How to skin a LION

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY RON CHARLES ron.charles@wash­post.com

The young grad­u­ates head­ing out into the world will con­front so many perplexing chal­lenges. There’s the first apart­ment. The first real job. All the ques­tions about dat­ing and bud­get­ing. Where will they turn for ad­vice — their friends? Google?

Why not rely, in­stead, on the time­tested wis­dom of the ages?

Those sage in­sights are now read­ily avail­able in a lit­tle book by Claire Cock-Starkey called “How to Skin a Lion: A Trea­sury of Out­moded Ad­vice” (Univ. of Chicago Press, $14).

No longer must the young per­son set­ting forth on the river of life won­der, “How do I make Stil­ton cheese?” or “How can I read the fu­ture with snails?” All those com­mon ques­tions and more are clearly an­swered in this hand­some com­pen­dium of knowl­edge culled from the ar­chives of the Bri­tish Li­brary.

Just a few min­utes with this book are enough to make one marvel at the keen wis­dom of our an­ces­tors. While to­day mil­lions of peo­ple fran­ti­cally scan dat­ing apps for suit­able mates, read­ers in the late 19th cen­tury could de­pend upon “The Book of Charms and Cer­e­monies” for in­struc­tions “to see your fu­ture hus­band in a dream.” If fur­ther clair­voy­ance is needed, herein is the se­cret to “read­ing moles.”

Won­der­ing “how to catch and pre­serve eels”? You have come to the right place!

Cock-Starkey notes that much of this vi­tal ad­vice is the kind of knowl­edge that used to be passed from par­ents to chil­dren in less hec­tic times, but now, with soc­cer prac­tice and Chi­nese lessons and Mom on her iPhone, how will Ju­nior learn “how to quiet bees”?

“In the past peo­ple had to be a lot more self-suf­fi­cient,” Cock-Starkey tells me via e-mail, “and learn­ing some of th­ese prac­ti­cal skills would have been es­sen­tial to daily life. To­day with mod­ern con­ve­niences and in­struc­tive YouTube videos at our fin­ger­tips, I think par­ents are now more likely to pass on emo­tional, rather than prac­ti­cal ad­vice. I know that with my chil­dren, I am more con­cerned with help­ing them to nav­i­gate life so­cially, than teach­ing them how to fash­ion an ele­phant’s foot into some­thing use­ful.”

Easy as it is to snicker at much of this ar­cane ad­vice, her book also sug­gests how lit­tle we do — and can do — for our­selves in the 21st cen­tury. “I am fas­ci­nated by the skills peo­ple used to pos­sess that are now sadly lack­ing from mod­ern life,” Cock-Starkey says. “This I think is es­pe­cially brought to mind by the en­try about ‘How to sur­vive with­out a fridge.’ We all take chilled drinks and frozen ice creams for granted, but just 150 years ago, ice was a luxury! Huge chunks of ice were carved from frozen lakes in North Amer­ica and then trans­ported hun­dreds of miles across the ocean to Europe to mas­sive ware­houses. From here the blocks of ice were taken all over Bri­tain to be stored in stone ice houses, and ser­vants would chip chunks off to serve their em­ploy­ers with an ice cool drink. The mind bog­gles at this epic jour­ney sim­ply for the joy of a cool drink on a sum­mer’s day.”

If we’re tempted to think we don’t ac­tu­ally need much of this ad­vice any­more, “How to Skin a Lion” re­minds us how at bay we are nowa­days with­out ac­cepted rit­u­als. “The Vic­to­ri­ans were very big on cre­at­ing elab­o­rate rules with which to nav­i­gate life,” Cock-Starkey says. “Ev­ery­one was kept in their place, and peo­ple knew how to act ‘ap­pro­pri­ately.’ In dark times — such as with death — th­ese rules and rit­u­als can be very use­ful for peo­ple, and per­haps th­ese are the sorts of so­cial rit­u­als that could still be of some com­fort.” She goes on to note, though, that “many of the other forms of eti­quette were ex­tremely re­stric­tive and only served to pre­serve the so­cial or­der.”

For all her work in the ar­chives of the Bri­tish Li­brary, Cock-Starkey is no Lud­dite. “Google holds an an­swer for any­thing!” she says. “In fact, when I was start­ing out writ­ing this book, I wanted to make sure no one had used the ti­tle ‘How to Skin a Lion,’ so I googled it. Lo and be­hold, the top search re­turn on Google was an ac­tual YouTube video show­ing how to skin a moun­tain lion. In a way I found this so re­as­sur­ing.”

Claire Cock-Starkey’s book is filled with knowl­edge that, th­ese days, is more in­ter­est­ing than use­ful.

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