It all began with the toilet—or thereabouts. In 1996, Robson Books, an English publisher, released The Porcelain God: A Social History of the Toilet, and very soon after, the book world was flooded—clogged, overflowing—with new titles in this popular, peculiar new genre. You see them everywhere now, books in which some distinguished historian focuses on one small aspect of our lives (like toilets or corsets or intoxication) and searches out the intimacies and nuances of its history, producing, in effect, a revised (if insanely eccentric) history of the world from a strikingly narrow perspective. Last year's wildly popular Salt, by Mark Kurlansky, comes to mind—a history of time told from sodium's point of view. The way some of these books are written, you think: Well, thank god for the invention of buttons or we'd still be hunter-gatherers. This week, we've exerted some judgment, sparing you from the likes of A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China, and now bring you our survey of some apparently vital new works of history, plus a handful of highlights from years past—including, of course, the toilet book. Enjoy.—Eds.
Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication
by Stuart Walton
(Harmony Books, $24)
To the previously known human instincts —eat, procreate, learn language—we may now add a fourth: the urge to get shit-faced. And British journalist Stuart Walton's all for it: "Far from seeing [the continued rise in the use of illegal drugs] as a troubling symptom of social breakdown, I consider it a heartening and positive phenomenon." Intoxicants, you may or may not be surprised to learn, have played a large part in human history, evincing a "boundless persistence in all human cultures throughout time"—with the exception of the Inuit, who, he says, "were the only culture not able to grow anything." (That innocence ended, big-time, when the European settlers showed up with liquor.) Walton is hilariously well-versed in wine terminology, and his wit is deliciously dry, as when he notes that "the Inca people administered [cocaine] to their human sacrifices as a final tender mercy before their chests were hewn open and their hearts removed." Walton claims intoxication singularly drove the course of human civilization. He quotes anthropologists who assert, for example, that hallucinogenic 'shrooms may have catalyzed our uniquely human brain structure and that agriculture was invented not to grow food but to grow dope. Despite his contempt for hippie romanticism, Walton's own celebration of alcohol and other drugs as a means of "personal advancement" isn't a lot more interesting than that of your average acid casualty, and his book suffers from excessively long harangues against Pecksniffian prigs and temperance types who, he claims, are still trying to ruin our fun. Judging by the latest Coors ads, they're not getting very far. Intoxication looks fit to drive human evolution for generations to come.
Mark D. Fefer
The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao With Recipes
by Maricel E. Presilla
(Ten Speed Press, $29.95)
For all its sexiness, chocolate sure comes from homely sources. Cacao, the fruit that chocolate is made from, grows on trees in long, bulbous, warty, gourdlike pods. They're flesh colored, and not unlike gigantic, drooping scrota. Mariel E. Presilla is obsessed with them. She's written 198 glossy pages on all you ever wanted to know (and so much more) about chocolate—on cacao's source (Central and South Americas and the Caribbean, precisely within 20 degrees of the equator); on its introduction to Mexico and the North (by the end of the first millennium B.C.); on the people behind cacao farming (such as her own family, back in Cuba); on the origin of hot chocolate (spicy, not sweet) and its introduction to Europe (17th century, in Spain); and on the genetics of cacao, which are as dull as they sound. In short, Presilla's book is too long and too technical, even for a chocolate lover (unless, perhaps, you're a science lover, too). The best parts are the practical sections—one on tasting and choosing chocolate, with notes on color, aroma, and taste; and 50 pages of imaginative chocolate recipes including one for deep chocolate torte and one for princess pudding, both from Seattle's own Fran Bigelow, of Fran's Chocolates. If only she'd divulge her recipe for cabernet truffles.
Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism by Steven Connor
(Oxford University Press, $35)
"Who are you calling a dummy?" Hackneyed routines that inevitably include some variation on that line have cemented ventriloquism's lowly status among the arts. But, as this book suggests, ventriloquism has endured as a popular entertainment in some form for thousands of years, making it a suitable, if odd, subject for serious scholarship. The rigor with which Mr. Connor applies his faculties in Dumbstruck is impressive, but it's too much: The intellectual commitment he requires is likely to outstrip the curiosity of all but a few. (You should also know that there's nary a mention of the genius Willie Tyler and his lap buddy, Lester.) While it's interesting that the legendary duo of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy first achieved their fame on the radio—doesn't that defeat the spectacle?—it's far less rewarding to consider that "just as ventriloquism depends upon the insufficiency of sound and the adjustment of sound by sight, so a ventriloquial structure is at work in the larger adjustments of sound, sight, and other senses." I'm intrigued to learn that the single-dummy model of ventriloquism didn't become the standard until recently, but less enthralled that "the late nineteenth-century ventriloquist began more and more to speak in propria persona. The interest shifted from the 'multiformical' and 'ubiquitarial' transformations of a single character to the narrower and subtler ironies of the relation between the ventriloquist and his interlocutor." Maybe the dummy, in this case, is me.
The Porcelain God: A Social History of the Toilet
by Julie L. Horan
(Citadel Press, $12)
The discovery of fire, the wheel, the concept of zero, the Honey Bucket. Yes, in that illustrious list of mankind's earliest breakthroughs and innovations, it's no mistake we include the life-altering invention each and every one of us, from kings to cotton pickers, use several times a day (sometimes more or less, if our digestive systems don't cooperate) but so very rarely discuss. Author Julie L. Horan has no such qualms; she confronts the Seat That Dare Not Speak Its Name—At Least Not in Polite Society—full-on with The Porcelain God, her ode to the birthplace of Charles V and the deathbed, as it were, of Elvis Presley. "Toilet-philes argue that civilization began not with the advent of written language but with the first toilet," she boldly declares. "Waste control allowed individuals to quit wandering the earth trying to escape their dung and finally settle down." With these opening lines, the loo lover launches her examination of the once-private world of the privy—beginning in ancient Mesopotamia and carrying on through the Middle Ages and the Victorian era to the luxurious sensor-flush models of the late 20th century—embracing, along the way, all manner of crapper lore. Did you know that the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is credited with installing the first private "water closet" in America? Or that Louis XIV, the Sun King, saw no reason to exclude visitors during his "sessions"? You'll learn more than you ever needed to know about the unfortunate effects of high tide on Seattle's primitive toilet system, and the Bogot᠉ndians' use of urine as a salt replacement in food. There's hours more short-attention-span fun to be had within its 204 pages, which makes The Porcelain God a number-one reading choice while going number two.
One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair
by Allan Peterkin (Arsenal Pulp Press, $16.95)
Recently our city's smallish rock music community experienced an insurgence of facial hair. Dudes I had previously experienced as "cool," "of good taste," and otherwise "not stupid" were all of the sudden sporting embarrassingly meager lip hair and acting like it was perfectly normal. As it turned out, the cause of said facial hair uprising was a contest ground-zeroed in Ballard. Beard- and mustache-growing contests are certainly not uncommon—oftentimes touring bands, bachelor parties, and sports teams take part in pseudo-masculine rituals whereby the participants race to see who can grow the furriest specimen, or, more commonly, who can resist shaving theirs for the longest period of time. Whoopee! Good times. But the desire to cultivate and make contests out of facial hair exists far outside of the Pike/Pine and Ballard Avenue corridors. As delineated in Allan Peterkin's cultural history of the stuff, beards, sideburns, and mustaches have key significance in most of the major religions of the world as well as in mythology, sexual subcultures, and medical history. Although Peterkin's book is at times pedestrian and ridiculous (in his description of Saddam Hussein, in the chapter called "Beards of Fame and Infamy," Peterkin adds, weirdly, "According to residents of South Park, [Saddam] is the lover of Satan"), it is, at least, rather exhaustive. Not only does Peterkin cull stories of bearded ladies and "beards of antiquity," he includes plenty of visual evidence and literary quotes, and he devotes nearly 20 pages to how-to instructions on growing and grooming. I'm just hoping the book doesn't spawn another epidemic.
A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis
by David M. Friedman
(The Free Press, $26)
The story of the penis, according to Friedman, begins in Sumeria in the third millennium B.C., an arid landscape dependent on water from the nearby Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The source of the river water? A manlike force called Enki who, according to ancient writings, lifted his penis and ejaculated into both rivers—his penis issuing forth a rushing, constant, life-giving flow. (Enki did other things with his penis, too, including digging irrigation channels and fathering the first human baby, after whose birth he said, "Let now my penis be praised!") Things have changed in the last 5,000 years for Sumeria—for example, it's now called Iraq—but the area is still run, it occurs to me, by a huge dick. Saddam Hussein's penis isn't in this book, but the penises of many others are, including Jesus Christ's (an "exceptional organ"); King Henry VIII's (poor Anne Boleyn); Leonardo da Vinci's (which he sketched an awful lot in his notebook); Walt Whitman's (described by the poet as a "thumb of love"); Clarence Thomas' (the discussion of which introduced the American public to the phrase "Long Dong Silver"); and Bill Clinton's (you remember). Friedman devotes ample space to discussions on Freud and Viagra, and there's a fully illustrated section on testicle transplantation surgery. But it's da Vinci's struggle to simply understand his own penis that underscores the theme of the book. "Often a man is asleep and it is awake," da Vinci wrote, "and many times a man is awake and it is asleep. Many times a man wants to use it, and it does not want to." Tell me about it, Leo.
Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio
edited by Michele Hilmes and Jason Loviglio
Nostalgia for the age when radio was king has lent an air of quaintness befitting a Norman Rockwell painting to our popular perception of the medium; the sight of the family huddled around the console rapt by some momentous speech or popular drama is awfully easy to conjure (wasn't that Woody Allen movie just adorable?). Despite its subordination to television and the Internet, though, radio—unlike newspapers—still plays a role in the daily lives of most people. At least that's the premise of Radio Reader, a book that offers fresh and learned reflections on radio's past and present. The essays are largely produced by and for academics and are thus written in the sometimes-oppressive scholastic lingua franca that few who haven't experienced the joys of a graduate-level humanities course will appreciate. (Marx is referenced twice; Foucault, three times.) I'd have preferred a greater emphasis on some of the musicological implications of recent radio scholarship, but community and personal political concerns predominate—every aspect of this short history is projected through the lens of class, race, and gender. Still, the territory covered here—including radio's role during the Depression and World War II as a propaganda tool, the growth of underground and microwatt stations, the history of religious programming, and the ascendancy of the political talk format and the "shock jock" character—is essential for anyone with an interest in media history. And, as the volume's inevitable (and correct) final essay suggests, new technology and recent political and corporate maneuvering ensure that radio's story is far from over.
Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities
by Kerry Segrave
(McFarland & Company, $32.50)
Tipping is a strange little book that will probably end up on thousands of library shelves and, 20 years from now, in the clutches of Marxist sociology students writing with great sincerity about the relationship between tips, wages, and American society. It doesn't tell you how much to tip, nor when, but it does deliver an exhaustive history of the custom (once referred to as "democracy's deadly foe") and its changing popularity. Beginning at least as early as the 15th century (probably even earlier), tipping has been reviled as demoralizing to the "lower classes" and demeaning to the upper crust, unaccustomed as they are to actually paying to be treated with servility. Labor unions have historically hated tipping because it keeps wages low, especially for minorities and women. Efforts have been made to ban it—the earliest right here in Washington state in 1909—but tipping has proved resilient. Americans may grumble, but when it comes time, they just can't kick the habit—mostly, it will surprise few to know, because we're all so afraid of looking cheap. (That's another reason, it turns out, the Europeans hate us.) Laden with anecdote after repetitive anecdote (women got paid less than men in 1910! and in 1929! and in 1977!), this tedious little book does one remarkable thing: It manages, at 154 pages, to read like a dictionary and feel like a tome. But the Library Journal, whose glowing review is quoted on press materials, loved it.
Erica C. Barnett
The Corset: A Cultural History
by Valerie Steele
(Yale University Press, $39.95)
These days, the corset is regarded as a historical torture device: a tight-laced, tummy-tucking embodiment of "fashion hurts" and oppressive male ideals of female beauty. Sucking it in and lacing it up doesn't sound exactly comfortable—or healthy. But Valerie Steele's got some news for the corset-fearing world. She says it's time to stop yer snivelin', because the corset wasn't as bad as it's cracked up to be. Sure it was confining, but so were Brooke Shields' Calvins. And, yeah, maybe it was eroticized, even fetishized, but what's so bad about that? Steele's large, attractive, photo-heavy book would be a fine addition to any coffee table, but it's not just a photographic tribute to the wasp-waisted women of the olden days: It's actually academic, as anomalous as that seems for a book about fashion. And Steele, chief curator of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, is in a position to educate. She cites a broad range of historical and cultural sources, and makes a few good points of her own. We learn, for example, that the 15-inch cinched waists we associate with Scarlet O'Hara types were, in actuality, more like 22-inch waists, from the look of the corsets preserved in modern museums. And, moreover, that most women wore corsets because they wanted to; they weren't fashion victims but fashion vixens. The Corset will satisfy those who enjoy serious discourse on historical fashion, but I suspect most people would rather just look at the pictures.
Who Cut the Cheese: A Cultural History of the Fart
by Jim Dawson
(Ten Speed Press, $9.95)
A guy is pretty much critic-proof once he decides to devote an entire book to farting. We're given the obligatory recognition of legendary French fartiste Le Petomane (who could toot "La Marseillaise"), the gradual entry of the fart into mainstream media acknowledgement, and the physical act's omnipresence in every facet of our society—including a chapter titled "Religious Farts," in which Dawson spoofs the whole "Get thee behind me, Satan" business, and calmly states that "as it turns out, the human asshole has held grave importance in most religions." Your older brother is going to get a big kick out of this thing. But here's the "this guy has no business writing about farts" part: He got something wrong. You'll hate yourself if you catch it but, in a passage devoted to Whoopi Goldberg's prominence as a fart connoisseur, Dawson claims that when she "hosted the Academy Awards in March 1996, Bette Midler's 'Wind Beneath My Wings' won an Oscar for Best Song, prompting Whoopi to remark to the world-at-large that she had her own wind but it wasn't beneath her wings." Sorry Jim—"Wind Beneath My Wings" from Beaches did not win an Oscar in 1996; Beaches was made in 1988, and it wasn't even eligible then because it was not written for the film. And furthermore, guy, you're clearly referring to Whoopi's remark concerning actual 1996 Oscar winner "Colors of the Wind," from Disney's Pocahontas. Take that, fartknocker.