The Great Sorting and Tidying at home continues, in which my understandably irritated wife has been taking on Herculean projects while I toss in the occasional “don’t pack those away where I can’t get at them.”
It’s a wonder I haven’t been served divorce papers yet, or at the very least a roundhouse kick to my solar plexus. (Just kidding, I contribute in other ways…when absolutely forced to do so.)
“We” were recently packing up the piles of books in the spare bedroom, separating them into sheep-to-be-shelved from the goats-to-be-crated-and-put-in-storage. It’s a bittersweet process — mainly because it hurts to see how many Warhammer novels I’ve purchased over the past decade — but it has also uncovered a few mislaid treasures I’d been trying to locate for a while now.
Top among these re-discoveries been William Poundstone’s Big Secrets trilogy, which has been long overdue for another read-though. The books are compilations of various bits of hidden information not known by the general public — soft drink formulas, the mechanics of stage magic illusions, hidden messages in pop music recordings, and so forth. Some of the entries of brush up against the realm of urban folklore (which makes sense, given Poundstone’s skeptic community cred) while others are pretty straightforward “how it works” explanations, but all are rich with fascinating details and leavened by the author’s dry wit.
My dad got the first book as a Christmas present from my maternal grandfather sometime in the early 1980s, though it soon ended up in my greasy pre-adolescent mitts. Its humorously conspiratorial tone and wealth of “forbidden” knowledge were irresistible for a kid who cut his teeth on factoid vademecums such as the Book of Lists and the People’s Almanac.
I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve re-read the book over the past thirty-odd years. Or how insufferable I was to my peers as I explained what KFC’s seven herbs and spices are or what the backwards-masked message was on ELO’s “Fire on High.”
It was my introduction to the weird world of “numbers stations,” and I can remember giving myself goosebumps trying to tune in to some of the frequencies on a multi-band radio scavenged from my great aunt’s attic. The closest I ever got was a navigation beacon from either Manchester Regional Airport or Hanscom AFB, but that string of looped jargon was still enough to give me some Cold War heebie jeebies.
The two follow-up tomes were as eagerly devoured, but across a gulf of a dozen years. I didn’t even know they existed until the mid-Nineties, when my brother’s girlfriend (now wife) special-ordered them for us through the bookstore where she worked. The information inside Bigger Secrets and Biggest Secrets was no less fascinating, but there’s a difference between approaching such material as a jaded twenty-something as opposed to an impressionable eleven year old.
My current read-through has unearthed further revelations that do not appear in the text. Based on the bibliographic strata they occupied in the spare room, I haven’t touched any of the three books since starting this site back in 2006. Upon settling back into that old familiar groove, I suffered a massive anxiety of influence attack. These are works I’ve read repeatedly since my pre-teen years, and which had a sizable effect on shaping my interests. It shouldn’t surprise me how much of their tone and style I’ve internalized and incorporated into my own writing, but it was still an unsettling to have it laid out before me in black and white.
I should probably be conscious of that the next time I decided to dip back into Lipstick Traces or Tristram Shandy.
Equally haunting as that inspirational epiphany — if not more so — has been noticing how dated the books have become. The first was published in 1983 and the final installment was released almost a quarter century ago. Tricks involving analog phones and carbon paper might as well be discussing how to scam a free oxcart ride in ancient Sumeria. I don’t know how this datedness would play to a fresh set of eyes with little knowledge of the historical context, but for me it adds an extra layer of retro-strangeness — decrypting the ciphers and symbols of a culture which no longer exists and whose incidental trappings have become all but forgotten.
It’s an odd thing to be nostalgic about, but it has added to the experience of re-reading the books. The Cold War is over. The mysteriousness of numbers stations has been dispelled by factual revelations and popcult appropriation. I can listen to a box set of the recordings whenever the mood strikes me. Yet when I go back to those old passages, the old chills rise up again like the past three decades never happened.