The Books in Our Lives.
Evan Michelson — a dealer, at Obscura Antiques & Oddities in Manhattan, in anatomical curiosa and weird antiques, and co-star of the Science Channel reality show Oddities—is unique in her disposition to defend, with some heat, the virtues of the moral philosopher and political radical Jeremy Bentham—not a subject that rouses many of us to throw down the gauntlet.
I found this out over dinner one night when I made a snippy reference to the Father of Utilitarianism—something about Bentham’s Panopticon prison as a cage for the mind, cribbed heavily from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish—and saw indignation kindle in Michelson’s eyes. This is something to see, since she tends toward the deader-than-deadpan—a set jaw coupled with a gaze so level, so unblinking it could arc-weld. (A gaze perfected, no doubt, in her days as an industrial-noise performance artist in the Lower East Side punk-rock scene of the ‘80s.)
Michelson is a de facto feminist and freethinker (in the secular-humanist sense); her fierce allegiance to Bentham probably has something to do with his pioneering advocacy of equal rights for women, his courageous call for the decriminalizing of homosexual acts and the abolition of both slavery and the death penalty, and his prescient insistence on the rights of animals—an issue dear to Michelson’s heart, since she’s a devout vegetarian (although, come to think of it, she’s been known to traffic in two-headed cats, a retail item that would seem to sit uncomfortably alongside animal-rights advocacy, somehow. And she has a fondness for miniature Victorian dioramas starring anthropomorphized insects, surely the limit case in arcane desiderata: “I saw a beautiful piece at the V&A in London a few years ago: It was a 19th-century diorama of giant ants all costumed for a fancy dress ball, under a glass dome. I’d love one of those.”)
What else can we say about Evan Michelson? That she collects Victorian “hairwork” jewelry? That she says things like, “I was incredibly old when I was young”? That, on those occasions when she chooses to flash it, she has a disarmingly beamish smile? That she and Joanna Ebenstein (the conjoined sister she never had, and founder of the Morbid Anatomy Museum) are collaborating on a cultural history of the human corpse? That she claims to be a thoroughgoing materialist and, at the same time, a pagan, which is just the sort of two-headed state of mind you’d expect from a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey who is drawn, irresistibly, to Catholic reliquaries? That the inside of her house is like the inside of her mind, peopled with, among other things, wax mannequins of the sort Atget turned into Surrealist muses? “I’m constructing my dream: this house, particularly this library, is the place I’ve always lived, inside my head,” she says, in an episode of the Web TV series Midnight Archive. “I sort of lived in 19th-century literature as a kid. I collect things that allow me to time travel, and live in this world of my own construction. I’m always on the lookout for wax mannequins from around the turn of the century; I love their company because they’re otherworldly and they’re uncanny, and they’re based on real women so it’s as close as you can get to time travel, having real women from the turn of the century.”
1. How to Set the Tone for a Whimsical, Curious Life: My earliest memory has to be Alice in Wonderland, my father’s favorite book. He read it to me as a bedtime story and quoted it often. Just the other day he brought a copy of The Annotated Alice to lunch. In one way or another, my father has been reading the Alice books for roughly 75 years. Tenniel’s illustrations are also a part of my psyche; I think Lewis Carroll’s books have greatly helped to keep the 19th century alive and vivid into the 21st. They so beautifully set the tone for a whimsical, curious life. There were other books, of course: the Oz series figured prominently. For quite a while I carried a copy of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur with me everywhere I went. Early adolescence saw an obsession with Ambrose Bierce, Charlotte Bronte, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. As a young adult, I was a hopeless Sherlockian—still am, in fact. And I discovered Charles Addams through The Addams Family TV show (which rather eerily predicted the course of my life).
2. Recommended Reading for the Overly Stimulated Child: Books were a huge part of my childhood. I was a voracious and precocious reader; books provided a space that allowed me to get deeply, vividly in touch with unfolding emotions and ideas that were usually blotted out by the irritating, overly stimulating sights and sounds of the world at large.
One of my earliest books was an old, tattered edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I remember the frustratingly poor one-color block prints, which were no match for the ogres lurching through my head. My parents also gave me a large, lavishly illustrated book of traditional Japanese fairy tales; I’ll never forget those stylized, full-color images of pale forest witches with long tongues, dismembering and eating hapless travelers. All that red, red blood.
Later, I became obsessed with a large, illustrated volume of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales. The black, white, and blue images were secondary to the author’s singular voice, which filled my head. Stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” are essential parts of my inner landscape to this day, and I hold Poe fully responsible for my continuing fascination with dungeons, premature burials, secret passages, and unreliable narrators.
3. The Salutary Effects of Edward Burne-Jones: Illustrations entranced me, early on, though they lost their potency as I got older. It was those illustrators working around the turn of the 20th century who really had the greatest, most lasting impact on me. Edward Lear was an early, immersive experience: naively, wildly delightful. W. W. Denslow’s early Oz illustrations had their charms, but it was John R. Neill’s more sensual illustrations that enthralled me: he captured the Gibson Girl and made her a warrior. I discovered Oscar Wilde when I was 12, and that’s when my world turned on its axis. Beardsley, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Symbolist painters soon followed. My taste in literature has always been more conservative than my taste in art. I worshipped at the altar of Edward Burne-Jones while I was inhaling Edith Wharton.
4. The Importance of Being Edwardian: Towering above all else, however, was Edward Gorey. My parents were balletomanes; they adored the work of George Balanchine and were regulars at Lincoln Center. They were intrigued by an eccentric gentleman in the audience who never seemed to miss a performance. He had a beard, and wore an ostentatious fur coat with sneakers and lots of interesting jewelry. My parents made inquiries, discovered that this fellow was a writer and illustrator, and sought out his books. One day they presented me with an autographed copy of Amphigorey with my name beautifully penned on the title page. I was never really the same after reading “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” The Listing Attic, or “The Hapless Child.” “The West Wing,” Gorey’s wordless depiction of eerie inanimate objects and menacing visions inside a crumbling manor house, set the tone for the rest of my life. From that moment on, I could envision no other way to live. I still have an inordinate love of all things Gorey. I’ve made a pilgrimage to his home, and geek-out regularly with fellow obsessives (I’ve even contemplated getting a Gorey tattoo). I attended an auction of his estate years ago, where I donned his famous yellow fur coat. I didn’t really buy anything, but it was almost a sacred thrill just to fondle his jewelry.
5. How to (Almost) Have an Out-of-Body Experience Reading Jane Eyre: I did my time with YA novels, the most obvious being the omnipresent Judy Blume (definitely a girl thing). She featured in a few of my day-camp summers. C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin also made an indelible impression. Jane Eyre [by Charlotte Brontë] was a very important book in my young adulthood. I worked briefly for a rare book auction house when I got out of college, and a first edition (later bound together in green Morocco) came up for sale. I read it during the five-day preview period, and almost had an out-of-body experience.
By the time I got to college I had burned though every single Jane Austen novel, some multiple times. It may be an awful cliché, but her characters are indelible. And yes, I am one of those people who have seen every filmed adaptation of her novels. (I’m particularly fond of the BBC’s version of Persuasion.) A close family friend was insistent that I read Emma when I was still very young (which may give you some indication of their assessment of my character); if only I’d heeded that great book’s good advice a bit earlier in life.
But it was really Ambrose Bierce—“Bitter Bierce,” as he was known to his contemporaries—who dominated my young adult reading. I picked up a well-worn copy of The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce sometime after reading “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” in high school, and that soon became my constant companion. Bierce was devastated by his experiences as a soldier in the Civil War (he famously wrote a first-hand account of the battle of Shiloh), and that horror emanates from every word. His subject matter can often be somewhat crude, but his language is spare and devastating, and his utterly bleak, misanthropic view of the world resonated with my adolescent self. It should also be known that Mr. Bierce wielded a devastating wit: the entries in his satirical, still-in-print Devil’s Dictionary are—sadly—as relevant now as they were when he began writing them in the later 19th century. Bierce became a totem of sorts, one of my favorite Broken-Hearted Misanthropes. If he were a singer, he would be Morrissey.
6. Why the Well-Bred Lady Always Lets a Little Bit of Her Library Show: I take great pride in my formal library, which contains most of my reference books; it reflects everything I’ve been through, and all I aspire to. I also have a small upstairs library (a bookcase, really), with volumes overflowing onto the floor (shameful, but we all know it happens). This is where the literature lives. My most treasured volume is a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” illustrated by Gustave Doré—a large folio with 24 magnificently, artfully macabre illustrations that sits on a bookstand in the parlor. It isn’t terribly rare or all that valuable, but of all my books it’s the one that gives me the most pleasure. (And it’s a great book to share with visitors.)
7. Trending: Books on Horrifically Disfiguring Skin Diseases: I don’t desire rare books as much as I desire rare things, but to simply handle a manuscript copy of Lucretius’s De rerum natura would be the experience of a lifetime. (I’ve always had a place in my soul for Classical culture, but have never really had the time to give it the attention it deserves. When I read The Swerve a few years ago, I decided I needed to revisit the unexpected relationship between ancient philosophy, science, poetry and spirituality that On the Nature if Things contains.) Believe it or not, I was offered a copy of Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica many, many years ago. I wasn’t yet in business for myself, and I certainly didn’t have the money (thousands of dollars, but still a bargain). I knew that I’d regret passing it up and indeed I do—to this very day.
Of all the items that we regularly sell, it’s the books that often mean the most to me. We don’t really have a market for rare books at Obscura, but I’ve been doing well with the Romantic poets (Keats, Shelley, Byron), various editions of Poe, and early medical tomes on things like obstetrics, plastic surgery, and horrifically disfiguring skin and venereal diseases. I recently bought a large library of books related to opiates and drug culture (De Quincey, Fumée d’opium by Claude Farrère, and so forth), which included some vintage editions of Verlaine and Rimbaud; there was also a nice edition of Josephine by the Marquis de Sade (which sold very quickly of course).
8. What’s On Her Night Table: Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?: Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation, Robert Bartlett. Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself, illustrated by Allen Crawford. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch.
9. Ten Tomes She’d Take to a Desert Island: Alice in Wonderland; Amphigorey by Gorey (it’s a compilation; I’m cheating); The Poems of John Keats; The Poems of Emily Dickinson; On the Nature of Things, Titus Lucretius (a good translation); À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Marcel Proust (a good translation); The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams; The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley; The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (I could inhabit all the characters as I slowly lose my mind); a good book on how to survive on a desert island.