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Much (though by no means all) of the stuff I talk about in this column comes to me free for review, often well in advance of the street release date. That means there are a lot of unfamiliar CDs and books and DVDs scattered around my workplace; it also means we get a lot of mail.
My kids thought that part was pretty exciting, when I first took the gig — until they got a load of the actual contents of most of those packages. “Hey, guys, who wants to watch this Rob Thomas DVD with Dad?” is kind of a non-starter, when weighing the options for a rainy Thursday afternoon.
Every now and then, though, a hit finds its way into our house. I got my advance copy of the lavish annual photo-book put out by the Ripley’s people (this year’s edition is subtitled Seeing Is Believing) literally months ago, and I’m only writing about it now — because it’s been the exclusive property of my seven-year old since its arrival.
In fact, he wrote his review before I did:
The main idea of this book is basically about gathering up ramdom facts and try to shock you with unbelivable sights. (note: seeing is beliveing) My favorite part is when a bus jumped over 15 motorcycles while on fire in reverseal to Knievel’s stunts!
He’s not wrong, you know. Oddity for oddity’s sake has been the Ripley brand for well on 90 years now. Though it’s been through many incarnations — a radio show, a newsreel feature, a museum franchise, and no fewer than three television series — “Believe It or Not!” began as a newspaper comic. Robert L. Ripley’s little daily panel was (and, in the hands of current artist John Graziano, remains) a masterpiece of concision, depicting strange and unusual people and events in a single striking image and a few well-chosen words.
Ripley himself was an unholy admixture of P.T. Barnum and that guy that does “News of the Weird,” with the draftsmanship of a Hal Foster thrown into the bargain. He remains a curiously underrated artist, even among comics historians — perhaps because of his extensive use of photo reference, perhaps because he increasingly handed off the art chores to assistants and ghosts as he grew more famous, or perhaps because he worked exclusively in his own singular form.
Whatever the reason, even the book series that still bears his name downplays that aspect of his life. You won’t find any of Ripley’s cartoons in Seeing Is Believing’s 240+ pages — which is why Sam and I had to draw our own — but what you will find are hundreds of color photos of crazy athletic feats, human oddities, outsider art, uncanny coincidences, cultural footnotes, and other credulity-straining phenomena, all rendered in that classic, breathless tone:
STRANGE FAMILY! The elephant shrews, or sengi, are a family of tiny, insect-eating African mammals that are more closely related to elephants than to shrews.
CAMEL GIRL! Ella Harper of Hendersonville, Tennessee, appeared in shows as “The Camel Girl” because her knees turned backward. Owing to this deformity, she struggled to walk solely on her feet and preferred to move around on all fours.
OLD SPRUCE! A spruce tree in Sweden has been sprouting new trees for nearly 10,000 years. Scientists think the tree took root in Dalmatia around the year 7542 B.C.
Selected items have a longer feature-style article attached, but for the most part the book reads just like this — like a Twitter feed from some slightly-more-wonderful world just alongside our own.
I’m not surprised that Sam glommed onto this book; the seven-year old version of myself would have devoured it, too. There’s something irresistible about this sort of miscellany. Leafing through such a book gives some of the same thrill of random discovery that you get when you’re surfing Wikipedia, looking for nothing in particular. When I was a kid I would pore over the Guinness Book of World Records, and I still get a little thrill every autumn when the new edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac hits the shelves. John Hodgman lovingly skewered the format in The Areas of My Expertise, and captured the tone of facts and figures shading into anecdote, conveyed with the same earnestness. He ramps up the absurdity quotient — in Hodgman’s almanac, charts of the moon’s phases cross-reference not only the tides but the stages of werewolfism, and a survey of beard styles sits side-by-side with exposé of America’s secret hobo empire — but the essence of it, the free-floating oddities, shorn of context, adding up to singular worldview, comes straight from the models.
The Ripley books, like their spiritual descendants (and icons of my childhood) the People’s Almanac and the Book of Lists, are of dubious value as references; they’re thinly-sourced, and serve to perpetuate apocrypha and give new life to discredited old stories. The world of these books is full of mystery and wonder — just like the real world, of course, but in the crush of the mundane it’s easy to forget that. Seeing Is Believing’s emphasis on the weird and sensational is, in a way, a comfort; the message is that there is more to life than your workaday existence, that there is beauty and surprise all around you, if you look.
There’s a great repeated line in Warren Ellis’s recently-completed comics series Planetary, a line spoken by a “mystery archeologist,” an old-school globe-trotting adventurer who publishes his discoveries in a set of esoteric guidebooks — a figure not unlike the talented Mr. Ripley himself, now I come to think of it. “It’s a strange world,” he says; “Let’s keep it that way.” Exactly.
Seeing Is Believing is a wonderful stimulant for the mind, a snack tray for the imagination, a perfect vehicle for spending an evening around the kitchen table with paper and crayons in hand. Bottom line: if you have, are, or ever have been a child, this book should be somewhere within easy reach of your toilet.