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I have been reading a lot, largely on Kindle.
This has been salutary for my broad-mindedness. Not the content of the books, mind you: the format. Until six months ago I was mildly snobbish about Kindles, preferring the look and feel of REAL books. I had a Kindle – Helpdesk Man bought me one – but I rarely used it, though reluctantly conceding it was handy for travel.
And then an old, nearly-blind friend of mine mentioned that she loves Kindles because you can change the size of the print, and I had to admit that you couldn’t really argue with that. And then I got pregnant. And let me tell you, there’s nothing like spending most of every day for several months unable to get out of bed, let alone head to the library, to shoo your pontifications about the feel of Real Paper and the smell of Old Bookshops out of your lexicon right quick.
Plus, as it happens, our town’s libraries have a terrible selection and Kindle doesn’t. After an initial binge I limited myself to the free books, which I expected to be a paltry selection of dead-obvious classics like Jane Austen and Dickens.
But nope. Some study team of volunteers has gone to the trouble of scanning a delightfully arcane selection of out-of-copyright books; and it’s delightful. I have in my possession, among others, ‘The Prospective Mother, a Handbook for Women During Pregnancy’, published in 1921; ‘Strange True Stories of Louisiana’ (1890; haven’t read it yet, but I’m hoping it includes gators); ‘History of the Donner Party’; ‘Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases: A Practical Handbook of Pertinent Expressions, Striking Similes, Literary, Commercial, Conversational, and Oratorical Terms, for the Embellishment of Speech and Literature, and the Improvement of the Vocabulary of Those Persons Who Read, Write and Speak English’; and the unexpectedly hilarious ‘Sabbath in Puritan New England’. No, really.
The result is that I am now thoroughly learned. And as a civic-minded individual, I hereby pass on a selection of my shiniest knowledge, that you too may be fun at parties.
Point the First: Domestication has greatly injured the moral character of ducks. (Mrs Beeton.)
Point the Second: Cases have been reported in medical literature of menstruation from the ear. (Anomalies of Curiosities of Medicine, 1896; a year by which, I feel, they should have known better.)
Point the Third: It was customary among Puritans to employ a church official known as a tithingman. During the week his job was to chase up families who hadn’t come to service on Sunday, and accost their children on the street with catechism questions to prove they knew their stuff. On Sundays, he stalked the meeting house with a sturdy stick, armed on one end with a sturdy knob and a thorn, and on the other with a fox-tail. When men fell asleep during the sermon, as they frequently did, he would give them a sound rap and/or prick with the manly end of the stick. Women, in concession to their delicacy, got tickled awake with the fox-tail instead.
On one occasion, a respected Puritan gent was snoozing so far back in his pew that the tithingman couldn’t reach his head for a satisfying whack. So he contented himself with driving the thorn into the man’s hand; whereupon the poor chap dreamt he’d been bitten and awoke roaring “Curse ye woodchuck!”, to the scandalised glares of the congregation and the mortification of his wife. This anecdote gives me tremendous pleasure.
Point the Fourth: “Ensor reports an interesting case occurring at Port Elizabeth, South Africa. While bathing, an expert swimmer felt a sharp pain in the thigh, and before he could cry out, felt a horrid crunch and was dragged below the surface of the water. He struggled for a minute, was twisted about, shaken, and then set free, and by a supreme effort, reached the landing stairs of the jetty, where, to his surprise, he found that a monstrous shark had bitten his leg off.”
This anecdote also gives me tremendous pleasure. It probably shouldn’t, but I’m nasty and maladjusted.
Point the Fifth: It is very impolite to apologise at a dinner party for spilling or breaking something. It implies your host is badly-stocked and/or poor enough that the loss of the item will be noticed. One can allow one’s regret to show in one’s face, but that is all.
It is also impolite to discuss The Abolition Question in front of the slaves. (One of several 19th-century etiquette books I read in quick succession.)
Point the Sixth: ‘Canyon’ used to be spelled with a tilde. Cañon. Like that.
Point the Seventh: Commercial cremation is not as simple a process as one might think. Like any oven, a cremation retort has hot spots; indeed, one off-centre jet of flame is the hottest spot in the place. One must therefore ensure that the corpse’s chest is placed beneath this jet, as the chest tends to be the thickest part which takes the longest to burn. But halfway through the process, one has to open the door, take a rake, hook the ribcage and hoick the whole body forward so the legs get a turn in the hot spot. Then after one has swept the ashes out, they go in a blender to reduce them to a homogenous mass, that the grieving relatives might not be shocked by a molar or a toe-bone peeking out of its fluffy nest. (This piece of knowledge wasn’t from Kindle; it was from a library book written by a crematory worker, titled delightfully enough, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’.)
Point the Eighth: The hedgehog is a sort of vagabond rabbit. (Mrs Beeton again.)
Point the Ninth: No lady wears dark gloves. (Etiquette manual again.)
Point the Tenth: One can make puddings more frugal, yet equally delicious, by leaving out the eggs. (“Twenty-Five Cent Dinners for Families of Six”; 1879)
Point the Eleventh: The traits of a woman’s previous husband will influence the children she has with a succeeding husband. For instance, a child from a second marriage might be born with the birth defect of his mother’s first husband; for instance, an extra digit. It is also well-known that once a Black woman has had a baby with a white man, she will never again bear a pure Black child, even with a Black husband, but will always give birth to half-white babies. (Medical Anomalies again.)
Point the Twelfth: A misshapen woman may appear at a ball, if she is discreetly swathed in a large cape or shawl; but she must under no circumstances dance. If she considers it might give her pleasure, she should reflect that it ought not to give her pleasure. Similarly, while it is good of a hostess to ensure that plain (but non-misshapen) women are given the occasional dance partner, she should not importune too heavily on the gentlemen to be gallant, lest the absurd situation arise of plain women being engaged for more dances than the pretty ones.
Point the Thirteenth: The Chinese have developed an ingenious method of catching ducks. Wearing a calabash on his head, the canny farmer wades into the pond up to his eyebrows. The ducks, seeing a calabash float towards them on the water, are unperturbed. The farmer can thus come among them freely, and grabbing them by the legs, pull them sharply under the water one at a time and attach them to his belt until he has harvested his fill. It’s sneaky, but it’s OK because ducks have a Low Moral Character and deserve no better (see Point the First.)