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