What's All This Then?
What's All This Then?
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Field-Tested by Leonard Pierce
on the El in Chicago, Illinois
My taste in literature has always been, shall we say, catholic. In fact, conterminous on my bookshelves with the great novels, the highbrow literary theory, and the profound philosophy is what I can most kindly describe as “nut books.” Crackpot books of discredited science, deranged paranormal nonsense, horribly written serial fiction, and crank political screeds published by the inexplicable grace of some long-vanished micropublishing house, all find a home in my library.
For a number of years, indeed, nut books were something of a specialty of mine. There are those who collect naïve art and those who listen to outsider music; I have an obsession with literature written by crazy people. Everywhere I traveled, I made it a point to visit local used bookstores and see what I could unearth: the ridiculously elaborate pseudo-Christian metaphysics of The Urantia Book, the deranged pseudo-science of aviation pioneer Alfred Lawson; the impenetrable, lunatic mysteries of Harry Stephen Keeler, all formed building blocks of a growing collection that testified to the inventive nonsense of which humans are capable.
One day, on a spring visit to San Francisco, I picked up a copy of On the Brink of a Bloody Racial War by white supremacist and World Church of the Creator founder Ben Klassen. Intrigued by its cover (featuring the asinine racist outfits hand-drawn logo) and the knowledge that the “church” had been in the news recently (only a few months earlier, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, a crazed member of the group, had gone on a shooting spree in the Midwest), I decided to make it part of the Pierce Collection of Dingbat Lit. In those pre-9/11 days, airport security wasnt quite as likely as they are today to yank you out of line and detain you in some musty holding tank for the mere possession of such a volatile book, so I crammed it into my carry-on and headed back home for Chicago.
It was on the Red Line El on the way back from OHare that I began to truly appreciate the limits of irony. I had caught the red-eye, and bleary-eyed and thoughtless, I pulled out Klassens book of insane racialist tirades and started thumbing through it in the train. Naturally, I was reading it for the same reason I read almost all the other nut books in my possession: for a sort of sick giggle, a mordant joke, a twisted grin at the expense of the maniac who thought it important to bring such a steaming pile of folly into the world. But slowly, it began to dawn on me that I was riding in a car full of black riders: the Red Line was full of African-American workers heading home from their graveyard shift airport jobs. It also began to dawn on me that I was a tall, burly man with a military coat and a shaved head, and who was, to appearances, white.
Im not exactly sure what I was worried about. Its not as if I was reading the thing out loud and interjecting “Good point, sir!” at random moments. But I realized that maybe this was not the best time or place to engage in my usual arch sense of intellectual contempt. If someone had been paying enough attention to my reading material to want to punch me in the face, Im not entirely convinced that telling them “No, really, Im only reading it because I think its stupid!” would have worked.
Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer living in Texas until his past catches up to him. He writes about music, film, comics, history, philosophy, and other fripperies that prevent him from doing anything meaningful with his life. Archives of his questionable writing can be found on The Ludic Log.
Read the next Field Test by Nathan Rabin