Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Curious Customs by Tad Tuleja

It's weird to think that the world has changed irrevocably in your own life. Even weirder when those changes are silly, minor things, so that it feels like obsession to even mention them. But Tad Tuleja's 1987 book Curious Customs -- part of a minor but healthy strand of non-fiction book publishing in the late 20th century -- is entirely a product of a culture and world that is completely gone.

Curious Customs is a "weird facts" book, of the subcategory "let me tell you the real reason for these things." Those books were never as deeply researched as they pretended to be, of course. They were generally written by a guy (usually a guy) or a small team with a room of reference books and a list of stuff to write about, and had the usual professional-writer tropism to a good story when it might be in conflict with messy or unknown truth. The subtitle is "The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals" -- that's another hallmark of the genre, by the way: the quirky, not-quite-round large number of things that you the reader will learn.

If Tuleja started work on this book a decade later, in the mid-90s rather than the mid-80s, he would have used the Internet at least somewhat. If he started it any time this century, the Internet would have been his first and probably primary research tool: even books are accessible through Google Books, vastly more accessible except for a few rare cases of researchers who have direct access to major un-digitized repositories. (And I'm not clear on how many of those there are, either -- researchers or repositories.) But he worked on this in the '80s, and so there's a big list of books in the back that he consulted, and we can be pretty sure that list is basically comprehensive.

Tuleja also consulted his own deeply ingrained cultural biases, which is clear from every line of his book. I don't know him at all, but my guess is that he's an old-school Northeastern Brahmin -- I'd bet on "Boston," if I had the money to spare -- who was in his grumpy middle years when this book was published.

Because, frankly, Curious Customs is full of bullshit: not just "this is the story, but historians tend to doubt it" bullshit, but pure "I am an expert and I am telling you the truth because I know these things" bullshit, including lots of times where the things Tuleja cites or glancingly mentions blow holes in his preferred explanations. I won't say it's all bullshit -- Tuleja gets things right, or as right as it's possible to be on messy issues of popular or cultural history, at least half of the time. But there's a hell of a lot of times where he's clearly just being the grumpy old guy coming down on the side of the story he wants to believe, or the one that fits his obvious biases.

There's also, as I alluded to above, the tropism of liking the good story over the boringly messy truth. Tuleja didn't fall for any of the really obviously wrong stories (like the acronym versions of posh and fuck), but he uses the "must have" construction an awful lot, until the reader can feel Tuleja's hand pressing down on the scales in favor of the deeply dubious explanation that he likes for his own reasons.

This is an annoying book: this is what I'm saying. I'm somewhat surprised that I finished it. Even reading it in bits and pieces in the smallest room of the house meant I was hit with a "he said what?!" once or twice a week.

That's sad because I like books like this, and I think they're becoming scarce. The Internet is a more natural home for random facts -- listicles are a more evolved version of the creatures that fit this particular ecological niche. So it's annoying to see that even in their heyday, they could still be crappy.

I do not recommend Curious Customs, unless you happen to be researching late 20th century mores and accepted wisdom. If you do happen to be researching those things, Tuleja is a treasure trove of assumptions and excluded middles.

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