Traveled the world and the seven seas

Paul Constant

October 06, 2016

The J. Peterman catalog is a seminal 1990s artifact. The catalogs, which featured expensive vintage-style clothing from far-flung locales rendered in hand-drawn illustrations, were best known for their overwritten catalog copy. The text had an upscale, worldly air, and it almost always skittered on the line of self-parody, relaying adventures in foreign lands with language that was at once self-important and wildly entertaining, overblown and amusing.

Here’s a sample of a J. Peterman catalog that was produced in conjunction with James Cameron’s Titanic, and the corporate synergy doesn’t detract much from the house style. A handbag is described this way: “Pure silk satin, hand-beaded, with drawstring. (Room for dance card, bits of maquillage, note pleading “Meet me later. You know where.)” Even better, there’s this, on a $2,000 dress:

Live up to the red silk charmeuse dress. Let the black point d’espirit overdress catch the light with red beads, jet beaded embroidery and black sequins in lush, fanciful designs.

Live.

Perhaps because I had a pen pal — yes, with real ink and stamps — who would send me especially noteworthy J. Peterman catalog entries, I have a real fondness for that old style of writing. We would mail pages from the catalog back and forth, simultaneously mocking and enjoying the prose. To a pair of teenagers, it was at once fusty and exotic, ridiculous and appealing. It’s easy to see why a fictionalized J. Peterman would become a character on Seinfeld: he was such a unique contemporary figure who was so ripe for parody, and John O’Hurley did a magnificent job with the role:

The J. Peterman Company went into bankruptcy in 1999 after swelling too quickly in a pique of Roaring ‘90s excess. That bankruptcy effectively marks the end of J. Peterman’s time in the popular eye; I was shocked to discover while doing research for this piece that it still exists and is selling products online.

J. Peterman’s rise and decline marks the end of a particular type of writing: a certain burnished brand of luxurious, earnest prose that celebrates travel and wealth and unselfconscious exploration. It’s a style built upon a century of baroque magazine writing — a chatty, status-obsessed tone that you can’t really find anymore. There’s a distasteful air of colonialism and upper-class snobbery to the J. Peterman style, but the fact that it was published in a free catalog — and that its forebears were published in magazines available to anyone with a few extra dimes in their pockets — took some of that edge off. Everyone was invited to be in on the joke, even if they couldn’t afford the products the copy was trying to sell.

I hadn’t thought of the J. Peterman catalog in years, but the new hardcover collection of the popular website Atlas Obscura brought all the globetrotting glamour flooding back in a flood of nostalgia. Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders is a gorgeous, thick, profusely illustrated, full-color guide that takes you — continent by continent and nation by nation — to some of the strangest places on Earth. It’s a travel guide that doesn’t concern itself with banal details like hotels or public transit or currency exchange rates; instead, it provides unique destinations for the jaded traveler who’s sick of standing in lines at theme parks.

And perhaps more importantly, Atlas Obscura appeals to the reader who maybe will never get to, say, the Walled City of Shibam in the desert of central Yemen by being insanely fun to read. Unlike most travel guides, you’ll want to scour Atlas Obscura from cover to cover. Though the book is attributed to three authors (Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton,) the house style makes it basically impossible to determine individual authorship of each entry.

It’s the kind of book that makes you want to grab a friend by the wrist and say “wait, wait, though: listen to this one.” Which is another way of saying that this is the sort of book that begs a reviewer to list some favorite entries. And who am I to resist an invitation like that? Here’s a part of the entry for Galileo’s middle finger, which is on display in Florence:

Whether the middle finger points upward to the sky, where Galileo glimpsed the glory of the universe and saw God in mathematics, or if it sits eternally defiant to the church that condemned him is for the viewer to decide

And here is a passage about a pair of necropants on display in Hólmavik, Iceland:

According to the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, necropants were a real thing in 17th-century Iceland. The rules were complex. First, you had to get permission from a living man to use his skin after he died. When he kicked the bucket, you would wait around for the burial formalities to conclude, then approach the grave and start digging. Corpse exhumed, you cut around the waist and peeled the skin from the bottom half of the body, making sure to keep it all in one piece.

The next step was to steal a coin from a poor widow. This coin was placed into the scrotum of the necropants, where it would magically attract more money, leaving the wearer with a groin full of coins at all times. Once you’d had enough of the great wealth, or the necropants began to chafe, you would have to find another wearer to step into the magical leggings. In this way, the prosperity was passed down for generations.

I could go on, from the Hell Garden near Bangkok, which features gruesome scenes of torture from the 16 Buddhist hells (the entry cheerfully ends, “The garden is a popular destination for family day trips”) to a photographic essay on the giant props (a 39-foot mango, a giant crocodile wearing boxing gloves) you’ll find in roadside Australia. Certain items in this book, including the Chinese village that boils eggs in the urine of young boys as a springtime street food, will stay with me forever, lodged as they are in a very uncomfortable place in my brain. If you like trivia books, or travel books, or books about extremes of human behavior, you’ll find something to love in Atlas Obscura.

But that prose is the thing that strikes me as the most remarkable aspect of the book. There’s a glossy, glib J. Peterman-ness that gives each passage the feel of literary popcorn. You can’t stop reading, even if you want to, because you’re waiting for the next wry aside, or the next romantic reference to a destination being only available by a rickety train during the two months of the year when the region is not beset by torrential rains. Some of the entries hover on the cusp of self-parody with their ornate descriptions and their earnest decadence, but the subject matter is enough to keep drawing you in. There is no authorial intrusion here, no “I” to de-universalize the experience, but you can’t help but wonder how the writers collected this material. Pith helmets obviously must have been involved.

Atlas Obscura does carry a little whiff of throwback with it. Any modern American traveler who has been somewhere in the world where people still suffer in extreme poverty likely can recognize the inescapable awareness of privilege in tourism. And Atlas Obscura wanders into those places and traipses out with a cool story about a totally weird destination that will leave all your friends shaking their heads in wonderment. In 2016, global tourism carries some responsibilities that are still being parsed, and that gray area — in which privileged Americans wander in, take some pictures, try to use the language, eat some local food, shake their head at the despair they see, then grab the next flight out —goes blissfully unexamined in Atlas Obscura.

But part of a traveler’s charge is to share what they’ve learned in their travels. And closing borders is never a correct response; we want people to travel the world and exchange ideas. So bearing in mind the fact that all travel carries with it a complex set of class, race, and cultural issues, it’s still better to know about more parts of the world than to not know about them. And so with that spirit, Atlas Obscura is the modern version of the J. Peterman catalog, selling the world to us one singular wonder at a time.

Books in this review:
  • Atlas Obscura
    by Joshua Foer
    Workman Publishing
    August 30, 2016
    480 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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