Bathroom Coffee

Three Coffee Table or "Bathroom" books for you to consider today.

(By the way, I am aware of the hostility by some towards books in the bathroom. I don't know what to say on this. I'm not comfortable dealing directly with that level of bigotry. I mean, what do you say to these people? More importantly, what on Earth do you people do while you're in there to pass the time? This is too big a topic for me here. We'll address this later. Back to the literature.)

The first book comes from our friends on the other side of the pond; specifically our friends John Lloyd and John Mitchinson. Apparently based on a high-brow British game show, "The Book of General Ignorance" aims to tells us a whole bunch we didn't know.

But what makes this book more interesting than most factoid-based volumes you might pick up is the emphasis on shattering preconceived knowledge. It has been Hyperion's contention for some time that we (as a planet) know far less than we think we do, whether it be physics, biology, history or any other number of topics. We think we are so incredibly smart, have it all figured out, neglecting to see that every hundred years or so people get the same notion.

Reminds me a little of Socrates. As you will no doubt recall (no idiot, you, right?), the Oracle at Delphi declared that Socrates was the smartest man. Why? Not for his vast knowledge, but because he was the only one aware he knew nothing.

The authors feel the same way. As John Lloyd writes from the introduction:

There's an idea going about that the human race basically understands how the universe works. Not you and me, obviously, but scientists, perhaps, or experts. Regrettably, this is not the case. In the words of Thomas Edison, the man who didn't invent the light-bulb, "We don't know a millionth of one percent about anything."

Lloyd goes on to say the book contains a lot of information, but doesn't begin to answer any of the big questions in life because,

...The really interesting questions aren't like that. What is life? Nobody knows. What is light? Or laughter?

It's a very well kept secret, which they don't teach you at school, that nobody has the faintest notion of what gravity is. Or consciousness or electricity or viruses. We don't know why there is something and not nothing, and we do not know how or why the universe began. Worse, 96% of the universe appears to be missing.....

You get the point.

The authors go on to tackle dozens and dozens and dozens of preconceptions. Just flipping through the Table of Contents allow me to mention a few that stand out in memory:

What's the largest living thing? How do lemmings die? What do chameleons do? Who invented the telephone? Who said, "Let them eat cake"? How many senses does a human being have? What speed does light travel at? What did Nero do while Rome burned? What is the number of the Beast? Who is America named after. What produces most of the Earth's oxygen? What causes stomach ulcers? Why is a marathon 26 miles and 385 yards long? How long is a day?

Chances are, you, being a smart cookie, have learned some of those "facts" over your lifetime. Chances are you learned wrong. Nero didn't fiddle. Lemmings aren't depressed, and 666 means absolutely nothing.

But don't take my word for it. Read the book yourself, and then delve deeper, and look up everything these guys are saying. After all, their thesis is that we can't believe everything we read, so that should extend to them as well.

"The Book of General Ignorance" is highly recommended. I would think Middle School and up could handle it just fine, and put in a communal area, like a coffee table or...well, a coffee table, the whole family should get great use.

If you've been on the web long enough, and are a bit of a deviant, you have probably heard of Maddox. He's the creator of The Best Page in the Universe, and became quite the Internet darling over the last few years. Maddox became famous with an "in your face" style writing, being purposely offensive, but in so overt way as to not really be offensive, at least to those who know what they're getting.

(I'm course I'm qualifying that. My mother would have 45.6 coronaries if she spent five minutes on Maddox's site. But most of you are used to the bombast of the Internet.)

Also, part of the deal is that between the roll-your-eyes ogre-ness lies some pretty sharp satire. The reader is supposed to figure out which is which. Anyway, a couple of years ago Maddox finally cashed in his Internet Celebrity and wrote "The Alphabet of Manliness," an A to Z compendium of all things that grow chest hair. The book is tabbed on the outside of the page, for quick flipping to the different topics, which are the following:

A is for Ass-Kicking
B is for Boner
C is for Copping a Feel
D is for Dump, Taking a
E is for Enlightenment
F is for Female Wrestling
G is for Gas
H is for Hot Sauce
I is for Irate
J is for Jerky, Beef
K is for Knockers
L is for Lumberjack
M is for Metal
N is for Norris, Chuck
O is for Obedience
P is for Pirates
Q is for Quickies
R is for Road Rage
S is for Sneaking a Peek
T is for Taunting
U is for Urinal Etiquette
V is for Violence
W is for Winner
X is for XXX
Y is for Yelling
Z is for Zombies

You're either already dismissing him, or wondering if you should swing by a Barnes and Noble on the way home.

My own take on Maddox is a mixed bag. At times I think the sarcasm/satire gets mixed in with Maddox's true (or close to true) feelings. Why is this a big deal? I think Maddox gets away with a lot of over-the-top verbiage by "hiding" behind the satire label, when he might be revealing his real thoughts far more closely. On the other hand, as a writer who is constantly aware of my demographic (a bizarre cocktail that is made up of a large amount of close-to-socialism liberals and Dobson-revering Evangelicals), I am at times jealous of Maddox's freedom to be outrageous.

As far as the book goes, the first few letters are mostly dumb, and don't translate his admitted web-wit well to the page. After all, there are only so many ways you can say "boobs good civility bad." As the alphabet winds down, however, Maddox appears to come into his own, with some wickedly good satirical looks at idiot drivers, bathroom behavior and office creeps. Also, it's worth mentioning that the Chuck Norris chapter blows away any of the Chuck Norris send-ups you have read on the web. I read it to Kaida and she pretended to be outraged, but she laughed so hard she almost choked. Here's an example:

Not much is know about Chuck Norris's childhood. Chuck Norris has no mother, as crawling out of a vagina is unbecoming of a man of his stature. Chuck spontaneously came into existence on Karl Marx's birthday. This was no coincidence, since Chuck Norris is the polar opposite of communism; he is the yang to communism's yin, and the very thought of a political theory that suggests that people should have their own means of production in a classless society makes Chuck Norris want to puke.

Chuck Norris has fought in almost every major war, including the Korean War, World War I, the American Civil War, the Peloponnesian War, the Iran-Iraq War (on both sides simultaneously), the War of the Worlds, and the War on Drugs. The only war Chuck hasn't fought in is the Macedonian war because Chuck Norris doesn't give a shit about Macedonia. Chuck Norris wins wars by attrition.

I can't possibly recommend a book this juvenile, but if you're in a bookstore it's worth a look-over. If you need a gift for a boy going to college, or that twenty-something (or thirty-something) who just won't grow up, this may be the way to go. You'll be the coolest aunt in the universe. God will probably send you to Hell, but don't worry: Chuck Norris will save you.

The last book we must speak of is Stephen Colbert's "I Am America (And So Can You!)" There really is no way to discuss Colbert's book without discussing Colbert's TV show and the character he plays.

Look, Liberals: let's talk heart to heart. I'm no Conservative, but I think I understand them, at least a bit. But I don't get you. To me, humor is humor, and I watch Stephen Colbert, and he's just not that funny.

Don't get me wrong. The first time watching the Colbert Report, it's quite hilarious. Colbert, basically playing a clueless self-involved conservative, is priceless. But you watch the Colbert Report the night after or the night after that, and I cannot see how you avoid the inescapable conclusion that IT'S THE SAME JOKE EACH AND EVERY TIME!

I'm not trying to pick on Liberals here, and I'm not against political humor per se. Liberal Bill Maher can be funny, although also very annoying. Ditto for Dennis Miller on the Conservative side. But at least both of them are intelligent people who have done their homework, and are capable of getting on some very funny riffs. (As opposed to someone like Al Franken, the unfunniest man I have ever come across. I defy anyone to show me where Franken has ever been funny. Go ahead. I'm waiting.)

Colbert is certainly not a case for post-natal abortion like Frankel is, but I don't get what the fuss is all about. If you've seen one show you have seen them all! Please, liberal fans of Colbert, convince me that you like him for more than bashing conservatives. Show me you're more complicated than that.

All right. Let's get back to it. I mention Colbert's show, because whether or not you enjoy the book likely depends in large part on your feelings of his program. However, speaking as someone who watches Colbert for five to ten minutes a week (and wouldn't be able to stand any more), the book is much better.

"I Am America (And So Can You!)" doesn't create any new ground from the know-it-all moron Colbert plays on TV. However, the subtle wit that can sometimes get lost with all of Colbert's mugging for the camera comes through better on the page. Is it him? Is it the writers? I don't know, but I admit it's pretty funny. For example, after explaining that Catholicism is the one true faith, Colbert turns his sights on Protestantism:

This is a variant form of Christianity, or "heresy." Protestants don't make me angry as much as disappointed. Unlike the world's crazy made-up religions, they're so close to getting it right. They're a single Pope away from reaching their full potential.

That's funny stuff. Later on, in another section, Colbert offers "Dating Dos" for the Ladies:

First, some crucial advice. Be on your guard. You might be looking for a life-partner, but your date's most likely looking for a disco partner. Being cautious lets a man know that he'll have to put in some effort to make your acquaintance .... That said, show some cleavage. It lets a man know that you're confident enough to show some cleavage. So put on something that makes you feel like he'll feel like you're sexy .... And during the meal, order something that will get his attention, like a side of bacon for dessert. I can't think of anything sexier.

Chapters on Religion, Sex and Race are gleefully irreverent, and contain many small "margin notes" to increase the joke. Colbert never manages to come across as offensive, which is a good trick in the written medium when you can't hear the tone of voice. I found myself cracking up more than once, and some of the smallest jokes go the farthest. (Not all flies. There are inserts and games and diagrams that sometimes are distracting, but the great thing with a book is you can just turn the page.)

I think regardless of political affiliation, Colbert's "I Am America (And So Can You!)" is entertaining enough for all. Liberals will worship it, but even Conservatives should be in on the joke.

March 11, 2008

1 comment:

Sea Hag said...

I know this is probably going to be heresy, but I actually like 'The Colbert Report' much more than I like 'The Daily Show'. Most of that is because Colbert never breaks character EVER. And that's got ot be hard to do, especially when you know that the 'real' Stephen Colbert is pretty liberal. Also, if it was a true satirical politics show it'd just be 'The Daily Show 2' so the show is more about Colbert and his goofiness. Plus I kinda hate politics.