People occasionally ask this question about the formerly famous who are no longer mentioned in the entertainment magazines and gossip rags. “Whatever happened to Deanna Durbin?” rises the cry. “What became of Andrea McArdle?” was heard for years after Annie finished its run on Broadway. “And what about Naomi?” is heard in certain less-populated precincts. It’s all quite natural. The disappearance of such figures is a warning to us mortals that someday our time will come. (And to those Gentle Readers who accompany me in the Boomer Generation: keep your eyes on Keith Richards.)
Lesser creatures come and go, too, and we seldom remark on their passing as we do for the formerly famous / infamous / notorious. How much time have you invested in lamenting the disappearance of the passenger pigeon, the dodo, or the coelacanth? They hardly have an entry on my agenda. And in this lies an under-acknowledged tragedy of sorts.
All of the above must be accorded a mention in the thoughts of those who ruminate on the inevitability of change: “And this, too, shall pass away.” But today my attention is centered on a non-living item that was once ubiquitous and has seemingly Rung Down the Curtain and Joined the Choir Invisible: the coffee table book.
“What’s that?” I hear you cry. AHA! You don’t have any either! Perhaps you don’t even have a living room coffee table! (If you have a living room, that is.) But the glitterati of our time once made a fetish of them. Social climbers splurged on unnecessarily large apartments on the Upper East Side, just so they could have living rooms large enough for coffee tables. If you had one, to festoon it with books appropriate to your social standing was obligatory. Why, the Wall Street Journal itself has noted the cultural significance of the coffee table book! How, then, could such a totem object have slipped from our national consciousness?
I have a coffee table book: this one.
It’s my one and only, and I prize it greatly. But I don’t leave it on my coffee table. I can’t. My Newfs have tended to drool on it, and my cats won’t have it at all. So it sits, blatantly out of its proper place, on one of my bookshelves, waiting patiently in the perhaps forlorn hope that it will someday be returned to its place of pride.
Perhaps all one can do is lament. But I’m not “one.” (No, my name isn’t “Legion,” either.) And so, in a display of my lofty social consciousness…and because I’m disinclined to produce anything serious today…I present the following, which first appeared at Eternity Road on January 5, 2005.
A Project For The New Year
Your Curmudgeon has taken some fire, both from Eternity Road readers and from folks who know him through other avenues, for always being so deadly serious. Since he takes all criticism seriously and maunders over it interminably, often to the considerable exasperation of the C.S.O., who regularly asks him why a Certified Galactic Intellect should be concerned with the opinions of cretins, he’s decided to do something humorous this coming year.
What sort of humor, you ask? A book, of course. Software, management, and writing are all he really knows, and it’s very hard to write a funny program or a funny performance review. So he’s decided to produce a coffee-table book.
In case the term is unfamiliar, a coffee-table book is the sort one leaves on one’s living-room coffee table. It is unclear why one should want to do this, nor is it much clearer why a particular kind of book has evolved to fill this niche. Nevertheless, the facts are inescapable: there exist coffee-table books, they occupy places of honor on our nation’s coffee tables, and dash it all, someone has to write them, at no small investment of effort and time.
Coffee-table books, apart from their places of honor on coffee tables, all share certain characteristics:
- They’re physically large.
- They’re printed on glossy stock.
- They’re heavily illustrated.
- They present a history or a survey of a narrow subject of interest: for example, the history of a particular river, or a survey of the work of a particular artist.
- They’re shriekingly expensive when first offered for sale, but not long thereafter can be found on remainder tables at a deep discount.
- They’re more often purchased to be given as presents than by the persons whose coffee tables they’ll eventually grace. Indeed, no one has admitted to purchasing a coffee-table book for his own coffee table since before World War II.
- To persons who lack an interest in the subjects they discuss, they’re pointless impediments to getting at the cheese-and-crackers board on the far side of the coffee table.
In recent years, the coffee-table book market has fallen on hard times. The books tend to go from first-retailed to remaindered with far greater speed than only two or three decades ago. They turn up less as presents, and are less frequently seen on the coffee tables of America’s tastemakers and trendsetters. Possibly this is a consequence of the Great Weehauken Coffee Table Disaster of February 1978, when a suburban New Jersey family, despondent over its failure to capture the pole-lamp entry, aimed at the Guinness title for most coffee-table books in a single middle-class home, and caused a tectonic subsidence that closed most of the Eastern Seaboard for a full week. (And you thought it was the snowstorm.) If so, it’s understandable; people were plenty nervous about bridges after Tacoma Narrows, too.
Nevertheless, it is an established facet of our era that he who is willing to defy the trends will often reap a mighty reward, or lose his shirt. As your Curmudgeon has plenty of shirts he’s willing to lose…well, actually, it’s the C.S.O. who’d like to see them vanish, along with most of his shoes and all his ties, but why split hairs?…he’s decided to play for the stakes and advance boldly into this under-served market segment.
So: the taxonomy is established, the nature of the market is confirmed, and an opportunity awaits. There’s no time to lose! All your Curmudgeon needs is a topic, and he’s narrowed it down to two:
- Great Water Towers Of The United States,
- A History of Tubular Foods.
Eternity Road readers are invited to contribute to this Titanic undertaking. Please send your Curmudgeon pictures of significant (by your judgment) American water towers, or pictures of significant (by your judgment) tubular foods, along with your reasons for thinking they’re significant, would look well on glossy stock, and deserve space on America’s coffee tables. Everyone who provides such a picture will be credited as he wishes in the eventual publication.
A few qualifications:
- If you send a picture of a water tower:
- Please include its location, its dates of active service, and as much of its history as you can amass.
- Please do not include any excessively personal details about any ways in which you might have exploited your favorite water tower; this will be a PG-13 rated publication.
- If you send a picture of a tubular food:
- Please give the name by which it’s best known, its culture of origin, a recipe for it, the format in which you first enjoyed it, and how far you’d run to avoid enjoying it again.
- If there are historical incidents in which your tubular food figured prominently, please include those as well. However, your Curmudgeon reserves the right to edit such stories, particularly any that involve sex scandals, well known statesmen, or Tom Cruise.
- In either case, please include your full name, your city and state of residence, your occupation, your sex, your age, height, weight, shoe size, marital status, bust, waist, and hip measurements, your favorite song and movie, and how you feel about cats.
Once more, dear friends: Into the breach!
It seems so long ago! I suppose I was born too late after all.