There has been some nominally droll comment of late on the title of the new David Sedaris collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. There are those who would class this as a bizarre book title. I would argue instead that the title does not play by the rules of the genuine bizarre book title, and that it is instead arch and incongruous and self-aware, without any of the relieving claims of postmodernism behind which somebody like Mark Leyner (My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist or I Smell Esther Williams, etc.) might plausibly shelter. The effect of a self-consciously whimsical title is like that of seeing somebody dressed up for Halloween as a sexy nurse–it speaks to a certain lack of confidence in the inherent charms of your own wit, and I end up more saddened than aroused.
Happily, any bookseller with an eye for the incongruous or the risible is likely already at least somewhat aware of Russell Ash and Brian Lake’s groundbreaking work with Bizarre Books (first published in England as Fish Who Answer the Telephone), a compendium collecting titles that, as the authors have it in their introduction, “were published with the serious intention of informing, not amusing. In this, they have signally failed.” (One rich vein they mine of course is that of the unconscious double entendre. Geoffrey Prout’s 1930 Scouts in Bondage–“A Story of Boy Scouts in Strange Adventure,” as the subtitle would have it–is one of the more glittering gems they unearth.)
Brian is one of the principals of Jarndyce Booksellers in London, which has been selling interesting 19th century material since the year of my birth; he is also the current president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association, a duty that one outside the trade might be surprised to find was held by a man who has made a life’s work out of the pursuit of such titles as Drummer Dick’s Discharge–but to those in the trade who know even nothing about Brian Lake’s other sterling qualities this quality alone makes perfect sense for the job, since a sense of the absurd is perhaps the one personality trait necessary to dealing with booksellers in large groups, as many tend toward the brilliant and/or melancholic and/or opinionated. I will also note here that any bookseller with at least a modicum of self-regard aspires to unearth a bizarre title that would appear to be otherwise unknown to Lake.
But to return to the bizarre book and a consideration of genuine examples of such, it is the admirable or even religiously enlightened sense of serene un-self-counsciousness that distinguishes the best in this genre. When one picks up a copy of Charles Elton Blanchard’s storied title, The Romance of Proctology (Youngstown, O., 1938), one does not find some coy misdirection leading instead to comic ruminations on modern life; this is a flat-out comprehensive history of the pioneers of the lower colon.
(Blanchard himself was enrolled among these ranks, and he evidently published widely on the subject–though I will note that he also published an interesting technological science fiction utopian novel, A New Day Dawns: A Brief History of the Altruistic Era (1930 to 2162 A. D.), Youngstown, O., 1932.)
But it is from the cleft of the incongruity between the earnestness of Blanchard’s enthusiasm and the seeming oddity of his masterwork’s title that the purer, undefiled spring of the truly bizarre title bubbles up. And it is in this happy glade — amid the Scouts in Bondage and Drummer Dick with his unfortunate discharge — that any right-thinking bookseller will choose to frolic.
(And the risk of course of putting up billboards in Arcadia, one glade where one might on some days find examples of such title is the Eccentric Authors section of your correspondent, Garrett Scott, Bookseller; you may browse among them here.)