- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
You're at that cocktail party when conversation flags and silence creeps in uncomfortably, and you start to wonder whether you can fit your entire head into your glass of chardonnay as a diversion. You wish that you could come up with a showstopper of a story that would not only perk up the dialogue but also elevate you to most-interesting-person-in-the-room status. Proclaiming with authority that Vanilla Ice was not a hardened street criminal as he claimed, but was actually a suburban middle-class geek is not the type of "Did you know..." anecdote that an irony-saturated '90s crowd will appreciate. Well, Richard Zacks's An Underground Education is the resource for you. It's a wonderfully wide-ranging and bizarre preemptive strike against all such uncomfortable moments and a whoopie cushion on the chairs of stodgy history professors everywhere.
Subtitled, somewhat breathlessly, "The Unauthorized and Outrageous Supplement to Everything You Thought You Knew About Art, Sex, Business, Crime, Science, Medicine, and Other Fields of Human Knowledge," An Underground Education may as well have been subtitled "Everything your parents and teachers don't know and sure as hell don't want you to know!" As he did in his first book, History Laid Bare, Zacks hoards these often deliberately well hidden nuggets of historical fact with the subversive wink of the best friend who knows about your Pez dispenser fetish. And then he presents them in a succinct and humorous fashion.
Some highlights: Isaac Newton, one of science's blandest poster boys, died a proud virgin andwrotemore extensively about alchemy than the legitimate sciences. For a long time it was a sign of power and prestige to entertain guests while "on the throne." Adolph Hitler once commented that the German people "owe [their] salvation" to his being a nonsmoker. Pope Stephen VII (A.D. 896-897) was so angry with his dead predecessor (Pope Formosus) that a year after Formosus's interment, he had the corpse dug up, dressed in papal garb, and put on trial — then he found it guilty and cut off its fingers. The oldest version of the Cinderella tale dates back 2,500 years to Egypt and involves a prostitute whose sandal was stolen by an eagle and given to the pharaoh, who then searched for the owner.
In addition to his forays into the shadow histories of literature, business, crime, medicine, religion, and world history, Zacks digs into the sexual realm — that dirty closet of all polite societies — and unearths quite a few eyebrow-raisers. For example, throughout most of history and in most cultures, much effort was given to minimizing breast size, the American fascination with large breasts being a recent and anomalous development. A great irony of female fashion is that until the 20th century, though women wore many layers of clothing and kept their legs completely covered, underwear was pretty much unheard of. And one of the real kickers of male-female relations is a twist on one of the greatest sexual clichés of all time: Up through the late 1700s, it was believed that a woman could not conceive unless she had an orgasm. Think about it.
Zacks takes obvious delight in debunking parts of our candy-coated history and exposing the shallowness of our collective memory, but he also pinpoints a number of legends that turn out to have been true. The best example is that Coca-Cola did in fact contain cocaine, from its inception in 1886 until 1903. Of course, cocaine wasn't illegal then. Go figure.
Though there are a lot of second- and third-hand sources, this does not take away from the entertainment value of this very strange, very amusing book. If even one-tenth of these stories are true, our accepted history is more than simply selective — it's opportunistic, foolishly rose-tinted, and grossly misleading. All in all, there are two highly specific places where readers would be most receptive to this book, places where some of the most intense and open-minded thinking is often done: the college dorm and the bathroom.
—Jay A. Fernandez