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Posts Tagged ‘old books’

Hair Streams

August 28, 2015 | by


There are questions of such vast, cosmic import that most of us never think to ask them. I’ve wondered why there’s something rather than nothing; I have pondered the nature of objectivity; I’ve questioned the existence of free will. But I’ve never asked why some hairs on my body grow in one direction, and other hairs an entirely different direction.

That’s where Walter Aubrey Kidd comes in. He was not like you or me; his was a mind so restive, so thick with a passion for inquiry, that no mystery, however impregnable, was safe from its advances. And so it was that in 1903 he bequeathed to us The Direction of Hair in Animals and Man, taking a fine-tooth comb to a subject most of us had hardly seen fit to tousle. Read More »

Imprudent Acts and Great Bastards

February 12, 2015 | by

Sex advice from 1861.


From The Book of Nature.

Let me be frank: Valentine’s Day is great if you’re getting laid. But there are, among the populace, a number of the “involuntarily celibate” for whom this “holiday” exists only to remind of isolation, rejection, and missed carnal opportunities. Where, in such times, can the lovelorn singleton turn for solace? There is but one place: the annals of sexual education.

There’s no better way to kill one’s sexual desire than to remember what it was like to learn about sex. Contemporary sex-ed is effective enough in this regard—we can all summon memories of high school filmstrips—but it turns out that the sex-ed of ages past was even more clinical, pedantic, and bloodless. All of which is to say it’s perfect if you’re looking to take the joy out of sex.

Proof positive: An 1861 work by one James Ashton, M.D.—a “lecturer on sexual physiology” who invented the “Reveil Nocturne,” which Google has thus far not elucidated—called The Book of Nature; Containing Information for Young People Who Think of Getting Married, on the Philosophy of Procreation and Sexual Intercourse; Showing How to Prevent Conception and to Avoid Child-Bearing. Also, Rules for Management During Labour and Child-birth. It is, in effect, the most abundantly unsexy sex-ed guide this side of What’s Happening to Me? A Guide to Puberty. Read More »

$190,000 Birds, and Other News

February 6, 2015 | by


Image via AbeBooks

  • Latin, the most famous dead language, is enjoying another of its many posthumous lives: “A language can fall out of everyday use, its forms can cease to change, and yet writers will still use it to do new things. This happened to Sumerian and Hebrew—and it happened to Latin too. People all over the Mediterranean world and beyond continued to use Latin after Virgil and Cicero—and they did so in endlessly creative ways.”
  • The hazards of open endings: Why does so much literary fiction refuse to provide a real resolution? “An authorial strategy now so widespread to have almost become the norm in literary fiction was so ‘unfamiliar’ back in 1925 that Woolf suggested readers ‘need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune.’ ”
  • A 1765 book about ornithology has sold for $190,000: “Published in Florence in Italian in five volumes, it contains 600 beautiful hand-colored engraved plates of birds. Commissioned by Maria Luisa, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, the book took ten years to complete … Some consider the book to be a commentary on 18th-century Italian high society because the bird poses are almost human.”
  • Technicolor turns 100: “We realize that color is violent and for that reason we restrained it,” an early adopter once said. But today, Technicolor has developed “this very vibrant, saturated palette ... When these films started getting more colorful, that's what audiences reacted to. They loved this artificial, fantasy, over-the-top palette. And that’s the way color shifted. It’s idealized.”
  • Running a bookstore is hard. Running an anarchist bookstore is even harder. And not because of the anarchy, it turns out—because of the antianarchy. At San Francisco’s Bound Together, “there’ve been plenty of adventures, like the time when the bookstore was threatened by Neo-Nazis in the eighties and members slept in the space nightly to protect it. There was also an attempted arson in the eighties, when someone dumped gasoline through the mail slot and tossed a lit match in to start a fire.”


Coming Soon: More Vengeful Deities, and Other News

November 13, 2014 | by


The wrath of God.

  • Everyone’s going nuts for Serial, an impeccably reported (and very self-aware) true-crime podcast spun off from This American Life. But Janet Malcolm was up to something similar many decades ago, wasn’t she?
  • Then again, this should come as no surprise. “Hasn’t it all been done before? Perhaps better than anyone today could ever do it?” Why should any of us bother with the new when so much of the old is out there waiting for us?
  • Actually, why should any of us leave our houses at all? We’re just going to encounter the absurd—a bunch of loony scholars, for instance, tooling around town with a life-size statue of Jane Austen in tow …
  • And even the best literature offers no respite from the absurd and the terrifying. Quite the opposite. “In August a man in the Bronx tied a chain to a pole, wrapped it around his neck, got behind the wheel of his Honda and stepped on the accelerator. The chain severed his head from his body, which crashed through the windscreen and landed on the street when the Honda slammed into a parked car … It put me in mind of a passage early in Donald Antrim’s first novel, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World.”
  • But it’s all right. As the world grows more confused and tempestuous, we’ll at least find ourselves with more righteous, awesome, angry gods. A new study finds that “belief in moralizing high gods is ‘more prevalent among societies that inhabit poorer environments and are more prone to ecological distress’ … In societies that exist in places with violent monsoon seasons or periods of extreme drought, cooperation is more important than it is in temperate areas … And what better way to promote cooperation and fair play than the idea of an all-seeing god who demands it?”


Bayou Medicine

July 23, 2014 | by


The swamp doctor also stabs bears, apparently.

Given the ungodly humidity, today seems as good a day as any to peruse an 1858 volume whose full title is The Swamp Doctor’s Adventures in the South-West; Containing the Whole of The Louisiana Swamp Doctor; Streaks Of Squatter Life; and Far-Western Scenes; in a Series Of Forty-Two Humorous Southern And Western Sketches, Descriptive Of Incidents And Character, by John Robb (“Madison Tensas, M.D.” and “Solitaire”) author of “Swallowing Oysters Alive, etc.”

Oh, the glories of the public domain! Here’s a sordid bit from a chapter called “The Mississippi Patent Plan for Pulling Teeth”:

I had just finished the last volume of Wistar’s Anatomy, well nigh coming to a period myself with weariness at the same time, and with feet well braced up on the mantel-piece, was lazily surveying the closed volume which lay on my lap, when a hurried step in the front gallery aroused me from the revery into which I was fast sinking.

Turning my head as the office door opened, my eyes fell on the well-developed proportions of a huge flatboatsman who entered the room wearing a countenance, the expression of which would seem to indicate that he had just gone into the vinegar manufacture with a fine promise of success.

“Do you pull teeth, young one?” said he to me.

“Yes, and noses too,” replied I, fingering my slender moustache, highly indignant at the juvenile appellation, and bristling up by the side of the huge Kentuckian, till I looked as large as a thumb-lancet by the side of an amputating knife.

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