One of the books that had the greatest influence on my life was The Fringes of Reason: A Whole Earth Catalog. I discovered it in a tall stack of remaindered copies at a used book store chain in the early 1990’s. As stated in its introduction, it was a celebration of “strange beliefs and eccentric theories” and “unconventional world-views”. It was here that I first learned of such things as The Church of the Subgenius. I pored over this book repeatedly back in the day.
So I was a built-in audience for Dan Shreiber’s 2023 book The Theory of Everything Else: A Voyage Into the World of the Weird. Whereas Reason came closer to appreciating the unusual belief systems it simultaneously skewered, Theory takes a more objective and detached approach. In the spirit of trying anything once, the first book would drink the Kool-Aid, if only a single cup. This more recent volume sniffs its drink, shoots a few quick glances to ensure nobody’s watching, and then surreptitiously dumps it into the plant next to them. Then it waits to see if the plant dies.
The approach Theory takes to the material is not just that there’s a lot of weird belief out there, but how some otherwise sane, ordinary and often famous people harbor some startling convictions. Did you know Buzz Aldrin held the first communion to be performed on the moon? Or that Ringo Starr had multiple exorcisms performed on him by his grandmother, the self-proclaimed (and, I imagine, unrivaled) “Voodoo Queen of Liverpool”. And I know Shirley MacLaine has always had some…interesting…ideas, but I was stunned to learn she believes a white tiger never attacked her friend Roy Horn, because he had died years before and had been replaced by a lookalike.
The text is an onslaught of shockingly weird beliefs, even more so because of the sincerity of those that hold them. I was stunned to learn the last book Dracula author Bram Stoker wrote included a theory that Queen Elizabeth I was a man. Marconi, the inventor of radio, believed sounds exist forever, and his life goal was to recapture Jesus’s sermon on the mount. Even entire governments can cling to weird delusions, such as a bill introduced into California legislature in 1983 that banned backwards messages in music, as they can “turn us into disciples of the Antichrist.”
Even then, there are some who claim to hold unusual beliefs, but who I believe are nothing more than charlatans. I like to think of myself as a relatively honest person, so I never tried to perpetrate a scheme I came up with years ago wherein items would allegedly be autographed by persons from beyond the grave, via pen and planchette. That hasn’t stopped others with similar ideas, such as the Rosemary Brown album Musical Séance, comprising of pieces deceased composers relayed to her posthumously.
I wasn’t as appalled by that as I was by the attempt of two women to pass off a new novel by Mark Twain as having been composed in the same manner. What is truly bizarre about that scheme is how it almost went to court for copyright violation. If the jury had decided in favor of the author, the publisher could sue the author’s ghost for breach of contract. I get a bit woozy just thinking about that.
Lastly, there are some whose unorthodox beliefs are dangerous. There is a noticeable trend in this text of Nobel Prize winners clinging tightly to unconventional ideas, but the strangest of the lot is Kary Mullis, who won for his discovery of polymerase chain reaction. It is thanks to his research that we have vaccines against COVID. He also claims to have been visited at his cabin by a glowing, talking raccoon. He has pushed for astrology to be taught as science in public schools. He is notorious for slipping images of naked women into his slideshows on scientific topics. But all of those are relatively harmless compared to his denial that HIV causes AIDS, resulting in him “indirectly [causing] hundreds of thousands of deaths after his opinions were adopted as fact by dictators in developing countries.”
When profiling such unusual people and their beliefs, the author’s approach is largely that of gentle humor. He is never cruel towards his subjects, though I think it would be easy to do so. In an endnote, he even says, “all my favourite people are a little bit batshit.”
Many of the best of the author’s humorous asides are in those endnotes, so woe to readers who tend to skip those. They would be unaware of an informal study he conducted of insomniacs who tried Thomas Edison’s approach of sleeping in his work clothes (conclusions: it does not work and Edison obviously did not sleep in an underwire bra).
These notes also contain bizarre little factoids which apparently could not be worked in elsewhere, such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s belief he was followed around the world by a group of lobsters. I can just picture the guy closely and suspiciously observing the lobster tanks at any seafood restaurant he visited.
The Theory of Everything Else is a great read, taking only mild jabs at its subjects. I think that is the best approach to take since, as the author points out in the introduction, we all have our own batshit we believe in. I’m not sure exactly what mine is, though I don’t doubt the validity of that statement. It could be everything I believe is batshit, so just take your pick from among my beliefs.
What intrigued me about the subject decades ago when reading The Fringes of Reason, and what interests me now in Theory, is how even (especially?) the most brilliant of minds can cultivate such obviously absurd beliefs. Perhaps batshit is the great equalizer, the thing that truly unites all of us as people.