MWM seeks entertaining, enlightening tome on classified ads for intimate nights in front of fire or long sessions on toilet. Or as gift for Mom.

Americans love the classifieds. They promise the satisfaction of all manner of red-white-and-blue desires, from a rearview mirror for a ’67 Mustang to a meeting with that blonde who caught your eye last Tuesday on the Metro. Nondiscriminatory, they beckon to bargain hunter and bondage enthusiast alike, and they sometimes tell us more about who we are and what we want than any sermon or sociologist could. So a book on classifieds’ long, strange history in the United States, where we’re free to pursue happiness even unto the rearward pages of the local paper, should be a welcome event. Too bad that Sara Bader’s Strange Red Cow and Other Curious Classified Ads From the Past, which spans the history of American classifieds from their introduction in the Boston News-Letter in 1704 to the present day, doesn’t provide half the thrills of a decent I Saw You section. Oh, it’s readable enough in a Sociology 101 way, but it doesn’t live up to its title, which promises a humorous—or at least unconventional—take on this strangely intimate window into American unfulfillment. The book does provide its fair share of odd facts, of course. The “chance encounter” ad, for example, goes back at least as far as the 1860s, and the genre inspired Mark Twain, then living in New York, to write, “There seems to be a pack of wooden-headed louts about this town, who fall in love with every strumpet who smiles a flabby smile at them in a street car, and forthwith they pop a personal into the Herald.” But on the whole, Bader prefers to expostulate on why particular types of classified ads appeared at certain times rather than to crack wise about them: “Roam through nineteenth-century lost and found postings, particularly those that ran in big-city dailies,” she writes, “and you will inevitably run into the seemingly boundless material culture associated with this growing middle class….Ornamental objects took on symbolic meaning: they defined one’s financial standing and moral character within.” As a result, the ads reprinted throughout the book make for much more compelling reading than Bader’s rather dry pronouncements on their rather self-evident functions. That part of Strange Red Cow even Mom wouldn’t find very entertaining or enlightening.

—Michael Little