Beyond the bathroom: 26+ impulse-buy books worth keeping on the shelves permanently
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1. Regretsy (2010)
Call them impulse items, gift books, bathroom books, or ephemera collections—everyone’s probably familiar with those books that sit by the bookstore cash register, in the hope that people will pick them up on a whim, either for someone who’s hard to shop for, or just in a moment of brief interest. That interest rarely lasts long, especially these days, when the blog-to-book phenomenon turns popular websites like Stuff On My Cat and Hot Chicks With Douchebags into knockoff print versions on a regular basis. (More rarely, the same phenomenon spawns something more durable and high-end, like the bestselling Postsecret art books.) A decade ago, most of those books were forgotten 10 minutes after the gift-wrap came off; these days, they’re forgotten in the time it takes to mentally click over to the next novelty website. But a few books either go further with their premises, or are just so entertaining that they’re actually worth the money. The recent blog-to-book Regretsy makes the list on the basis of its winning snark and staggering pictures: Every week, blogger April Winchell trawls the online handicrafts marketplace etsy.com, comes up with the ugliest and most conceptually baffling items for sale, and presents them for mockery. The site is short and to the point, but the book gets more sympathetic and more expansive. It’s still a mocking glimpse at the bizarre channels that creativity drips into, but it’s also a more nuanced, thoughtful extended essay about what people get out of the creative effort, even when they’re making ugly, useless, incomprehensible things.
2. The Darwin Awards: Evolution In Action (2000)
A phenomenon that crawled from the primordial sludge of the early Internet age and took on a life of its own, The Darwin Awards is one of those perfect ideas that simply needed someone to pluck it out of thin air. Wendy Northcutt’s book The Darwin Awards: Evolution In Action rounds up some of the best examples of people throughout history who died (or lost the ability to reproduce) in sublimely stupid ways. Their choice to voluntarily remove themselves from the human gene pool is a favor to all mankind, which deserves an award and immortalization in a smart-ass book. In spite of the inherent tragedy (and tongue-in-cheek endorsement of eugenics) of Northcutt’s project, how can you not find schadenfreude in death by Coke machine or car sex? Now that the book has spun off into three sequels and a feature film, the joke may have lost its own evolutionary momentum, but the gleefully mean-spirited premise and fun execution of that first installment is still a hoot.
3. The Stray Shopping Carts Of Eastern North America: A Guide To Field Identification (2006)
City dwellers really lose out when it comes to field-identification books: Once you’ve found those pictures of a pigeon or weeds, you’ve pretty much gotten all you can out of bird-watching or botanical guides. Thankfully, however, there are other common wild specimens to be found in urban environments of any kind—abandoned shopping carts. Julian Montague’s astoundingly extensive categories add reasoned order to the varieties of stray carts that all metropolitan residents will immediately recognize. Whether or not you completely geek out and memorize the criteria for instant real-time identification, the book somehow conveys strikingly animalistic characteristics to abandoned or destroyed carts. After reading, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the B/12 SIMPLE VANDALISMs you spot.
4. The Gospel Of The Flying Spaghetti Monster (2006)
In 2005, Bobby Henderson launched a protest against the Kansas Board Of Education: Since the state wanted to allow schools to teach intelligent design, he demanded that lessons include his own religion’s belief that the world was created by an intelligent being called the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Calling himself a “prophet” of the FSM Church—“Pastafarianism,” colloquially—Henderson turned the parody into a full-on phenomenon, complete with a re-imagining of Michelangelo’s The Creation Of Adam, bumper-ready Spaghetti Monster emblems resembling those Ichthus fish, and pictures of toast burnt with the Monster’s holy image. Whether you’re a devoted follower or simply curious about the faith, The Gospel Of The Flying Spaghetti Monster lays out all you need to know, from the religion’s core tenets to major holidays, including Ramendan and Pastaover. The Gospel now endures as a critique of religion as strong and amusing as Life Of Brian, but it’s so silly that, no matter one’s own convictions, it’s hard not to be touched by His Noodly Appendage. R’amen.
5. Chocolate: The Consuming Passion (1982)
Anybody who’s had more than 10 adult birthdays has probably gotten one of Sandra Boynton’s signature “Hippo Birdies Two Ewe” greeting cards. And anybody who’s had kids since the 1970s has turned the cardboard pages of But Not The Hippopotamus or Blue Hat, Green Hat so many times, the entire text is seared in memory. But the cartoonist’s greatest achievement is an unassuming, slender paperback applying her bug-eyed, deadpan animals to the subject of chocolate. She actually teaches readers some things about chocolate, and makes them remember the information by mnemonically linking it to her guilty-looking pigs and hippos. Some of the book’s store of knowledge consists of facts about chocolate’s origin and production methods; some is definitive opinion, such as the dotted-line rectangle the reader is invited to cut out and eat to approximate the experience of consuming white chocolate. And we defy anyone who has ever leafed through Chocolate: The Consuming Passion to bake chocolate-chip cookies without remembering Boynton’s recipe, with its “Sample the batter” step accompanied by a drawing of a hippo pouring the contents of the bowl directly into its mouth, followed by “Bake the cookie at 350 degrees…”
6. Mountain Man Dance Moves: The McSweeney’s Book Of Lists (2006)
Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s empire has come to encompass all manner of print and online awesomeness, but it’s good to see that it isn’t above cranking out a quick book of lists for the back of the toilet. That said, there are many layers of hilarity and weirdness to Mountain Man Dance Moves: The McSweeney’s Book Of Lists. At first glance, it’s a mildly pop-culture-fixated roll call—but the deeper you dive into hilariously warped entries like “Things This City Was Built On, Besides Rock ’N’ Roll,” “Adjectives Rarely Used By Wine Tasters,” and “Things This One Girl Sitting Near Me In A Movie Theater Said Out Loud When One Of The Characters Was Shown Pulling Into A Gas Station,” it’s clear that Mountain Man Dance Moves isn’t the silly stepchild of the McSweeney’s aesthetic—it may be its ultimate expression.
7. Mortified (2006)
This is the golden age for people who like to overshare, and Mortified was ahead of the zeitgeist when David Nadelberg created it in L.A. as a live series where people read their embarrassing adolescent journals, poems, letters, lyrics, etc. The first Mortified book collected some of the best, most cringe-inducing of them, each with an introduction and postscript from the writers in the present day. (Awkward erotic stories about Duran Duran? Check. Diary that exclaims “Oh, and I tried cocaine! It’s the coolest fucking thing on earth”? Check.) While this stuff is best experienced at the live Mortified events, the book is still a hilarious collection of teenage angst.
8. Love, Mom: Poignant, Goofy, Brilliant Messages from Home (2009)
Love, Mom’s sweet title and somewhat cloying cover belie a book that captures the art of found humor done right. Doree Shafrir and Jessica Grose started the blog PostcardsFromYoMomma.com in 2008, so readers could share their mothers’ e-mails, many of which are inexplicably hilarious taken out of (or in) context. Mothers + technology = gold. Sample entry: “Dad uncovered a gerbil skull in the garden. Does anyone want it? It has no teeth. It has been cleaned.” Adult kids enjoy the “that’s so mom”-ness of many of the entries, while there are just enough sweet e-mails to make it appropriate for moms, too. Don’t feel left out, guys: Shit My Dad Says is also now available in book form.
9-11. Why Cats Paint (1994) / Dancing With Cats (1996) / Why Paint Cats (2006)
What makes cat owners so weirdly obsessed with their pets? Dunno, but it’s perfectly captured in Why Cats Paint, Dancing With Cats, and Why Paint Cats—in spite of the absurdly bizarre activities they describe, it doesn’t go so far that first-time readers will immediately know it isn’t for real. Playing it straight from cover to cover, Burton Silver and Heather Busch test how much you’re willing to believe, from cat owners gushing over paint that cats have smeared on the wall to a wacky, relationship-troubled woman doing an interpretive dance of Giselle with her cat. Strengthening the plausibility of it all is the duo’s New Age take on it all, with incoherent ramblings about feline energy fields and astral vortexes, as expressed by hippies-gone-bonkers… somehow, it isn’t impossible to believe these people exist. And, as lolcats and Stuff On My Cat have shown, cats’ facial expressions (presumably, in Dancing With Cats, as they’re being thrown through the air for the camera) in ridiculous circumstances are endlessly amusing, regardless of the context. It’s all a joke, but it’s more fun to tell your friends it isn’t.
12. Deep Thoughts: Inspiration For The Uninspired (1992)
One of the best parts of Saturday Night Live in the early ’90s—and one of the few bits that was so short and to the point that it never outlasted its welcome—was the periodic “Deep Thoughts With Jack Handey” routine, in which generic inspirational footage (a sunset, lapping waves, flowers in the breeze) would run in the background while a soothing voice intoned a faux-inspirational thought that started off thoughtful, then veered off-course, like “It’s too bad that whole families have to be torn apart by something as simple as wild dogs.” Or “The face of a child can really say it all, especially the mouth part of the face.” The collected Deep Thoughts only takes a few minutes to read, but the wry surreality of its straight-faced gags makes it endlessly revisitable, and each not-so-deep thought is a little mental palate-refresher, like a single bite of weird, weird lemon sorbet.
13-14. David Letterman’s Book Of Top Ten Lists (1990) and Jay Leno’s Headlines (1989)
The Late Night With David Letterman writers introduced the “Top Ten List” in 1985 as a way of spoofing the inanity of the “best” and “worst” lists dominating the show-biz press at the time, but quickly realized that the format was perfect for tossing out 10 silly jokes about the issues of the day. Collections of those lists became perennial bestsellers in the ’90s, and though they’re funny even now, the books work even better as a document of which ripped-from-the-headlines references were comedy gold decades ago. (In 1990: The Rob Lowe sex tape; in 1995: Judge Ito.) Two years after Late Night started doing its Top Ten, Jay Leno—then the permanent guest host for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show—launched a regular segment making fun of strange newspaper headlines and ads. Granted, the bit was a rip-off of Letterman’s own “Small Town News” (which itself wasn’t wholly original), but hey… funny is funny. In book form especially, without Leno’s smirking maw getting in the way, the “Headlines” routine is a winner. No matter the source, it’s hard to deny the comic value of head-scratching headlines like “Family Catches Fire Just In Time, Chief Says” and “Drought Turns Coyotes To Watermelons.”
15. Should You Be Laughing At This? (2006)
Rarely does a title describe a book so accurately—much less a bathroom book that’s so much more than its title alone. Such is the case with Hugleikur Dagsson’s wonderful Icelandic enigma Should You Be Laughing At This?, basically a short collection of poorly drawn cartoons with minimal text. But man, is it ever disturbing: A boy walks in as his mom is cooking dinner and declares, “Why hello there mother! I was fucking my brother just now…” That’s it. A guy leans over to a friend in church and whispers, “My ass is bleeding.” Done. A guy proclaims, “Wait a minute… this isn’t tennis! This is anal sex!!” Next page. Yes, it’s disturbing as hell—the lean tome is rife with necrophilia, pedophilia, lots of dick-stabbing, and some broken English—but it’s laughable, even for those who can’t put a finger on why one KKK member saying “Take me” to another in front of a burning cross is so funny. This definitely isn’t a book to overthink, but who overthinks on the can?
16. The Official Preppy Handbook (1980)
Ostensibly a satirical guide to the Lacoste-and-loafer-rocking Ivy League set, 1980’s The Official Preppy Handbook is a funny book that became a cultural movement, once it was embraced by the very bluebloods it was supposedly mocking. Whether the rich kids recognized that they were being skewered as stiff-lipped “Biffs” and “Muffies” was immaterial: An entire generation of burgeoning yuppies used its “advice” to plot the course of their privileged lives from private schools to chasing admission into one of the “Big Three” to “The Country Club Years,” gathering lessons along the way in lexicon, getting in good with the old-boy network, and proper “deviant behavior.” Even more important were its fashion tips—a blueprint for dressing “preppy” that (by the stores’ own admission) helped turn J. Crew and L.L. Bean into major retailers, and created a lasting legacy of madras plaid and popped collars. That recent resurgence of prep fashion even inspired author Lisa Birnbach to craft a sequel, True Prep: It’s A Whole New Old World, due in September.
17. The Hipster Handbook (2003)
Of all the scads of unofficial sequels “inspired by” the Preppy Handbook, none have been more popular or resonant than 2003’s The Hipster Handbook. Like its predecessor, Robert Lanham’s satirical look at all the self-serious bohemians in his Williamsburg neighborhood—the ones who “frequently use the term ‘postmodern,” “have at one time or another worn a pair of Elvis Costello-style glasses,” and “shun or reduce to kitsch anything embraced by the mainstream”—was a big hit primarily with people who probably secretly relished their high “hipsterdom” scores on the book’s final quiz. And while “hipsterdom” is probably too nebulously defined to enjoy the same sort of cyclical resurgence as “prepdom,” The Hipster Handbook is similarly valuable as a sociological artifact, useful for whenever future generations wonder how exactly “V-neck” and “PBR” became insults.
18. The Chap Manifesto (2001)
A play on The Official Preppy Handbook that’s even more firmly tongue-in-cheek, Gustav Temple and Vic Darkwood’s The Chap Manifesto calls for an overthrow of vulgar modernity and a return to a society whose basic tenets are “courteous behavior and proper headwear”—a philosophy it terms “Anarcho-Dandyism.” The book encourages this “Tweed Revolution” with a comprehensive etiquette guide to genteel living for the modern gentleman—whichever of the four essential types of chap (Dandy, Cad, Hearty Fellow, or Poet) he may be—covering everything from mustache grooming to “trouser semaphore” to wooing the ladies with star-shaped smoke rings and Schubert symphonies. Like the eponymous British magazine it’s based on, Chap is a droll, expressly silly exercise in upper-class twittery, but its message is surprisingly sound: In a world dominated by Internet comment boards and Crocs, we could all use a touch of class.
19. Roundabouts Of Great Britain (2004)
The solution to America’s gridlock problems, anyone who’s ever lived in the United Kingdom will tell you, is more traffic circles (or “roundabouts,” as the Brits call them). What makes roundabouts such an appealing fix is their simplicity—slap down a circular slab of concrete, and voila. That does not, however, make for particularly interesting things to look at, which is why the 93 pages of Kevin Beresford’s Roundabouts Of Great Britain is a slyly hilarious parody both of photography books and of the British fascination with boring things. (This is a culture where people follow train schedules for fun.) Using unnecessarily thorough description and assessment, Roundabouts is the kind of coffee-table book that perpetually confounds guests with its nebulous legitimacy. It’s a great conversation-starter, as long as that conversation is about traffic circles.
20. The Ultimate Book of Top 10 Lists (2009)
Listverse.com is a website entirely dedicated to user-submitted top 10 lists. The staff mostly did a good job of picking through these lists for its first book, but a bunch of the selected ones are just plain weird, and the whole book suffers from a generalized lack of copyediting. But Listverse is such a huge site that reading all of it wouldn’t be practical, and collecting the lists in book form turns out to be surprisingly entertaining. If a list offends with its stupidity, there’s always something else around the corner. It’s an oddly egalitarian book, where a list with tips for committing the perfect crime bumps up against a list of the top 10 child singers. That freewheeling sense of all information being good information keeps the book fun, and makes it essential bathroom reading.
21. Street Boners (2010)
Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes is clearly kind of a horrible person, but his new collection of observations about badly dressed hipsters is tough to put down. Essentially a collection of Vice’s “Dos And Don’ts” (but not called that, likely because McInnes is no longer associated with Vice), the glossy, full-color book is brimming with photographs of horrible outfits, sexy people, and pithy, asshole-ish commentary. Example of a negative write-up: “British New Age hippies smell way worse than their American Burning Man counterparts because, unlike the desert, rural Britain is very moist, and bacteria never really get a chance to dry.” And accompanying a photo of a woman he finds attractive: “Not a girl, not yet a woman but already a boner.”
22-plus. The Brick Testament series (2003)
Since the early ’00s, Brendan Powell Smith has been retelling stories from the Bible with Legos. Smith approaches the task with no particular reverence—though he occasionally bills himself as “The Rev. Brendan Powell Smith,” he’s an unrepentant atheist—but he doesn’t stray too far from the text either. Though Smith sometimes provides sarcastic quotes in captions, he mostly sticks to straightforward, though whimsical, depictions of the stories, each executed with the passion for detail of a true Lego enthusiast. Still a work in progress, Smith’s Brick Testament gets regular updates online, and it’s also been turned into several pocket-sized books, the perfect gift for someone looking for all the Lego sex, violence, and miracles the Bible can inspire.
23-24. Found (2004) and Found II (2006)
Davy Rothbart’s Found! celebrates the sense of discovery everyone feels upon discovering a scrap of paper blowing across a parking lot, with hilarious personal writing on it. Rothbart’s collection of found writings spilled into a self-published magazine, and eventually, two books that collected the often funny, often moving items Rothbart’s readers sent him. Sure, a lot of this stuff is hysterical, as when a “Do you want to go out with me?” note has the options “Yes,” “No,” and “Yes, but I have herpes and you might want to reconsider.” But plenty of it has a weird sense of tragedy, and it’s hard not to stare at the photos Rothbart turned up—often from days long past—and wonder who the people in them might have been, or to imagine what caused that girl to write that angry, heartbroken breakup letter.
25-plus. The Little Black Book series (2004-present)
The very definition of checkout-counter impulse items, Peter Pauper Books’ “Little Black Books” series are pocket-sized, attractively bound wee volumes on a wide number of topics, from party games to cocktails to poker. But they’re packed with useful information, cleverly written (by a reliable rotating staff), and with an appealing Art Deco design scheme. The martini volume, for example, is a tasty mix of historical data, amusing anecdotes, and memorable recipes. Small enough to take along as a crib sheet when you’re trying to impress people at a party, but memorable enough to keep around for everyday reading, the Little Black Books series are a regret-free way to round off your purchase to the nearest $20.
26-plus. The Eat This, Not That! series (2007-2010)
With their bright colors, eye-catching graphics, and easily digestible blurbs, the Eat This, Not That! books are like USA Today on steroids, collected in book form. (The cover of the Supermarket Survival Guide edition is an eye-searing neon orange.) Like the other books on this list, Eat This, Not That! isn’t meant to be read like a novel; it’s for occasional reference at the store, or an idle flip-through at home. Each spread in the book compares similar items—bad stuff on the right side, healthier alternatives on the left—spelling out what makes them bad or better. While it can be terribly disheartening to learn that a Twix has the same saturated-fat content as 11 strips of bacon, Eat This, Not That! is one thing virtually every other book on this list isn’t: useful.