Booked senseless

The Skeptic 4.5

It's no good. I can't keep it from you any longer. I possess paranormal powers: extrasensory perception, telepathy, remote viewing, precognition and dowsing, to name but a few. This is not an idle claim. On the contrary, I can convince even the most hardened skeptic by proposing a simple controlled experiment. Blindfold me securely, deprive me of hearing, smell, touch and taste, put me in a Faraday Cage and propel me down an unknown street in an unknown town in an unknown country - all chosen at random, of course. And if there is a second-hand bookshop in the vicinity, I will find it. Paranormally.

I'm not sure whether it's a good or bad sign that most of my collection of books with a skeptical slant have been previously owned by other people. Sometimes it's puzzling. Why would anyone ever want to get rid of Philip Ward's magnificent, and often hilarious, Dictionary of Common Fallacies, for example? Or Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science? On the other hand, UFO Magic in Motion, one of Arthur Shuttlewood's portraits of wacky Warminster in the seventies, probably propelled itself off the original owner's shelf, to head through the Nth dimension to the second-hand bookshop where it was to lay in wait - for me.

`Remainder' shops also perturb my psychic vibrations (and consequently interfere with my wallet). Although, surrounded by mountains of books that just won't sell, one can feel the creeping presence of the Spirit of Naffness, there are often surprises. A recent trip to a local shop yielded not only a volume from William Corliss' extraordinary `Sourcebook' series, essential reading for anyone with a tendency to feel blase about Nature's marvels, but also John Dale's study of Prince Charles' paranormal preoccupations, The Prince and the Paranormal. The trouble is that these rare gems are often hidden under ten tons of Modesty Blaise's and ancient Gray's Anatomy's. And on the subject of the mysterious, why is it that remainder shops always have closing down sales, but never actually close down?

As a rule of thumb, the worse the book, the more awful its cover. Take Jesus Christ, Heir to the Astronauts, for example (see illustration). I rest my case.

If you can't judge a book by its cover, you can always try the title. Almost by definition, the paranormal looms large in the realm of odd titles: Levitation for Terrestrials, Spirit Rapping Made Easy, and Scientific Proof of the Existence of God will Soon Be Announced by the White House! That last one seems almost plausible, but the exclamation mark is a dead giveaway. Or take the slim volume I have in front of me, for instance: Phone Calls From the Dead. No messing about here. The back cover blurb is breathless.

Actually, communicating with the dead by phone is easy: have you tried getting through to Directory Enquiries lately?

But these examples are small fry. For some really weird books, the ultimate source is Russell Ash and Brian Lake's marvellous Bizarre Books (Sphere, 1987). I dare you to walk into your local library and ask for those deadly serious works: Scouts in Bondage, Fish Who Answer the Telephone or A Pictorial Book of Tongue Coating. And beside the inspired Cooking with God, my dog-eared copy of Astrology in the Kitchen pales into insignificance.

Poor old Elvis. By all accounts his last years on earth were pretty miserable, but death brought no escape if you believe Hans Holzer's classic study, with its dreamy cover and dreadful title, Elvis Presley Speaks. Maybe Elvis should team up with Tom Patterson, whose 100 Years of Spirit Photography features some amazing examples of blurry post-graveyard pics. David Bailey he ain't. But don't forget that those Eternal Curtains of Blackness will close for us all eventually, and we really ought to try and prepare ourselves for whatever lies beyond. Has anybody seen my copy of Sex After Death...


©Toby Howard 1995

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