Friday, February 13, 2009


I’ve always been a “pattern” reader; i.e., read one type of book, a mystery, say, and then read nothing but mysteries until something else catches my eye. That’s why I was so confused by my recent reading—there didn’t seem to be a connection from book to book at all. Thankfully, I’ve come up with a theory (some might call it a rationalization) to explain my somewhat peculiar reading habits: Literature of Obsession. Think about it. Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil? Obsessive. The Orchid Thief? Obsessive. Orchid Fever, Tulipomania, A Rum Affair, The Arcanum—all about obsessive people. On the other hand, there are books like The Search for the Giant Squid and Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution, wherein a subject that does not normally have mass appeal becomes popular because the author is so crazy about it you just get caught up in the frenzy.

For me, the book that started it all is Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil. The book is technically about a murder in Savannah, Georgia and the subsequent trial of a local art dealer. But what made the book so fascinating is its portrait of the colorful residents of Savannah. How could I not be charmed by the old gentleman who walked the invisible dog every day? Or the raconteur who broke into people’s houses to host massive parties? Or the ineffable, irrepressible Lady Chablis? The murder trial was the least memorable thing about the book.

The same holds true for The Orchid Thief. The particular crime the book is ostensibly about is interesting enough: someone on trial for removing orchids from a reservation claiming he’s not guilty because Native Americans did the actual removing, and they’re allowed to. But just like Susan Orlean, I became fascinated by the orchid subculture. Some people just plain lose their minds where orchids are concerned. In fact, I became so intrigued by these people and their orchid obsessions that I picked up Eric Hansen’s Orchid Fever. To my surprise, Orlean hadn’t even scratched the surface of the weirdness of orchid folk. Plus, this book has one of the funniest opening passages I have ever read; do not read it while drinking.

Next up was Tulipomania, about the Dutch tulip frenzy in the mid-1600’s. Dash’s book gives a very thorough overview of a time when a tulip bulb (i.e., something which had not bloomed yet, might never bloom, and might not be the bloom that was promised) was worth prices up to 3 times an average person’s yearly income. My spate of flower-related reading eventually led me to A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud. This story of a possible botanical fraud (and a fairly recent one, at that) was rendered utterly fascinating, largely due to the wit and style of Karl Sabbagh.

Not into flowers? How about porcelain? Did you know that for centuries, only Asian countries knew the secret of creating porcelain? Neither did I, until I happened upon Janet Gleeson’s The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story. Gleeson’s book tells the story of a self-proclaimed alchemist, who convinced a king that he could turn lead into gold. Unable to duplicate his initial “success,” the alchemist was imprisoned until such time as he made good on his claims. He was never able to turn lead into gold, but he did stumble upon the recipe for porcelain. The kicker is that he never really got out of prison—although happy to profit from the sudden fashion for porcelain, the king never forgave the erstwhile alchemist for not turning lead into gold.

I could go on and on about books in this vein: Brunelleschi’s Dome: How A Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, Longitude: The True Story of the Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Mauve: How One Man Invented A Color That Changed the World (You can invent colors? Who knew?), The Island of Lost Maps, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, The Professor & the Madman, The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, etc., all centered around obsessive personalities. But there’s a second kind of obsession that catches my eye as well—folks who are so entranced by their subject matter that you get drawn in to topics you might not ordinarily be interested in.

For me, the master of this is Richard Ellis. If you’ve read my other columns or (heaven help you) had to listen to me in person, you know how obsessed I’ve become with The Search For the Giant Squid. The idea that we know this giant creature exists but have only recently (like, in the last year) seen one thriving in its own environment is a continual fascination to me. But my oceanic obsession actually began with an earlier Ellis book: Deep Atlantic: Life, Death, and Exploration in the Abyss. I picked it up because the white-on-black drawings of the deep-sea creepy critters looked cool. I finished it because Ellis made the story so compelling. Then when I saw the squid book, I had to have it.

I was similarly affected by Richard Fortey’s Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution. I had heard of trilobites, and the cover was kind of cool, so I figured I’d give the book a try. I didn’t expect it to fascinate me. I didn’t expect that I wouldn’t want to put it down. In short, I didn’t expect Richard Fortey. The man is nuts about trilobites. Dotty. Giddy. And darned if I didn’t get all caught up in it, to the point of staff selections and columns like this. Similar books would be Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Time: Its Origin, Its Enigma, Its History, A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth, Absinthe: History in a Bottle, and Buried Alive! The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear.

The kicker is that all of these books have proven relatively popular, at least when I was in bookstores. I mean, I’ve read most of them (and covet the rest of them), but as we established earlier, I’m somewhat peculiar. What’s interesting is how many other folks are attracted to obsession. Are you a kindred spirit? Have you read and enjoyed one of these books, but didn’t know where to go next? I hope you’ll check out some of these other books. If you do, drop me a line and let me know what you think.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why Peggy Can't Do Math

In many ways, I’m a typical English major. I wear glasses. I am nerdy and bookish, and I hang out with equally bookish folks. We can talk about books, authors, and even grammar for hours. I am always in the middle of at least one book, and I get nervous if I’m stuck somewhere without a book to read. Heaven forbid I have an overlong stoplight and nothing to occupy my time. I attended college and even graduate school. I can express myself verbally or in writing with relative ease. I am not unintelligent. And yet, when faced with the prospect of doing any math other than simple addition or subtraction, my heart races and my palms get sweaty.

Math has always been my personal bugaboo. I’ve never been good at it, despite my best efforts. Algebra? Geometry? Calculus? I might just as well have been studying Old Testament Greek. In fact, I did study Old Testament Greek in college, and it was much less frustrating than math. I studied the word problems. I did my homework. I tried, dammit, and yet I’ve never caught on. But I think I finally figured out why. All of the available space in my brain that was set aside for math has been taken up with essentially useless trivia I got from books.

For example, I know that “cavy” is what folks in South America call a guinea pig, and that some folk think they’re good eatin’. Why do I know this? Because I read about it in one of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels. Was it a major plot point? Nope. Does it have any relevance to my own life? Nope. And yet, there that information sits, taking up valuable calculating space in my brain.

Who ran MGM studios when Louis B. Mayer was gone? Readers of Gore Vidal’s inimitable duo of Myra Breckenridge and Myron would know the name Dore Schare. (They’d also have the name of Byron “Whizzer” White embedded in the “sine, cosine, tangent” area of their brain, albeit with connotations that cannot be discussed in a family web column.)

Do you ever get the feeling that “they” are watching you? That someone is out to get you? That the Government just might not be your friend? You must have been reading Robert Anton Wilson. If not for works like The Illuminatus Trilogy, I might never be able to distinguish between the Illuminati and the Bavarian Illuminati (or the Freemasons, the Bilderbergers, and so on). The question of whether or not I ever have been or will be called upon to make that distinction is left as an exercise for the reader.

Does the name Oscar “Zeta” Acosta mean anything to you? If not, I’ll bet you don’t have any trouble with fractions. However, we math-impaired folks recognize that name as the legendary “Brown Buffalo,” the attorney flying across the desert higher than Mount Everest in the company of gonzo madman Dr. Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Did you know that the giant squid has the largest eye in the animal kingdom? Yep, even bigger than a whale’s. Their eyes are the size of dinner plates, at least according to The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis. Is there ever a chance that I will need to know that? Barring an unexpected appearance on Jeopardy, I think not.

Granted, it’s not just book facts overloading my receptors. I’m pretty sure my lack of any ability to figure out percentages can be traced directly to my ability to recognize and in most cases sing along to a staggering variety of TV theme songs and show tunes. Various rude and inappropriate lines to be shouted at a movie screen playing Rocky Horror are, in fact, so deeply hardwired in that solving for x can’t even find an open spot to attach to. Instead that information comes in, scrabbles madly for a purchase, then slips off screaming, to land in a heap with all of the other algebraic equations I’ve attempted to learn through the years. Perhaps my friends have a point: if you're stalking a wild game of Trivial Pursuit, I'm your gal. Just don't come a-knockin' at tax time.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Cephalopod Love

You just don't mess with an octopus in love: