Duck Duck Book

61 – mummy congress
06.10.2009, 12:03 am
Filed under: social sciences

The Mummy Congress : science, obsession, and the everlasting dead / Heather Pringle.
New York : Hyperion, c2001.
[MCL call number: 393.3 P957m 2001; one copy, no holds]

The human body, once dead, usually begins to degrade immediately.  Within a few days or weeks, under most natural conditions, the dead person is nearly unrecognizable.  Within a few months or years, no more than bones will remain, and in some environments they don’t last long either.  But under the right conditions, bodies are preserved.  Think about the ways we preserve food, and you’ll have a good start on how to keep a body stable — dry it, freeze it, or pickle it.  This can happen by accident, but people are observant and inventive, and many cultures have developed mortuary practices that increase the shelf life, so to speak, of their dead.

And for just about every something that there is, someone wants to study it.  Studying the preserved dead, though, is tricky.  They are people, undeniably.  Should they be unwrapped, thawed out, dissected, or dismembered, for the cause of learning?  Is it more important to respect the intentions of the people who preserved (and often buried) them, or to advance our knowledge of epidemiology, human migration, or the history of technology?

Heather Pringle explores some of these questions by traveling to meet and interview dozens of mummy experts, and by delving into the fascinating and occasionally quite horrific history of how mummies have been regarded, exploited, and revered.  Among the most repugnant stories she recounts is this:

Medieval Arab physicians, who were wonderful at writing things down for future generations, were very fond of using a specific variety of bitumen (a naturally occurring hydrocarbon, sort of like a petroleum pitch) found in Persia and known there as “mumiya” as a salve for cuts, bruises, and bone fractures.  They also gave it internally for a wide variety of ills, including ulcers.  Since the word mumiya was a strictly local word, when European scholars got to translating these medical texts, they were not sure what to do with this unfathomable word.  They guessed, wrongly, that it must refer to a pitchy kind of substance found in Egyptian mummies.  So European doctors began prescribing ground up Egyptian mummies as a new wonder drug.  Horrors.

The Mummy Congress is engagingly written, a little more journalistic than scientific, with a good solid narrative, a handy (though sadly not annotated) bibliography, and a decent index.


61 – soviet textiles
06.10.2009, 12:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Soviet textiles : designing the modern utopia : selected from the Lloyd Cotsen Collection / Pamela Jill Kachurin.
Boston : MFA Publications ; New York : Trade distribution : Distributed Art Publishers/D.A.P., c2006. [MCL call number: 746.0947 K11s 2006; one copy, one hold]

Oh, it’s so easy to understand the pull of the Soviet dream of a workers paradise when looking at the cream of socialist-realist art/propaganda.  Handsome tractors surging across uniformly fruitful fields, little stylized children in geometric smocks playing ball, gracefully belching smokestacks; all are repeated in bright, modern colors across expanses of plain, honest cotton fabric.  The world depicted here is productive and prosperous.  Children have time for play as well as learning, adults find joy in shared work; and no one knows want or cold or psychological despair.

In the brief period from about 1927 to 1933, Soviet designers engaged in a bold experiment — rather than continue to produce the floral patterns that had always been popular, they designed fabrics featuring collective farms and factories and their generous product, and other modern ideals.  The notion was that these assertively socialist textiles, provided for everyday use, would help to radicalize and educate the population at large. Soviet Textiles provides a terse, cogent history of this movement, its origins, and its demise — gracefully illustrated, of course, with images of an idealized art deco cotton utopia on nearly every page.

61 – photobooth
06.10.2009, 12:01 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Photobooth / Babbette Hines.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.
[MCL call number: 779.2 H662p 2002; one copy, one hold]

I’m not sure I have much to say about Photobooth — though I can describe it, and I will shortly — the main reason for mentioning it here is simply that it is lovely and surprising and you are many of you very likely to miss it unless you have it pointed out.

You’ve been to a photobooth; everyone has.  It’s a big box, as big, perhaps, as a car.  You slide into it (maybe you jam yourself in with several of your closest friends), decide which color of curtain you’d like behind you, feed your quarters into the slot, and sit, pose, or mug while the box flashes at you once for each pose.  Then you clamber out and wait impatiently for roughly two minutes while the box processes your negatives, prints them, and finally ejects a thin strip of pictures.  They are probably over- or underexposed, blurry, or unflattering in some way.  The paper is wet.  They’re cheap, entertaining, useful, and eminently ephemeral.

Babbette Hines collects other people’s photobooth pictures, and Photobooth is an exhibit of her collection.  They cover roughly 200 pages. Some are shown front and back to show notes people wrote on them, some are set in frames or pasted on to cards bearing messages.  They show babies, lovers, holiday-makers, soldiers and sailors, friends, and single individuals.  Some are serious, some are silly, some are poignant.  Some look as though they are meant to grace a passport or other official document, some were clearly taken only for amusement, some are completely inscrutable as to intent.

You must get this book, because you must see these pictures.

* * *

Or you could get this one:

American photobooth / Näkki Goranin ; foreword by David Haberstich.
New York : W. W. Norton & Co., c2008.
[MCL call number: 779.2 G661a 2008; five copies, no holds]

It has a smidge fewer photobooth pictures, but it begins with a much more substantive introductory chapter, with a technical and historical discussion of the invention of the photobooth and its development as a commercial enterprise.  The author, Näkki Goranin, is herself an photobooth artist, and several of her self-portraits are included in the book.