Sometimes students ask me, “Why must every book be so sad?” Tell us, why does 87% of literature view the human condition an unpleasant, mordant, smelly thing? Really, isn’t this plethora of tragedy just drab?
With that in mind, knowing that the majority of well-lauded books are pretty gloomy affairs, I’ve decided to pen a series. Lovely Reads consists of musings on fiction and non-fiction books that are above all else delightful.
You are a creature of wonder, suffused with curiosity, skepticism, and amazement, with the propensity to exclaim—even in this Internet age where near-everything can be explained away thanks to tech know-it-alls like Google and Wikipedia—“Holy shit! That exists.” Wonder bursts through the usualness of our lives as a blast of ecstatic bafflement. For some it can be a drug or dream worth pursuing with radical abandon. Such pursuits are what Lawrence Weschler’s book is all about.
Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders, published in 1995, is a believe-it-or-not tale of the strange endeavors, visions, and failures now featured in the Jurassic Museum of Technology, a present day Wunderkammer located in Culver City, CA. Here you will find centuries of assorted strangeness displayed with typical museum authoritativeness and without irony. There is, for example, an exhibit on micro-miniature Armenian-American sculptures of Jesus, Disney princesses, and the Pope, and a famed exhibit on the African stink ant, which, after being infected by a brain-eating fungus, will climb vines skyward and eventually stab its mandibles into the plant’s flesh—self-affixing to its death spot. Slowly, after the ant dies, a spike grows out of its head like an inverse pin. This protrudent spike will grow to be about 1.5 inches long, grossly exceeding the length of the ant’s tiny body.
This spike sticking out from the ant’s head becomes Weschler’s symbol for the kind of odd obsessions that drive us all. And for those driven by obsession, first and foremost we have Mr. David Wilson, the founder and director of the Jurassic Museum of Technology, who while in high school had not quite a vision, but something maybe “well, like a conversion experience,” which lead him, ultimately, to establishing this institute where wonder could flourish. The Jurassic Museum of Technology, which is still around and open Thursdays through Sundays for those of you living in greater LA, is a maze of such odd exhibits and attractions.
Employing the second-person voice with absolute elegance, Weschler walks us through JTM. “The foyer, as it were, features a kind of half-hearted attempt at a gift shop, but probably you won’t tarry long as your curiosity is already being drawn toward the museum proper,” he writes at the start of our tour. In every alcove and passageway, there’s another chronicle of some nutty project, person, or natural occurrence. There’s the stink ant, the micro-miniature sculptor, the would-be bridge over the Iguazú Falls, and a singer of German Romantic lieder songs who’s lost her memory. The real heroes of wonder, it turns out, are not the well-known scientists or historical figures you’d meet in a normal museum, but instead, more likely, those who history forgot—the adventurers, psychologists, architects, and artists whose lifelong efforts did not contribute to their fields in any lasting way, the Fitzcarraldos whose oeuvres are now no more than footnotes, whose zeal and arrogance were too much even in less cynical times, who imagined the world not as it was or could be but as it once appeared to them in a fantastical, half-remembered dream; these are the avatars of marvel.
What’s dazzling about this short book is how much value Weschler gives to wonder itself. Tracing the history back to the early Renaissance, a time period in which there was an “avalanche of wonder” as Europeans encountered the rest of the world and sought, however ruthlessly, to collect the treasures, trinkets, and exoticness they found, Weschler goes on to connect the curiosity cabinets of the late 16th century to the palatial private museums of kings to the Jurassic Museum of Technology today—basically, it’s the apotheosis of eccentric accumulation, thankfully free of the dry didacticism and characterlessness common to so many contemporary museums. The JMT, and Weschler’s book about it, seeks to recapture what’s lacking, to regain this sense of extreme, enrapturing splendor that arises when encountering something totally, unfathomably new. It’s especially touching in 2014 as we live in a time where almost nothing, except the next generation of iPhones, feels new, where mash-ups, re-mixes, re-tweets, and re-posts are the representative art forms of the day, where content regurgitated dominates over content created. In times like these, who doesn’t thirst for the wonder of something splendiferously new?
Weschler writes with such charming journalistic prose, at once serious and silly, that it’s impossible not to be sucked into this world, where the rare and exquisite mix with the accidents and errors to create a safe house of splendor and to ignite our souls—to wonder at, to wonder if, to wonder why, to wonder how the heck did it that come to be. It’s impossible not to be infected by this brain-eating fungus, as it were, which is what makes this book a Lovely Read. Because eventually that spike sticking out of the ant’s skull? Its tip turns orange and erupts, showering the rain forest floor with more fungus spores. These will be inhaled by other stink ants who will join their deceased colleague on a doomed journey skyward. They’ll climb the vines high enough until they too will reach their end and more spores will shower down. So obsession and strangeness spread. Wonder is danger and contagious.