The shameful case of the hidden books
WASHINGTON -- What are you not?
We all tend to have personal mythologies -- images of ourselves that we accept as defining, even if they are not entirely wonderful. Often, these attributes involve negatives. I, for example, am not "handsome." I am OK with that, largely because no one would sanely dispute it. Things get trickier, though, when we are analyzing ourselves in less obvious arenas -- of character, intelligence or personality, for example. That is where we tend to be more generous.
Here is the thing I have always been most convinced I am not: Pretentious. Yes, I am opinionated and think highly of some of my abilities, but in general I feel ... unpretentious. I maintain my hair in a fashion that could fairly be described as "toilet-bowl fungus." My mustache is Ned Flanders on a bad day. My car's two rear-quarter panels are held on by red duct tape, and have been for years. Almost all my sweat socks have at least one toe-hole. Unpretentious.
So this column amounts to a wretched confession, based on something I noticed the other day.
I have several bookcases in my house, but only one is prominent. It is in my living room. It is an antique oak lawyer's bookcase from roughly 1910 that had once been in my grandfather's law office. It has a glass front, meaning that it is both elegant and transparent, meaning the books are not only visible but on display.
Among the books I have chosen to display is "The Complete Works of John Bunyan," a thick, green, lavishly embossed hardcover volume from 1877 devoted to the words of the renowned 17th-century theologian who may be the most tedious, gaseous, self-righteous, pompous writer who ever lived. I can't recall when I obtained it, but I got it for its appearance and gravitas. I have never looked inside, until just now, when I immediately encountered this sentence: "Reader, the painful and industrious author of this book has already given you a faithful and very moving relation of the beginning and middle of the days of his pilgrimage on Earth; and ... for fear some over censorious people should impute it to him as an earnest coveting of praise from men. ... " I instantly replaced it in the bookcase, where I also display the Warren Commission Report, which I read cover to cover at the age of 14 and never looked at again, because it is mostly footnotes in type this size. Also, I have a book with the most pretentious title I've ever seen, "The Breath of Parted Lips," which I obtained for free because it has Robert Frost on the cover, and I apparently wanted to be known as the sort of person who is intimately familiar with Robert Frost, which I am not. Also, Robert Frost is not in the book. It's poetry by other people, none of which I have read, but which, I see now, does not rhyme and has stanzas ending in the middle of sentences, including, I swear, "In death, a ghost lies under me, pregnant."
Most of the books in this fine bookcase are like this. In my other, less visible bookcases -- the ones upstairs and safely hidden -- are the books I actually read. It's not just the Agatha Christies and Ellery Queens and other lowbrow works of genius, it's other stuff, too. In these bookcases, for example, there is a book I ordered from Amazon based on the title alone: "How to Good-bye Depression: If You Constrict Anus 100 Times Everyday. Malarkey? Or Effective Way?"
There is another book, written and illustrated pseudonymously by a good friend of mine, that might be the most tasteless thing ever published. It is a parody of the covers of Little Golden Books for children, only the themes involve such subjects as incest, infanticide and pedophilia. One of them is "The Blind Child's Picture Dictionary," which includes a drawing of a bus labeled "pizza" and a horse labeled "telephone." I have a copy because my friend sent it to me, hot off the presses, exactly one day before the publisher recalled all copies and destroyed them after actual human beings with actual souls started to complain.
And finally there is a bogus medical book that is one of my favorites. It is written by an idiot with no taste at all, and it catalogues actual medical conditions in the least sensitive way. For example, it has an entry about "bitrochanteric lipodystrophy," a real disorder in which fat deposits gather in one's hips and buttocks in a ghastly way. The book says: "The downside of this condition is that you waddle like a platypus and scare the neighborhood dogs. The upside is that on Halloween you can wrap yourself in aluminum foil, stick some toilet paper in your collar, and you make a fabulous Hershey's Kiss."
OK, I wrote that book, but still.
Gene Weingarten can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group