Saturday, June 15, 2013

Reading this book could be hazardous to your health…or not

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, humor, warnings

You know you're in trouble when it makes you laugh and you don't know why. Encyclopedia Paranoiaca by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf (with others) struck me that way at times. Consisting of a few hundred very short articles, from less than a half page to a page or so, it presents all the things you need to avoid to be healthy and safe…or so they claim.

In keeping with the Encyclopedia image, there are nearly a thousand sources referred to. Nearly all are web articles or blog posts, undoubtedly dredged up by "the staff of the Cassandra Institute". At first I found the titles of some articles puzzling. Then I realized the meta-joke of the book. They were selected to put two or more opposing phobias one after another. For example, "sun exposure" is followed by "sun exposure, insufficient" and then by "sunscreens". The last article warns of the dangers caused by slathering on the SPF 50 stuff, though the primary risk is overconfidence: people not wearing any sun protection are likely to be cautious, while those who think they are "protected" may stay out in the sun so long they burn anyway.

Another juxtapositional joke is "escalator handrails", about the horrible germs that coat them, followed by "escalators", in which we are cautioned that these devices are so risky we absolutely must cling tightly to the handrail for the entire ride. And then the dangers of "hand sanitizers, alcohol based" weigh in on one side, while "hand washing" discusses the dangers thereof, and advises that hand sanitizers ought to be used instead. And when it comes to sleeping positions, after four articles one might conclude it is best not to sleep at all (and, sadly, there isn't an article about the genuine dangers of extended sleeplessness).

Of course, Beard and Cerf have more tricks up their sleeve than these. The "experts" they reference include one fellow who calls U.S. treasury bonds "worthless confetti", and prefers to invest in things "Bernanke can't destroy", such as bottled water and flashlight batteries. A few are more credible, but only a few.

Some worthwhile advice is to be found hidden among the jokes. For example, it actually is a good idea to carry a few clean plastic bags on a trip; one can be used to hold the TV remote in the hotel room because the maids never clean them, and they are devilishly hard to clean anyway (dunking in soapy water will degrade their performance). I am sure a sufficiently paranoid person can find other uses for plastic bags when in a hotel room or other public places.

A lot of the "dangers", such as burning candles at dinner time, are played straight from the source, which has overstated the case all by itself. Sure, burning candle wax emits some benzene and toluene. In large amounts these are toxic and cause all kinds of distressing symptoms, including death (like if you drink some). But the editors conveniently leave out any indication that you'd have to burn hundreds of candles to breathe a measurably toxic dose of toluene, and then you are more likely to burn your place down, or simply pass out from heat stroke.

For most of us, the book is a fun read. The genuine fear I have is that someone truly paranoid will read this book and think it is serious.

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