Thursday, Oct. 18, 42 A.D.

Seven Books

I recently made it to the bookstore.  And not just any bookstore, mind you, but my favorite bookstore in the world.  This bookstore is the reason I moved to Columbus 10 weeks ago.  Had they thought to dress it up in thong underwear, I probably would have moved here even sooner.

I'd been saving my first trip there for just the right moment.  That is to say, for that time when it seemed possible for me to bring another book into my new home without that book (in combination with the 1700+ already here) leaving me with absolutely no air to breathe.  Sure, a theoretical physicist might have been able to prove to me with the adroit use of graphs and formulas that such a time actually exists before it gets here, but who can afford one of those?  Better, I thought, to simply bide my time, wait for the right proof-laden moment to appear, and then spend my money on books rather than on expensive scientists who leave us too bankrupt to take advantage of their findings.

As luck would have it, I ended up going to Half-Price Books on 20% off day - which I thought at first was a bad joke until I realized that they meant 20% off prices already cut in half.  The resulting price reductions allowed me to acquire a full seven books (complete with mass and weight!) for a mere $40.

Just in case it isn't obvious what seven books an almost-jester would choose to acquire out of all the books in a modern American bookstore, here are seven hints:

Darwin's Orchestra: An Almanac of Nature in History and the Arts by Michael Sims (Henry Holt and Company: New York, 1997; $30 list).  This book has a different entry full of odd tidbits for every day of the year.  Today's entry, for example, tells the story of Edwin Way Teale, the first person to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for a "nature book."  Seems Teale himself wrote at least two books with entries for every day of the year - just like Sims.  (Spooky!)  The entry for Oct. 18 in one of these books describes an encounter with a praying mantis, to wit: "Teale described one of these creatures apparently hypnotized by a swinging leaf, turning its head right and left as if watching a tennis match."  Sadly, Teale died on this very day back in 1980.  Sims neglects to say what happened to the mantis, but I like to imagine it continuing to watch that swaying leaf.  I know I'd tune in every week myself if only one of the major TV networks  would finally give a swinging single maple leaf its own series.

(Extra Material For The Extra Curious: Sims' entry for yesterday tells me that the potato was part of the plot to kill JFK.  Well, kinda.  You see, there was this potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s.  That drove a lot of Irish to come to America.  That's why JFK was born here instead of Ireland.  And you have to be born here to be able to run for president.  And you have to be president before you can be an assassinated president.  So, you see, we mustn't just blame Oswald, or the CIA, or the mob, or Castro - we must also blame the potato.  Eat them all, that's what I say.)

Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940 by David E. Nye (MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 1990; $29.29 on Amazon today).  "The sleepy hamlet of Wabash was the first Indiana town to grasp the glamour and social prestige of spectacular lighting.  The city fathers hired the Brush Company to set up four three-thousand-candle arc lights on the courthouse.  Edison's public demonstration of the incandescent light four months earlier in Menlo Park had whetted public interest, and special trains to Wabash accommodated ten thousand visitors and reporters from more than forty newspapers.  The Wabash Plain Dealer exulted:  'Ringing of the Court House bell announced the exhibition.  The city presented a gloomy uninviting appearance.  Suddenly from the towering dome of the Court House burst forth a flood of light which, under normal circumstances would have caused a shout of rejoicing from the thousands who had been crowding and jostling each other in the deep darkness of the evening.  No shout, however, or token of joy disturbed the deep silence which suddenly enveloped the onlookers.  People stood overwhelmed with awe, as in the presence of the supernatural.  The strange weird light exceeded in power only by the sun, rendered the square as light as midday....  Men fell on their knees, groans were uttered, and many were dumb with amazement."  Thank goodness they never saw my old neighbor's annual Christmas display.

The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ by Michael O. Wise (Harper: San Francisco, 1999; $25 list).  "In the mid-1960s a group of Pacific Islanders living on New Hanover, Papua New Guinea, raised one thousand dollars to buy President Lyndon Johnson.  Their plan was to present him with this sum - a fortune in their eyes - and so induce him to come be their leader.  'How strange!' we may think, intending to relegate the matter to life's curiosity file, or perhaps to submit this fact to the Guinness Book of World Records, as representing simultaneously the highest and lowest valuation ever placed on an American president.  That these islanders might somehow constitute a piece of the puzzle for understanding Jesus would never cross our minds.  And yet they do."  Alas, the book doesn't give any estimate of what Gerald Ford might bring today on eBay.

Rack, Rope, And Red-Hot Pincers: A History of Torture and Its Instruments by Geoffrey Abbott, Yeoman Warder (Retired) of the Tower of London (Brockhampton Press: London, 1993; £16.99 list).  "In 1937 the chief warder of San Quentin Gaol in California devised the Spot.  Almost machiavellian in concept, it simply consisted of a circle of grey paint, two feet in diameter, in which the offender had to stand for four hours a day, twice a day.  He was not allowed to move at all, the only relief permitted being a two-minute toilet break, morning and afternoon."  I'm sure that warder must have been the father of my 5th grade teacher.

The Universe Below: Discovering the Secrets of the Deep Sea by William J. Broad (Simon & Shuster: New York, 1997; $15 list).  "Head to tail, it probably consisted of some twenty feet of gelatinous goo.  Thousands of willowy tentacles hung from its slender body, stingers ready to immobilize prey.  Along its length were dozens of stomachs, perhaps a hundred or more...  The animal's many stomachs were strung along its body like beads on a necklace, each one associated with a group of fingerlike projections...  The animals had no single mouth.  Instead, as with all siphonophores, each stomach had its own mouth.  Some of the stomachs on the living chain were dark and swollen with captured animals, which might include jellies, shrimps, and small fish.  One dark stomach was banana-shaped, perhaps holding a marine worm... Some were empty.  But many if not most of the stomachs on this long siphonophore were swollen, the animal clearly making a sizable dent in the fauna of the oxygen minimum.  How was it, I wondered, that the largest animal we'd encountered during the whole dive inhabited a region that was the most desolate, an area shunned by most creatures?  How did it eat enough to sustain its large body?  Its bigness seemed like an ecological paradox."  The solution to this paradox is shocking - mainly because it was so simple, even I understood it.  Rather more shocking: Siphonophores can grow to nearly 100 feet in length and possibly live centuries - centuries! - without ever flossing.

The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity edited by John McManners (Oxford University Press: New York, 1990; $25.95 list).  "The only means, other than war, that the church could imagine for dealing with Muslims was conversion to Christianity. Before the eleventh century, however, although the Western  church had sent many missions to the pagans of Northern and Eastern Europe, it had almost completely withheld from missionary activity in the Islamic world...  It was only when the Muslim community appeared within Christendom itself that the church perceived the problem."  Why am I not surprised?

Bizarre Books by Russell Ash and Brian Lake (Pavilion Books: London, 1998; £6.99 list).  Among the books listed (and which I hope to acquire on my next trip to Half-Price Books): Manhole Covers of Los Angeles;   A User's Guide to Capitalism and SchizophreniaCorrect Mispronunciations of Some South Carolina Names; Historic Bubbles; The History and Romance of Elastic Webbing Since the Dawn of Time; How to Avoid Huge Ships; Clinical Hat Pegs for Graduates and Students; Practical Candle BurningA Toddler's Guide To The Rubber IndustryHow to Pose as a Strong Man; Collect Fungi on Stamps; Pranks with the Mouth; Hand Grenade Throwing as a College Sport; Is God Amoeboid?; Shouting - Genuine and Spurious; Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles; Bean Spasms; Animals as Criminals; The Zen of Bowel Movements; and of course of course of course Do Tables Tip?

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(©Now by DJ Birtcher whilst posing as a criminal animal
anxiously wondering "If tables tip, might not desks as well??")