, but when he is offensive and racist, which is often, it is the stuff of legend. That his writing is so bombastic and purple makes it a joy to read, particularly aloud to polite company, as his writing veers from the sort of “savage customs” that it sounds like Edwardes focuses on to pornographically graphic descriptions of butterflies engaged in coitus. And I do mean pornographic, as opposed to detailed or scientific, as such passages are clearly the result of Mantegazza chewing a bunch of cocoa and imagining more of these insect couplings than is actually going on in front of him. Much as I’d love to post an excerpt, I am abroad at present and can only heartily suggest that his long-out-of-print editions be picked up wherever they are found. And thanks for the tip, John, that Edwardes book sounds amazing!

    Another non-fiction text that is kept by the bar is Vic Darkwood’s How to Make Friends and Oppress People: Classic Travel Advice for the Gentleman Adventurer, which consists of excerpts from antiquated (18th–early 20th century) travel guides interspersed with the sort of humor would one expect from a founder of The Chap magazine. With all due respect to Darkwood, he is hard pressed to keep up with the hilariously inappropriate excerpts.

  3. says

    My favourite English eccentric non-fiction would be Beards: an Omnium Gatherum by Reginald Reynolds, which is exactly as it describes itself: a social history of the beard, by one of those mildly obsessive academics post-war. I was talking about it with glee at a dinner party, so confident that no one but me would have read it that I hadn’t bothered to name it or its author – and I was interrupted by another diner, “Chaz, would that be Beards by R G Reynolds? There’s a copy in Brasenose library, it went around my year like wildfire…”

    And for my favourite eccentric non-fiction in translation, I have a book about Chinese eunuchs written by a Japanese academic in the early 50s, and the prejudice is just extraordinary. Every chapter oozes contempt; there is absolutely no attempt at any academic objectivity, and I love it.

  4. says

    I am reminded of Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium on the grounds that any amount of modern literary crazy can’t compete with the real life crazy of medieval cultists.

  5. says

    Jesse: Mantegazza isn’t listed in the Edwardes’ biblio but it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the books there had used it him as a source. Jewel in the Lotus should be fairly easy to find in paperback, Tandem Books did the UK edition, not sure if there was a US equivalent.

  6. says

    My copy of the Jewel is by Bantam from 1976. Shouldn’t be that difficult to find if a copy has found its way to these frozen shores (ie. Finland).

    I have a limited number of truly bizarre/eccentric(loony fact books, most of which are kept in the loo (heh heh…) for perusal of shorter sittings. (Nearly typed an ‘h’ there.)

    I’m quite fond of my copy of Viktor Falck’s & R. V. Stigell’s “Kemiallisteknillinen käsikirja” (“Chemical Technical Handbook”) which pretty much tells you How To Do Stuff like “fine artificial lard” (out of American pig grease, normal pig grease and oleomargarine, the last one is made – of course – out of “prime food tallow”, to which there is a recipe for, too) or Mentholin (“Flu snuff”, made of menthol, coffee, boric acid and lactose). There are tons of various recipes for hair oils and leather waxes, incense (“savutusaineet” as in “smoking stuff”), cements, shaving creams (“take whale blubber, sweet almod oil, alcaloid soap…), marmalades, coffee substitutes (chicory root is the most commonl ingredient), insect repellents et al, tons of stuff that have something to do with chemicals and technology. Glorious knowledge from the year 1923.

    I’d drink Theakston Old Peculier with this book.

  7. selfnoise says

    I love Avram Davidson’s “Adventures in Unhistory”, which is a collection of short ruminations on the possible origins of ancient legends. They aren’t necessarily the most rigorous investigations you will find, but they are extremely entertaining, and exemplify the sort of fertile imaginative speculations that we sometimes miss on the road to knowing everything.

    Davidson frequently references a book by Clark Firestone, “The Coasts of Illusion” which is a study of various travel tales from different cultures. This is a bit trickier to track down but it’s also a very neat book.

  8. says

    A sentimental favorite from childhood: “Voices from the Tapes, Recordings from the Other World” by Peter Bander, 1973. It’s supposedly a study of EVP, but it’s actually a long-winded rant against another researcher. One or two creepy BW pics of frowning dudes with headphones, big reel-to-reel recorders churning in the background. Two page mug-shot spread of Roman Catholic Priests “going on record” about the possibility of life after death, but the visual effect is more akin to a serial killer’s tally…

  9. says

    The eccentric books on my shelves tend to be books about odd things rather than books by eccentric people. Good examples of the latter are hard to find. Collections of “true” ghost stories are good in this regard, though; sometimes they’re written by folklorists but many authors are pushing personal theories about the nature of reality.

    Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling is the 17th century Chinese version of that kind of thing. The longer stories are fairy tales, but the author also collected weird rumors and stories of supernatural and often cryptic experiences that supposedly happened to friends of friends.

    The Book of My Life by Girolamo Cardano is a volume of autobiographical essays by a cranky 16th century Italian astrologer. Instead of chronicling his life chronologically he broke it down into topics. Chapters have titles like “Five Unique Characteristics by Which I Am Helped,” “Books Written by Me,” and “Things Absolutely Supernatural.”

    As for odd subjects… I’m fond ofGun in Cheek by Bill Pronzini, a volume describing and excerpting all kinds of deranged and deservedly forgotten detective stories.Son of Gun in Cheek is less fun–it feels like Pronzini was scrambling for material–butSix Gun in Cheek, about weird Western novels, is as good as the original.

    Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins is a collection of essays about people who gave vast efforts to ultimately obscure pursuits, like a man who tried to create an artificial language out of musical notes and another guy who managed to convince a lot of people that they could regain their health by sitting behind windows made of blue glass.

  10. says

    Jesse: despite having designed two labels for a small brewery this year, I don’t drink beer. Prefer whisky or bourbon usually, although I’m not much of a connoisseur.

  11. Hellbound Heart says

    well, you guys that have posted before me kinda make me feel like an extremely unilluminated individual…….however, i do have a wonderful aussie cookbook that tells me how to make the best scones (you guys over in america call them biscuits and have them for breakfast or something, right?) that i’ve ever tasted…..guess that’ll have to do at the moment……
    as for beer, the cascade brewery in tasmania make a very nice drop, also a little local brewery not far from where i live make some very nice ale……when i’m in the mood i’ll have a dark ale called tooheys old……..hmmmmmm…….

    peace and love…….

  12. Lisa Tuttle says

    I don’t know that any of these books are really “off” but they are unusual, original works of nonfiction that I love:
    OUT OF SHEER RAGE by Geoff Dyer is about his failed attempts to write about D.H. Lawrence
    THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND by Julian Jaynes — really mind-blowing stuff as I recall, although it’s been decades since I read it; similarly THE SACRED MUSHROOM AND THE CROSS — I’ve now forgotten the author, but this was my first introduction to the sort of scholarship based almost entirely upon philology or etymology, frequently on misunderstanding the origin of certain words.
    I occasionally regret that I never bought a copy of Ted Hughes’ SHAKESPEARE AND THE GODDESS OF SUPREME BEING because from the bits of it I managed to read it pushed similar buttons to my old favorite, THE WHITE GODDESS by Robert Graves.
    I also like BACK TALK: TEACHING LOST SELVES TO SPEAK by Joan Weimer, which must send any Dewey Decimal categorizer into fits, combining as it does biography, literary criticism, autobiography, and self-help (also therapy & surgery for back pain, feminism, travel, and either psychic powers or fiction).

  13. says

    I own the complete 7-volume 3,500 page “Rising Up, Rising Down”, which may be the oddest work of non-fiction produced by any major living author.

    I also have a copy of Montague Summers’ “The Vampire in Europe,” written in 1929, at what one hopes will continue to be the last moment in history when an extremely highly-educated intellectual with no obvious signs of neurological-level brain problems could believe absolutely in the literal physical existence of vampires, though we’re backsliding pretty fast in a lot of ways so maybe by 2050 we’ll all be nailing up garlic over our doors and freaking out over bats; who knows?

  14. says

    “Rats, Lice, and History: Being a Study in Biography, Which, After Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals With the Life History of Typhus Fever,” by Hans Zinsser. Epidemiology. But funny!

  15. says

    Might I suggest Delacroix’s Journals? They are available in English from Phaidon, abridged and I strongly recommend them for both artists and the layman. Truthfully, Delacroix’s art had never excited me greatly but he was a superb writer on a vast number of subjects. His views on Life, the Universe and the Meaning of it All are always precise and perceptive. Younger people will especially benefit, but even us oldies will learn something from him. The color theory bits will fascinate the layman and make the professional weep with joy, what a mind!

    Beer? Golden Eagle from the Punjab, what else? It’s available at any well-stocked delhi!

  16. says

    @ John: Imagine this is a whisky more than a bourbon or other yank whiskey book, eh?

    @Felix: Monty’s one of my favorite occult-obsessed nutters! Even his introductions to texts he translated and reissued like the Malleus Maleficarum match the originals pound for crazy pound, and maybe weight a little heavier as they were wrihttp://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2009/09/04/paradigms-fairytales-whats-your-favorite-eccentric-nonfiction-book-er-and-beer/#commentstten in the 20th century instead of the 15th. I would very much like to see Oliver Platt play him in a film.

  17. Caleb Wilson says

    Eccentric Spaces by Robert Harbison. My mass-market paperback edition has maybe the smallest print I’ve ever had to read without a magnifying glass. I think it’s about architecture and imagination. Actually, yes, here’s a publisher description: “The subject is the human imagination—and the mysterious interplay between the imagination and the spaces it has made for itself to live in: gardens, rooms, buildings, streets, museums and maps, fictional topographies, and architectures. The book is a lesson in seeing and sensing the manifold forms created by the mind for its own pleasure.”

  18. ergli says

    Could you please share the name of the book (and the author) about that backstabbing penguin community? It sounded great! Thank you. Alas, I’ve yet to find my favourite eccentric nonfiction.

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