#121, 19 May 2008

Vacuum Head

Professor Booknoodle's Scrapbook

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It was around seven-thirty of an evening and I was relaxing - enjoying a postprandial whiskey and, coincidentally, engrossed in a periodical of some repute, when I heard the door open below, and the sound of footsteps on the stairway leading to my study. I recognized the tread as that of my friend William Deckle, fellow bibliophile and collector dementia of books on dentistry. I knew this visit boded news of his latest acquisition. My surmise was right; as Deckle bounded into the room (like an eager puppy, I thought) I espied a copy of the latest Maggs Auction Catalog sticking out of his coat pocket.

"Booknoodle, old boy! Wait till you see this! Oh well, I mean you shall see it when it arrives from London. I won! My bid topped out! Lot 244. Pierre Fauchard's Dental Surgery, published in 1728. Did I ever tell you about his commentary on the German Tooth Worm Theory? It's absolutely fascinating! I swear ...."

And, felicitously, I found that I had no need to formulate some ploy or distraction to deflect Deckle from a discourse on German Tooth Worm Theory, for he had distracted himself ... just so.

"What's this, Professor? What's this? What are you reading? The Housewife? Housewife Magazine! Oh ho! I never would have expected this of you! I'd think you would have your nose buried in The Monist or the Hibbert Journal or Scientific American - but this rag?"

"Look here, Deckle, what I read is no concern of yours. I read what I read when I read it, and what I read is what I choose to read, and my reading, as you well know, has a certain catholicity to it. Pour yourself some whiskey and calm down."

"But this magazine is a mere trifle. It is a ... a ... a housewife's magazine, full of silly romances, fashion frippery and inconsequential chatter about chair doilies, sleeve poofs, garden petunias and dinner plans."

"I can think of some people who could, indeed, do with a little more in the way of dinner plans," said I, fixing Deckle with a meaningful look, and thinking of the last time I had dined at Deckle's house, or rather, the last time I had the misfortune to sit at his dinner table. For a collector of dentistry books his lamb was most decidedly a bit too chewy. One should always be wary of bachelor cuisine.

"And what's this?" Deckle was craning his head around trying to see the page to which I had the magazine open; "Hypnotism? 'Free Book on Hypnotism!'" he read from the advertisement at the foot of the page. "'Would you like to exert a strange and magic power over others?'"

The deuce if I could understand how he managed to read such fine print from such a distance, but I had to admit, from years of observing the man, that William Deckle had the vision of a hawk.

"Don't try and cover it up," crowed Deckle. "Ha! Just that one little protective movement of your hand tells me you were reading that very ad! Ha ha!" I returned my hand to the chair's arm. He continued to read.

"'Do you desire to possess an accomplishment by which you can make both fun and money! If so, you should become a hypnotist. You can now master this wonderful, mysterious and fascinating science free of all cost in you own home. By a few hours' study you can learn all about the secrets, methods, uses and wonders of the hypnotic trance. You can surprise and mystify all your friends by placing anyone you wish under this weird and magic spell, and compel them to see, think, feel and act precisely as you wish. You can sway the minds of others, perform the most wonderful and astounding feats ....' I say, old boy, that is just simply too, too rich! Have you lost the use of your rational senses?"

"Look in my eyes, William. Look deep into my eyes. Be - quiet - and - sit - down." I wagged my finger slowly back and forth and then pointed to the chair next to mine. Deckle complied. "You see - I already have you under my spell. You are now sitting just as I ordered."

"Oh piffle. I was all ready to sit. I wanted to sit. It was my own intention to sit. Any way, why on earth are you perusing this silly magazine?" asked Deckle.

"Listen here, William Deckle, you should not be so hasty to condemn that which you do not know or have never studied."

"What do I have to know to understand that this is a rag of the lowest sort?"

"Harrumph. You go a bit far in your condemnation. It is certainly no Police Gazette; far from it."

"Oh! Police Gazettes! Say, you don't have any of those around do you? Deckle looked hopefully at the stack of periodicals on the table before us.

"No. Listen here, Deckle, one can learn a great deal about things - about society and its tastes - by studying publications such as this. They represent the interests and concerns of a broad strata of American culture and social class. The stories are really not so terrible as you want to make them out to be. "

Deckle lifted the magazine from my hands and proceeded to leaf through it. "Oh, sure : "Uncle Zebedee's Will" - high stuff that. And look at this!" He pointed to one of the illustrations accompanying a story. "Why the man in that picture is in a swoon. A man! Swooning! What rubbish!"

"I believe Etta Pierce was merely having some sport with her readers ... turning the tables on the men folk, as it were; and Mary Denison certainly knows her audience," said I. George Eliot and Henry James are not to everyone's taste."

I pointed to the title of an article on the open page. "Look there: "The Seamy Side of Marriage." I find it interesting that it is placed right next to an article called "Etiquette During Courtship and Engagement." What sort of conclusions do you think we could draw? And look here - further on: "Two Sides of the Question" ... see, the authoress complains of being uncomfortable in marriage ... and reading further we find that it is all because of the need to keep up with the Jones ... as the saying goes."

"Oh well, I suppose there are things to be learned. But look at these titles - "The Haunted Boot" - "The Puttering Woman" - "Cats and disease" - "Woolen Dresses and Odors" - "The Training of Children" - "Choice Bits from my Cook Book" ... I mean, please, Booknoodle! it is all so ... so ... domestic!"

"Haw. It is my own experience that there is much to be said for domesticity," said I, taking a sip from the Highland Park.

"If you say so. I must say that you and Missus Booknoodle seem content with one another."

"Yes. We are most decidedly so. But, Deckle, you stopped before listing "Preserving the Teeth of Children," I said, pointing to a short piece on the page. "Even in such a lowly rag, as you call it, there are things to be discovered and connections to be made. I didn't think you could miss that one."

William Deckle laughed. "You've got me there, Professor. But just look! Half of these magazines are made up of wretched, overblown advertising. For so many cheap baubles and useless objects. And, so much of it seems so predatory. It is all just so much quack cures and false hopes!" He batted his hand against an especially outrageous advertisement on the rear cover which announced a cure for consumption.

"Harrumph. They are indeed mostly egregious. And the rascals are taking people's hard earned money. Any intelligent person knows there is no cure for consumption. But people need hope. They thrive on dreams."

"Oh? Like the dream of controlling all one's friends through hypnosis. Such a sham. It's all a sham." Hypnotism. To borrow your favorite word - harrumph!"

"And right you are to borrow it," laughed I.

"So - where did you get this pile of ... ahem ... interesting literature, and he named the magazines easily seen on the table top: The House Wife, The Hearthstone, Good Literature, Modern Stories - my god, Booknoodle, where in the world did you find all of these? What made you purchase them? What are you up to?"

"Deckle, Deckle, my good friend - I did not need to purchase them. You see, they are a gift from my neighbor. He gives them to me when he is through with them."

"A gift? Your neighbor? You mean Phylander? Crazy old bald-headed Phylander?"

"But, William, crazy is an opinion, and I'm not so sure I share that opinion. In fact I know I don't. Phylander certainly has his quirks. He may be rightly considered eccentric. And he has gone off on some curious tangents, pursued some ... ahhh ... peculiar notions. His farm sits there, a monument to projects started and abandoned. But crazy is a bit harsh, no?"

"So he gives you these? And you actually read them? But why? Why does he think you would be interested in them?"

"Because I told him I was interested? Because I am interested in them? Could that be it? Good grief, Deckle, you must widen the scope. The world is not all dental picks and German Tooth Worms. Did you know Louisa May Alcott has been published in Good Literature? You would not shrug off such an historically important authoress would you?"

"Well, no, but ..."

"Leave all buts out of it." I am quite in debt to Phylander for widening the horizons of my own reading. You may be surprised to learn that his reading extends beyond books on manure, composting, subsoil plowing and chickens. "

"Phylander's chicken's eggs are tasty ..."

"Yes. But I felt it could do no harm to let him see there was more to read in the world. I presented him a few issues of various literary magazines and a few Scientific Americans and general interest magazines - all of good quality. He thanked me and informed me that he had decided to subscribe to as many as he could. I was gratified ... then I was surprised. Surprised at the wide range and sheer number of magazines he ordered; and particularly surprised at the focus of his magazine subscribing. He subscribes willy-nilly and with hardly a thought to content beyond the advertisements. It is no concern of Phylander's what stories might appear in an issue (although I think if a good Verne or Conan Doyle story appeared that would certainly appeal to him). No, it is all about advertising and free offers."

"Ha! I see that almost every third ad in this issue of The Housewife seems to be offering something for free."

"Yes! Phylander claims to be meticulous in his financial planning. Proud of his penny pinching. But all this magazine subscribing puts the lie to that. Just let there be some free offer ... let there be an enticement to subscribe ... such as this one."

I picked up an issue of Good Literature and indicated a prominently featured promotional come-on.

Deckle read the ad copy, "'FREE TO EVERY SUBSCRIBER! A Large and Handsome Book Entitled TWENTY COMPLETE NOVELETTES BY POPULAR AUTHORS! An Entirely New Book, Just Published. (Not the Same that we Gave Away Last year!)' Look here - there are some creditable authors in this list ... Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mrs. Southworth, Francis Hodgson Burnett ... why there is even a Wilkie Collins and a Conan Doyle! That is really a capital offer."

"If one looks past the shoddy construction of their book. It looks suspiciously like one of those wrappered jobs - bad paper and stapled construction. A print size that even an ant would find miniscule. It would fall apart in your hands if you were to attempt reading it more than once. I warrant these books will have turned to yellow powder in another mere hundred years. Such cheapness. Such ...."

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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