By Popular Request | Newberry

By Popular Request

Well, I have looked over the voting on your favorite columns in this blog, and I certainly am glad this isn’t being used for market research. The blogs mentioned by the most readers are the obituaries. Not that I would object to knocking off a few select volunteers for the sake of literature: it’s just that my schedule is so full right now.

The second most popular category seems to be the technical blogs, particularly those dealing with vocabulary. You want to know what those funny words used by book dealers mean. Well, you’ll have to wait until you’re older for a few of them, jalapeno peanut brittle. But today I thought I’d mention the word “esoteric”.

This lovely word has three distinct meanings. The first two are related; both are value judgements. Esoteric can mean “dealing with minute or obscure material”. A book about shoes is not esoteric. A book about magic shoes in children’s books is somewhat esoteric. A book about magic shoes with heels over seven inches long which change color under a rainbow is wildly esoteric.

But esoteric is also used to mean “dealing with something I don’t care to learn about.” A book about shoes CAN be esoteric if you happen to live in a culture which goes barefoot all the year around. That book can only interest you, in that case, if you take a deep and abiding interest in the weird footwear habits of other cultures. On the other hand, if you are reading this book on a computer in some Harry Potter reality where you will be laughed out of school if your shoes turn magenta during the Homecoming parade because a rainbow has formed, you’re wondering how that third book—which is a social necessity for you—could be called esoteric.

Neither of these meanings has much to do with the third meaning, which is often found in old book catalogs. Well, actually, BOTH of those meanings have a LOT to do with the third meaning, which is often found in the backs of old magazines. Books which were esoteric, sometimes simply referred to as “esoterica”, were being sold in code. Here esoteric meant “the kind you don’t want a member of the clergy to catch you reading” or, simply, “smutty”. This word was also a value judgement. But you can see how it might mean both “minute or obscure material” and “something I don’t care about”.

A case in point is a modestly rare bit of esoterica which came in, and which is of modest value for its rarity. I’m afraid between the Internet and the change of fashion, its smuttiness has cooled in the hundred years since its publication.

I first heard about this particular smut from a man who told me about being smuggled, at the age of ten, to a rooftop from which he would see, according to the sophisticated thirteen year-olds, something really hot. In fact, alas, he was bored out of his skull. From the roof of that building, one could look down onto the roof of a women’s rooming house. This was a cross between an apartment building and a sorority house for single women working in the wicked city. It came with a housemother who locked the doors at 9 P.M. and kept an eagle eye out for encroaching males.

What the young ladies would do, on nice evenings, was come up to the rooftop after their showers. By our standards, they were fully clothed: nightgown, bathrobe, housedress, stockings, and slippers. They were up on the roof to dry their long hair in the evening breeze.

See, in 1910, women wore their hair up: in braids or in a bun. Only at night, in what they thought was a private and secure place, would they “let their hair down”. And this is what my bemused informant (who had a mother and two sisters, after all) found himself looking at: half a dozen women brushing their hair in the evening breeze.

That’s the main subject of this book: women of about 1907 in vague undress (but nothing that would alarm your Sunday School teacher…unless she’s 145 years old) brushing out their long locks, smiling at the camera (and, by extension, you the viewer.) Kinda cute, I have to admit, but after the first couple dozen pages, you begin to realize that esoterica can be both esoteric and esoteric.

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