Partially as a reaction to all the NaNoWriMo work I’m indulging in some comfort reading by looking through my five volumes dedicated to my favorite all-time newspaper column, The Straight Dope. Written by Cecil Adams — if you accept things at face value, that is — the column’s been, as its tagline states, “FIGHTING IGNORANCE SINCE 1973, (IT’S TAKING LONGER THAN WE THOUGHT).” The other day a commenter on Balloon Juice made a random reference to how Cecil’s work was almost like a Wikipedia for its time, in a way, and that made think again about the joys of the column over many years now.
I first heard about the Straight Dope and Adams via an article in either Discover or Science, I forget which, in the mid-eighties — a good popular-science piece about the work Adams (or more accurately Ed Zotti, Cecil’s long-time ‘editor’) has done over the years answering all kinds of random questions, ranging from the genuinely curious to the flat out insane. Various other columns and features have existed to cover this general ask-anything ground but what got my attention as a sixteen-year-old wiseacre was the wry snottiness of the responses — this was about the same time I first got into the work of Ambrose Bierce, and while Cecil’s of a different breed, there was the same admirable approach towards BS and flummery, as well as general stupidity, on the part of the American public. Namely, don’t be a moron and put some thought into things.
I picked up the two books available at the time and remember entertaining my folks greatly reading appropriate questions and responses from it during a home-improvement project (quite why I wasn’t employed to actually help with the project is another matter, I guess they felt they wanted to handle most of the painting themselves, since it did involve the master bedroom). Soon thereafter I was off to UCLA and to my delight discovered that the column ran in the old Los Angeles Reader, so from there I was able to mainline his work for a few years. From there it was more books, an attempt at a TV show or two and finally a fully working website after a dodge into the weird world of AOL exclusive content (and remember when that could be said without being laughed at). It thrives to this day, illustrations still provided by the equally hilarious Slug Signorino, with a general online core of staff members helping the great man and his editor, and providing answers to all sorts of questions even while the entire run of the column has been made available through the site, often with further context and additions as answers find themselves subject to change (or questions no longer fully apply).
From a distance, the tenor of the times often comes through the older material — wisely and rightly, I think, the Cecil Adams persona took up an attitude that resonated with me, generally ‘left’ on political and social matters while thinking that most people tend towards their own brand of personal mythologies they won’t let go no matter how ridiculous they end up looking. A good example is this level-headed examination of the Second Amendment from 1995, for instance — plenty snarky as needed but also more cogently spelling out the nature of constitutional law on a tough issue than you’ll hear in a lifetime of NRA videos and mailouts from Handgun Control (or in an undergrad class on the US government, for that matter).
The humor is the key thing, though, and man, where to begin. If you have to pick a classic instance, here’s an exchange from 1985 that starts with nipple piercing, moves on to the sperm trees of Los Angeles and ends on a note about scholarly study regarding certain odors. Probably NSFW, shall we say. Of course, time provides more context and nipple piercing these days is rather less of an issue than before, which I certainly don’t mind. And that’s ALL I’m going to say on the matter, thank you very much…
I don’t regularly check out the site and I should — it’s still chugging along, though as noted the core joy of the site, that here at last was a place where all the strange questions could get answered, or the big cosmic ones, or whatever, has been inevitably changed with the Internet’s popularization and the emergence of sources of information like Wikipedia. But there’s always a place for informed snark, so long may Cecil and Slug and Ed, in whatever form, thrive.