(Wilhelm Reich was born today, he of the blue-green “orgone” energy, the Sex-Pol project in Vienna (“psychoanalytic counseling, Marxist advice and contraceptives”), battling UFOs in the Arizona desert … When visiting Orgonon, Reich’s extraordinary Frank Lloyd Wright-meets-Bond villain fortress/lab, my friend and I found that folks there still credited Reich’s weather-controlling “cloudbusters” for splendid blueberry harvests.)
When Richard Byrd went to the Antarctic (the first time), he brought about 1,500 books printed on a cylinder press in Girard, Kansas: pretty much the complete catalogue of titles then available from Haldeman-Julius Publications, better known as the “Little Blue Books.” They were likely the best possible balance of weight, size, information density and entertainment value available at the time: three and a half inches by five, very light (the longest were only sixty pages), and printed on the cheapest paper stock available, they encompassed a breadth of material difficult to convey except through a flat list of all 1,915 ultimately produced. Chemistry of Familiar Things, Tales of Hypnotism and Revenge, Life of Ignatius Loyola, A History of Modern Mexico, How to Write Telegrams Properly, The Sexual Factor in Divorce, An Introduction to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates, The Best Jokes about Drunks, and on and on and on (and this was only one of several Haldeman-Julius publishing imprints).
Little Blue Books cost a nickel (“Books are cheaper than hamburgers!”) and had a mission: to put a reasonably comprehensive education, with a strong socialist, atheist, and progressive emphasis, in the possession of anyone with a mailbox. There’s so much to say about the Books and Haldeman-Julius himself, who has been forgotten to a degree amazing given how wildly popular his business once was (best guess, when the closing bell rang: more than three hundred million copies published). He and Marcet Haldeman (playwright, novelist, president of the town bank, feminist dynamo) reinvented publishing as a popular medium in a way that I’m still trying to get to grips with – not like Penguin paperbacks, not like pulps, not like newspapers … in some ways, their project feels closer to the early Internet. Books so small they could be smuggled, so cheap they could be trivially loaned or given away, and discreetly available by mail order, they could carry discussions of racial equality into the deep South, arguments about unionization and fair labor practices into factories, mines, fields, and rail yards, and information about birth control (from Margaret Sanger, no less) and safe sexual practices everywhere. All that and Henry James!
Here’s the thing, though, for today: I’ve long admired H-J’s amazing sense of hustle, but only recently did I realize that he kind of invented clickbait on the Kansas prairies. With that massive catalog, there was no room for context, and the reader might not be familiar with any of the marquee names; the title alone had to sell the book. He figured out fast that “You” and “How” and “Secret” and “Facts” and “Should” and salaciousness moved units. Madame de Pompadour’s memoirs became Secret Memoirs of a French Royal Mistress, Schopenhauer’s “Art of Controversy” became How to Argue Logically, Gautier’s “Clarimonde” became Clarimonde: Harlot and Vampire (just a sec, I’m filling out this order form) and his “Golden Fleece” became The Quest for a Blonde Mistress … Hey, reader! Facts You Should Know about the Art of Love! Ask yourself, Are You A Babbitt? Learn The Secret of Self Development. Gamblers’ Crooked Tricks: A Complete Exposure of Their Methods (Learn this one strange trick of the pros …) Sex and Blackmail Rackets Exposed! How to Live One Hundred Years (Doctors hate this ordinary man and his amazing discovery!). There’s something wonderful to me in the deep continuity of the come-on, the carnival barker’s irresistible clickbait pitch, from Buzzfeed and Upworthy (you’ll never believe what happened next …) back to the mailroom of the print shop in Kansas and a grand project of spreading knowledge in the 1920s.
Teresa Winter, “O Moon” Eerie, delicate music for white nights and empty rooms.
Today in unexpected collaborations, you can buy Jenny Holzer / Dallas Cowboys merch! “The Official Shop of the Dallas Cowboys invites you to celebrate the original art of AT&T Stadium with the Dallas Cowboys Jenny Holzer Boredom Cap.” PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT
Thanks for reading, as ever.
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