Currently viewing the category: "Boredom, History of"

JF Ptak Science Books

"Sometimes a book is just entirely bad, and sometimes it is entirely nothing. It is impossible for a book to be both very bad and very nothing. Impossible. Except for this book, whose badness is exceeded only by its nothingness, and vice versa ". –Oscar Wilde

And so into this black hole of imaged Wildeian description we go, into a very real-ish book.

I found a novel tonight, bought long ago and long ago mostly lost. It was written by a doctor who worked in the District Hospital in Lima, Ohio, and written in 1934. The Lima Hospital was the largest poured concrete structure in the world when it was built in 1915, and stayed so until the Pentagon was completed. The hospital was established for the criminally insane, had 14"-thick walls, and reinforced steel bars laid into the walls that went "right down to bedrock".

It was somewhere in there that this doctor wrote something that was really so toweringly bad that it escapes comprehension. I own the carbon copy of the unpublished work, which is typed on 14×8.5" sheets of paper, front and back, running 94 pages. It is a very crowded affair, with 90 lines of single-space typed lines, making the work about 115,000 words long.

There wasn't enough space evidently for paragraphs, which gives the work a kind of insistent, casket-cramped cruelty. To read it takes your breath away for its dullness–the book moves so weirdly and at the same time so very slowly that it doesn't move at all even while moving.

Manuscript insane one

A few months ago I found the seven-foot-long scroll of the book's plan–a work of crowded magnificence of nothing and confusion, being very orderly at the same time. It went to a friend of mine who created artwork around it, and as it happens made a very noticeable appearance in a very significant yearly show in NYC last week. I was stunned to find that there was actually a text to go with the scroll-outline–it emerged from the warehouse this week, so perhaps this too will find a very celebrated life as art as well. Certainly the book would go nowhere on its own as a book, though it stood a chance at surviving on the grounds of its considerble design weirdness, which is of a complexified beauty.

Manuscript insane two

In the meantime, before all of the letters slide themselves off the page from sheer boredom and before the thing is resurrected as a magnificent artistic effort, I'll share some ianges of the extra-ordinary book of reversed brilliant badness. I've also culled a few imaginary descriptions of the book from writers known and not:

Potboiler scribbler:

"He couldn't speak. He could barely see. Blinded by the flames ignited inside his eyeballs from the novel in his lap. The words were like molten lead, sucked off the page by his eyes, forming a vacuum in his brain. It was a bad book".

The first-time published novelist's approach:

"He couldn't speak the words of the thoughts in his head, because they and all of his breath were stolen by the magic of the complete badness of the book in his lap".

Gertrude Stein:

"The book was bad and bad, and bad was the book. Even the badness of the bad was bad, a whole new insight into being bad. It was the bad book by which bad books are called bad".

Ernset Hemingway:

"He didn't read the book so much as he looked through it. It was easy–there was nothing there. As bad as it was, it could get no worse. So he shot it, and poured a drink".

You might wonder what this book is about. Me too.

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post (Part of our History of Boredom series)

(An episode in comic history in which is found a common thread in Dr. Seuss, SpongeBob SquarePants and Jacques Derrida.)

It may have been Bertrand Russell, or William James, or Arthur Eddington that this story begins with, but since the ending is the same, it really doesn't matter where it begins. The story goes like this: one of them was giving a lecture on cosmology and the idea of infinite regression, when he was suddenly interrupted by an old lady (or young man) who asserted that what they just heard was rubbish, and that the universe was supported in an ark that was traveling on the back of a turtle.

"And what is the turtle standing on, I wonder" asked Russell/James/Eddington.

"Why, its turtles all the way down" came the reply from the old lady/young man.

And that is indeed what we have here with the vocabulary of the post-moderns and deconstructionists–vocabulary built upon nothing and wrapped around itself, all the way down.

File:Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories cover.png

This business suffers far too much from living within its own self-defined and unaccountable vocabulary, in spite of it being a happy place where things can't go wrong because it is both simultaneously supported and crippled by "its own criterion of validity" (thanks to Walter Johnson for an utterly accurate book-tearing lesson on that hideous phrase from long ago). So just like any other belief system when something doesn't quite agree with something else, a new word/meaning is added into the stew to make everything add up to gumbo.

And so what I came to was a way of greasing the turtle stack, creating a phrase constructor for post-structural/deconstruction conversation. Even though it is entirely farcical it seems to me to make as much sense as the original. Try it and see. This would work much better with drop-down boxes and such, but I didn't want to spend very much time on this, at all. And much like Dr. Seuss' Yertle, the view seems very much clearer back down in the mud.

If I was to try to market this "program" on a plastic circular disk for $4.95 in college bookstores, the ad copy might read something like this:

Jacques Derrida’s Own, un-Patented 10-Second Homespun Intellectual Travel Kit of Words, Wordified

"Monsters cannot be announced.
One cannot say: 'here are our monsters',
without immediately turning the monsters into pets”—JD, 1979

“Words are nothing
and nothing is nothing,
then double nothing is words—JD, 1982

Caveat: the following may, or may not, be true.

Background: Jacques Derrida, Algerian-born philosopher and non-historian, came into prominence in America with his critical approach or methodology or philosophy of deconstruction. In the areas of philosophy and literary criticism alone, Derrida has been cited more than 14,000 times in journal articles over the past 17 years; more than 500 US, British and Canadian dissertations treat him and his writings as primary subjects.

History and source of the sentence-generating template: Owing to a monstrous schedule of speaking and writing it leaves little to wonder how M. Derrida infused his confusing private vocabulary. The mystery was partially solved in 1996 when an attaché case was discovered in M. Derrida’s vacated Muncie (Indiana) hotel room. Mysteriously the name tag on the old valise was that of Justice Louis M. Brandeis, but inspection of its contents revealed additional documents naming the owner as “:Mine” and “Jacques Derrida”. The valise, originally tied together with 150-year old paper, was filled with inscrutably marked papers-in-progress as well as notebooks written in non-discernable French and heavily ill-written English. Of the highest interest though was the “Word Machine” taped to the lid of the attaché, the contents of which we outline below.

Taped to the machine was the following note in which Derrida writes of himself in the third-person:

"The Hydra has many heads. You will not be able to choose between this one on the one hand, on the other that. And the play of differences between the right and the left hand that Jacques Derrida insists on in writing about Heidegger's hand disrupts the demonstrability of the properly human as the being of pointing or monstration: Hands, that is already or still the organic or technical dissipation. Nonetheless, what is pointed out or towards, what may even be handed to you (t)here is an alpha-bête, an ABC of deconstruction and Derrida, a monstrous beginning, written without hands, and with the help of many hands."

Below we offer the "monster’s" tool of arranging and affecting words into being.

“Meanings have some when their infused with the infusion of applicable privilege falsehoods which heterogenate the stratagem dilemmas of truth strangleholds. Incipient speech sensates the implied messaging of meaning of words; we and I mean to retrend those meanings discursive into their logocentric signs or irrelevant relationships. That is my journey, and by journey I don’t mean journey.” –JD, 1972

The Three Column Meaning Machine for Constructing Deconstructionist/Post-Structuralist Phrases

Simply take one word from each column, string them together, and place them in the middle of any sentence. You will instantly achieve a confused status with any listener, and create a "sentence enhancer" without needing to know the meaning of the words, just like everyone else.

(Assume that others will be confused by incorporating any combination of three-word phrases from the following constructions—just choose any one word from each of the three columns, put them together, and—voila—you’ve got the vocabulary that will confuse and delight your associates in the occasional way that Derrida did.)

Derrida deconstruction966

Derrida deconstruction967
Use this wisely.
Or not.

This effort was first published on utility poles in downtown Asheville, North Carolina. None of the 15 postings survived more than a day.

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post

General Foods425

Soylent Green is the touchstone for me whenever I see the name "General Foods". After all, can anything be so large and multi-directional than this, a firm whose name implies that they deal with so many different sorts of foods from so many different sources that it is impossible for them to choose any direction whatsoever? Like General Electric, except that General Foods is much more diverse.

And who would be best for General Foods to address in the pamphlet of their general stockholders annual meeting than the General Mom? They evidently found her, and imaged her inside the kitchen of a cushioned little home outside of Everywhereville, right there on the bottom-left of the cover of the report.

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She's right there, right above us, right now. If you turn over the pamphlet, you get a close-up:

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She's resting her thinking brain, taking a bit of a break while she thinks of other General Foods merchandise to buy from the grocer to add to her food collection–right now she is distracted. Her attention is not directed to her daughter holding the frozen peas, but rather at the other stuff in the freezer–if you follow her line of sight, that's where she winds up, I think. There's a lot of wavey, Thomas Hart Benton-y stuff going on in the artwork on the front cover; homey, small town naive graciousness, with a large farm between it and the distant city. It is dusk, the houses are glowing, and there's nothing but wholesome American qualities of the imagined good life for the eyes of the stockholders of General Foods, the annual report of which lies within. As a matter of fact just about the only bit on the cover to remind us of food is the kitchen seen at bottom, the "general market" just above, and the distant diner, reminding or demanding everyone to "EAT".

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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1108

I wonder when it was that working people (which would mean the overwhelming majority of people on the planet) first decorated their non-cave walls with art? There aren't all that many images in the history of art (that I know of, anyway) that depict the inside of a yeoman's residence with some sort of artwork hanging or stuck on the wall. This is a tricky and potentially meaningless question, trying to differentiate bits of newspaper illustrations nailed to a wall in Montana in 1882 from messianic Aboriginal millenia-old cave paintings and such.

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Inside-the-bunkhouse photographs from the American West like this are pretty scarce things–almost as scarce as nighttime photos of sleep-disturbed cowboys on the trail. They're just not around. The remarkable thing about this photograph (from the archives of the Minnesota State Historical Society) is that it also shows a not-subtle vignette into what passed for provoking, night-stabbing man-images for a society of the working stiff.

These guys may be cowboys, or may not–there is a rifle on the wall over the shoulder of the striped suspenders guy on the left, and there seem to be a couple of dusters hanging on the wall, and some broad-rimmed hats. Maybe they really are cowboys.

In any event they're in a rough-hewn bunkhouse with not very much to pass the time, save for these few broadsides and mounted magazine pages. I find it an interesting peep into an interior life that didn't get seen very much, especially with such period-hot images of women.

And perhaps this paper is nothing more than the barrier that we see so often from FSA photos of the American Dustbowl West–paper put up on the wall to stop a cold draft or dust. But these look too determined for something as simple as that…

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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1068

In the 19th century, when the rich were insane, they were simply eccentric; when the poor were insane, they were crazy. Luckily for Charles Waterton (1782-1865), he inherited a large estate and could insulate himself from legal scrutiny and indulge his whims and interests. Waterton would make a problematic biography, his life filled with front-line environmentalism, exploration, taxidermy, and natural history interests wrapped around a solid steel stake of bizarre personal behavior. Money was his greatest curative, an elixir of great depth and more understanding than Dr. Freud could ever muster. But ultimately I think that with all of this behavior masked a terminal boredom–Mr. Waterton was both bored and boring.

Waterton wrote three volumes of Essays on Natural History and the best-selling Wanderings in South America1, turned his estate into what amounted to be the first nature preserve, talked to bugs, barked like a dog, tried to fly from his outhouse, left his gloves at the top of St. Peter's, and on and on. His portrait by Charles Wilson Peale shows him with a sharp eye, weird hair, and a cat head as his buddy on a book.

Later in life he had a bitter dispute with JJ Audubon–this was mostly a one-sided affair, Waterton seeing mostly invisible complaints with the great ornithologist's work. Audubon rarely responded to Waterton's very public and in-print diatribes, ending only when Waterton left England for New Zealand in 18392.

The man did form a considerable collection of natural history specimens and medical oddities.

Perhaps the most interesting thing for me to take away from Mr. Waterton are the subject headings of the biography written for him by his long-time fried, Dr. Charles Hobson, ( Charles Waterton, his Home, Habits and Handiwork3 ), published in the first edition a year after Waterton's death (and somehow reaching a second edition three decades later). The book is a very tough go from where I sit, and my main interest is just in the sub headings for the book's chapters. For example, how could one resist the story of such an odd man when presented with chapters like these:

"Mr. Waterton recounts a conversation with a Man representing himself Skilled in Egg Gathering at Filey ….. "

"Remarkable Willow, from the Stump of which have sprung Twelve Stems, designated by Mr. Waterton "The Twelve Apostles," and one detrimentally influenced by a Storm being named "Judas "

"Securing of Pike by the Bow and Arrow a favourite Amusement of the Squire"

"Mr. Waterton "fairly floored" by Mr. Salvin's .clever Imitation of a Pig"

"The Ape Searching the Squire's head reminds him of a Cambridge anecdote"

"Special immunity in the female sex from death by lightning" (which is a loose, semi-statistical discovery of challenged means)

But once you open the book and make your way through Hobson's unusual prose, the book becomes almost instantly resistible. And so my interest in Waterton wanes down to almost nothing–he seems like an interesting guy, but not so much so that it eclipses all of the egomaniacal stuff that went along with him. He seems to be made of the stuff that excludes friendship, and that leaves me out–and with which Waterton would have had no problem.



1. The book has not been out of print since it first appeared 170 years ago. It is filled with adventures high and low, some of which are real, some not. Adventuring in Guiana in the first third of the 19th century was an exotic affair–much more so than could really be imagined in general today–and so the book was a best seller.

2. That's okay–the arguments defaming Audubon came to nothing, and Waterton was generally wrong in the main points if not no-wrong in a few minor ones. I don't know what his problem was with Audubon and his great work, but it really doesn't matter. Audubon described one of Waterton's missives to him as a "scrubby letter", and I'm pretty sure it must've been so.

3. The book is available on Google to be read in its full majesty here. I'd say "pass" to the general reader, but if you're in the exhibits/museum world, I'm sorry to say that it is probably a must-read.

There's much more that I left out about this man, but I just can't do any more:

from the Catholic Encyclopedia

Charles Waterton Home Page

in South America,
by Charles Waterton

A nice chapter appears on Waterton in Lynn Barber's The Heyday of Natural History, 1820-1870 (1980).

And a very nice appreciation of the man (with a much more useful stuff about his history) from the Pyromaniac blog.

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1062

Female Trouble---Whispered BO 1b147

I've posted a few found comix elsewhere on this blog (for example, this magnificent Italian contribution on surviving fire bombs, here), and I guess that I should have been paying more attention to these other bits of comix-driven advertisement marginalia that flits in and out of the pages of mass market weekly journals–they turn out to be pretty interesting and revealing entities. In today's case it is LIFE magazine for 9 June 1947, and if subtle, rueful self-awareness images like this were an automobile, this submission would be a jaguar. It is the blatant story of a private and personal life ruined by whispers of BO, where a woman named Jane is paralyzed by the sly look and not-so-silent pronouncement of sniffy displeasure by a man named Dick. The woman would scrub up and then somehow land that self-same Dick in the end with her newly perfumed Lifebuoy body, but only after filling bathtubs with her BO-laden tears. But what a terrible story to tell about such a fragile existence extinguished, all to sell a bar of soap through a comic book tale on the edges of the back pages of a picture magazine.

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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1049

The West, the American West, had the foundations for effective an grid delivered by the late 1870's, in the early-middle of what I guess people would consider the high Cowboy days of westward expansion. But the exploration part had been mostly done by this point, as had the expansion bit, the exterior sections of the compartmentalization of the frontier taking place in ever-smaller concentric squares. As I wrote earlier in this blog, it was the introduction of lines that really did the whole Wild West thing in–the introduction of the railroads, of course (followed by the refrigerated railroad car, which did in the great cattle drives and established needed-to-be-peopled rail heads all over the place), telegraph lines, and of course barbed wire. Barbed wire meant barbed wire fences, fences that could be constructed for a small fraction of the cost of wooden fences and which replaced of course no fences at all, dividing the great open plains into more manageable units of owned and regulated land. (Barbed wire fences also needed far less maintenance than wooden fences, which means fewer cowboys riding fences for upkeep and so on.)

By the time the eulogy on the American Frontier was famously delivered by Fred Jackson Taylor in 1893, the fate of the West had already been sealed for perhaps two decades, though the notion of its "closedness" was received with considerable shock. It was time for the truly great equalizer and innovative settler of the West to makes its appearance–boredom.

I think it might be that it was the Boring Frontier that nailed the coffin shut on the Western Frontier. Once all of the lines had been delivered–barbed wire, telegraph, railroads, good maps–the greatest thing left to do was the settling. And nothing quite spells settlement than boredom. Or comparative boredom. Once the essentials of conquest had been delivered in terms of the civilizing lines, it became time to wait for the rest of it, surviving through cold Nebraska winters and hot Panhandle summers, waiting for the rest of America to come and settle. It was the Boredom Frontier that spelled out the intent that the changes brought to that country were there to stay.

And barely three decades after the announcement of the closing of the frontier, automobiles were making their way across the land on new roads., which snaked their way deeper into the last-reached parts of the country. It was very soon after the car and the road that the roadside billboard appeared, and appeared in such great quantity that legislation prohibiting banner display like this was introduced into the legal system during the teens.

Roads provided the last assault on the West, and brought with them their singular colonizing irony of billboards, which prohibited the view of the country through which their roads snaked and pulled. And there's something terribly wrong with that, as witnessed in this 1931 illustration tucked inside this almost-provocatively-named pamphlet, Billboards ad Aesthetic Legislation, New Applications of Police Power (published by the St. Louis Public Library).It is astonishing to think of the vast changes that took place in the remaining American frontier, taking place so quickly–two generations separated the last of the great cattle drives to billboard legislations along auto routes in the western states.


It seems to me that I've seen a similar illustration of the senseless explorer from the 'teens, though I cannot find it now.

JF Ptak Science Books LLC

Sometimes the beginnings and ends of things show up in unexpected places. Penzias and Wilson at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, discovered that the reason for the "interference" readings that they were receiving in their instrument was not due to pigeon poop, but was actually the remnant radiation of the Big Bang. And it didn't look like much, but the stuff that caused the end of the great American Western frontier was found in simple lines: ribbons of steel for the railroads, on the one hand; and twisted bits of sharp metal wrapped around wire, the barbed wire fence ultimately and very cheaply closing off the vast land into manageable parcels, on the other. Stories like these are legion.

It is infrequent to find the two combined though in a simple, single photograph. This is the case, for me, in this small (1-inch tall) image found in an obscure publication called The Kentucky Mountain Echo, a True story of the Mountains, published in 1929. The small, delicate pamphlet seemed the physical opposite of the stories that it told, rocky and rough bits of life from the Kentucky mountains, hardscrabble farms, luscious woods and company coal mining towns.

The Rev. Bud Eversole is pictured here–along with his dog–at the spot in his farm in which he was taken by the guiding light, the holy spirit; an invincible vision took hold of him and never let go. Rev. Eversole continued to work his farm and taught the scriptures for free for many years afterwords as a roving minister. He marked the spot of his conversion with a pole; he also determined that the pole would mark his grave, the ultimate place of rest for him at the very spot where he was "born".

For all that it symbolizes, the image looks pervasively unsettled to me–Rev. Eversole (I have no idea if that was his real name or if it was a post-conversion creation) looks like he is waiting for something, anything, even for the late afternoon sun to just hurry up and warm his back. This area of his farm just looks a mess, not like a small farm kept between and along rolling hills (no treat, that). The Rev. doesn't tell me much, except that he was obliged to allow his dog in the photo, and took off his broad-brimmed hat to have his picture made. Perhaps that is all that he wanted to say.

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JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 978

Ebay mar 15 LIBERYbig eye

short post comes in the can’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover category, as the cover
is absolutely the most interesting component of this publication. Unless of course you’re interested in knowing
how many paid subscribers Liberty had in Asheville, North
in 1934.
Or Salida, Colorado.

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That’s all there is to the innards of this pamphlet: circulation numbers
for a prancing, popular magazine. This
would’ve been of great concern to the folks trying to sell and distribute Liberty, showing
potential customers how far and wide the magazine was read. (And evidently it
was very popular: with a circulation per
issue of about 2.2 million, it was the sixth most popularly-read magazine in
the country, following Collier’s, McCall’s,
Ladies Home Journal
and The Saturday
Evening Post
, all of which had circulations between 2.3 and 2.9 million, so
Liberty was not far off from being
one of the most widely-circulated magazines in the country. It actually rose to
the number two spot for a little while during the war.)

Ebay mar 15 LIBERYman

is not to say that the magazine itself was a bore, what with writers like P. G.
Wodehouse, Robert Benchley, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert W. Chambers, F.
Scott Fitzgerald, Murray Leinster, Sax
Rohmer and others making contributions here and there.

odd bit about Liberty—they “timed” their articles. The reader was told about how long, on average,
it would take to read each piece, taking about three hours to read the entire
issue. That’s something I’ve never seen

the contents turned out to be a bit of a bore—the cover, on the other hand, is just
lovely, a beautiful and seamless piece of photo montage with some interesting
semi-hidden images. I quite like the image of the white-shirt-tie magazine stand purveyor that emerges from the shadows (above). And also the face that emerges from underneath the rear brim of the boater on the fellow standing in front of the stand.

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This is just a lovely example of what ephemeral play one can draw from an unexpected source.

Ebay mar 15 LIBERYbig eye

JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 809 Blog Bookstore

This woodcut, the work of the semi-anonymous "Italian Monogrammist" and printed around 1510, shows the newly arrived Christ in the arms of his mother, taking the airs outside the stable. What is unusual to me here is the attitude of St. Joseph, who adopts a dictionary-ready pose of nonchalance: he is leaning against a tree, his left arm

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propped up at the elbow on a tree limb, his feet crossed at the ankles, with a look of I-don't-know-what on his face. He is definitely not of the standard Josephs that one sees in this scene.Perhaps he is communicating a certain type of tiredness, but I doubt it. The man is staring off into space, not looking at wife and baby, not looking at the many visitors coming through the tunnel in the mountain and excitedly rounding the nearby turn in the road, not looking at anything that we can see. He's not seeing the invisible stuff either: not the praying angels and not the sun-ray daggers.He's not tired, not excited about the baby and wife, not excited about the visitors, and in a pose of resident uncaring relaxation–boredom might be the easiest and best explanation, except, well, it doesn't make for a good story.

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