02 Apr 2009
Harper Perennial has embarked on publishing books that are rewriting the definition of reference work. They’re readable, funny, naughty and break new ground in exploring little-known stories.
First on my radar was “Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages” by Michael Largo, which cataloged abusive behavior and bizarre deaths among the famous and infamous.
They’ve followed that with “Carnal Knowledge: Baxter’s Concise Encyclopedia of Modern Sex.” I’ll take my hat off (but no more) to the author: John Baxter’s got the goods. “Carnal Knowledge” is packed with fascinating, funny and tragic tales about humanity’s oldest preoccupation. Even a jaded old dug such as myself learned a few tricks, such as the shorthand description of sci-fi pulp magazine covers (“BEM, bum, beauty”); that Denmark exported 95 percent of its pornography in the 1970s — although the title of one of its most popular Danish films, “Danish Dentist on the Job,” sounds like a Monty Python joke; and that when a barroom drunk challenged Milton Berle to display his manhood, his friend advised: “Go on, Miltie, just take out enough to win.”
Pulling out topics at random, there’s entries on dendrophilia (the sexual preoccupation with trees), Irving Klaw (Bettie Page’s photographer and fetish producer); a discussion of models (with references to Kiki of Montparnasse, Marilyn Monroe, and Helmut Newton); and “Ugly George” who prowled the streets of New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s with a video camera in a precursor of “Girls Gone Wild.”
There’s also a strong European slant to the entries, so we’re given entries on Olympia Press, British model Mary Millington, French fetishist Pierre Molinier, and “Oh! Calcutta!” creator and caning enthusiast Kenneth Tynan.
Prudes (and givers of birthday gifts) should be warned that “Carnal Knowledge” is explicit. There’s male and female nudity, photos of (possibly) simulated sex acts, S&M pictures and discussions of all kinds of sex acts. Baxter’s “just the facts” style is free of moralizing or smutty giggling. I wouldn’t leave it on the reference shelf with my children around, but it will still find a home in my library.