Ours is a time of information overload. The load is getting heavier, and the information is getting worse. One morning the front pages of all the world’s newspapers scream the formerly unthinkable news that an asteroid is coming to crash into the Earth. Our minds instantly fill with frantic calculations, seeking hints of possible reprieve. “Lawmaker Urges Asteroid Interceptor,” reads a late-edition headline. Twenty years ago, that sentence would have been gobbledygook.
But before the comedians can leap into action and prepare a sturdy supply of witticisms with which to deal with the tragedy—in fact, the very next day—the newspapers are denying the crisis. A scientist has miscalculated.
Instant crisis, instant crisis averted. But there is no relief. We are stuck with a new, vague sense of dread, and some lingering notions about interplanetary movement that have no value in our daily lives but that will undoubtedly crowd out some other previously held semi-useful data—like how many pints in a liter. If, in fact, there are any pints in a liter. I’ve forgotten. But I recall that the asteroid interceptor will cost $25 million. It has my vote.
The weight of utterly useless information has driven even such a respected figure as JFK confidant Pierre Salinger mad to the point of calling a press conference to warn of conspiracies and disaster—based on a bogus report he found floating through the web. How was he to know it was wrong? The Internet is, after all, the Information Superhighway.
Gerald Celente, author of Trends 2000, a book about where we are headed, was recently quoted in the Washington Post to the effect that eventually this data deluge of “nonessential essential information” will cause our creative senses to wither. Every time you start Office 98, you move closer to becoming one of Celente’s “corporate quantitative thinkers,” who require only lists, charts, numbers, and stats for satisfaction. Thus the nonbook is both the effect and the epitome of the information explosion. Two of the three books considered here are so non as to contain almost no content whatsoever. The third is a new handbook for our times.
That book is Cameron Tuttle’s witty digest, The Paranoid’s Pocket Guide: Hundreds of Things You Never Knew You Had to Worry About. The cover suggests that we should “practice defensive living,” but really there is no defense from much of what she presents. Tuttle dispenses with technical explanations, footnotes, or debate, opting instead for a numbing catalog of afflictions and conditions, possibilities and probabilities of everything that can, and surely will, go terribly, terribly wrong. Interspersed are short statistical “Fright Bites,” but the whole bite-size book is frightening.
If you sneeze too hard, you can fracture a rib. If you try to suppress a sneeze, you can rupture a blood vessel in your head or neck and die. A long yawn can break your jawbone.
Dance-floor dehydration can kill you.
Cold- and warm-water laundry cycles will not kill the bacteria and microscopic insects living in your clothes and sheets. Newly worried about insects living on your shirts and pillowcases? Think about this phrase: African eye worm.
Or, hello, operator: Saliva is a steady source of nutrients to microorganisms living inside a telephone mouthpiece. Then again, you can be electrocuted while talking on the phone during a thunderstorm.
Those keyless remotes that unlock your car? The tone can be recorded and then played back to open your car when you’re not around.
But there is good news: More people in the advertising business die on the job than those in petroleum refining.
Is any of this true? It doesn’t matter. It sounds possible. Ask Pierre Salinger. The Paranoid’s Pocket Guide is destined to keep appearing in annually updated editions.
The nonest of nonbooks is the journal. These are books that absolutely must be judged by their covers, as there is nothing else to judge. Sold mostly in art supply and stationery stores, they are sheets of blank paper between fancy, often textured, covers. They are intended to be filled with the pithy prose and/or pretty pictures of one’s life. Philipp Keel’s All About Me removes most of the guess work involved in keeping a journal. One only has to fill in the blanks, answer his questions, or choose from a list of options he has supplied.
“With questions you not only reveal your curiosity to others, you also invite others to express their feelings, wishes, and fears,” writes Keel, in the book’s only prose.
He divides existence into categories like Opinions (“What is your opinion of the right to own guns: [ ] Pro [ ] Con”), Family (“Three things you like about your mother:”), Ego (“A special compliment that made you blush:”), Wishes and Dreams (“How you plan to spend the last years of your life:”), Sexuality (“A fantastic kisser you have known:”), If (“If you were a plant, you would be:”), Yes or No (“You like hiking, [ ] Yes [ ] No”), Measure Your Fears (“Pet a snake: [ ] You did. [ ] You would. [ ] You would not.”). And like that.
I can see how some may benefit by answering these prompts (“A friend you should not have kissed:”), but I would be afraid of anyone who handed me a completed book like this. I would be afraid if anyone found a book like this that I had completed. I would rather be struck by an asteroid.
With its deep orange faux-alligator skin cover, The Lounge Lizard Journal is a gorgeous piece of nonness. Like All About Me, it is intended for recording one’s swinging life. A handy page of stickers is included, should you need to label anything “Swank” or “Let’s Swing.”
There are six “chapters:” The Threads, The Cocktail, The Hi-Fi, The Foxes, The Bachelor Den, The Films, and an appendix, The Hi-Life, which lists simpatico books, web sites, bars, and drink mixes. The tiny introduction frankly states that the book is a “personal invitation to join the domain of the Rat Pack,” an enduringly impossible dream of the latter half of the 20th century.
But there is no real information about these topics, just decorative art. Much of what passes for content in Lounge is sampled—images from old ads, phrases, slogans, and quotations, some lifted from the liner notes of recent CD collections of lounge music, themselves repackagings of the past.
The compilers did venture as far back as the ’20s for Algonquin wit Robert Benchley’s line, “Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.” They also quote the very modernly unmodern Combustible Edison’s mantra, “In all things, be fabulous.”
Mostly the pages contain only lines superimposed over a snappy design. To paraphrase eminent philosopher/naif Nigel Tufnel, how much more non can a book get? None.
At this point, the lounge revolution is more a design movement than a musical or fashion one. It persists because art directors can’t resist the lure of atomic ovals, floating boomerang shapes, and duotoned populuxe splendor. The best ’50s and ’60s design is happening right now.
Chronicle Books is very successful at repackaging this century, producing endless volumes of fetishistically gorgeous pictures of the way we wished we were and the things we used to possess or want to possess. Call it yuppie porn. Thumbing through these beautiful, empty pages, I came to believe that the only safe place to live in the world of tomorrow is yesterday.