Bizarre Finds in Lamont Library’s Farnsworth Room

BY DAN ALBAN

The only time most law students make it over to the Lamont Library on the southeast corner of the main campus is to pick up books for journal subcites (don’t worry 1Ls, you’ll know exactly what I mean all too soon). 2Ls and 3Ls may pass it on the way to an interview at The Inn at Harvard, stopping briefly to check email or to do last-minute web research on a firm that’s about to feed them both brownies and a line about how their firm does sophisticated work for sophisticated clients. A few may even take advantage of the free movie rentals at the Morse Music & Media collection on level 2 of Lamont, enjoying the likes of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Buena Vista Social Club, and The Road Warrior.

But probably only a handful of law students every year make it up to the Farnsworth Room, a comfy no-laptops-allowed reading area nestled in the west corner of Level 5. The Lamont website proclaims: “The Henry Weston Farnsworth Room, devoted to non-curricular leisure reading, houses approximately 4,000 eclectic titles.” Eclectic indeed! From The Anatomy of Swearing to A Handbook on Hanging and The Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries to The Victorian Underworld, the Farnsworth room is a treasure trove of bizarre finds.

The room itself was a gift of the family of Harvard alum Henry Weston Farnsworth, described in a Lamont News-List email as a “newspaper correspondent, world traveler, adventure-seeker, avid reader, and member of the French Foreign Legion” who perished in action in World War I. Dedicated in 1916, the room was housed in Widener until Lamont opened in 1949. It contains the first collection of extracurricular reading materials of any American college or university, and has been very popular with Harvard undergrads for almost a century – author Thomas Wolfe, for instance, says the Farnsworth room was the place where he learned the most while at Harvard.

While the Farnsworth fiction collection includes a variety of works by authors ranging from Dashiell Hammett to Terry Pratchett, this writer decided to focus on unique non-fiction offerings while on a recent visit. In addition to the books mentioned above, here are a few brief profiles of books found while browsing the shelves:

Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, by Ricky Jay, magician, actor, and “scholar of the unusual,” is a selected history of freakish carnival acts, magicians, and other odd performers – what Jay likes to call “anomalies.” Perhaps the best way to explain this book comes from the introduction, where Jay introduces an Indian performer who could catch bullets fired at him, dance on a red-hot sheet of metal, swallow pins and extract them through his eyes, fry eggs on a sheet of paper, and much, much more. Of him, Jay concludes, “but the most remarkable thing about Khia Khan Khruse is that he was not remarkable enough to warrant a chapter in this book.” Jay refrains from passing judgment on whether or not the alleged feats exhibited were real, but focuses instead on the impressions the performances left on the audience. Reproductions of the promotional materials for these acts make for an amusing complement to the text.

The Rendezvous, by Julian B. Roebuck and Wolfgang Frese, is “A Case Study of an After-Hours Club.” The authors conduct a sociological study of a unique setting which “in addition to facilitating illegal behaviors, supports deviant behavior for ‘straights’ and nondeviant behavior for deviants.” The book is written in a distanced, scientific style which, in combination with use of outdated language such as “hip squares,” makes for unintentionally humorous reading when applied to the edgy subject matter. But if one reads a bit between the lines, it seems the authors may have had more than a scholarly interest in the study. In the preface, they admit to being “member participants” of the club before the study began, and conducted the study as “participant observers.” The observer/authors “interview” call girls and “party girls” over “gift drinks” at the bar, and even while dancing (“one party girl divulged to an observer while dancing with him at the Rendezvous…”). The reader begins to sense that there was some serious mixing of business and pleasure in the “research” conducted for this book – perhaps the academic equivalent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?

The Rich Man’s Guide to Europe, by Charles Graves, is a hilariously un-PC travel guide for rich men written in the 1960s. In the foreword, the author generously offers that even those “who are not all that rich” may find the book worthwhile; after all “you do not have to buy a racehorse to go to Tattersall’s sales.” Grave is outspoken with his travel advice: “Mayerling, for example, is an absolute waste of time,” “If you choose to stay at Scuol, it must be either the Belvedere or the Engadinerhof.” He advises readers not to be surprised if their taxicab driver in Vienna is a woman, and that one may take France’s Blue Train “provided that people will not think you are afraid of flying.” Some cities receive elaborate discussion of the finest hotels and nightclubs – while entire countries are dismissed rather quickly: “Norway, for the rich man, must be regarded primarily in terms of sport.” Not neglecting a keen interest of rich men, Graves also offers advice on how to deal with the Cadillac girls in Paris, what to expect from striptease in Geneva, and where to find “the fleshpots of Vienna.” Graves concludes the tome unapologetically: “It is high time that the neglected rich were given a few eclectic pointers on how to have a really good holiday, no holds barred. Personally I hate discomfort and feel no embarrassment about enjoying myself in the most luxurious way I can afford.”

Dan Alban is a 3L who brings home ambitiously large stacks of books and DVDs from his frequent visits to Lamont.

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