In the 80s, a cat­a­logue book club de­liv­ered parcels – and cru­cial knowl­edge – to this small-town girl.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - LEAH MCFALL -

When I was about 11, my par­ents joined a cat­a­logue book club. It was a short-lived mem­ber­ship, thank­fully, be­cause the ti­tles ranged from the point­less to the ec­cen­tric. The best thing about them was their ar­rival by mail or­der, be­cause ev­ery­one in the 80s loved a par­cel.

The choice of books re­flected the times, and might have in­cluded peppy guides to aer­o­bics, with Jane Fonda scis­sor­ing her legs on the cover. Some were low-fat cook­books (Egg Whites: A Slim­mer’s Com­pan­ion). Many were op­ti­mistic, nod­ding to new tech­nol­ogy (Golly Gosh! It’s MS-DOS).

Ba­si­cally, these books were en­tirely use­less be­yond the three-month win­dow of cur­rency they en­joyed on pub­li­ca­tion. You might have or­dered them in July to ar­rive in Septem­ber and by Christ­mas, you’d find them in the bargain bin of a hospice shop at five for 50 cents.

Only two of the books we or­dered re­main vivid in my mind – one, be­cause we still have it: an ex­trav­a­gantly large, pon­der­ous en­cy­clopae­dia of van­ished species called The Dooms­day Book of An­i­mals.

Apart from a crack­ling in­tro­duc­tion by arch­con­ser­va­tion­ist the Duke of Ed­in­burgh (I’m para­phras­ing, but it might have been: “Shoot grouse, but leave the no­ble snow leop­ard the hell alone, damn you”), this book was the most ef­fi­cient way for any­one to slide from a vague sense of gen­eral well­be­ing into a sun­less sink­hole of eter­nal de­spair.

I can’t tell you how many pleas­ant af­ter­noons I ru­ined by read­ing about the longdead Great Auk, the snuffed-out Steller’s Sea Cow, or the flat-lined Hon­shu Wolf. Sim­ply look­ing at the Dooms­day Book makes my tummy de­flate and shoul­ders sag with guilt, even years later. I guess this is some­thing to do with Pavlov’s Dog (also dead).

Worse, since the book came out, count­less other species have been driven to obliv­ion (the Liver­pool pi­geon, the Eastern cougar), mean­ing Prince Philip’s work is never done. When you think about it, safe­guard­ing bio­di­ver­sity is the only fac­tor still mo­ti­vat­ing him out of his royal re­tire­ment. He didn’t emerge in pub­lic sim­ply to en­joy his grand­daugh­ter’s re­cent wed­ding, but to slow the painful ex­tinc­tion-from-rel­e­vance of the Duke and Duchess of York.

On the up­side, the other mem­o­rable book my par­ents bought changed the course of my life. It was Body Lan­guage: how to read others’ thoughts by their ges­tures by Al­lan Pease.

I can­not tell you how much I loved this floppy, mus­tard-coloured book. It be­came the map by which I nav­i­gated the next span of my life.

It was ex­actly what an 11-year-old girl should have been read­ing in the early 80s, be­cause it ex­plained the non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion in sim­ple para­graphs, with help­ful pen and ink di­a­grams, in a pre-dig­i­tal age in small-town New Zealand, where the vast trove of hu­man knowl­edge re­mained be­yond your grasp un­less your par­ents or­dered it by cat­a­logue.

This book gave me smarts. It of­fered me fore­knowl­edge to iden­tify im­por­tant tics like the Up­ward-Point­ing Fin­ger Steeple, Im­ply­ing Dom­i­nance in a Busi­ness Meet­ing, or the Ex­posed Wrist Swiv­el­ling To­ward Tar­get, Sig­nalling Sex­ual In­ter­est in a Social Set­ting. There was an im­por­tant bit about iden­ti­fy­ing liars (they com­pul­sively touch their noses) and an­other ex­plain­ing how to tell if you’re boring some­one to the level of their cells. (Look down. Are their toes point­ing to­wards you, in­di­cat­ing in­ter­est in your con­ver­sa­tion, or the exit, where they’d rather be?)

As I read this book, adults be­came pre­dictable and their needs, ba­sic. It made me feel al­most sorry for them and by ex­ten­sion, for­giv­ing. We cer­tainly sucked as a species but, clearly, we couldn’t help it.

Al­lan Pease pumped me full of con­fi­dence, like av-gas. Thanks to him, I soared above ev­ery­one’s heads and looked down at the pat­terns of their be­hav­iour. I even caught my­self do­ing text­book Al­lan Pease things as I grew up, like straight­en­ing as some­one at­trac­tive walked past me on the street, and then slump­ing down again once they’d gone past. Good grief, I still do this. You do it, too.

Un­der­stand­ing body lan­guage was ter­rif­i­cally fun but I didn’t have the ini­tia­tive to lever­age what I learned. I should have gone into ad­ver­tis­ing and ma­nip­u­lated peo­ple for money. I might now own half a race­horse. In­stead, I com­muted my knowl­edge into a soft-as-but­ter arts de­gree and spent my 20s liv­ing on oat­meal and us­ing my teabags twice.

Just look­ing at that book makes me hug my­self, like I did back then. It was news I could use, not knowl­edge that brought me noth­ing but re­gret about things I had no power to con­trol. Yes, it was space junk, but this was a uni­verse of my own mak­ing.

My kids are now choos­ing their own cat­a­logue books – not the clas­sics, but bub­ble-gum-bright, aw­ful ones. I no­tice my chin go­ing down in dis­ap­proval, but I tick the box marked YES.

Photo: Vic­to­ria Birkin­shaw

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